In the days of table dancing, pole dancing and lap dancing, anyone under 40 or so will find it hard to believe there was a time in Toronto when the art of the striptease was regulated with as much care as we now give to the recycling of garbage.
In the 1960s, an ancient movie house at the corner of Dundas and Spadina had been converted into the Victory Burlesk, where dancers stripped four times a day, seven days a week, with a movie and a stand-up comic thrown in for variety and to give the women a rest. I was in the audience, on a purely sociological mission, one afternoon in 1966. That was how I came to learn about this little-known aspect of law enforcement and came to understand, as never before, the hilarious prurience, the delightful lasciviousness and the secretly lewd manner in which The Law, when given half a chance, deals with sexuality.
At least once a week, and sometimes more often, two of the men in the Victory audience were police officers, there to make notes and, if necessary, arrests. The strippers came mostly from out of town, as often as not from cities with a shameless lack of public morality. So the Victory required every one of them, before making her first appearance, to read a detailed list of the rules the police were there to enforce.
The ecdysiasts, to use the word for strippers that H.L. Mencken invented (basing it on the scientific term for molting), were allowed to practise their art only under the provisions of the Code. It contained a detailed list of forbidden actions: Don't touch the curtains, the walls or the proscenium. Don't lie down on the stage or runway. Don't bump into props. Don't run an article of clothing between your legs. Absolutely avoid body movements that suggest a sex act.
For strippers this was bad enough, but the rules for clothing were worse. "Pasties and panties are to be worn." Pasties were pieces of material, never flesh coloured, always securely attached to the breasts. Panties, too, were to be other than flesh coloured and have a two-inch strip up the middle of the back.
The Code also said that in the unlikely event of a pasty falling off and a breast being entirely uncovered, the dancer must move quickly into the wings.
As luck would have it, precisely that accident happened when I was in the audience. An ecdysiast named Justa Dream was hard at work, about a third of the way through her act, when suddenly her right-breast pasty floated gently to the floor.
Justa Dream nervously looked down. Clearly, she had read the Code. She knew she should leave the stage but she chose to follow a higher rule: The show must go on. She stooped down, picked it up, stuck it back in place and resumed dancing. Alas, the glue didn't stick. Glue failure was the problem in the first place.
So, as I wrote in the Toronto Star that week, Justa Dream held her hand to her bosom, keeping her pasty in place and looking for all the world like the pathetic heroine of a 19th-century melodrama. A few boors down front snickered but she paid them no heed. She continued to the end of her act, stripping one-handed, right up to the last beat of the bass drum and the final clash of the cymbal. She bowed, looking satisfied, a professional who had completed her task.
By then I was slipping out of the auditorium, on my way to the manager's office, notebook in hand. There I discovered a phenomenon more remarkable than anything to be seen on the stage: a burlesque house owner who yearned for respectability and believed he was acquiring it.
The office itself exuded class. The walls were painted black and white, in wide vertical stripes. The furniture was black with gold trim, or the reverse. All the ornaments were gold: a gold-painted Buddha, a gold-painted figure of a greyhound racer and on one wall an enormous gold butterfly made of wire mesh. The typewriter was painted gold. So was the adding machine.
When I sat down to talk with him, Lou Landers, president of the company that owned the Victory, summarized the most important mantra of the house: "It is not permissible to have a bare bosom in Toronto." Almost bare, yes. Entirely bare, no. On this foundation he was building a burlesque house where women as well as men could be entertained. He proudly informed me that on the weekends four-tenths of the customers were female. Mrs. Rose Bossin, who booked the acts, said that women admired the costumes of the dancers, enjoyed the music and the movies, and laughed at the comedians.
"We've tried to get mixed clientele at the Victory," Landers said, meaning men and women. "We've tried to promote the theatre, too. We have group plans. Bowling clubs come here, sometimes service clubs." He made a point of learning what conventions were coming to town so that he could offer them group rates.
For professional dancers, the union minimum in those days was $166.50 a week. The Victory paid an average of $200 and Landers went up to $350 or $400 for a headliner. Once he put out $1,250 for a star of the profession, Cup Cakes Cassidy. Every week the Victory held an amateur stripping contest in which half a dozen girls would compete. Recent participants had included a nurse, a band singer, a lab technician and a gym instructor. They all stripped under aliases, but not fancy ones like Cup Cakes. Names like Martha Wright and Carroll Stone.
I assembled all of this and more for the public and then made it the title piece in a collection called Crisis at the Victory Burlesk (Oxford University Press), which stood high on the worst-seller lists for 1968. Still, I felt I had done my job as a social historian, recording the dying days of a peculiar Toronto righteousness, a craziness that was taken for granted.