Montreal’s Big Night: La nuit du 29 avril 1960
Written by Will Straw
Sixty years ago, on the night of April 29, 1960, the old Montreal Forum hosted what local media called “le spectacle le plus colossal jamais réalisé à Montréal” . La Grande Nuit du 29 avril, as the event was known, was organized as a telethon to raise money for the construction of a new concert hall. Advertising for La Grande Nuit promised performances by 70 star performers, from Canada, New York, Hollywood and Paris, with musical backing by 2 orchestras and 75 musicians. Huge numbers of automobile drivers, telephone operators, money collectors and concert ushers were to work together to meet the enormous logistical challenges which the night posed.
La Grande Nuit was organized by Société des festivals, an organization which had worked since 1936 to bring classical music, dance and theatre to Montreal. In 1960, the Société was celebrating its 25th anniversary, and La Grande Nuit was organized, in part, to mark this milestone. The money raised would support the building of Place des Arts, the classical music venue of world-class standards which many felt the city had lacked for too long.
Ten thousand people were expected to attend La Grande Nuit at the Montreal Forum, and hundreds of thousands more, it was hoped, would watch it on television — on Radio-Canada — or listen to it on the radio. The radio stations CKAC, CKVL, CJMS and CJAD had all agreed to broadcast the evening’s entertainment live. Throughout the program, names would be drawn each half hour and “gros lots” of $2,000, alongside other prizes (such as automobiles), would be given to the holders of winning tickets.
I will turn shortly to the roster of singers, musicians and performers who filled the evening’s sequence of performances. It is as a logistical and technological challenge, however, that La Grande Nuit is of interest to those, like myself, who study media. For the performances to run smoothly, and for money to be promised and collected, a wide array of Montreal institutions had donated their personnel and infrastructure. One of these was the telephone monopoly, Bell Canada, which made telephone lines available for those wishing to make donations. Bell Canada’s support was filtered through the five largest department stores in Montreal at the time — Morgan’s, Eaton’s, Dupuis Frères, Simpson’s, and Ogilvy’s. These turned their elaborate telephone exchanges over to the event. A total of 700 telephone lines were used for the telethon, leading to advance claims that this would be the greatest use of telephony for any event of this kind in the history of Quebec, if not of Canada. As donation pledges came in, the money was to be picked up almost immediately at people’s homes, by one of the 3,000 automobiles promised by the city’s car dealers for the night. In turn, the money would be delivered to one of seven schools belonging to the Commission des écoles catholiques de Montréal, which had made its buildings available for the event. Each of these schools would serve one of the zones into which the Grande Nuit’s organizers had divided the city. The Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways contributed a total of 28 teletype (Telex) machines, so that different donations might be tabulated, and in order that the different parts of the operation be able to communicate with each other.
The benefit concert itself was to operate at several levels of taste and tradition: it included well-known stars of Canadian high culture, like opera singer Maureen Forester and the Grands Ballets canadiens, and a cross-section of Québécois theatre, from the prestigious Théâtre du Nouveau Monde through the upstart company Les Snobs. The latter included Dominique Michel and Denise Filiatrault, who would be central to Québécois media culture in the 1960s and 1970s. Guy Béart, Sacha Distel and Annie Cordy, well-known representatives of French and Franco-Belgian variété entertainment, performed; so, too, did stars from the United States, like the African-American singer Billy Daniels, who had been singing in Montreal nightclubs during the same month. (Daniels, whose hit song “That Old Black Magic” had sold 6,000,000 copies, told The Gazette newspaper that he wanted to settle down in Montreal and send his two children to McGill.)
In the days following the event, La Grande Nuit would receive mixed reviews. Journalists reported that everything ran behind schedule; while the show at the Forum was supposed to end at 11p.m., it dragged on until later. Indeed, the venue for the live performance had not filled up with spectators, probably, reports assumed, because people had watched it on television. Those reviewers who did watch it at the Forum complained of television monitors and equipment cluttering the stage and distracting audience members.
In critics’ responses to the performances at La Grande Nuit we may glimpse some of the tensions and anxieties which marked Quebec culture in 1960. In the populist voice of her column in Radiomonde et télémonde, Hughette Proulx suggested that, if La Grande Nuit had not lived up to expectations, it was because the very idea of a Place des Arts did not inspire enthusiasm among les badauds dans la rue (the average persons on the street). Such people, she claimed, simply assumed it would be a place devoted to classical music and opera, to “la grande musique” which held little interest for them.
Other commentators went further in linking the event’s failures to broader weaknesses in Quebec culture. The popular show business newspaper Radio-monde et télémonde ran several articles on the event under the headline “Michel Louvain pleure : on l’a hué pour la première fois” in reference to the booing that concluded the popular singer’s performance at the Forum. If this impolite behavior towards Louvain was blamed in part on the “fan club” mentality which divided contemporary young music fans into hostile camps, it was also traced to a broader lack of sophistication on the part of Quebec audiences:
En guise d’appréciation, les spectateurs-sauvages l’ont descendu à grands cris, lui jetant à la figure des phrases incohérentes, un reflet lamentable mais juste de l’esprit des «canayens». On a même lancé des pétards et toutes sortes d’objets hétéroclites, à un point tel que Jacques Normand, le présentateur du spectacle, a dû rappeler aux personnes présentes qu’elles ne se trouvaient pas à Cuba et de laisser à Fidel Castro ses us et costumes. 
In its own coverage, Le Devoir criticized the lackluster performance by Patrick Normand, the popular singer who served as master of ceremonies, comparing him unfavourably to Bob Hope and Jack Benny, skilled hosts of U.S. show business events who, they noted, were superior entertainers because they were able to employ armies of gag writers.
It was discovered soon after the event that La Grande Nuit had only taken in $1.6 million in donations, far less than the $3.5 million that had been predicted. (These statistics would later be disputed.) In the weeks that followed, performing artists and their unions complained that they had not been adequately paid, and that they had been expected to donate their labour for free. In their protests, we find glimpses of a militancy which would fuel later controversies over the place accorded to Quebec performers at Place des Arts, following its opening in 1963.
La Grande Nuit du 29 avril has faded from memory. There is no mention of it in the recent history of Place des Arts, published to commemorate the institution’s 50th birthday, in 2013. Indeed, two or three weeks after La Grande Nuit, mention of it had largely disappeared from Montreal’s newspapers. One reason for this forgetting, perhaps, is that 1960 was a pivotal year for Montreal culture in so many other ways, as television, youthful pop music and a new interest in international films reshaped that culture. In that year, the Théâtre Élysée was transformed into a multi-purpose complex with an art gallery, a cinema and the boite à chansonniers Le Chat noir. The Théâtre de l’Arcade had already been repurposed as the Cinéma Pigalle, but it was now about to become one part of a building housing the new studios of Canal 10, the flagship station of the new TVA network.
Indeed, on April 30th, the day after La Grande nuit, a Gazette journalist looked ahead to two other cultural events which would transform Montreal’s culture life in lasting ways . In the summer of 1960, it was revealed, Montreal would finally have its own international film festival. And, in the week to come, the International Bureau of Exhibitions would decide on the site of the 1967 World’s Fair, choosing between Montreal and other cities, like Vienna and Moscow (both of which, it was noted, already had their own film festivals). The Société des festivals, organizers of La Grande Nuit du 29 avril, would cease to exist in 1967, after 30 years of existence, when its energies were depleted by the organization of a global cultural festival which would be part of Expo ’67.
 “La Grande Nuit : Spectacle des variétés au bénéfice de la place des Arts le 29, au forum,” Le Devoir, March 17, 1960, p.9.
 J.-M. Provost, “Au cours de « La Grande Nuit ». Pour la 1ère fois: Michel Louvain hué!” Radiomonde et télémonde, May 7, 1960, p.3.
 B. Snyder, “This Week,” The Gazette, April 30, 1960, p.2.
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