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Policing Burlesque and Strip Clubs in Toronto

Burlesque performances—or elaborate, choreographed, and lavish theatrical striptease routines—could be found throughout the city of Toronto in the first half of the 20th century. The city was known as the "burlesque capital of Canada" and Toronto earned a reputation for offering many forms of entertainment for men of all ages during this period. The demand for such performances fuelled the rise of large established clubs and theatres like "The Casino" and the Lux Burlesque Theatre. These venues employed local dancers and imported major international stars including Gypsy Rose Lee, Ann Corio, Cupcake Cassidy and Sally Rand who was particularly famous for her revealing routine with a giant bubble. Burlesque performances required talent and skill, including training in singing and dance, but did not entail full nudity. Towards the second half of the twentieth century, however, stripping came to dominate exotic dance performances. 

The transition from burlesque to strip culture was a rocky one. While moral reformers targeted burlesque performances in the early twentieth century, the mid-century city also wrestled with numerous debates surrounding popular performers and theatres in the city, including a shift towards stripping and full nudity dance. During this transitional period, police targeted performers and club owners for a range of moral infractions. Anne Yurik, for example, was sentenced on November 27, 1947 for “performing an ‘immoral act’ - a strip tease before the Flyers’ Club” in front of an audience containing many university students. Her charges consisted of completing two of three dances fully nude according to the officers from the Toronto Morality Squad that raided the club. The Morality Squad was a division of the police force whose aim was to reduce immorality in the city. Officers targeted sexual economies and behaviours considered indecent. 

Yurik was pronounced guilty and fined fifty dollars or a ten-day incarceration for her performance at the Flyers’ Club. The severity of her sentence suggests that officials hoped to make an example of her and send a message to other performers and club owners. Nonetheless, Yurik’s performance signaled growing discontent among dancers and audiences who resisted state intervention in sexual performances. As Deborah Clipperton contends in her research on Toronto strip club history, this intensified during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which coincided with the growth of go-go and topless dancing. In 1973 the Liquor License Amendment Act in the province of Ontario allowed alcohol to be served in strip clubs and the popularity and availability of (almost) fully nude stripping increased across the city.

J. Seguin

Policing Burlesque and Strip Clubs in Toronto