Faced with declining attendance, films took a backseat at the Victory Theatre in September of 1961 when it became the Victory Burlesque, featuring striptease artists, Catskills comedians and musical acts.
Despite competition from neighbouring burlesque houses like the Casino and the Lux Theatre, the Victory’s opening weekend still packed them in. Headliner Little Star, “the blazing gal from outer space” – whose stage-name and tagline sounded not unlike that week’s Lux headliner, the iconic Blaze Starr – played continuous shows from 1pm until closing.
(A film, Portrait of a Mobster, was also shown. On Sunday, free hotdogs were served courtesy of neighbour Shopsy’s.)
The late Tura Satana, most famous for her role in Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was one of burlesque’s most popular stars in the early ’60s who visited headlined the Victory in April, 1963. “The Victory was a classy place, absolutely classy, and as a head-liner you were treated really well,” she said while visiting Toronto in 2008. “You’d see a lot of rule-breaking in other clubs, but they were pretty strict about enforcing them there.”
The Morality Clause
The rules, however, were sometimes broken, and most, if not all the time, Toronto’s Police Morality Squad was on-hand to witness a fallen pastie, a strict requirement in burlesque aesthetic. In April, 1962 – five months after police had warned management about a few line-crossing performances – Ann Perri, the “Jane Russell of Burlesque,” challenged the legalities of striptease.
Toronto Police inspectors, in attendance, charged Perri, theatre owners Myer and Lionel Axler as well as manager Jack Diamond with permitting an obscene performance.
The police report, signed by Insp. H.S. Thurston, alleges that Perri, 32, 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.”
In court, Perri claimed that burlesque’s popularity was due to its “aesthetic appeal,” not the sparse nudity. Magistrate Joseph Addison, probably having attended a burlesque house or two in his day, wasn’t buying it: “My recollection is that the more clothes the girls took off and the lewder their gestures, the more people applauded.”
The Axlers, as owners of New Strand Theatres Ltd., were ordered to pay $100 and Diamond $50. Perri’s charges were dismissed the following day.
The legalities of striptease
What was permitted on stage was often subjective, claimed Myer Axler, whose grandfather Isidore Axler built the building in 1922. In December of 1961, inspectors from the Morality Squad met with Axler and provided him with a “specific outline of the requirements for vaudeville acts.” While on the Burlesque Beat with the Toronto Star in 1965, Robert Fulford shared that particular list of requirements:
1. Pasties and full pants are to be worn. Pasties are to be other than flesh coloured and securely attached. If you should lose a pastie, cover yourself appropriately and go off stage and the orchestra will cut your act. All panties will be other than flesh coloured and have a two inch strip of heavier material up the middle of the back.
2. Once you start to remove your clothing, you cannot touch your body with your hands.
3. You cannot communicate with the audience: i.e talking, noises, give away items to patrons.
4. Do not touch curtains, walls or proscenium.
5. You are not permitted to lie down on stage or run-way
6. You are not permitted to bump a prop.
7. You are not permitted to make any body movements that in the eyes of the public would simulate an act of sexual intercourse.
8. You cannot run any article of clothing between your legs.
9. After the first performance Friday, you must return to the mezzanine where your act will be analyzed by management. When your act has been reviewed and deletions are made from your routine, you will do your act as approved by the management for the balance of the engagement.
Still, the occasional pasty slipped off from time to time, and as the years went on, boundaries softened.
By the ’70s, lewder acts could be seen in Yonge St. strip clubs like Starvin’ Marvin’s. In 1975, architect Mandel Sprachman gave the building its fourth lease on life, revamping it as the Golden Harvest cinema, catering Toronto’s Chinatown community. As other businesses took over the street-level store-front space, it closed by the early 1990s.
So much history, as Moore notes. “I’d love to see a plaque honouring its history,” he says of the building which will celebrate 90 years of social adjustment, unrest and moral-loosening next year.
The former Standard Theatre is a designated heritage property under the City of Toronto’s Heritage Preservation services. This series is a composite of two different articles originally published by the Toronto Star and Open File.
The Toronto Star, October 9, 1941; September 1, 1961; April 29, 1962; May 30, 31, 1962; February 20, 1965.
The Globe & Mail, May 31, 1962; June 20, 1962.
Fulford, Robert. “Crisis at the Victory Burlesk,” pp.255-258 in “The Underside of Toronto,” McLelland & Stewart, 1970.
Standard Theatre Heritage Designation Papers, City of Toronto Heritage Preservation Services, August 2006.
Images: top, Archives of Ontario, RG32B, file 49, item 15; middle, Satan’s Angel, 1969; bottom, The Toronto Star, April 29, 1962.