Montreal’s Burlesque Revival Against the Quartier des Spectacles
By Sunita Nigam
The following is an excerpt. Sunita Nigam’s full article can be found in the print edition of The Site Magazine, on newsstands now.
Every summer, decked out in lace, sequins, and feather boas, burlesque performer and producer Velma Candyass and her fellow performer Lili Lollipop guide tourists and locals through Montreal’s historic downtown Red Light District visiting sites formerly animated by brothels, gambling dens, burlesque halls, and theatres. Candyass offers these burlesque walking tours as part of the company Secret Montreal, which she founded in 2012 with burlesque host Donovan King. Today, Montreal’s Red Light District has largely been eclipsed by the Quartier des Spectacles, a recently developed entertainment district that occupies a square kilometre of the downtown, south of the Plateau Mont-Royal, Montreal’s neighbourhood with the youngest residents, and north of Chinatown. By using the site-specific performances and narratives of burlesque guides, Secret Montreal has made it its mission to excavate the local histories of nightlife, female performance, and sex work that enlivened Montreal from the 1920s through the 1950s, when these activities were outlawed by conservative mayor Jean Drapeau. Masters in the art of revelation and imagination, the tour guides of Secret Montreal invite participants to peel back the visible layers of today’s “revitalized” entertainment district to reveal deep urban histories of nightlife and the (often feminized) labour they conceal. More than just a historical exercise, the walking tour connects these histories to a revival of burlesque in Montreal that began in the 1990s. Secret Montreal performs transgenerational solidarity between the city’s historical and contemporary burlesque performers and publics and activates discussions around contemporary culture and urban development.
The History of Burlesque: A Peepshow
Originally a comedic and popular form of female entertainment, modern burlesque originated in England, arriving in New York City with Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes in 1868. The history of burlesque is the history of undomesticated women appearing on stages in front of mixed-gender audiences (at times made up of more women than men), shocking and delighting their audiences with corporeal displays, exaggerated codes of femininity, cross-dressing, and, in some instances, performances of racial stereotypes. Burlesque presented an image of an uncorseted, sexually liberated woman at the same time as it sometimes confined this same image of femininity within colonial fantasies of exoticism. (1) At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, dancer Fatima Djamile used her Salome-esque character “Little Egypt” to introduce the “cooch dance,” a variation of the belly dance that eventually evolved into the bump and grind, as it is called by American audiences. Soon, dancers around the country (mostly burlesque ones), also billed as “Little Egypt,” were imitating Djamile’s moves. The history of “Little Egypt” is but one example of a cultural form that often asked (and often still asks) performers of colour to “enact fantasies of cultural and ethnic difference for white audiences,” even as the form provided a terrain upon which these performers could negotiate their own displays of identity and secure a degree of professional and social mobility (2).
The most daring aspect of burlesque was not its use of risqué bodily displays, but the performance of female knowingness. Early burlesquers troubled some members of the public because they did more than offer their bodies up as passive objects of enjoyment for the male gaze—they were active subjects who took pleasure in commanding their craft. As American Studies scholar Robert Allen and Performance Studies scholar Joanna Mansbridge have noted, if the scandal of burlesque in its early years had something to do with the scanty dress and sexual innuendos of the performers, it had at least as much to do with their vocalness and the challenges burlesque created for gendered power dynamics that placed women in the home and away from spaces of political expression. (3) In addition to securing opportunities for politicized appearance in the city, early burlesque offered viable, relatively independent careers to many women burlesque artists. Legendary figures like Lydia Thompson, Gypsy Rose Lee, Ann Corio, Sally Rand, Josephine Baker, Tempest Storm, Mae West, and Lili St. Cyr, who was named the “most famous woman in Montreal” in the 1940s and 1950s, used burlesque to build glittering careers.
Burlesque in Montreal
Because Montreal burlesque audiences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries enjoyed the same shows as other audiences on an Eastern touring circuit that included New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Toronto, the shape burlesque took in Quebec was not so drastically different from the shape it took elsewhere. Nevertheless, there were some important differences which arose partly from the fact that Montreal remained a thriving nightlife hub through American prohibition and partly from the city’s location in the linguistically and culturally distinct province of Quebec. In her groundbreaking books on burlesque in Quebec, Chantal Hébert distinguishes between an early period of burlesque (1914–1930), which was largely influenced by American companies and their repertoires and was generally performed in English, and a later “golden age” (1930–1950), during which numbers were increasingly performed in French and adapted to reflect Quebec society. (4) One of the most interesting revelations of Hébert’s studies is the especially active role women played in Quebec’s burlesque scene. Compared to its American counterpart, Quebec burlesque attracted proportionally large female audiences and involved women as more central, active characters in its scripts. Hébert identifies in burlesque a platform for feminist performance that contrasted with dominant Quebecois attitudes about the social roles of women. In Quebec burlesque, women, far from being domesticated “guardians of tradition,” as Quebec Theatre studies scholar Jean-Marc Larrue has put it, “turned towards the city, modern values, and material and economic betterment.” (5)
When municipalities in the United States and Canada were cracking down on gambling and burlesque in the name of public morality in the 1930s, Montreal continued to flourish as a capital of pleasure. Montreal was the last city in North America to outlaw burlesque, which overlapped with the city’s roaring jazz scene, through which the top musicians from New York and Chicago regularly flowed, from the 1920s through the 1950s. Like Montreal jazz, Montreal burlesque featured many black performers and audiences, with the uptown cabarets being patronized by white audiences and featuring white performers and the downtown clubs being primarily black, but with increasingly mixed audiences. (6) “By the 1940s,” Joanna Mansbridge explains, “the clubs were racially integrated, with [the downtown club] Café St. Michel leading the way with a fully integrated jazz band directed by Louis Metcalf.” (7)
It wasn’t until the 1950s, during the first tenure of conservative mayor Jean Drapeau, who ran his election on a promise to “clean up” the city, that Montreal banned burlesque along with gambling, prostitution, and late nights on the town, the last curtailed through the imposition of a harsh curfew. This urban sanitization mission was executed through numerous large scale “urban renewal” projects (cultural commercial, residential, transportational), including the large cultural complex the Place-des-Arts. The erection of isolated high-rise buildings separated by empty expanses eroded the bustling streetlife and cultural variety of the area called the Faubourg Saint Laurent, one of the oldest districts in Montreal (developed in the late eighteenth century), in which the Red Light District was situated. It also failed to curb escalating homelessness, drug use, and poverty in the area. (8) Drapeau, during his second reign as mayor from 1960 to 1986, paradoxically did nothing to quash the strip clubs that had replaced Montreal’s burlesque halls—seduced, perhaps, as Mansbridge has speculated, by the revenue to be gained from tourists visiting Montreal for Expo ’67 and the 1976 Olympics. (9) With less theatre, and without the humour and political commentary of its predecessors, stripping superseded burlesque as the main form of female performance in Montreal’s deteriorating downtown. As the iconic neon sign of the Super Sexe club on Sainte-Catherine Street spectacularly signaled, until the club closed in January 2017, strip clubs, along with massage parlours, porn production houses, and other spaces of sex work have remained a central feature of Montreal’s cultural landscape. But the signs of this urban history and the social struggles and victories they represent are fading. While Dinu Bumbaru of Heritage Montreal has stated there is a case that the Super Sexe sign is a Montreal heritage site, the sign as of writing remains dark, soon to be taken down: the firm that owns the building is seeking a new tenant, which it expects will find the sign distasteful. (10)
The author extends a big thank you to Velma Candyass for her help in mapping Montreal’s historic burlesque scene.
(1) See “Burlesque and ‘Salomania’,” Ohio State University Libraries Exhibitions. https://library.osu.edu/projects/women-in-tights/salomania.html; Robert Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 228.
(2) Joanna Mansbridge, “In Search of a Different History: The Remains of Burlesque in Montreal,” in “Burlesque,” ed. Reid Gilbert and Shelley Scott, special issue, Canadian Theatre Review, (Spring 2014): 8.
(3) For information about the perceived threat of the vocalness of burlesque performers, see Joanna Mansbridge, “The Comic Bodies and Obscene Voices of Burlesque,” in Women and Comedy: History, Theory, Practice, ed. Peter Dickinson et al. (Madison, Wisconsin: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013), 97–111; Allen, Horrible Prettiness.
(4) See Chantal Hébert, Le burlesque au Québec: un divertissement populaire (LaSalle: Hurtubise, 1981); Chantal Hébert, Le burlesque québécois et américain: textes inédits (Québec: Presses de l'Université Laval, 1989).
(5) Jean-Marc Larrue, review of Le Burlesque québécois et américain, by Chantal Hébert, in Érudit 43, no. 2 (1989): 267–8.
(6) Mansbridge, “In Search of a Different History,” 7.
(8) For a history of the rich cultural life of the Faubourg Saint Laurent and of Saint Laurent Boulevard, see Pierre Anctil, Saint Laurent: la main de Montréal (Sillery: Les Editions du Septentrion, 2002); Laurie Loison, “Making the Creative City: A Case Study of the Quartier des Spectacles in Montreal,” (master’s thesis, McGill University, 2013), 39–41.; Mansbridge, “In Search of a Different History,” 10.
(9) Mansbridge, “In Search of a Different History,” 10.
(10) Dan Spector, “Montreal’s Club Super Sexe sign will soon be taken down,” Global News, June 7, 2017, https://globalnews.ca/news/3510879/montreals-club-super-sexe-sign-will-soon-be-taken-down/.
Sunita Nigam writes about the relationship between performance and urban placemaking, with a focus on Mexico City, New York, and Montreal. She is completing her PhD at McGill University in Performance Studies.