The Corona Theatre: Rise, fall, and rebirth of a local icon

[Vues sur la Bourgogne, Vol 6, no 1 – Spring 2017]

Take a stroll through Little Burgundy and you’re bound to walk past a historic building or two, but few are as vibrant today as they were in their heyday a century ago.

The Corona Theatre is a riotous exception. Long lines of music fans regularly snake down the sidewalk outside, waiting for the show to begin. Visually dominating one of the busiest stretches of Notre-Dame West, the Corona hosted nearly 90 shows in 2016. Yet over the years, this former palace de quartier has seen its fortunes rise, fall, and rise again, in line with those of the community around it.

Built in 1912, the Corona first opened at the height of the silence movie era. The development of the Lachine Canal saw the local population explode in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as industries proliferated and provided jobs. The theatre quickly became an entertainment hotspot for working-class residents of Little Burgundy and St-Henri. Originally known as the Family Theatre, the venue showed films accompanied by live piano, and hosted everything from vaudeville to concerts to theatrical productions. It was renamed the Corona in 1923.

By the 1960s, the neighbourhood had changed dramatically. Industries along the Lachine Canal were closing one by one, ushering in a period of economic decline. This meant less money for people to spend on “luxuries” like the cinema, and the Corona was forced to close its doors in 1965.

Bought by the City in 1967, the Corona would stay shut and largely forgotten for decades. Other movie palaces around Montreal – some of them, like the Capitol and the Seville, built by the same architects who designed the Corona – closed down, fell into disrepair, and were eventually razed to the ground.

It would take until the early 1990s, under new owners, the Société immobilière du patrimoine architectural de Montréal, for work to begin on restoring the Corona to its former glory. At this point, the building’s value as a symbol of Montreal’s history was widely recognized, and today it is one of the few old-style cinemas remaining whose façade and interior have preserved the grandiose beauty of their original décor.

The theatre finally reopened to the public in 1998, under the ownership of the Institut des arts de la scène, who would eventually sell it to Virgin Mobile and Evenko in 2012. As a wave of regeneration swept the surrounding streets, the neighbourhood began to change once again. The Corona was at the heart of the newly trendy South-West; it would go on to stage concerts for the likes of hometown heroes Arcade Fire and Ariane Moffatt, its crowds bringing a welcome boost of customers to the bars and restaurants nearby.

Despite an electrical failure that led to a devastating fire that caused $50,000 worth of damage to the stage in 2007, the Corona bounced back and was designated a building of exceptional heritage value. It remains a beacon of the arts in Little Burgundy today.

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