CHEZ GÉRARD: A Glimpse into Québec City’s Cabaret Scene.

Written by Gabrielle Houle

CHEZ GÉRARD: A Glimpse into Québec City’s Cabaret Scene.

These images are digital copies of a bilingual handbill for performances at Chez Gérard and À La Porte St-Jean, with an advertisement for À La Page Blanche. All three establishments were founded by Gérard Thibault (1917-2003), who was Québec City’s “king of cabaret” from the late 1940s to the late 1970s (Boivin-Allaire). While undated, this document is from the summer of 1963; it was shared with the Theatre Documentation and Reconstruction Project by Nadia Cantin, daughter of Clément Cantin (1933-2013). Clément Cantin, whose nom d’artiste was Endré Clément, performed in several of Thibault’s cabarets as a singer and master of ceremony in the 1960s.

On 10 July 1938, Gérard Thibault, with his brothers Émile, Paul, and Jean, opened Chez Gérard, a small restaurant situated on rue Saint-Nicolas, in the Lower Town of Québec City.  Thibault had bought the place for $750 (Thibault and Hébert 24). At the time, it had only three tables and “a minuscule kitchen” (Ibid). “A full meal – which included a soup, entrée (among which boeuf à la mode was a favorite), desert, and beverage – costed 25 cents and, even at that price, it was profitable,” exclaims Thibault. “[We made] about $1500 in profits in the first year!” (Ibid) When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Chez Gérard opened 24 hours a day, feeding workers of the nearby arsenals and Morton shipyards, as well as “many travellers, politicians, military personnel and others, and convoys of troops that arrived by train from all over the country” (Thibault and Hébert 25). Chez Gérard eventually relocated to rue Saint-Paul, also in the Lower Town, only steps away from Québec City’s train station, the Gare du Palais.[1]

After the war business slowed down, which led Thibault to think of new ways to attract customers. In 1946, he invited Will Brodrigue’s orchestra to perform twice a week in his restaurant, on Fridays and Saturdays. On 6 November 1948, he hired accordionist Fredo Gardoni, French singer Michèle Sandry, and local radio-celebrity Saint-George Côté to entertain his clientele. “In the early days,” actor Paul Berval remembers, “Chez Gérard was not known as a cabaret. A proof of this is that we dressed in the kitchen with the pots and pans. There were no dressing rooms for the artists at first. We found ourselves standing between chickens and hors-d’oeuvres. Sometimes we laughed!” (Qtd. in Thibault and Hébert 52) The consecration of Chez Gérard as Québec City’s premier “Parisian-style” café-concert happened in 1949 when Charles Trenet offered to sing in Thibault’s restaurant. He performed there from 01 to 18 February and from 27 February to 05 March, attracting well-to-do spectators from Québec’s bourgeoisie who would otherwise not set foot in the Lower Town (Thibault and Hébert). Numerous local and international artists followed in the steps of Trenet (who returned several times to Québec City), making Chez Gérard a first-choice establishment for night-life entertainment, and an important venue that promoted French and Francophone music. Here is how French singer Monique Leyrac, who first performed at Chez Gérard in 1950, describes her experience at Thibault’s institution:

At the time, singing in Québec City, alongside friends like Saint-Georges Côté, felt like vacations. […] I knew the club by reputation, but I had never met the owner. He was approachable and extremely friendly. […] Before presenting my singing act, I rehearsed with three musicians and it took the time that it took. The musicians were not supervised by the union and it was cheaper. For my repertoire, I looked for Québécois songs. […] The rest of my repertoire was made of French songs that I liked. As for stage costumes, we wore what we wanted, […]. I had a sophisticated look. My hair was pitch-black, pulled back up into a bun like a Spanish lady. I wore elaborate custom-made dressing gowns that suited my personality. Shows unfolded according to the European model, with an artist in the first half and another, usually the star, in the second. (Qtd. in Thibault and Hébert 68-9)

For many French-speaking artists, Chez Gérard became a gateway to America:

Indeed, there were many French artists who, after performing at Chez Gérard, obtained a contract in the United States. It had become usual that impresarios and owners of American cabarets-- from New York, Washington, and Los Angeles especially-- should come to Québec City, at Chez Gérard and, later, at À la Porte St-Jean, to see and hear “the best and the brightest” of French artists, and to offer them engagements that would secure a breakthrough in the land of Uncle Sam. (Thibault and Hébert 56)

Chez Gérard’s success was such that Thibault opened other cabarets in the city: Chez Émile (1942-63, first a restaurant, it started offering performances in January 1950), À La Porte Saint-Jean (1951-67, hosting its first performances in October 1951), À La Page Blanche (1958-65), and À La Boîte aux Chansons (1960-65). Between 1948 and 1977, Thibault’s venues welcomed hundreds of entertainers, including actors and comedians such as Gratien Gélinas, Ti-Gus & Ti-Mousse (Réal Béland and Denise Émond), Olivier Guimond, Dominique Michel, Denyse Filiatrault, musical comic duo Les Jérolas (Jean Lapointe and Jérôme Lemain), and La Poune (Rose Ouellette); singers, musicians, and song-writers, among them Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, Félix Leclerc, Ginette Reno, Michel Louvain, Jacques Normand, Fernand Gignac, Sasha Distel, Gilles Vigneault, Jean-Pierre Ferland, Willie Lamothe, Les Baronets (René Angélil, Pierre Labelle, and Jean Baulne), and the Duke Ellington Orchestra; as well as female impersonator and cabaret artist Jean Guilda, and global entertainer Josephine Baker, to name only these few.

 Chez Gérard, Thibault’s first and longest-lasting cabaret, held its last performance in December 1977. This ended a thirty-year chapter in Québec City’s night-life.[2]

Works Cited:

Boivin-Allaire, Émilia. “Gérard Thibault: Le roi du cabaret.” Cap-aux-Diamants, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 27-29, Winter 1989. Accessed on 18 August 2017.

Thibault, Gérard and Chantal Hébert. Chez Gérard: La petite scène des grandes vedettes. Les Éditions Spectaculaires Enrg, 1988.

[1] Gare du Palais is referred to as “Union Station” on the handbill.

[1] The Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec (BAnQ) is the repository of a large number of photographs, written documents, paintings, architectural drawings, a wide variety of audio-visual material, and other types of documents that trace the life and work of Gérard Thibault. Collections kept at the BAnQ that would be useful to anyone interested in researching the topic include the “Fonds Gérard Thibault” and “Exposition Gérard Thibault”. Further research into Thibault’s career could look into the Productions Jacques-Gérard (1961-63), through which Thibault produced shows that were performed at La Comédie canadienne in Montréal and often toured across the province. Another area of inquiry would be the performances by French and Québécois artists Thibault organized for patients at the Sanatorium Bégin between 1949 and 1962.