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Signs of the times

Five iconic Montreal fixtures are now on

display at Concordia





HISTORY IN NEON: Movie theatres, fast food joints

and bars remembered with a permanent exhibit at Concordia

For many Montrealers, the past few years have meant the loss of some genuine landmarks. Bens, Warshaw, Monsieur Hotdog—all of these places have gone out of business, victims of either changing eating habits or shifts in the city’s economy, or both.


But a Concordia professor has managed to collect the historic signs left behind from five of these landmarks, and they are now on permanent display at the university’s NDG campus. Matt Soar, who teaches in communication studies, says the signs “have been saved from the scrapheap through vigilance, persistence and, sometimes, sheer luck. Each one has a multitude of stories to tell about life in the city—not just the stores, cinemas or restaurants they used to represent, but the memories of the people who visited them, who grew up or lived nearby and, less obviously, the signmakers who designed and installed them.


“Our goal is to provide a highly visible resting place for some of these iconic signs so they can be appreciated by members of the university community and the general public,” says Soar. The five signs—for Warshaw, Bens, the Paramount, Monsieur Hotdog and Tavern—are all now on display in the Communication Studies Journalism (CJ) building on West Broadway and Sherbrooke, where they are securely bolted down.


Soar has long had a fascination with signs and branding—an area of his research—so his collecting of these icons became a natural fit. “The Monsieur Hotdog one was sheer luck. I was walking past the franchise at the corner of Monkland and Sherbrooke when the new Dagwoods was being installed. I managed to convince one of the managers to talk to his boss about me having one of the signs. I was tipped off about Bens by someone at Concordia who knew the people doing the demolition.” And some of the signs were retired for reasons other than the folding of a business: “The Tavern sign had been removed because it didn’t comport with the language laws. The Paramount came down just because the cinema changed its name to Scotiabank.”


Soar points out that sign preservation is something people feel strongly about, but is generally not done. “Many signs are lost forever, because they usually get trashed or end up on someone’s wall at home, or get sold on eBay to the highest bidder. With this project, the signs are relatively safe, and lots of people will be able to appreciate them for years to come.


“They’re a humble part of our past, but no less deserving of some TLC than old interiors, paintings, furniture or even buildings. There are many signs we just can’t manage. St. James Church has a magnificent neon sign that’s in storage. Bens had a vertical marquee that was lost. Take a look at any picture of Ste-Catherine in the ’50s and it’s an ocean of neon signs—all gone.”


Soar says he gets nothing but extremely positive responses to the signs project. “It turns out that lots of people have personal stories that involve signs in one way or another. Signs from local businesses in particular will spark all kinds of memories and conversations. That’s a big part of the reason there’s been so much goodwill in getting this project going.”


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