A bawdy production at the Star Theatre gets Rev. R.B. St. Clair hot under the collar.
By the early decades of the 20th century, Torontonians had the choice of several theatres where they might enjoy some evening entertainment. The Royal Alexandra and the Princess Theatre were considered more highbrow and generally catered to the more sophisticated crowds. Shea’s Hippodrome was the city’s vaudeville theatre. And, catering primarily to the working class, the Gayety Theatre and the Star Theatre served as Toronto’s burlesque houses.
The term “burlesque” today is generally associated with what it became by the mid-century: women in elaborate costumes, perhaps festooned with feathers, performing a striptease. In 1912, however, burlesque was a bit different, representing a combination of vaudeville and British music hall elements aimed at working-class audiences. Burlesque shows featured a variety of acts including a mixture of popular songs, broad sketch comedy, chorus line numbers, and stand-up comedy acts. In a letter printed in the Globe, the Star’s owner Fred Stair wrote that “the performances put on at burlesque houses are no more nor less than a combination of musical comedy and vaudeville.” Sometimes the entertainment was more novel. One week in March of 1912, the Star Theatre announced that in addition to the Jardin de Paris Girls Company and Merry Minstrel Maids, the “world’s champion female wrestler” had been added to the show. According to the Toronto Star, she “will meet all comers of her sex at every performance and forfeit $25 should she fail to throw them in ten minutes.”
The Star Theatre was located at 23 Temperance Street, across from the Methodist Book Room. It was purchased by Fred Stair in 1901; under Stair, most of its bookings appear to have been travelling shows which moved from town to town, usually staying at the Star for a week-long engagement. Its reputation was undoubtedly one that catered to a predominantly male, lower-class audience. In a graduate thesis examining obscenity at the Star Theatre, Lyndsay Mills Campbell notes that the Star was “viewed as a source of low-grade, popular entertainment” and that “the Star was subject to much more police scrutiny than were the higher class theatres.”
In the final week of February 1912, the Star Theatre booked The Darlings of Paris, which initial reviews suggest was fairly typical fare for the Star. At the time of the show’s run, the most vivid description of the production ran in the Toronto World, which wrote:
“[I]t consists of two burlettas, in each of which there is more action per minute than one usually finds in such sketches, and sandwiched between them is an olio that is a scream from start to finish. The cast includes Gladys Sears, J. Theo Murphy, and Miss Lillian Washburn, a niece of the late Dr. Oronhyatekha. In ‘Murphy’s Troubles,’ the opening skit, opportunity is given these performers for a display of exceptional comedy work and in the closing farce entitled ‘The Gobble Rag,’ the singing and dancing features are well developed. The scenery is elaborate, the costumes dainty, and the chorus is composed of a bevy of winsome girls.”
The World also attributed the writing and production of the show to Charles E. Taylor, a known figure on the vaudeville circuit, and attributed the music to Leon Errol, who later achieved a considerable measure of success as a performer on Broadway and in film.
The self-styled “Reverend” Robert B. St. Clair initially came to Toronto around 1911, promoting a book War on the White Slave Trade, condemning prostitution. He soon founded the Toronto Vigilance Association, dedicated to wiping out various perceived social evils, not the least of which was obscenity. St. Clair was the only person to draw a salary from the organization; however, the Vigilance Association appears to have had the support of several local ministers and women’s groups, though its exact numbers and structure are unclear.
St. Clair attended a performance of The Darlings of Paris on February 26, 1912, and was accordingly appalled by the experience. Also in attendance that night was a police representative of the Morality Department who, in accordance with his duties, ordered several cuts to the show. St. Clair, meanwhile, shared his concerns with the Rev. John Shearer, who himself attended the show the next night with a more senior officer from the Morality Department. St. Clair returned to the Star later during the run, and remained dissatisfied with the performance. The issue festered with St. Clair through the spring and on May 1 he drew up a bulletin, highlighting “the revolting part of the public performance,” which he distributed to members of the Vigilance Association, members of the clergy, and various other parties he deemed appropriate.
The objections cited by St. Clair vary, and many of his examples of outrageous obscenity seem laughably tame by contemporary standards. The first piece he objects to is Murphy’s Troubles, the opening comedy double-act, in which the characters are father and son. In the exchange highlighted by St. Clair, the father describes having spent an evening with a woman and buying her oysters and champagne. “‘Did she loosen up, then?’ asked the sporty son. ‘No,’ replied the father, in disgust. ‘She kept her clothes on!’ (This made the crowd howl with delight.)”
In addition to similar suggestive dialogue, St. Clair also noted “the word ‘damn’ was used ten times during the performance,” which he particularly objected to as he claimed that boys as young as eight were inside, unattended. Another objection concerned a comedic character St. Clair describes as a “sissyfied policeman,” indicated to be “of the class, or at least pretending to be, who give themselves over to acts of sexual perversion, and known, generally, as ‘sissies,’ ‘fairies,’ and by other more offensive, but at the same time, more accurately-descriptive names.”
(Left: Rev. R.B. St. Clair. The Toronto Star, June 7, 1912.)
Although St. Clair’s bulletin had limited distribution, he soon found himself under arrest, and soon charged with having and distributing obscene material “tending to corrupt morals, contrary to the provisions of the criminal code.”
The trial took place in September. St. Clair’s defence, led by W.E. Raney, took the line that St. Clair’s actions were excused as they were in the public good, taking action when the Morality Department was either unwilling or unable to do so. Raney’s objective was to prove that The Darlings of Paris had been obscene, and to suggest that the police had been negligent in not shutting down the performance.
Initially, most of the Toronto media sided with St. Clair and supported his efforts. The initial exception appears to have been Saturday Night which was largely skeptical of moral reformation movements. “Life will be pleasant will it not, when this organization gets into full swing?” it sarcastically wrote on May 25. “You are walking along the street and some pretty girl happens to glance at you with the shade of a smile. You immediately rush to the nearest phone and tell Mr. St. Clair about it. If you don’t, somebody else will.” Saturday Night also observed that rather than quashing the obscenity, St. Clair’s crusade was only serving to provide the oxygen of publicity, claiming “it is fallacious to suppose that by giving a wider circulation to indecencies heard on the stage by having them printed, any moral good may be obtained.”
Judge Denton, who presided over the case, shared similar sentiments and rejected St. Clair’s defence, declaring the bulletin obscene and finding St. Clair guilty. Rev. John Coburn, another Toronto moral crusader from the time, wrote in his 1950 autobiography that Denton “stated his entire confidence in the good intention of the accused but was of the opinion he was trying to do a good thing in a wrong way.” The sentence was initially suspended on condition that St. Clair agree not to commit similar acts in the future, but on advice of Coburn and members of the Vigilance Association, St. Clair refused. Denton then reluctantly passed a sentence of a $25 fine or 10 days in jail, but St. Clair still refused. According to Coburn, the authorities feared public outcry if they were to jail him after he refused to pay the fine, and “that fine has never been paid to this day, and St. Clair was not sent to jail.”
Given the ruling that St. Clair’s bulletin was obscene, he and his supporters reasoned that the actual production must also have been obscene, and thus made efforts to have the Star’s owner, Fred Stair, and the theatre’s manager, Daniel Pearce, formally charged. Meanwhile, St. Clair continued to hold meetings of the Toronto Vigilance Association and rail against examples of immorality in Toronto.
(Right: Gladys Sears, star of The Darlings of Paris. The Sunday World, February 25, 1912.)
In early December, one week before the charges were formally issued against the Star Theatre, public opinion of St. Clair shifted dramatically, when St. Clair delivered a widely reported speech condemning the classical art he had viewed at the Toronto Normal School, the teacher’s college at Church and Gould. Saturday Night gleefully wrote that “R.B. St. Clair, self-appointed censor of morals, has now discovered that the Provincial Art Gallery, Toronto, possesses a Venus de Melos [sic] without a shirtwaist and an Aphrodite without trousers or skirt.” The World wrote “Greek art will survive in spite of pseudo-puritanical prejudice, but it should not be confused, even in the mind of a [reverend] gentleman, with the suggestions of obscenity and filth upon which he was recognized as an authority in the recent court case.” Torontonians began to sense that St. Clair’s ability to properly gauge obscenity might be somewhat suspect.
Indeed, in the ensuing trial of the Star Theatre in January, the subjective nature of obscenity soon became apparent. Much of the bawdy dialogue hinged on innuendo; when the Rev. John Shearer was asked if the dialogue was intended to have double meanings, an objection was raised. Justice Middleton had to rule that opinions as to double meanings could not be offered, and that only testimony as to the actual dialogue could be admitted. Shearer then testified about suggestive dancing, but it proved difficult to describe the dances without a demonstration. Herb Lennox of the defence, perhaps hoping to make Shearer uncomfortable, called him down from the witness box. Lennox proclaimed himself to be “the lady” and, according to the Star, “Shearer looked embarrassed and finally stood close to the counsel with nose against his glasses, and embraced him.” The Star then quotes Shearer as saying “they moved around the stage, swaying from side to side and back and forth,” but despite Lennox’s pleas, it seems a further demonstration was not provided.
Following testimony from performers and audience members, the jury retired. After five hours of deliberation, the jury reached a verdict of not guilty, but qualified with a warning against theatres showing suggestive or obscene fare. The result greatly perturbed Justice Middleton who chided the jury, saying “I cannot see how any reasonable man could have any doubt that the play was anything else but immoral, indecent, and obscene.” Although the verdict may have been the direct result of the evidence submitted, reformer John Coburn later suggested that the defence lawyer had deliberately put some of his friends on the jury so as to fix the outcome of the trial.
The Darlings of Paris was hardly the last stage production to cause a dust-up in Toronto. The controversy’s immediate legacy was the establishment of an official theatre censorship board, with an official, non-police censor taking the helm on January 1, 1913. The board would face its first major challenge that May, with a production at the more upscale Princess Theatre of Deborah, a serious play described by the media as in the spirit of Henrik Ibsen.
The Star Theatre remained in operation into the 1920s. Rev. St. Clair largely disappeared from the Toronto press following the issue over the Normal School, although moral reformers continued to champion his causes in decades to come. Yet even in 1912, there was a sense that moral reform was a tired subject in Toronto. In December of 1912, Saturday Night wrote “Toronto has been reformed annually for so long that by now every man, woman, or child in it should by rights be wearing halos and sprouting wings. As a matter of fact, Toronto is no worse and no better than any other centre of like size and it will probably continue to remain about so-so in spite of ‘reformer’ St. Clair, or any other pest of like mental dimensions.”
Additional material from: Lyndsay Mills Campbell, The St. Clair Case and the Regulation of the Obscene in Pre-World War One Ontario, Master of Laws Thesis, Faculty of Law, University of British Columbia, 1998; Rev. John Coburn, I Kept My Powder Dry (The Ryerson Press, 1950: Toronto); L.W. Conolly, “The Man in the Green Goggles: Clergymen and Theatre Censorship (Toronto, 1912—13)” in Theatre Research in Canada Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 1980; The Globe, May 24, May 29, May 31, June 8, June 13, September 23, September 24, September 27, October 11, November 2, December 5, December 11, December 13, 1912; January 10, January 11, 1913; Becki L. Ross, Burlesque West: Showgirls, Sex, and Sin in Postwar Vancouver (University of Toronto Press, 2009); Denis Salter, “Hector Willoughby Charlesworth and the Nationalization of Cultural Authority, 1890—1945” in Establishing Our Boundaries: English-Canadian Theatre Criticism, edited by Anton Wagner, (University of Toronto Press, 1999); Saturday Night, May 25, June 1, June 22, December 14, 1912; Toronto Star, February 24, February 27, March 2, May 22, June 7, June 10, June 13, September 21, September 23, September 24, September 26, September 30, October 2, October 14, 1912; Toronto World, February 24, February 25, February 26, February 27, March 3, May 21, May 23, June 13, September 23, September 24, September 27, October 2, 1912; March 21, 1913.
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