Whenever I meet someone who remembers Cafe Le Hibou Coffee House, we trade stories and inevitably the question pops up, "Why not write something about it?" I often thought about doing so, wondering what form it would take. A website became the obvious answer, and with encouragement from Pierre Paul Lafreniere, the last owner, I set off to do it.
Many of us feel that Le Hibou was a particularly important part of Ottawa cultural and social life in the 1960s. Indeed, many people still talk about their good memories of the place. I had good memories too, but Le Hibou, and that entire time period, was also a pivotal period in my own life. I didn't know it then, but as I look back, it was very defining, since without it, my job at the CBC and my meeting of Penny Knight, whom I married, would not have happened. Meeting the many artists, the singers, musicians, actors, graphic designers—some becoming famous, others not—proved quite exhilarating and fulfilling.
Perhaps others will also want to share their experiences. Maybe the stories, the photographs, the posters or even an old theatre program will awaken a memory, or elicit a story which you may want to share, and perhaps we could all enhance the persona of Le Hibou past.
Ottawa, in the 60s was, of course, very different from what it is now. It was, for people outside of Ottawa, considered the capital of boredom. Although its inhabitants protested, they secretly concurred with this assessment. When I lived in Alberta, not only did they consider Ottawa a bore, but as the seat of the federal government they almost considered it evil. If I mentioned that I was born and lived in Ottawa, this would illicit a chorus of groans followed by a smattering of sympathy. How could I possibly live in such a place? Even if I mentioned that one could ski just 10 minutes away in the Gatineau’s, how could one compare the majestic Rockies with the puny Gatineau mountains, they would justifiably say. Even the ethnic mix was different. Whereas Edmonton had immigrants from all over Europe, Ottawa, generally of British or French Canadian roots, had some Italian and Chinese which we French Canadians considered ‘exotic’ back then.. Ottawans could point to their “Chinese village” with its four restaurants, located on Albert near Bank then, a few Italian restaurants in Little Italy on Preston Street, and the remarkable French restaurant Café Henry Burger in Hull. But mostly our restaurants then served up “Canadian cuisine” -- beef or turkey sandwiches smothered in thick gravy with mashed potatoes and withered peas.
Meeting places for youth were few. Some restaurants accepted loitering, like the Del Rio on Rideau Street, but there were few such places. If you happened to be 21, and you were a student at the University of Ottawa, you would head to the Besserer Hotel. But that was far from being a very congenial place. There was a men’s room for men only and another room for women “with an escort”. And of course most ended up in the men’s room, a room reeking of beer and filled with smoke. As décor, it had a few beer posters, bentwood chairs with a small table and a metal ashtray. On the counter, large jars of pickled eggs stared out at anyone craving for some kind of sustenance. At 5:00 pm the place had to be cleared unless one were eating. So the waiters would dutifully plunk on each table a small plate with some kind of stale sandwich which of course nobody dared to touch. (How long did they keep them before they were freshened up, I often wondered.) Everybody now being legal with their stale sandwiches, the drinking would happily revive. (Later the drinking age was lowered to 18. Oddly, this seemed to occur about at the time that youth had discovered marijuana. Perhaps the government, to counter this trend changed the law, thinking it was more acceptable to have the kids get drunk like dad?)
On the music scene, the Tremblay concerts at the Capitol Theatre were bringing classical music and on occasion pop concerts. At one time, there was jazz and all the big bands and names would come to Ottawa, such as Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Ella Fitzgerald, the JATP (Jazz at the Philharmonic) who played at the Coliseum, or again in Hull at the Chaudiere or the Standish Hall (Louis Armstrong played there). But then it became too costly and the touring ended. A bit later the Circus Lounge on the second floor of the Ottawa House opened and brought wonderful small jazz combos such Billy Taylor, Marian McPartland, Carmen McRae, Al Belleto sextet, but then that faded away as well. By the time the sixties came around all of that was gone.
In the theatre, fortunately the Ottawa Little Theatre maintained a steady stream of excellent amateur theatre (and still does, though more theatres are around now). The touring companies came but were quite sporadic. As for classical dance, it was a struggle to keep the few amateur groups going. Of course, there was dancing -- shall we call it “social” -- in Hull in some of the clubs, but one needed money and above all a car to get there. And such were the times, in the early sixties in Ottawa.