In an era where sexual imagery is everywhere, it’s hard to believe that a woman dressed in an evening gown, teasingly eyeing her audience while slowly removing a silk glove, can still cause a stir.
The Toronto Burlesque Festival, running July 21 to 25 at the Gladstone Hotel, aims to prove that less is still more.
An amalgam of inventive striptease, variety acts and live music, the festival aims to blend the old and the new. “Part of the revival is recreating that old-time glamour,” says festival producer Sauci Calla Horra, who admits she entered the scene blindly, unaware of its rich history.
In its third year, the festival now celebrates its history by welcoming a living legend, Satan’s Angel, performing in Toronto for the first time since she took the stage of the Victory Burlesque at Spadina Ave. and Dundas St. W. in 1969.
“At the Victory, I’d performed eight to 10 times per day,” says Angel (nee Angel Walker), who graced its stage with her fiery tassels — a gimmick if there ever was one — on two occasions. “The shows started at noon and ran continuously until midnight.”
Calla Horra suggests that beyond the tease, burlesque is “the poor man’s theatre, mocking the status quo.” But these theatres were grind-houses long before rundown cinemas adopted the term.
Tanya Cheex, the festival’s founder and catalyst of Canada’s neo-burlesque movement, says that although Montreal was the epicentre of Canadian burlesque, when speaking to legends in Las Vegas, “they always remember the Victory.”
“You were not a great exotic dancer unless you played there,” says Angel, who now lives in Palm Springs, Calif. “I played Montreal many times, nearly worked myself to death in Vancouver, but the Victory was the best.”
Originally built in 1921 as the Standard, it became one of the leading Yiddish theatres in North America. In 1935, as the Strand, it showed second-run films until a name change to the Victory after the war introduced burlesque performances.
Although Angel’s visits to Toronto the Good were scandal-free, it wasn’t always the case for others. On April 29, 1962, Ann Perri, the “Jayne Russell of Burlesque,” challenged the legalities of stage performance.
Toronto Police inspectors, in attendance — as they often were — charged Perri and the theatre’s owners and manager with permitting an obscene performance.
The police report alleges that Perri had “removed all of her costume with the exception of a flesh-coloured ‘G’ string and pasties, then lay on the floor, gyrating, raising her hips and simulating the act of sexual intercourse, moaning. At the completion of her act, she lowered the front of her ‘G’ string, exposing the pubic hair and a portion of her private person.”
They all received fines, but Perri’s charges were dismissed.
While on the burlesque beat with the Star in 1965, Robert Fulford wrote that the theatre’s management made sure all performers understood the rules. Still, the occasional pasty slipped off from time to time, and as the years went on, boundaries softened.
By 1975, the fun had moved east, to Yonge St., where strip clubs like Starvin’ Marvin’s flanked several body-rub parlours and adult movie houses like the Cinema 2000.
“Nobody was interested in seeing someone remove a stocking when so much else was out there,” says Angel, who retired in 1985.
Inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame in 2009, she now mentors the latest generation of titillating tassel twirlers, and does not mince words: “I tell them never to ask me what I thought of their routine unless they’re ready to hear the truth,” she says with a laugh. “Many of these girls would never have survived an audition back then.”
But the festival’s theme is “The Future of Burlesque” — and there does seem to be one. Beyond the high-profile revivalism of Dita Von Teese, there’s the movie Tournée (On Tour), a drama about burlesque that won prizes at Cannes this year; another movie, Burlesque, starring Kristen Bell and slated for release this year; and many scenes as lively as Toronto’s across North America.
Despite her criticism, Angel praises newcomers like Windsor’s Roxi D’lite, performing on Friday, and recently crowned Queen of Burlesque in Las Vegas — a first for a Canadian. “Roxi’s got what it takes. I was blown away when I finally saw her perform,” says Angel, who will be teaching a master class on the art of the tease during the festival.
“She’s very committed to teaching us and showing us what it was about, encouraging us to improve,” says Calla Horra.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on July 17, 2010.