Three decades ago, downtown Yonge Street was a mecca of XXX-rated entertainment. Today, only 17 strip clubs remain in the entire city. Inside the slow death of a scrappy, embattled industry.
Downtown Yonge Street in the mid-’70s was a much different scene than the gradually gentrifying shopping and restaurant strip we know today. It was a place where no self-respecting storefront went without a giant neon sign—flashing words like “nude,” “girls” and “XXX”—and where seediness was a simple fact of life. (See this map for proof.)
At the time, Yonge was home to countless so-called body-rub parlours, where the discerning gentleman could duck behind the street’s glittering facade for a quick massage, complete with happy ending. For do-it-yourselfers, the strip’s erotic movie houses screened the finest pornography the decade had to offer.
Interspersed were other businesses that offered comparatively simple pleasures. Places like Starvin Marvin’s (313 Yonge), Le Strip (237A Yonge) and Zanzibar (359 Yonge) featured nude or semi-nude stage shows. These clubs helped form the nucleus of an X-rated scene to rival anything in New York at the time. Even before the city had attained its current skyscrapery grandeur, Toronto’s sleaze was world class.
Almost 35 years later, Yonge Street has changed dramatically. Most of the seediest businesses are gone and the remaining strip clubs seem like stragglers living on borrowed time.
Zanzibar is the street’s last holdover from that ’70s golden age of strip joints. Walk through the door beneath the club’s bright marquee, lit with neon and hundreds of incandescent bulbs, and you’ll find yourself in a surprisingly narrow space, about the size of a coffee shop, where a crowd of men, mostly 30 and older, is arrayed in small groups, in black-lit semi-darkness.
On a recent Saturday night, there were no wild bachelor party antics, only little knots of tough guys with shaved heads, middle-aged men in sweaters and the occasional shamefaced student, nursing an $8 bottle of beer.
A guy in a windbreaker took a seat at the bar and started having a one-sided conversation with a stripper about his ex-wife. Nearby, a mostly nude woman performed on stage against a backdrop of silver party-store streamers—a homespun touch that made the place feel like exactly what it is: a neighbourhood business trying to make a go of it.
At another aging club, For Your Eyes Only (located on the rapidly evolving stretch of King Street West between Bathurst and Spadina), I met James, a 32-year-old real-estate agent who, in the company of his two brothers, was visiting a strip club for the first time. “It’s lame as hell,” he said. “I feel like I’m in the ’80s.”
His assessment of the scene was blunt, but also pretty accurate. From a peak of 63 licensed strip clubs in 1982, the city’s supply has dwindled to just 17. There are currently only 1,537 licensed dancers in Toronto, down from 3,755 in 1998, the earliest year for which reliable numbers are available. Those dancers are as nude as they ever were, and the beer is still cold. So what killed Toronto’s strip-club industry?
Setting aside the one moment when he compared dancers to Tim Hortons donuts (“You need a variety”), Howard Adams, the owner of Filmores, a strip club near Moss Park, doesn’t conform to the stereotype of the sleazy proprietor. He has close-cropped hair and a fast, confident way of talking. On the day we spoke, he was wearing a dress shirt with a monogrammed cuff.
Adams knows James is typical of the new generation of downtown partiers, and it worries him. Today’s young urban men are immune to the charms of velour seating and V.I.P. lounge lap dances, in part because they have resources at their disposal that weren’t conceivable in the ’70s—namely, their computers.
Strip clubs have always been limited in what they can offer customers. “It’s about a male-bonding experience, more than anything else,” said Adams. “But that became tame compared to what was available out there online. And it was available for free.” And yet the rise of the web, he says, was not really the beginning of the industry’s troubles—at least, not in Toronto.
“I think it all began in 1993,” Adams says. Around that time, there was growing concern among officials that full-contact private dances in local clubs were leading to illicit sex behind the scenes. After an Ontario superior court judge ruled that lap dancing wasn’t indecent, in 1994, Metro council tried to ban all contact between dancers and customers. Subsequent court decisions have muddied the issue, and though lap dancing is still banned in Toronto, the rule is widely ignored.
“Prior to ’93, guys would come in groups,” said Adams, with a hint of wistfulness. “They’d come before the game, during the game, after the game or after their game. And it was fun, you know?…Everybody’s having a great time, there’s a great buzz in the room.”
But backlash from the introduction of lap dances led to negative coverage of strip clubs in the local press. In 1999 and 2000, the industry’s public image was dealt another devastating blow. A multi-jurisdictional police force raided a number of Toronto-area clubs—including The Fairbank in midtown and the now-defunct Features and Solid Gold II in Etobicoke—and charged owners and staff with offenses related to pimping and sex trafficking. No convictions resulted.
Adams thinks the bad publicity scared off some of his clientele. After the ’90s had taken its toll, he said, “the perception was that it wasn’t good, clean fun.” The numbers back him up. According to information obtained from the city, there were still about 60 active strip-club licenses at the start of the ’90s.
“It was devastating,” said Adams, who, like other owners, wouldn’t discuss precise financials. “The decline from ’93 until basically 2003 is what wiped out the clubs.” On a recent Saturday night at Filmores, the performance area was perhaps two-thirds full. The buzz was gone.
Next page: How the 1977 murder of a 12-year-old shoeshine boy triggered Toronto’s war on strip clubs—and led to the rise of the rub-and-tug parlour