Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Red-light nostalgia

New documentary surveys the legacy of Montreal drag institution Café Cleopatra

Cleopatra's dedicated drag performers too often face a near-empty room, but owner Johnny Zoumboulakis hopes to bring back a clientele that has deserted the area en masse. Credit: Marie-Claude Fournier

Regular patrons long ago christened it “Queen of the Main.” For the past 37 years, it has coexisted peacefully with a wide assortment of seedy sex shops, indie music venues, peep-show parlours, fortunetellers, repertory cinemas and other countercultural establishments. But as Montreal reaches the final stages in its transformation from a once bustling and world-renowned red-light district into a more politically correct, government-subsidized entertainment district – the Quartier des Spectacles – many are left wondering what happens next for Café Cleopatra, one of the city’s last-standing drag cabarets.

“Cleopatra is a testament to a bygone era, those golden years of Montreal’s red-light district,” says Catherine Proulx, a Quebec filmmaker whose documentary portrait of the mythical Main institution, Le dernier cabaret, will have its world premiere on Nov 15 as part of Montreal’s international documentary festival, Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal (RIDM). 
Proulx’s poignant doc profiles many of the venue’s current cast of colourful characters – namely, fabulous ringleader Reena and fellow sharp-tongued queens Shanty, Pénélopé and Carolina – while also hinting at Cleopatra’s glory days, “to get a better sense of what it stood for, given that it’s hard to imagine it today as grand or vibrant,” Proulx admits. She trains her lens on Roland Montreuil, an energetic retired MC who recalls a wild cabaret known for its camaraderie and risk taking. The alternative space always championed diversity, Montreuil remembers fondly, “aiming to present things you couldn’t find on TV.”
“At the time, it was revolutionary,” Proulx says. “There was no gay village in Montreal. St Laurent was the strip where gays could congregate without being hassled, and Cleopatra was among those spaces. The second-floor management became the first employer to offer legal jobs to transsexuals.” Indeed, Proulx’s doc sheds light as to why Cleopatra’s owner is unshakable in his resolve not to give up in this David-versus-Goliath fight to save the libidinous institution and its motley group of performers.

We learn that Zoumboulakis actually cut his teeth as a busboy at Cleopatra, well before taking over the business. “It was very important to him that all communities feel welcomed – regardless of the size of their pocketbook, star status or sexual orientation. In the true spirit of variety and cabaret, owners would [Editor’s note: and still do] rent out the independent space to anyone interested in putting on a show and trying new things, so long as it was legal.”

Le dernier cabaret doesn’t shy away from exposing the lower Main’s string of boarded-up facades, derelict alleyways and the near-empty room Cleo’s dedicated drag talent often faces come performance time. But none of that appears to lessen performers’ deep-seated attachment to the venue. “Until I see a wrecking ball about to demolish the building, I ain’t going anywhere,” cautions a particularly sassy queen.

So far, so good. Their concerted stance against Quartier des Spectacles developers appears to have paid off and won them a reprieve. But Proulx’s documentary, which concludes on a very a propos rendition of Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time,” hints at what may be Cleo’s next great challenge: to bring back a clientele that has deserted the area en masse.
“Cleopatra is still pursuing that same mission of inclusivity, and that’s what I most strongly hope will remain of all future projects in the area,” Proulx says. “The Main, wherever you take that street in Montreal, has always been synonymous with diversity. It’s St Laurent’s most important legacy.”
Le dernier cabaret
(Two screenings)
Thurs, Nov 15
Cinémathèque québécoise
335 De Maisonneuve E
A Cleopatra party with drag queens and burlesque performers will take place Thurs, Nov 15 at 9:30pm at the lounge of the Cinémathèque québécoise.
Sat, Nov 17
3536 St Laurent
Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal