Jackie Shane Brass Rail

The Brass Rail

A black and white image of four people standing on a stage in costumes.
A Christmas pantomime group performs, Royal Alexandra Theatre, 230 King St. W., 1930. Image courtesy of City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 22823.

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

Four women in ballgowns pose on and around a ladder.
Lux Burlesque, 360 College Street, 1960. Image courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

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

A black and white image of a bricked building. the building has many signs on it. There are lamp posts with wires running across the building and above it.
The former Victory Burlesque Theatre, 1972. Image courtesy of City of Toronto Archives.

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

Group of people in colourful clothing stand around a Heritage Toronto plaque.
Jackie Shane plaque unveiling, Toronto, June 23, 2023. Image by Oscar Akamine.

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

How Vaudeville Broke Toronto Theatre

 The Toronto alternative theatre movement filled a void for homegrown theatre. Yonge Street institutions like the Brass Rail, which opened in 1959, demonstrate how early vaudeville theatre changed Toronto’s theatre scene.

At the beginning of the 20th century, vaudeville was a popular pastime in Toronto. Families would see a variety of acts featuring magic, acrobatics, animals, dance, and much more. Theatres like Shea’s Hippodrome or the Royal Alexandra provided a few basic backdrops for performers, along with full houses.

Before the 1920s, short, silent moving pictures were novelties that were shown between live vaudeville acts. But after the 1920s, public interests flipped. Now, it was the vaudeville acts being pushed between longer feature films. Expensive orchestras, high salaries for vaudeville stars, and the advent of free radio decimated vaudeville theatres in Toronto along with the rest of North America.

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.

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.

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,