Multi-purpose hall and celebrated ice sport palace for over seven decades, the Montreal Forum was not the first building of that nature on the corner of Atwater and Saint Catherine Streets. Heck, it wasn’t even the first establishment of that name on the site.
Built in 1908 by Joseph-Alphonse Christin, the original Forum stood until 1923, when it was cleared away to make way for the version we’re all more familiar with, after having served in many roles its successor would duplicate.
Opening night, November 9, 1908, was a sensation and all 3,000 pairs of roller skates available for rental saw extensive use as thousands of Montrealers came to wander through, gawk at or try out the facilities at what was hyped in the press as “the largest, finest and most hygienic roller rink,” a decent establishment, “catering only to the highest classes of patronage.” The claim to antiseptic purity was prompted by the fact that a generation before, Montreal had been a world leader in all manner of communicable diseases, largely due to sanitary facilities that were primitive at best outside of the wealthy enclaves that The Forum hoped to draw upon for their clientele.
Taking up the entire block, the imposing Forum was 300 feet long and 120 feet wide. It was also the tallest building the area had seen. The $300,000 structure housed a covered maple roller skating track measuring 240 by 60 feet. Twelve feet above street level and protected by walls that kept the wind to a minimum while allowing patrons to take in all the fresh air they wanted, The Forum’s oval was supposedly the only elevated roller rink in the world.
Instantly popular with the residents of one of Montreal’s early suburban enclaves of privilege, locals regularly plunked down the 10-cent fee for admission during the morning or afternoon sessions where uniformed staffers gave lessons and provided first aid to anyone interested or in need of repairs. The admission was raised to a quarter in the evenings when the added attraction of a live band was a nightly feature although newspaper accounts mention that the sound of thousands of metal wheels on hardwood all but drowned out the strains from the bandstand. They do not mention anyone complaining about this or asking for a refund.
Other modern amenities included a concession stand, sometimes referred to as a cafe, that served up hot and cold drinks, ice cream and other light refreshments. A ladies dressing room was located just to the right of the main entrance and the men’s smoking room and a cloakroom was on the left.
When the leaves began to fall, work began towards preparing the surface for a winter icing. First two layers of brown paper were laid down over the proposed ice rink. They were topped by three or four layers of tar paper. Then came a coating of tar and gravel and, lastly, the prepared surface was flooded.
In December two curling rinks went into operation, operated by the St. Andrews Curling Club, making the venue a three-sport operation. Not too long afterwards advertisements mentioned that the ice surface was available to hockey clubs for practice or game purposes.
In year two The Forum added ice on the second floor promenade, becoming the only two-tiered ice skating facility in the world, with regular skating up top and fancy skating down on the ground level rink. A Montreal landmark by then, The Forum was regularly hosting concerts during the summer and serving as the focal point of annual winter carnival celebrations as well as fundraising efforts of all kinds.
The Montreal Royals of the QSHL called The Forum home decades before either the Canadiens or Maroons did. McGill University’s hockey team played their inaugural home games there in 1910, hosting a visiting Yale squad.
In December, 1910, The Forum had its business permit suspended by the City of Montreal, an action that followed a report in the Gazette that, prompted by the fire that destroyed another arena in town, its most damning claim was that the practice of storing gasoline in the wooden building was a present and continual danger to the occupants and surroundings of The Forum.
It turned out to be a very temporary problem. The December 23rd edition of The Westmount News (almost gleefully) revealed that Forum owner Christin was suing The Gazette for $50 000 as a result of the story’s sensationalistic tone.
A retraction of sorts appeared very shortly afterwards in The Gazette, saying that their reporter had submitted as fact something that his editor later admitted was misleading before going on to lavish praise on The Forum and its proprietor.
Back to business as usual The Forum kept packing them in. The spring of 1911’s fundraising efforts centered on carnival to benefit the Julius Richardson Convalescent Hospital, Montreal Children’s Hospital (both still in operation today) and the St Patrick’s Orphanage. Of course it was held at The Forum and featured live entertainment, dancing, fashion shows, members of the Royals hockey team running bingo games and, among the games of chance, a controversial twist on the traveling midway’s hoopla booth.
Originally involving trying to toss a hoop around pegs arranged in such a manner as to make the task almost impossible, some good citizens of Westmount and environs were probably taken aback to find that the organizing committee modified the game. Based on an article that had appeared in LIFE magazine a few weeks earlier, the uninviting wooden pegs were replaced by the shapely legs of three reclining members of the fairer sex.
Once the initial shock wore off, it apparently became one of the most popular booths, in terms of both participants and spectators.
The Forum had a close call in the summer of 1914 when the Montreal (baseball) Royals, who played on the lot next door, lost their grandstand to fire. Set in two places according to news reports, the conflagration was quickly spread by high winds, coming close enough to scorch the walls before firefighters were able to bring it under control.
In 1923 Christin received an offer from businessman Edward Beatty, who bought the land, razed the buildings and erected his 9 300-seat indoor artificial ice palace, keeping the name, The Forum for the home of the NHL’s Montreal Maroons.