Any Torontonian who has ever trundled along the 501 streetcar east of the Don Valley Parkway or stumbled down the block after a concert at the Opera House knows Jilly’s. The Queen East strip club is an infamous institution with its burnt-out neon sign, cheesy faded posters of eighties glamour models and hot pink window covers promising “Girls! Girls! Girls!” The bar is housed on the ground floor of the Broadview Hotel: a towering, red, Romanesque revival beauty that has stood at the corner of Broadview and Queen since 1893 and recently captured the imagination of Streetcar Developments, which purchased the building in May. After 34 years of attracting the attention of passersby, Jilly’s will be closed for good Sunday night.
The closing marks the end of the era, both for the neighbourhood and for stripping. Faced with increased competition from body-rub parlours and barriers from city bylaws that prevent the opening of new clubs, stripping is on the decline in Toronto. And the city’s east end continues to gentrify all around Jilly’s – behind the club is an off-leash dog park and a strip of new town homes lies a few blocks north – making it seem even more out of place. Small shops are slowly being replaced with chains and condo buildings, the average housing price has jumped to more than $500,000 and the gritty charm of one of the city’s last characteristically urban intersections is fading away.
Dancers and employees of Jilly’s past and present find the whole experience bittersweet. They’re eager to see the building restored to its former glory, but they say they’ll miss Jilly’s. The bar is home to more than three decades of memories for those who flogged drinks and danced in patrons’ laps. There’s the rumour that Jilly was the original owner’s daughter. And there’s the tiger.
“There was a performer that came in and they brought a live tiger with them,” says Ellie Carlson, a 21-year-old University of Toronto master’s candidate and a dancer who has worked at Jilly’s since January. A co-worker told her the tale shortly after she started dancing at the bar.
“This animal was crawling all around and everyone was going crazy because they were so scared. I just can’t even picture that happening.”
According to newspaper reports from the time, the declawed, 203-kilogram Siberian tiger named QeDesh was part of dancer Jane Jones’s “Exotic Circus” act that appeared at Jilly’s in December, 1991, and caused an uproar with local animal activists. Now QeDesh has been retired into the institutional memory of the club as a symbol of wilder days past.
Over the years, Jilly’s – though never quite glamorous – became increasingly gritty. The club and building’s owners neglected it for decades. Inside, the dust on the eighties, geometric-patterned carpet glitters under the blacklight. A row of industrial steel shafts prop up the ceiling across from the mirrored stage, where dancers wipe down the poles with paper towels between sets. Online reviews and locals bill it as the bar where Toronto’s strippers “go to retire.”
Ms. Carlson moved to the city’s east end in December and needed a new venue; the bar where she used to perform was an hour away in Etobicoke.
“It wasn’t as bad as it was reviewed. I think people went a little overboard online,” she said, though she conceded that decades of the Queen and Dundas streetcars rumbling extremely close to the aging building has caused the structure to decay. But beyond the bunker-like basement change rooms and crumbling bricks, Ms. Carlson discovered a tight-knit – and diverse – group of employees.
“At a lot of the clubs downtown, there’s a very stereotypical view of what a stripper looks like. But there’s so much variety [at Jilly’s] in terms of shape, size, age, ethnicity. I liked that.”
Rather than the bar where strippers go to retire, she found it was the bar that strippers never wanted to leave. Many dancers would stay for years, some moving to work as waitresses after hanging up their platforms, and dozens returned for a farewell party at the club last weekend to reminisce and reunite.
“A lot of people don’t think very much of it, but the clientele is all very good there. The people are all really nice,” says 29-year-old dancer Jessi, who preferred not to use her real name. She started stripping at Jilly’s 10 years ago after she answered an opaque advertisement in the newspaper offering “fast cash.”