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The University of British Columbia wants former strippers to bare it all -- for research.

A three-year study, funded by the federal government, will look into the history of erotic entertainment in Vancouver.

From pasties to lap dances, Professor Becki Ross is looking for stories from the front lines of what she calls this "little understood, much maligned" business.

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"I see it as an art form," said Prof. Ross, who teaches sociology at UBC. "I actually am in awe of the women on the stage."

Vancouver once claimed one of the hottest night spots north of San Francisco.

Erotic pioneers such as Josephine Baker, Lili St. Cyr and Gypsy Rose Lee took the stage to take it all off in Vancouver.

Today, the No. 5 Orange club says Pamela Lee and Courtney Love have both bared theirs on stage.

And rumour has it Bon Jovi's album Slippery When Wet was named after a sign that hung in the bar frequented by band members while recording in the West Coast city.

But the city's oldest strip club, the Penthouse, celebrated its 50th anniversary without fanfare.

A lot has changed since the burlesque heydays.

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Exotic acts were once elaborately staged with thousands of dollars worth of costumes. It could take 15 minutes for a dancer to take off a glove.

"They had beautiful costumes -- wardrobes were absolutely tops, A-one," said Ross Philliponi, who opened the Penthouse, the city's first strip club, with his brother in 1968.

"They did it with finesse. That's what burlesque is. That's why they call it strip tease. It was just a tease."

Exotic dancers used the same Penthouse stage as acts such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Lena Horne.

The advent of television put entertainment in the family living room. Nightclubs had to turn it up a notch.

"Business was going down, down, down and a lot of clubs switched over to exotic dancers," said Mr. Philliponi, 77.

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The Philliponi brothers booked North America's premier exotic entertainment.

The dancers -- and did they dance -- had to wear G-strings and pasties.

"You could not go on stage . . . in the full nude in those days," Mr. Philliponi said. "That was simply taboo."

Early on patrons had to bring their drinks in their pockets, he said.

"You had to brown bag it."

Men brought their wives to the highly paid headliners.

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Prof. Ross proudly admits she enjoys strip shows.

"I'm totally passionate about this topic," the historian said. But that's not the only reason she has for the project.

"I think that the stories of the women themselves are worth recording so that we know that they can contribute to the history of entertainment in Vancouver."

Prof. Ross said she wants to record these strippers' stories "so that they are seen for the skilled, talented entertainers that they were.

"There's the assumption that they all [turned tricks]and that they were vectors of disease . . . that they had absolutely no skills, that this was a kind of last resort.

"They weren't Donna Reeds and June Cleavers," Prof. Ross said, but they weren't all wayward women, either.

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Prof. Ross is looking for both male and female strippers, gay or straight, as well as club staff, booking agents, patrons and musicians who were in the stripping industry from 1945 to 1980.

She will receive about $50,000 from the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada over the next three years for her research.

Council spokesman Garth Williams said the council gives out about $90-million annually.

Each proposal is reviewed by a peer committee and it is an "extremely competitive" process, he said.

"Only the best projects are funded," Mr. Williams said.

Prof. Ross wants Vancouver to embrace its exotic past. "It's absolutely something to be proud of."

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Not everyone is as enthusiastic.

"I'm almost speechless," said Mark Milke, a spokesman for the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation.

"What, strippers don't get 'studied' enough every day as it is?"

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