With an elegant gesture, she goes up on stage. The golden curtain reflects a warm glow on her skin as she turns to face the empty concert hall.
“My favorite place in the building?” Watch from this scene, âsaid Eliza Kaheroton Santos one December afternoon in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood.
Santos is the cleaner of La Sala Rossa, affectionately known by the locals as simply “Sala”.
During the day, she carries crates of drinks up the stairs, the soles of her sneakers leaving marks on the freshly cleaned floors. At night, she stays to watch alternative music numbers with her friends. She is herself an experimental noise musician and knows this scene well, performing several times here.
For Santos, Sala is another home outside of the tight-knit community of Kanesatake where she grew up. Many of his friends work – and play – here too. In fact, after several CV submissions and no response, it was his friends who pushed Mauro Pezzente – the man behind La Sala Rossa – to offer him the job.
Dawn of Sala
Like Santos, Pezzente has persistence.
It’s 2001 and the local musician and booker is looking for a big venue.
He had just booked the Scottish slowcore band Arab Strap at Casa del Popolo (known as âCasaâ in the town) – their vegetarian resto-bar with a picturesque scene.
The show sold out in an hour.
The problem was that Casa’s capacity is limited to 60 people. Fans who didn’t score tickets were angered that the group wasn’t playing in a larger venue. The rumblings of the Mile End music scene prompted Pezzente to find a new venue for the show.
He glanced at the two-story art-deco brick building facing Casa and crossed Montreal’s main street.
The door clicked open and the president had entered – the president of Centro Social EspaÃ±ol, that is.
Pezzente asked if he could rent the concert hall with a capacity of 250 people upstairs for a performance. The president said yes. As fate would have it, the Spanish social club sought to rent the space as memberships and finances dwindled.
A new era – the reigning era of the Sala Rossa – of 4848 St-Laurent was born.
But filling this building to the brim with music, community and dance didn’t start with Pezzente. Generations of Spanish immigrants have been doing this since the 1970s.
Centro Social EspaÃ±ol still owns the building, although in recent years the club has become quieter.
âThere are a lot of memories here,â says Isabel Rodriguez, current president of Centro Social EspaÃ±ol, as she gently scans the concert hall, her eyes on fire.
Her father was a founding member of the club when they were operating in the basement of a church on Rachel Street. In 1973, the group needed more space, so they bought 4848 St-Laurent.
âWhen you are new to you, you need support. So they came together here as a community and helped each other to perpetuate their culture and traditions, âsays Rodriguez.
Rodriguez spent there every weekend with his family and other first and second generation Spanish immigrants; the soft pinch of the Spanish guitar and the convivial communal dinners which echo in the staircase.
âThe three floors of the building were packed with people every weekend,â she says. “You always knew someone would be there.”
It is on these solid wood floors that she learns the traditional folk dance. It was here that she developed her first crush.
But as she and the founders’ other children entered their teens, the bright downtown lights drove them away. As adults, most moved to the suburbs. Membership fell 80 percent.
History repeats itself today, says Rodriguez, with his children’s interest in the sparkling club.
It’s thanks to Pezzente and Sala’s popularity, she agrees, that Centro Social EspaÃ±ol still exists. “They help us pay our bills and we help it have a place.”
Before Rodriguez and the Spanish community introduced flamenco to 4848 St-Laurent, there was a different type of dance gracing the hardwood floors of Sala in the 1960s.
It is the choreographer of Russian origin Ludmilla Chiriaeff, known under the mononym “Madame”, who installed her troupe – Les Grands Ballets de MontrÃ©al – in the building.
Having survived a Nazi labor camp and immigrated to Canada with war refugee status in 1952, Chiriaeff vowed to give the town that took her what she knew best: dancing.
With the great outdoors and the help of her dancers, nicknamed “the locusts of Chiriaeff”, she grew her business and kept her promise. Today, his world-renowned troupe and ballet school, the Quebec Superior Ballet School, continue to thrive in the new downtown and Plateau facilities.
Little known to Sala fans, they dance on the same floors that professional ballet dancers once lived.
The referee’s ring
The initiators of the building, like Chiriaeff, came to Montreal to rebuild.
In 1936, the building, after delays due to the Great Depression, was completed on the former site of the National Coal and Grain Company – at 4848 St-Laurent.
The utilitarian style building was designed by Max Kalman, one of the first Jewish graduates of McGill University’s school of architecture. Kalman was hired by the Arbeter Ring, a welfare organization founded in 1900 in New York City.
The Arbeter Ring – Yiddish for the working class – was inspired by the Bund, a secular Jewish socialist party formed at the turn of the twentieth century in the Russian Empire.
Left-wing immigrant Jews flocked to the organization for health care, social support, and to learn about their rights as workers, as many worked in the garment industry in the Mile End.
“The Jews could be among themselves, speak their own language and feel at ease,” explains Pierre Anctil, professor at the University of Ottawa who wrote History of the Jews in Quebec.
âIt was a hive of activity,â says Anctil.
The group has supported workers during times of distress such as economic downturns and strikes, by organizing writers’ conferences, workshops and political discussions. The children, too, took care of the after-school daycare program in the basement, where they learned Jewish history and rehearsed plays on the main stage.
“It was a home away from home,” recalls Rivka Augenfeld, who frequented the building as a girl. “We practically lived there.”
But the same thing that would happen to the Spanish social club decades later, first happened to the Jewish community.
The Jewish community began to move away from Mile End as it was replaced by more recent immigrants. Membership has dropped. The Arbeter Ring therefore rented the space to a ballet troupe. After Chiriaeff and his dancers left, they sold the building to newcomers from Spain.
“It’s part of my being”
Fast forward to 2022, and Pezzente still rents La Sala Rossa; he even ran a restaurant on the first floor before the COVID closures.
Before the pandemic, Sala put on shows around 300 evenings a year. Before becoming a mainstream celebrity, artists like Charli XCX, Arcade Fire and Princess Nokia took center stage.
But most of the parties featured underground talent.
Upstairs, teens are partying for the first time and future lovers meet each other. Outside the building, smokers crouch on the sidewalk and cliques gather ready to dance.
On quieter nights, old-fashioned jazz or classical music warms the room. On weekend afternoons, creators and activists flock to workshops and round tables.
Pezzente knows where every floorboard creaks, where every dust bunny hides, every little hole in the wall.
âIt’s part of who I am,â he says.
If these walls could speak
Santos ends the day. As she heads for the door, Dominique Girard, the technical director, gets ready for tonight’s show; wind up the cords and connect the analog sound card by hand.
âYou can feel the story wandering around here,â he said, a serious expression on his face. “Every day that I come here, I feel the energy of the building, the history.”
He says the main concert hall sounds different from other halls. âIt’s very hot,â he said. “Emotional things are happening in this room.”
With the ebb and flow of communities in the neighborhood, 4848 St-Laurent has reinvented itself again and again thanks to immigrants, artists and the power of the community.
From its left-wing Jewish origins to the temple of the alternative Montreal music scene that persists today, this brick and mortar shell encapsulates the spirit of unity; a multigenerational pillar for Montrealers to come together.
If these walls could talk, they would sing.
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