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Concordia Archives is major contributor to lively NFB documentary

Show Girls: Window on a joyous era

by Phil Moscovitch

Montreal's got nightlife now, but it doesn't compare to the vibrant, swinging Montreal of the 1920s to the 1960s.

Show Girls, a new NFB documentary, takes a nostalgic and spirited look at Montreal's legendary black club scene, and at life in the midst of what was once one of the world's hottest jazz centres. The film would never have seen the light of day without the Concordia University Archives.

Nancy Marrelli, Director of the Archives, remembers the filmmaker, Meilin Lam, spending hours poring over old photos. At the time, Lam knew she wanted to chronicle the city's golden age of jazz, but her project lacked focus.

Then a framed picture on Marrelli's desk caught her eye. Taken at Café St. Michel, a legendary nightspot, the wonderful old shot features three black dancers in their exotic outfits, complete with large feathered fans. When Lam learned that two of the women in the photo were still alive and living in Montreal, she knew she was on to a great story.

In Show Girls, she profiles the pair, Bernice "Bunny" Jordan and Tina Baines, along with a third dancer, Olga Spencer. They recall everything from the segregation of the club scene to the patronage of a young Jean Chrétien.

Marrelli called Show Girls "fabulous," adding that "it's just such a glitzy other-era, romantic time." While it uses material from a wide range of sources, Marrelli noted that the film is the first to draw so extensively on the Archives.

"The foundation of the film is from the materials here. We know more about our community, and we know more about the lives of the women. We know a little more about the clubs and about ourselves," she said. "This stuff was a springboard. That's why I love archives. You're doing something that then leads to many, many more things."

The University began collecting non-institutional jazz-related materials and developing a real expertise in the area during the 1980s.

At the time, writer John Gilmore was working on Swinging in Paradise, his monumental history of jazz in Montreal. He was also teaching music at the University, and was worried about the safety of some of the precious materials he had unearthed. The Archives stepped in and offered a place to house them.

Today, "Concordia is the place to go for archival material on jazz in Montreal," Marrelli said. "There's not really any material elsewhere, except in private hands."

The University's extensive jazz holdings include photographs, early recordings, original scores, published and original arrangements, taped interviews with musicians, scrapbooks, personal correspondence, and more than 3,500 pieces of sheet music, some dating back to the 19th century.

Marrelli explained, "We've developed these categories of music -- it's almost like we need them to plug into the awards shows -- but in the early part of the century, music didn't have those categories. It was more loose: dixieland, jazz, Hawaiian -- it was all music."

Now that Show Girls is finished, Marrelli said Lam plans to donate some of the additional photos she's turned up, along with research notes and a copy of the film.

Show Girls, which had its premiere at the Montreal Jazz Festival in July, has just been released on video and is available from the National Film Board.

Three glamourous women from the chorus line, Tina Brereton, Marie-Claire Germaine and Bernice Jordan, in a photo taken at Montreal's Café St-Michel in the 1940s.

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.