The ever changing Main is still a source of inspiration to Montrealers 100 years on
Life is just another scene
In this old world of broken dreams
Oh, the night life, it ain’t no good life
But it’s my life
- Willie Nelson
The Main, or La Main, depending on which side of Boulevard St-Laurent your family comes from, has been mythologized in word and song for decades.
But never mind Leonard Cohen, Michel Tremblay or Mordecai Richler.
Never mind the generations of immigrants who’ve made a living off of Montreal’s most famous street.
No, the one author who arguably did more to spread the Main’s grimy, no-holds-barred reputation to all four corners of the globe was none other than mysterious American spy novelist Trevanian, author of the bestseller The Eiger Sanction, which was made into a 1975 movie starring Clint Eastwood, and whose 1976 novel The Main sold millions worldwide.
"The Main – a honky-tonk world of pimps and hookers, runaways, hustlers and thieves," the paperback cover screams. "A world where violence and brutality are a way of life – and death."
The novel, about Montreal police Lieutenant Claude Lapointe’s hunt for a cold-blooded murderer, remains Trevanian’s favourite. "The inner novel was about the inability of Western males to deal with grief and loss," Trevanian, a.k.a. Rodney William Whitaker, told Publishers Weekly in 1998 in just his second, and also last, career interview.
"Trevanian’s novel is not that far from the truth," says a 30-year veteran of the Montreal police force who requested Hour not use his real name, and whom I’ll call Lt. Lapointe after the tough old-school cop in Trevanian’s novel. "I was involved in the Main for years beginning in 1970, and back then it was already the end of an era."
What cops then considered the Main, Lapointe says, ran "from Viger to Pine. The Casa Loma [on Ste-Catherine Street just off St-Laurent] was closing, there was the Cinéma Eve [now Club Soda], there were nightclubs galore. Every second door was a club. There were beatings and stabbings, but if I covered two murders in 25 years, that was a lot. The Main attracted lower-class criminals who threw $100 bills around like it was nothing."
The Main remains the city’s red-light district. "You have the hookers and the pimps, and it’s a place where you can go get your drugs. So you have your pushers. And you have the guardians – motorcycle or street gang members. But there were gangs on the Main before there were gangs [everywhere else]. It was always like that. There was the Dubois family who ran the street from about 1960 to about 1980. Claude Dubois was the biggest of the nine family members."
If Claude Dubois was the strip’s strongest criminal during that era, then the most famous cop the Main produced went by the name of "Cartouche" (French for "Bullet").
"Cartouche used to run the Main with pure muscle," Lapointe recalls. "You needed big arms. He’d walk into coffee shops and hot dog joints filled with guys wearing zoot suits and stuff, and he’d put his finger in their coffee and if it was cold he’d tell them to get out. He knew you were there too long if your coffee was cold."
But Lapointe says Cartouche, who retired in 1980, was getting a little long in the tooth by the end of the 1970s. "So the police department assigned him a few young cops. We’d walk with him. He was quite a man, a tough guy. Today ask any of the owners of any of the old hotdog joints on the Main and they still remember Cartouche. He was a legend."
One of Lapointe’s very entertaining stories – and he has many – dates back to 1973 when police got a call from the Lodeo Café at the corner of De la Gauchetière.
"And there," Lapointe recalls, "was the biggest Indian I ever saw. He was 6’6" and throwing doormen around, and back in those days the doormen were big. I called for backup and we had 10 cop cars at the front doors and the Indian was throwing us all out. We were landing on tables. A couple of old drunk guys laughed and said to us, ‘Oh, you’re a cute guy.’ And the Lodeo had strippers – and we’re talking old, not classy – and during the fight, the band never stopped playing and the girl never stopped dancing. The Indian threw us around like we were twigs and she was bumping and grinding. It took us a good 15-20 minutes to [tackle] him."
There were also more typical daily routines. "The tough thing was walking into flophouses where a 15-year-old girl or guy on drugs is giving blowjobs to old men, or a hooker has a broken nose, or the drug addicts are lying in the laneways – stuff that you don’t really see today," Lapointe says.
The Main has undergone major changes in other areas as well, some dating back generations to the opening of legendary clothing and footwear store J. Schreter in 1928 (the same year Irving Berlin’s Prohibition-era hit Hello Montreal! topped the charts worldwide).
"When I came to this country in 1948, my cousin Joseph Schreter had a store at the corner of De Montigny – which is De Maisonneuve today – and I remember street cars going both ways on St-Laurent," says 80-something Irving Schreter, whose sons Steve, 51, and Joey, 50, now run the family business. "The store burnt down in the 1950s and we moved north to where we are today [at the corner of Marie-Anne Street]."
That J. Schreter’s is more in keeping with the modern-day mythology of the Main has a lot to do with the literature of Montreal icons Mordecai Richler and Michel Tremblay.
In the summer of 1985, roughly 30 years after Schreter’s move north, Richard Holder – who with his brother Morris had opened up a neighbourhood watering hole, La Braque, on Rachel Street – decided it was time to open up a hot new nightclub.
"My brother and I were driving up St-Laurent and saw a big ‘For Rent’ sign [in the industrial space now occupied by the Med restaurant just above Milton Avenue] and I said, ‘Whoa – this is cool! Let’s call them,’" Richard Holder says today. "The Main back then was a mishmash of small businesses that felt like they’d been there forever. The street was dusty and wasn’t a hotbed of nighttime activity when we arrived. And back then it was truer to say east [of the Main] was French, and west was English. We wanted a mix. So to open our club on St-Laurent was logical."
Six months later, on January 22, 1986, the Holder brothers launched their legendary Business nightclub. Their doorman was the massive Wesley Long, who always reminded me of actor Lou Gossett Jr. Long now lives in Vegas where, Holder says, "he’s a bodyguard for Céline."
Business ignited an underground scene that lit up the strip, mixing French and English, gay and straight, white and black.
"The Main in those days was a neighbourhood that allowed us to be as weird as we wanted to be," says Montreal’s reigning drag queen Mado La Motte, who got her professional start in 1988 at the mixed drag bar Poodles (now Saphir) just up the street from Business. Mado also got her moniker "La Motte" from patrons who said she looked like a mutt.
"There were no segregated bars," Mado recalls. "We were all [in it] together. In those days I didn’t go to the Gay Village because the Main had such an open spirit. And it all started at Business. That’s where it all ended too."
Says Richard Holder, "It took me three years after we closed to realize Business really was a pretty big deal."
The Holders have since gone on to open other bars and restos, such as Swimming on the Main, Holder in Old Montreal and Cube in the Hotel St-Paul; Mado La Motte now owns Cabaret Mado in the Village. Meanwhile, the Main has again grown into a sparkling strip that now rivals Crescent Street.
And that, Holder says, is precisely the problem.
"Where 20 years ago St-Laurent used to have a squatty flavour, today it feels very mainstream," he explains. "The clientele resembles the clientele on Crescent, much more than it did 10-15 years ago. It’s less funky, less underground. All the gays have gone. It’s much more anglo and there’s a huge influx of students. Now nightlife on the Main has spread from Ste-Catherine Street to Bernard. What folks are now doing on upper St-Laurent – Sala Rossa, Main Hall, Green Room – they’re tapping into that old underground feeling. But, as we are seeing again, when the underground is successful, it is by its own success condemned to no longer be underground."
Hundreds of thousands of Montrealers will celebrate the Main’s 100th birthday June 16-19 at the annual Frénésies de la Main street festival. The City of Montreal has also announced it will spend $11.4-million to spruce up the strip with brand new, wider sidewalks. And NYC-based Crown Publishers will reissue a special trade paper edition of Trevanian’s bestseller The Main this coming August.
But will all of this revitalization affect the historic Main below Ste-Catherine Street?
"I don’t miss working the beat," Lapointe says. "I went by the Montreal Pool Room the other day and had a couple dogs and talked to the boys. One guy was 75 and he’s still there!"
Lapointe continues, "There are only three or four [of the old] clubs still there. Midway used to be the old Rialto, and I walk into Cleopatra’s – where the strippers were never the best looking – and have a drink with Johnny [the owner]. You still get hassled on the Main. But today you never feel unsafe. Just don’t walk around with a bundle of cash in your pocket."