Historicist: Cup Cake Cassidy and the Burlesque Boom
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Historicist: Cup Cake Cassidy and the Burlesque Boom

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Lux Burlesque Theatre, 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 478.

Taking to the stage on May 28, 1961, Cup Cake Cassidy punctuated the end of another of Toronto’s notoriously prudish Sunday prohibitions with every shake of her hips. Under purple spotlights, the buxom burlesque star performed the bump-and-grind on the Lux Theatre’s runway to the accompaniment of live musicians. In celebration of a new law, passed by council on May 23, that allowed theatrical performances on Sundays, the operator of the Lux, Elliott Abels (or Abells), flew Cassidy, one of the continent’s most popular stripteasers and a regular performer in Toronto, in from the States for a special one-day, four-performance engagement. By her second show, a crowd of four hundred—including, the Globe reported, “a number of couples and more than a dozen women who entered individually and were well past 40.” The whistling and stomping, the journalist added, reached “deafening proportions” as, bit by bit, the six-foot-tall brunette seductively shed her elaborate, jewelled gown.

Cassidy’s burlesque performance relied more on the sexual suggestiveness of the tease than outright nudity. “The key to the striptease was not how much a woman stripped,” writes historian Andrea Friedman, “but how much the people in the audience thought she stripped.” Strict regulations on burlesque were enforced by a police morality squad. A bare bosom was not permissible, and so performers relied on pasties and panties—as long as neither was flesh-coloured—to give the minimum legal coverage. And, although it was no secret why spectators had bought their ticket, burlesque theatres included singers, jugglers, comedians, and other opening-act entertainers with the price of admission. Tame by present-day standards, burlesque had long been legal six days a week in Toronto—one of the few North American cities with two burlesque houses. The Casino, staging exotic dancers since the 1930s at Queen and Bay, was a popular lunch-hour getaway for the business crowd. The Lux Theatre, located at 362 College Street, had been in operation since 1959.
In straight-laced Toronto—a city where Sunday laws had kept playgrounds padlocked and spectator sports banned until 1950—officials were loath to allow burlesque on the Sabbath. Under pressure to permit Sunday cinema screenings and theatrical performances at the O’Keefe Centre and Royal Alex, civic authorities delayed and debated for months, trying to exclude burlesque theatres from the eased restrictions. Ironically, the months of moralistic public debate aroused the interest of press and public in the striptease and booming business for burlesque theatres.

On the way to work at the Lux Burlesque Theatre, 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 479.

In a plebiscite on December 5, 1960, Torontonians voted overwhelmingly—83,373 votes to 46,388 votes—in favour of allowing movies and theatrical shows on Sundays. Given the city’s restrictive bylaws, many Torontonians sought their Sunday entertainment in Buffalo. Theatre owners, seeing their fortunes fading, had long been calling for action, optimistic that Sunday would be their most profitable day. Despite the objections of the Lord’s Day Alliance—who repeated the same “slippery slope” arguments that they had trotted out in previous Sunday debates—the province passed legislation enabling municipalities to make their own decisions about Sunday restrictions in the spring of 1961.

Duncan MacPherson’s editorial cartoon from the Toronto Star, April 20, 1961.

But the reform initiative got bogged down when civic officials started looking for ways to have the new law apply only to the types of entertainment they thought tasteful. While the provincial legislation didn’t let them determine what kinds of theatrical performance could be allowed on Sundays, it did empower them to determine where Sunday performances could take place. It would be perfectly legal, therefore, to ban all performances within geographic boundaries, such as the north side of College Street and the south side of Queen Street, as a back-door way of censoring Sunday burlesque.
At a heated council meeting in late March, Controller Philip Givens, a vocal dissenter against using geographic restrictions for moral purposes, criticized the desire of his colleagues to act as “a board of censors.” Controller William Allen, the energetic leader of the campaign to censor, shot back: “You’re opening up everything. You’re not taking advantage of the controlling power in the act.” Mayor Nathan Phillips realized, quite rightly, that their proposal might be interpreted as snobbish, class-based legislation that allowed, as Ron Haggart reported in his Star column, tasteful fare onstage for the Royal Alex’s five-dollar crowd, but outlawed the one-dollar customer’s bump-and-grind at the Lux and Casino. “If a show is improper for Sunday it is improper for any day of the week,” the mayor added. “Of course, I never attend any of them myself.” Despite the mayor’s level-headed assertion about the nature of their back-door censorship, Phillips was clearly not in favour of burlesque. He was later pilloried by Haggart for absenting himself from even voting on the issue.
Councillors against Sunday burlesque didn’t really even seem to elaborate the reasons for their opposition at any length. They might’ve assumed such arguments were self-evident. But their silence betrayed their implicit moral judgement that burlesque and striptease, Becki L. Ross writes in a fall 2000 article in Labour/Le Travail, were “commercialized sexual vice that [could] inflame men’s passions…propel them to seek adulterous liaisons, abandon their families, and jeopardize their workplace productivity.” It’s little wonder then that most city councillors, according to the Star‘s informal poll, were opposed to Sunday strippers. Even the most vocal champions for setting Sunday free, such as Givens and alderman Horace Brown, began as reluctant advocates. Controller Givens later recalled, “I had no intention of designating myself as the champion of burlesque.”

Two performers at the Lux Burlesque Theatre, 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 483.

Ignoring the moralistic tone of the debate, Star columnist Ron Haggart described the underlying political dimensions of the debate. In his opinion, councillors were clinging to “the older Toronto,” more concerned with defending middle-class standards of taste than with drafting fair, even-handed legislation. Despite the franchise having long ago been extended to every citizen older than twenty-one—regardless of whether they owned property—Haggart accused councillors of continuing to govern in the interest of the elites. The writer of a letter to the editor admonished council for bowing to undue church influence.
Abels jumped into the debate, presenting a brief to the board of control that argued that magazines and books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover were far more harmful to public morals than burlesque. Unlike those publications, he stressed, his Lux Theatre was only accessible to those older than eighteen. In letters to the editor and editorials, others similarly called out the controllers for their hypocrisy in their willingness to allow titillating yet critically acclaimed films, like Butterfield 8, Elmer Gantry, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to be shown on Sundays while censoring burlesque. One letter-writer put it blankly: “This is the worst form of snobbery imaginable.” In the press, Abels cast aspersions on his harshest critics, claiming that they, with “hats pulled down and collars turned up,” were frequenters of his establishment.
From the plebiscite until late May, the debate raged. Yet the voices of the burlesque performers themselves were noticeably absent from the official record. Instead, because reporters—unlike politicians—had no trouble admitting they’d attended burlesque shows, newspapers brought stripteasers into the conversation.

Advertisement for Cup Cake Cassidy from the Toronto Star, July 29, 1960.

“I don’t see a thing wrong with it,” Cup Cake Cassidy said, sharing her pragmatic opinion toward practicing her profession on a Sunday in an interview with the Globe. “It’s just a form of entertainment—why you can see more in some of these foreign movies! I think Toronto people who haven’t anything to do on Sunday, particularly immigrants, should be able to see a burlesque show if they want to.'” Her comment astutely recognized that the Lux, the Casino, and later the Victory Burlesque at Spadina and Dundas were all located in immigrant neighbourhoods. She also realized that lifting the ban simply gave working folks a choice for weekend leisure; anyone could still choose to stay at home with their families on Sunday.
During the burlesque boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s, reporters showed an increased interest in writing about burlesque. Sometimes reporters saw their role as quasi-anthropologists, observing and commenting on a salacious subculture without much thoughtful engagement with the actors themselves—but always remembering to describe their dimensions and physical attributes. More frequently, however, reporters took burlesque as seriously as the performers did and, through interviews and profiles, allowed their subjects an opportunity to present themselves as well-rounded individuals. Performers, like Cassidy, shared insight into their profession and their experiences.
Having started as a seventeen-year-old showgirl in Union City, New Jersey, Cup Cake (real name, Alice) Cassidy was proud that it had only taken her two months to achieve stardom after becoming a stripper two years earlier. Managed by her husband, she commanded one of the business’s top fees, which the Globe speculated to be around a thousand dollars per week. She’d been poor as a child but now, when she wasn’t touring the circuit through Canadian and American cities, she returned to her Pennsylvania mountain retreat to paint. “It’s hard work, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” she said. “An agent in Philly wanted to train me for Hollywood, but I wasn’t interested. I just want to be a stripper.”
According to Ross, Cassidy and other top names who passed through Toronto, like Tempest Storm and Evelyn “Treasure Chest” West—each of whom earned more than a thousand dollars per week—earned “more than women in any other job category.” One dancer interviewed by the Globe in February 1961 made three times the salary of her husband, a colonel in the American Air Force. As members of the American Guild of Variety Artists (and later the short-lived Canadian Association of Burlesque Entertainers), Toronto’s burlesque entertainers earned a minimum of $166.50/week. The average wage was $200/week with headliners earning $350/week to $400/week. Competition for talent between the Lux and the Casino gave stripteasers added leverage in negotiating contracts.

Performers on a ladder at the Lux Burlesque Theatre, 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 488.

Cindy Richardson was twenty-one when, prompted by a boyfriend’s suggestion, she walked into the Lux looking for work. Originally from Ottawa, after her parents separated she bounced around Cobourg, Brockville, New Mexico (where her dad was a scientist at Los Alamos), Kitchener, and Montreal. Most recently, she’d been at a typewriter in Toronto, making $250/month and always complaining about having no money. Richardson (112 pounds, 5’2″ 36-24-37, the Globe pruriently records) had no burlesque experience. But with some training from Abels and some second-hand costumes, Richardson was making $175/week. In a Globe interview, she shared the foibles of dealing with a costume’s hooks and zippers before moving on to weightier subjects. “Morality? Don’t make me laugh,” she scoffed. “There’s more morality on strip-house stages than most offices. If a girl wants to be immoral in her personal life that’s her business. I figure she’s not open to much temptation on that stage with all those people watching.” Her response, perhaps betraying past difficulties in an office, was echoed in Ross’s assertion that female clerical workers in mid-century Ontario “tended to accept [sexist] behaviour as ‘part of the job’ in an era that predated feminist analysis of unwanted, intrusive male advances.”
Like Richardson, Laurette “Bon Bon” Bascomb, another Lux performer, showed a similarly pragmatic attitude towards her profession versus the secretarial pool, when profiled by the Star‘s Gladys Spenner. “And I never claim that I’m a dancer, like a lot of the girls,” she said. “I always come right out and say I’m a stripper. I have nothing to be ashamed of. My morals are good. It’s up to a girl how she handles herself. A stripper just has to show a little more class than a secretary.” The discussion continued as Spenner followed the twenty-three-year-old New Yorker for an entire day, from her Brunswick Avenue boarding house, to shopping along Cumberland Avenue, to her evening performances at the Lux. “I’m no different than any other woman,” Bascomb said. ‘When I ride in the subway, I pull my skirt down over my knees just like everyone else.'”
Like many others identified by Ross, Bascomb took a thrill from on-stage performance and the audience’s approval. “They wait outside after the show and ogle me. But I just feel flattered. After all, every woman wants to be admired,” she said before adding where she drew the line. “The only time I feel dragged down is when they approach me.” Asked if she’d ever date a spectator, Bascomb displayed an ambivalent attitude towards the men who frequented the theatres. “The only men who accept me are entertainers or hip men like bartenders,” she said. “The men you would like to respect you, downgrade you.” As Ross noted, “a handsome pay cheque did not necessarily translate into respect” for performers.

Lux Burlesque Theatre marquee sign, 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 474.

Despite the legalization of Sunday performances, the Lux, Casino, and Victory continued to be actively monitored by authorities to enforce moral and legal standards. For theatre operators like Abels, this meant that their marquee and sidewalk advertisements were regularly inspected by the morality squad detectives. But, as long as Abels complied with suggested changes to the signage, he remained insulated whenever civic officials worked themselves up about, as Controller William Dennison once put it, the Lux’s “scandalously pornographic” signs.
Proprietors were also occasionally summoned before the Magistrates Court, which generally (and swiftly) adjudicated petty offences. Such was the case in July 1961, when Lux manager William Garden and part-owner Raymond Lux were hauled in for allowing an “immoral performance” in which Evelyn West had reclined on a couch, spoken to the audience, and made gestures the morality detectives considered “obscene.” Other prohibitions, according to one club’s mimeographed sheet of rules observed by Robert Fulford in 1968, included not being permitted to: “bump a prop”; “touch curtains, walls, or proscenium”; “make any body movements that in the eyes of the public would simulate an act of sexual intercourse”; or “run any article of clothing between your legs.”
The potential risk of transgressing these precepts and having your performance ruled “lewd” in the eyes of the law was most often borne by the performer alone. In October 1963, twenty-two-year-old Sandra “Busty Russell” Churchey pled guilty to “giving an indecent performance” at the Victory. Hearing the show described by two morality squad detectives—who noted that she was “wearing two sequin butterflies and transparent flesh-coloured pants”—Magistrate Donald Graham ruled: “It was just plain obscene.” He fined her seven hundred dollars. When her legal aid lawyer couldn’t get in touch with her colleagues, and her manager and the Victory’s manager refused to help with the fine, the magistrate sentenced her to three months in the Don Jail. It’s a sad irony that within a year or two, completely topless go-go dancers became a common feature at Toronto taverns like the Mynah Bird, the Brown Derby, and the Coq d’Or (where they accompanied Rockin’ Ronnie Hawkins’s concerts)—all, apparently, without the interference of the police. Reflecting upon her retirement, Montreal’s Lindalee Tracey contrasted the suggestiveness of burlesque with the newer style of exotic dancing: “Striptease fell from grace because the world stopped dreaming.”
The end of Toronto’s Burlesque Boom—as several newspapers dubbed it—came in late 1962. Beginning in 1959 or 1960, the boom had been fuelled by the city’s zealous, highly public campaign to prohibit Sunday burlesque. The debate thrust burlesque into the mainstream public eye and popularized the theatres, but the momentum could not be sustained. With dwindling audiences and operating losses reportedly in the vicinity of twenty-six hundred dollars per week, the Casino closed in late December 1962. The Lux shuttered the same week, leaving eleven stranded performers dependent on their union to give them enough money to get home. The Casino became a venue for amateur boxing matches, and the Lux was transformed into The Elektra, a cinema specializing in Greek films. The Victory survived as the sole remaining burlesque house, but had to alter its rules to change with the times.
The lifting of Sunday restrictions on burlesque symbolized the growing liberalization of once-staid Toronto into a more cosmopolitan urban centre. Comparing burlesque to Chinese take-out and art galleries as one of the refinements of an evolving urban centre, Haggart praised forward-thinking councillors for taking “an important step in the social development of their community.” The popular attention resulting from the Sunday burlesque debate also prompted the press to engage with the women involved in the profession to share a viewpoint that had usually been left silent in straight-laced Toronto.
Additional sources consulted: Andrea Friedman, “The Habitats of Sex-Crazed Perverts: Campaigns Against Burlesque in Depression-Era New York City,” in Journal of the History of Sexuality, 7 (1996); Robert Fulford, “Crisis at the Victory Burlesk,” in The Underside of Toronto, ed. W.E. Mann (McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1970)