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A Christmas pantomime group performs, Royal Alexandra Theatre, 230 King St. W., 1930. Image courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 22823.

Lux Burlesque, 360 College Street, 1960. Image courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

The former Victory Burlesque Theatre, 1972. Image courtesy of City of Toronto Archives.

Jackie Shane's plaque at the former Sapphire Tavern, 20 Richmond St. E., June 23 2023. Image by Oscar Akamine.

  • The Brass Rail

    The Burlesque Capital of Canada

    One offshoot of vaudeville survived the death of the industry. Burlesque acts first emerged as caricatures of drama, literary works, or local news. Early Toronto burlesques lampooned the liquor control board, the TTC, and even Shakespeare.

    When audiences proved more interested in the physicality of burlesque, such as a glimpse of a woman’s legs in tights, burlesque became more risqué. Toronto, which boasted several regular burlesque acts, became known as the burlesque capital of Canada. Venues such as the Victory Theatre often stages burlesques, featuring acts of sexual innuendo, coarse jokes, clowning, and near nudity. Toronto-born dancer Maud Allan (1873-1956) incited both moral panic and applause with her “Vision of Salome” dance, performed in nothing but beads and a translucent skirt.

    Burlesque performers needed to know how to sing and dance. Their acts poked fun at upper class social standards and genteel femininity. And their dances were often expertly choreographed and rehearsed, featuring elaborate costumes.

    By the 1960s, many Toronto venues like the Brass Rail featured live music alongside burlesque and striptease acts, while the Toronto Police’s morality squad ensured that there was no full nudity.

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  • The Brass Rail

    Jackie Shane Has It ‘Any Other Way’

    Clubs like the Brass Rail gave a safe stage to gender-nonconforming performers, including the R&B singer who helped define the Toronto Sound: Jackie Shane.

    Jackie Shane was born in Nashville Tennessee in 1940. She came out to her mother as transgender at age 13, sang in gospel groups and choirs, and later moved to Canada to get away from the Jim Crow South in the United States.

    Shane travelled from Montreal to Toronto in the 1960s with trumpeter Frank Motley and his band, known for his double trumpet routine. Despite rampant racism in Toronto clubs, Jackie packed houses full and considered Toronto her chosen home.

    Her cover of “Any Other Way” climbed radio charts in 1963; meanwhile, she performed in venues like the Brass Rail and the Sapphire Tavern, where she recorded a riveting live album in 1967. The lyrics of her songs, sung in a slow and quavering voice, and her monologues about facing questioning looks on Toronto’s streets, make for excellent listening today. 

    Jackie Shane is featured on one of two music murals on Yonge Street. In 2023, Heritage Toronto also unveiled a plaque at Richmond and Victoria Streets to honour Shane’s legacy.

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  • The Brass Rail

    Additional Resources:

    Clipperton, Deborah. ‘Work, Sex, or Theatre? A Brief History of Toronto Strippers and Sex Work Identity’. Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy, and Research on Sex Work in Canada, UBC Press, 2013, pp. 29–44.

    Dovercourt, Jonny. Any Night of the Week: A DIY History of Toronto Music 1957-2001. Coach House Books, 2020.

    Gardner, David. ‘Variety.’ Later Stages: Essays in Ontario Theatre from the First World War to the 1970s. Edited by Saddlemyer, Ann, and Richard Plant, University of Toronto Press, 1997, pp. 121-222.

    McIntosh, Andrew. ‘Jackie Shane.The Canadian Encyclopedia, 12 Feb. 2020, 

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