A fond farewell for the Casino
For twenty-two years it’s offered the citizens of Toronto the Good — and their bemused visitors —scorching strip tease at lunchtime, and everything else from Duke Ellington to Patti Page. Now the wreckers’ hammers hover over the glittering houri whose like we’ll never see again
Behind all the jubilation over Toronto's decision to build a Brave New Worldish city hall there is an element of dejection. This melancholy is felt by patrons of the Casino, a richly historied theatre that stands on Queen Street opposite the vast empty lot reserved for the new civic square. With its neighbor the Broadway cinema, and an assortment of beer parlors, hashhouses, pawnshops, discount stores, bookmakers’ hide-outs and fortune-tellers’ dens, the Casino occupies a condemned block on which town planners would like to erect the proposed British Commonwealth Building.
In seeking a fine new seat for the diplomatic, commercial and industrial representatives of Commonwealth nations interested in Canada's development the town planners could not possibly have set their hearts on a more curious site than the Casino's. For almost twenty years the management of the Casino has put up in lights the names of such strip teasers as Cynthia the Silhouette, Lily the Cat, Francesca the Bombshell, Sally the Tassel Twirler, Dora the Ding Dong Girl and Irma the Body. As this article is written a stripper named San San the Vampire Girl is quickening the blood of the Casino's patrons.
And yet the Casino is not a burlesque theatre, or a house that restricts its performers to strippers, comics and a chorus line. The Casino supports the strippers with a blood-and-thunder
movie and a bill of tumblers, jugglers, magicians, ventriloquists, trick cyclists, animal trainers and other vaudeville acts which elsewhere have been reduced to night clubs, carnivals, circuses, and desperate attempts to get onto the Ed Sullivan Show.
According to Variety, a reliable show-business journal, the Casino is “the last vaudeville theatre in North America.’’ Claims by New York’s Radio City Music Hall to share the distinction are ruled out by the presence there of the Rockettes, a resident chorus line which, by backing up the other artists with set-piece production numbers, digresses from pure vaudeville tradition.
The Casino's enticing and enduring policy was established in 1936 by Lou Appleby, the present manager and part owner, after he moved in grief from the adjacent Broadway cinema where his father Abraham was murdered by an unknown gunman. Only once did Appleby banish strippers from the Casino. This was during an experimental period between 1951 and 1954 when he introduced to the theatre Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney. Gordon MacRae, Johnny Ray, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and other highly paid television artists. But the headliners weren't sufficiently profitable so five years ago Appleby called back the peelers.
One of them was Val de Val, a nude fire dancer who ran short of concealing flames half way through her act and had to make a dive for the wings. Another was Lois de Fee, who stood six feet six inches tall and once contracted a mock marriage with a midget just for the publicity. A third was Rose la Rose,
"Rose la Rose danced so wildly that the manager switched off the lights, then fired her"
a sinuous brunette who belly-danced so wildly that Appleby, fearing a police raid, switched off the stage lights and fired her.
But most of the strippers are simple matrons of an ample, nubile build.
Appleby says that the great majority are married mothers "who know where to stop.” And these are the ones who have done more than any other artists to help the Casino survive the competition from television.
Despite its rakehellish pretensions the Casino is much more demure in exterior appearance than the nearby Broadway. Drum-beaters at the Broadway advertise triple-feature movie bills with red, yellow and blue posters depicting disarrayed blondes lolling helplessly in the arms of overgrown gorillas; plastic - helmeted space women coldly resisting the advances of lunar Lotharios; pop-eyed babies suffering in the toils of gigantic spiders; and fictional footsloggers locked in the sort of hand-to-hand combat that real infantrymen try discreetly to avoid.
It is true that the Casino's posters, advertising four shows daily, represent nearly naked women executing the bumps, the grinds, the shimmy and other agitations of the abdomen, buttocks and bust. But they are painted in such delicate pastel shades, and with so much abstract elaboration, that they suggest the work of a shamefaced exile from the chocolate-box school of illustration.
Like a howl full of jelly
One week last November the Casino’s sign-painter portrayed with evident feelings of guilt the billowy proportions of red-headed Vicki Welles who headlined a typical bill. A stripper of fourteen years’ experience, Miss Welles begins by walking up and down the stage in a slitfronted crinoline, fingering the tops of her net stockings and halting occasionally to posture archly. By degrees she sheds her garments until she has nothing on but a net brassiere and a G-string. Then, on a box covered with black velvet, she takes up some poses that suggest a last-minute attempt on the part of Mae West to break into calendar art. During her climactic wriggling she resembles a jelly dessert on a dining-car table.
Miss Welles speaks of her calling with a hint of pedantry. "In my line of endeavor,” she says, "certain physical attributes are essential. 1 am forty-two inches around the bust. In the States where I work the burlesque houses I am permitted more latitude. I use a brassiere that lights up and do an act with drums, mirrors, two boys and blue lights. I keep a thirteen-year-old son at boarding school and I want to open a cocktail bar.”
Supporting Miss Welles were a younger stripper named Wendy Wyler; Ann Brooks, a pretty singer of rock-’n'-roll numbers who is married to a Montreal night-club maître 1’; Louis and Christie, twenty-five-year-old comics who intena to quit if they don't hit television by the time they're thirty; Les Arturos, a young Viennese couple who stand on each other's heads and save up for a Florida motel; and the Schalier Brothers, from Phoenix, Arizona, who've bounced all over the western world on a trampoline, and are trying to break into the realestate business.
The Casino paid these acts between three hundred and fifty and five hundred dollars for twenty-five shows, there being an extra one on Saturdays. The theatre also provided each act with a dressing room about six feet by eight.
The dressing rooms have bare floors, an unshielded light bulb, a kitchen table, a big mirror, a sort of army cot on which clean mattress covers are placed for every incumbent and walls a-scrawl with the initials and emotional inscriptions of hundreds of performers from earlier bills.
Between the shows the artists sleep, gossip, play cards, or don jeans and windbreakers and go out for beer in the nearest tavern, the Union Hotel. When the artists are in top form the Casino s eleven hundred seats are often full by midday.
Watching in the week of Vicki Welles and company, for fifty cents in the morning, seventy-five in the afternoon and a dollar ten at night, were fairly typical audiences, the majority being young immigrant men from Latin, Germanic or Slavic Europe. They enjoy what Appleby calls “the sight acts” because satisfaction is not dependent on a knowledge of English. Many of those present in the mornings were, in Appleby’s estimation, either unemployed or rained off construction jobs. There were among them some shabbily dressed elderly men. one or two slightly tipsy, and a few sad, lonely Orientals from the nearby Chinese quarter. Around midday store-clerk types joined the audience and watched the show while lunching on hot dogs and hamburgers obtainable at a back-of-thehouse confectionery stand. In the afternoons and evenings the audience was increased by many unremarkable couples. At no time, day or night, were the two front rows dappled entirely with bald heads. During changes of program there was a hint of a rush for vacated frontrow seats but this, rather than resolute, was hesitant and shame-faced.
Mrs. Rose Wiig, who's worked in the cashier’s box for ten years, says the Casino has many regulars. There are a number of elderly couples of English extraction seeking to recapture the atmosphere of the old British music - hall traditions. Among these, she says, is an eye specialist who arrives with his wife every Saturday. Mrs. Wiig knows several groups of middle-aged service-, bowlingand bridge-club women who come to the Casino after a convivial meal, finding confidence in their numbers and looking upon the visit as a lark.
Some regulars who invariably manoeuvre themselves into the three front rows are on nodding terms with the seven musicians in the orchestra pit. Among these are a couple of dazzlingly pretty Italian girls who always stride out huffily when the strippers come on. Another is a tall distinguished-looking man of about fifty who has been nicknamed by the musicians The Major. A very old man comes three times a week. Archie Stone, the orchestra leader, explains: “He has to if he wants to see all the show because he keeps falling asleep.”
The musicians are on first-name terms with a number of Casino habitués who are, or claim to be, stockbrokers. These
well-dressed, confident men fish for invitations backstage so that they can get a close-up of the girls. By way of reward they give the musicians market tips. Jack Katz, who left the orchestra recently after twenty-one years service, built up his stake to forty-six thousand dollars on such tips and then lost nearly all of it in a week. Out of the residue he bought himself the Showbar, a nearby restaurant.
Like the other musicians Katz thinks that the most noticeable regulars at the Casino are University of Toronto stu-
dents who turn up in bunches of a hundred or so, especially during initiation rites. Sometimes they bombard the strippers with peashooters and try to lasso them with toilet-roll streamers.
Once a former Casino trumpet player named Ole Brandés received a squashy blow on the head from an overripe fruit just as he was building up to a high-C. He sprang out of the orchestra pit and charged up the aisles shouting “Who did it? I’ll kill him.” A hundred students in a block looked straight to their front with not a traitorous expression among
them. The orchestra vamped gently until Brandés returned to the pit and built up to a most compelling mixture of a high-C and a snarl. Brandés had no sooner quieted down than he was half stunned by a front-row drunk who was dragging along the brass rail an overcoat containing in its pocket twenty-six ounces of rye. Soon afterward Brandés quit.
The orchestra is exposed to as many hazards from the stage as it is from the audience. Occasionally it cringes under a shower of billiard balls, crystal vases and big brass bowls belonging to jugglers who miss their catches. Maurice Winston, the pianist, has caught several trick cyclists in his lap, including one of the world’s greatest—the male partner in The Cycling Kirks.
Unlike most unicyclists Kirk never mounts by a ladder off stage. He shinnies up the twelve-foot pedestal of his unicycle and climbs into the saddle in view of the audience. To achieve this feat he mounts at a run. When mounting at the Casino, he ran the unicyclc a fraction too fast, hurtled over the footlights and broke both his wrists on Winston’s piano keyboard. But he finished his act before the ambulance arrived.
Another artist who's been over the Casino’s footlights is Johnny Coy, a dancer. Coy's grand finale is a spectacular tour en l’air, or the spinning leap which all male ballet dancers must learn. At the Casino, Coy derived some unexpected forward momentum from his revolutions and soared out over the orchestra pit. He landed with one foot on the narrow brass rail separating the musicians from the front-row patrons. By placing the other foot momentarily on the head of “Nibbsie” Silverstein, the drummer, Coy retained his balance. Then he did a tight-rope dance around the rail and back to the stage. The audience thought it was part of the act and applauded tumultuously.
George Beck, the trombonist, has also “saved” an act with his cranium. It was during a stripper’s Lady Godiva .scene. She had a big white horse which backed up to the footlights, got a bit restive and put one rear hoof out gropingly over the orchestra pit. The uncertain hoof came to rest on the head of Beck and remained there for several seconds. Beck says: 'The pressure was quite remarkable. But I kept on blowing and holding my head up till the horse recovered. I got a heck of a headache but it was better than having the horse and stripper come over into the pit."
The Godiva act was staged during the early days when the Casino was a burlesque theatre. It was built especially for burlesque or vaudeville in 1936 by the Premier Operating Corporation Ltd., a Toronto firm owned largely by the Jules Allen family, who now specialize in the operation of small-town movie houses. The Broadway, a few steps to the east, was then a vaudeville theatre named the Roxy. It was owned by Abraham Appleby and his son Lou. One Sunday morning in 1936 Abraham Appleby went down to the Roxy to open up for a troupe of traditional Chinese entertainers who were putting on a show that afternoon for the local Oriental community. When the Chinese artists arrived they found the doors locked. They telephoned Abraham Appleby’s home and Lou started making enquiries. He telephoned Murray Little, his brotherin-law who was an assistant manager at the Roxy. Little went down to the theatre, unlocked the doors and found Abraham Appleby dead of pistol wounds before an open and empty safe.
For a month after the murder Lon Appleby operated the Roxy alone as a vaudeville theatre, competing against the newly opened Casino. But he couldn't stand working at the Roxy because of its associations with his father’s death. So he sold out and from the Premier Operating Company Ltd. bought a share of the Casino. Into the contract was written a clause giving him the post of manager and policy maker.
As policy maker Lou Appleby was quick to exploit the rage for burlesque which was then spreading up from the United States. One of the first strippers
he employed was Sally Rand who did her famous “bubble dance” behind a transparent screen. Another early stripper at the Casino was the renowned Ann Corio, who was very “lady-like.” She cut down the bumps and grinds to a mere tremor and showed herself entirely naked for one brief final second known as “the flash.”
On the same program as one stripper was the late Ella Shields, a Cockney comedienne who dressed up in a dude’s top hat and white tie and with a silvertopped cane and a bit of footwork rendered her immortal song: “I’m Burlington Bertie from Bow." Miss Shields was booked into the Casino through an agent's error. She should have appeared at Shea’s, a Toronto variety house that looked down its nose at strippers. When she heard she was on the same bill as a stripper Miss Shields had hysterics. But she calmed down when she remembered she needed the money. Before the week was over Miss Shields and the stripper were inseparable.
For nearly a year before the war Phil Silvers, the television star, supported the strippers as resident comedian at the Casino. “He lost so much money to bookmakers that he couldn’t get out of town,” says Appleby. Once Silvers and Ernie Owens, the Casino’s movie projectionist, went to a Queen Street bookie’s office. Owens was perturbed to see there a plain-clothes police officer of his acquaintance. The officer whispered to Owens: “Run for it. If you don’t your pal won’t be on for the next show.” Owens and Silvers ran for it and escaped just as police cars, with sirens howling, carried a raid squad up to the door.
At the Casino, Mickey Rooney proved to be just as incorrigible a horse player as Silvers. Between shows he took a
taxi down to Toronto’s old Woodbine track and caught a couple of races. Rooney appeared in the days between 1951 and 1954 when Appleby cut out strippers and featured big names. The stars included Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt, Tony Bennett, George Shearing, The Mills Brothers, The Andrew Sisters, Connie Boswell, Julius La Rosa and Victor Borge. The biggest draw was Johnny Ray who pulled in thirty-one thousand people and took a one-week fee of ten thousand dollars. The biggest flop was Van Johnson, the movie star, who received the same fee and involved the Casino in a heavy loss. A less-expensive but more extravagant star was the Negro singer, Nellie Lutcher, who always insists, wherever she plays, that her dressing room be repainted beige before she enters it.
There seemed during those three years no limit to the Casino's appetite for celebrities. Along came Dorothy Lamour who played cards between shows with the musicians and stage hands; Rudy Vallee who handed out to every member of the theatre’s thirty staffers expensive tie pins, cuff links and cigarette lighters; Rosemary Clooney who gave each of the same staffers a two-dollar bill with a cute little note in an envelope; and Joe Louis, the former heavyweight boxing champion who brought the staffers to the point of tears by his pitiful attempts to hoof and warble his way into showbusiness.
At one time the Casino pandered so much to stars that it even let Basil Rathbone recite, from Shakespeare, Henry V’s speech before Agincourt. Later in the show, however, this distinguished straight actor had to play in a comic skit with Robert Alda, the actor who played Gershwin’s part in the recent movie "Rhapsody In Blue." Alda threw four custard pies at Rathbone’s face.
Assistant Manager Murray Little, who moved with Appleby to the Casino in
1936, says: “We had to abandon big names in 1954 because we ran out of artists and return engagements rarely paid off. That decided us to go back to ‘exotics.’ ” The word “exotic” is used by everybody on the staff of the Casino as a euphemism for stripper. Among the first “exotics” to return to the Casino was Gypsy Rose Lee who titillated audiences by appearing with a troupe of younger women in a representation of fitting-room scenes at a dress shop.
Although the Casino receives many complaints from Torontonians about the nature of the strippers’ acts the theatre has never been charged before the courts with obscenity nor has its license ever been suspended or revoked by the provincial - government authorities.
Toward the end of the last war thirteen clergymen representing Anglican, United, Presbyterian and Baptist churches appealed to the Toronto City Police Commission to use its influence with the provincial government to get the theatre closed. But the commission agreed with Joseph Sedgwick, the Casino's lawyer, that it is almost1 impossible to draw a dividing line between art and indecency in certain forms of dancing. So the strippers continued to undress.
The first show of each stripper is watched by members of the Toronto Metropolitan Police morality squad and by Lou Appleby, who uses field glasses. It is also watched by a large number of regulars who know that the first show is often the hottest of the week. After the first show the morality squad confers with Appleby and sometimes suggests that bits of the act should be toned down. Appleby often gives them an argument but always complies with their recommendations.
A few weeks ago a stripper calling herself Miss Norway—she had once been in a Miss Universe contest in Hollywood —persistently exceeded during her first two days the limits set on her act by the morality squad and Appleby. After giving her several warnings Appleby fired her and took her name out of the lights.
Assistant manager Little says, “While we set limits on the exotics we often do so reluctantly. All forms of entertainment are associated with sex. What is indecent is largely a matter of taste and taste is largely a matter of education and environment. People who don’t like exotics can stay away.”
Only once has the Casino been near closing—and that occasion had nothing to do with the moral tone of its show. Early in the last war fire broke out backstage during the last performance and in a few minutes consumed the scenery ropes, curtains and movie screen. The audience, without a murmur, rose calmly and filed out. When the fire had been beaten, Lou Appleby was complimented by the police on the level-headedness of his patrons.
But Appleby was in no mood for compliments. He was thinking of the morrows profits. He sent Little down to the Salvation Army hostel to round up fifty unemployed men who cleared the debris by six a.m. Meantime the T. Eaton Company and the Robert Simpson Company opened their stores in the middle of the night and sold Appleby new curtains. Professional seamstresses from the garment factory of one of Appleby's friends were aroused to cut and sew the curtains. A ship’s outfitter was awakened and persuaded to sell ropes. A new movie screen awaiting shipment to a Famous Players theatre in Sudbury was unloaded from a boxcar in Toronto and lent by its owners to Appleby. At 9:30 the next morning the Casino opened for business as usual. *