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CNE Striporama, 1956

 

Just about every Toronto kid has fond memories of the Ex, but this guy’s must be especially fond. For a boy coming of age in button-down Toronto, this glimpse of female flesh outside the CNE strip show in 1956 would have been the highlight of the summer. Today he might be telling his grandkids stories about ring toss and the Tilt-A-Whirl, but judging by the look on his face it’s not hard to imagine what was actually on his mind when he went home that night.

 

Younger readers (and older readers with conveniently spotty memories) might be surprised that this photo was taken at the Ex. Strip shows are hardly part of the family-friendly image now cultivated by the fair. But sex has often played a prominent role at the Ex, and this awestruck kid can’t be the only Torontonian who ever felt pangs of lust on the midway.

 

Scantily clad female dancers, in particular, were a regular feature at the CNE and other North American fairs for the better part of a century. This was very much in keeping with the CNE’s role as a kind of carnival, a once-a-year interlude where the social norms of Toronto the Good were partially upended.

 

“Fairs were the one time of the year when you could let go of your inhibitions,” says A.W. Stencell, a longtime showman and author of three books on carnival culture. Toronto had burlesque houses that operated year-round, but, as Stencell puts it, “the general populace wouldn’t rub up against that.” It was only during carnival time that respectable people would dare to sneak a peek.

 

Like so many fairground trends, this one can trace its origins largely to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, where the impresario Sol Bloom introduced Americans to the danse du ventre. With its combination of imperial exoticism and titillation, belly dancing was perfectly calibrated to appeal to Victorian men. When Bloom brought his show to Toronto for the 1893 Ex, it attracted a large audience described by one journalist as “a well-known lot,” including doctors, lawyers and titled gentlemen.

From then on, North American midways hosted all manner of “girl shows.” There were straightforward strip shows and burlesque shows, with varying degrees of nudity; posing shows, in which models posed in live-action re-enactments of famous paintings; various ethnic exoticism shows in the tradition of the danse du ventre; underwater shows; “scientific” shows. . . .

 

The variety was driven by the basic need to be competitive and offer audiences something new, but also by the vagaries of public decency laws. Posing shows, for instance, were considered “educational” and “artistic” and could therefore get away with more nudity than strip shows. A 1941 CNE report on that year’s posing show, quoted in Stencell’s Girl Show: Into the Canvas World of the Bump and Grind, allayed concerns about the “scanty material used in the brassieres” by arguing that “the girls were attired in appropriate costumes similar to those worn by legitimate Parisian models when posing in a studio.”

 

These kinds of quirks resulted in a predictable game of cat and mouse between girl show operators and local authorities. On the one hand, a successful show had to, in Stencell’s words, “give ‘em something to talk about on the midway;” on the other, guardians of public morality were always ready to pounce on anything that went too far. Girl show operators were “torn between the threat of jail and greed,” says Stencell. “Usually the greed won out.”

 

In 1956, the year this photo was taken, the CNE got caught up in one of these inevitable clashes. The headliner at Striporama, a show that had been appearing at the CNE since at least the 1930s, was one Jennie Lee, also known as the “Bazoom Girl.” Lee was a major figure in the world of striptease: in 1955 she had helped found the Exotic Dancers League of North America, a union for strippers, and she later founded the Burlesque Hall of Fame, which still operates in Las Vegas. But, of course, she was best known for her onstage activities, which involved twirling tassels from her 42-inch bosom.

This was too much for Mayor Nathan Phillips, who ordered the vice squad down to the Ex on Aug. 31. Insp. Ellsworth Walker and his brave men sat through the Bazoom Girl’s show, only to concede that they “hadn’t uncovered or seen anything of an illegal nature.”

 

Not surprisingly, the main effect of Phillips’s outrage was to drive up attendance at Striporama. On Sept. 1, the Star reported that the show, “as brazen and bosomy as the day it opened, played to full houses all evening and every performance had an overflow which spilled into the aisles and out into the front entrance.” Lee herself was unrepentant, exclaiming to the Telegram, “Go tell your Mayor I think he’s stuffy.”

 

This sequence of events was repeated countless times throughout the history of the CNE: civic or religious authorities would react with horror to one or another threat to public decency — strip shows, midway promiscuity, prostitution — but rarely were they successful in shutting anything down.

Strip shows did disappear from the CNE shortly thereafter, in the 1960s, but without the help of Mayor Phillips or Insp. Walker. Instead, it was broader social and economic trends that killed them off. On one front, the rise of feminism threatened the objectifying male gaze; on another, the sexual revolution made the tame carnival shows seem quaintly irrelevant.

 

And, perhaps most importantly, the midway itself was undergoing a transformation away from shows and toward other kinds of thrills, and games. Post-war technological innovations created better and more profitable rides, while the baby boom turned the midway into a more child-dominated space. These forces contributed to the disappearance not only of strip shows, but also of freak shows, con artists and other disreputable carny fixtures. The result is a much tamer midway than those frequented by the upright citizens of old Toronto.

 

For now, those who want to relive the raunchier old days will have to settle for Love, Longing & Lust at the CNE, an exhibit put on by the CNE Archives at this year’s Ex. Tucked in a corner of the Direct Energy Centre, it surveys a wide range of CNE sexuality, including strip shows, bridal shows, midway flirtation and the cult of Ned Hanlan, the hunky 19th-century world champion sculler.

 

The archives have been mounting historical exhibits regularly, but this one is a little steamier than those of yesteryear. Meaghan Froh, the exhibit coordinator, says they “definitely want a reaction” from fairgoers. “I hope people are surprised to see a side of the Ex they don’t know.”

 

Out Door Amusement Business


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