Tour of Montreal’s red-light district highlights city’s notorious past

Tour of Montreal’s red-light district highlights city’s notorious past

Burlesque performer Marlene Borras, aka “Lili Lollipop,” poses on a street in Montreal, Saturday, June 10, 2017, during a tour of Montreal’s historic red light district. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.

Montreal’s entertainment district is now dominated by upscale condos and open-air festivals, but there was a time when it was home to the most notorious red-light district in North America.

From 1925 to the early 1960s, the area’s seedy streets of the “Paris of North America” were lined with brothels and gambling dens.

Taverns catered to thirsty American clients running north to escape prohibition, while stars such as the legendary Lili St. Cyr entertained guests with tantalizing burlesque shows in the many nightclubs and cabarets.

Now, a Montreal company is launching a new walking tour that highlights the city’s history of racy entertainment, traces of which are still visible tucked among the bars and restaurants of the city’s entertainment district.

“We have this Quartier des Spectacles, and yet we don’t talk about the amazing performances that occurred there in the past, and (the city) even demolished a lot of the old theatres,” said Donovan King, the tour company’s co-owner.

On a recent tour, burlesque artist Marlene Bottras — better known by her stage name, Lili Lollipop — led a group of visitors through the crowded downtown streets, holding a red lantern as she pointed out landmarks.

There’s the Ste-Catherine Street ice cream shop, once the annex to a hotel, which she said was the only building saved from a massive 1959 fire — reportedly because legendary gangster Al Capone used to like staying there.

Or the Monument National, described as Quebec’s oldest operating theatre, which once hosted a burlesque theatre called the Starland, as well as a wax museum in the basement.

In addition to a burlesque walking tour hosted by real performers such as Bottras, the company is also offering a “haunted red-light tour” focused on ghost stories from the city’s sin-soaked past.

Montreal’s reputation as a “wide-open city” began in the early 1920s when it was illegal to consume alcohol in most parts of North America outside Quebec, according to King.

“The spinoff effect was that all sorts of people started coming here to take advantage of the flowing taps,” he said in a phone interview.

With the alcohol came organized crime, gambling and sex work, including 500 prostitutes working each day at one intersection alone, at the corner of Ste-Catherine Street and Saint-Laurent Boulevard.

While people tend to romanticize the era, King says the tour doesn’t gloss over the difficult living conditions for many residents, not least the many young women who were forced into prostitution.

“It was almost like a shantytown, there was no running water, it would freeze in winter and frost would form on the walls,” he said.

“There was a lot of grinding poverty, crowding, and of course a lot of shenanigans.”

Montreal was also home to what King calls “the best burlesque scene in North America,” as personified by St. Cyr, whose wildly popular striptease acts led municipal authorities to arrest her for indecency.

The district’s slow decline began in the 1950s, but hastened in the early 2000s with the area’s rebranding as a cultural district, King said.

Today, many of the peep shows and strip clubs have closed, with a few exceptions.

There’s still the Cafe Cleopatra, which continues to offer strip shows and tranvestite performances after fighting off past expropriation bids from the city.

And then there’s Montreal’s vibrant burlesque scene, which nearly went extinct before being rekindled in the 1990s.

Part of the reason for the tour, King says, is to encourage that revival, and to make links between Montreal’s current festival-heavy entertainment and the city’s past.

“We’d love to see more burlesque, and remind people of the incredible performances that took place here in the past,” he said.

If you go:

Tours run every day of the week from June 23 to September 4, and are available in English and French. For more information visit secretmontreal.ca

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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