After the Second World War, the port city of Vancouver strengthened its place as a financial headquarters in western Canada. By the 1950s, Vancouver was heralded as both a playground for outdoor recreation and a model of indoor cultural sophistication and nighttime entertainment.
Prohibitions against commercial entertainment on Sundays were revoked. Vancouver basked in growing economic affluence, optimism and new opportunities for leisure. By the 1960s, the entire city centre glowed from the electric energy of 18,000 neon signs. The eight-lane Granville Bridge (built in 1954) and the rezoned, densely developed West End enabled easier access to the city's core.
Inspired by visionary urban planner Jane Jacobs, local citizens rejected the construction of an elevated freeway that would have splintered the centre of town: This decision not only distinguished Vancouver from most major North American cities; it showcased the city's downtown as a compact, intimate destination.
To the city's workers who toiled for long hours, a "night out" on the weekend promised a much-welcome diversion. To suburban couples in New Westminster, Burnaby, Coquitlam, North Vancouver, Delta, Richmond and Surrey, dressing up for nighttime amusement meant temporarily escaping the comfort and familiarity of detached homes, small children, and shopping malls.
To tourists on the lookout for adventure, the vibrant, pulsating beat of Vancouver's nightspots was as inviting as the city's dazzling natural beauty.
By the early 1960s, new airlines and charter services transported loggers and miners from the interior and coastal regions to quick immersion in the city's simmering fleshpots.
Vancouver had a reputation as "home to the hottest nightclubs north of San Francisco," but what, exactly, constituted the heat?
The popular assumption is that postwar striptease constituted a marginal, inconsequential and civically embarrassing industry populated by wayward degenerates and "good girls gone bad." In reality, commercial stripping oiled the economic engine of Vancouver (and other North American cities), much as prostitution did in the early 20th century.
The skin trade greased the levers of the seaside city's economy, all the while being treated by puritan city fathers, police and moral reformers as crude, quasi-legal titillation - a virulent strain of urban blight.
The stars of strip shows, the female dancers, participated in double-edged work: sexually empowering and financially rewarding. From 1945 to 1980, female dancers were benefactors of what historians term les trentes glorieuses - the 30 glorious years of extended prosperity across postwar North America.
Commercial striptease became as vital to the city's postwar economic growth as its railway facilities, sawmills and grain elevators
Vancouver's independent nightclubs employed thousands of workers - as well as stripteasers, there were the club owners, managers, booking agents, doormen, bouncers, ticket-sellers, hat-check girls, cigarette and cigar girls, go-go dancers, choreographers, photographers, costume designers, club secretaries, bookkeepers, MCs, DJs, cooks, kitchen staff, bus boys, prop, set, and lighting specialists, waiters and waitresses, cleaners, bartenders, musicians (who supplied dancers with live accompaniment until the mid-to-late 1970s), and lawyers (who defended clubs when busted by vice squads).
Other workers whose earnings were derived from commercial striptease included specialty shoe, hosiery, makeup and liquor suppliers, cab drivers, hair stylists, manicurists, pedicurists, security guards, wig-makers, tanning salon operators, clothing and fabric retailers, drug sellers, child-care workers (who minded the kids of dancers), plastic surgeons (who did boob jobs), media pundits and newspaper owners, who raked in piles of dough by selling daily advertising spots to nightclub promoters.
In all, commercial striptease became as vital to the city's postwar economic growth as its railway facilities, sawmills and grain elevators.
As its popularity grew, the striptease industry periodically attracted the scrutinizing, jaundiced eye of critics. Ironically, city officials benefited from the survival and surveillance of striptease: Morality squads patrolled clubs (and sometimes extorted bribes); liquor and permit inspectors enforced rules; and prosecutors, judges and court recorders managed courtroom adjudications of "lewd and indecent public exhibition."
The city's coffers swelled with club owners' licensing fees, fines, property taxes and utilities payments. In 1948, tourist dollars spent in Vancouver topped $30-million. In 1975, the Greater Vancouver Visitors' and Convention Bureau estimated that the tourist and convention business pumped $200-million into the local economy.
The economics of leisure dominated the speeches of ministers of recreation who promoted Vancouver as the spanking new Playground of North America. Civic boosters never included venues for striptease as legitimate grounds for play, or as choice bait to lure vacationers. However, the city's much-ballyhooed commercial striptease scene accounted for a healthy percentage of tourist-related revenues (though calculating exact figures is a dodgy enterprise).
Increasingly billed as a "world-class" city, Vancouver stands as an important case study of erotic entertainment with implications for urban sites across North America and beyond.
Becki L. Ross is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Chair of the Women's and Gender Studies Program at the University of British Columbia. This article is adapted from her book, Burlesque West: Showgirls, Sex and Sin in Postwar Vancouver, published today by the University of Toronto Press.
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