UPDATE (April 14, noon): Bylaw staff respond; more firsthand details revealed
On Sunday, April 11, City of Toronto bylaw officers crashed a burlesque show at Revival Bar on College St. There, they asked performers for IDs then stayed through the second half of the show.
According to witnesses, plainclothes officers arrived after the Ridiculesque cabaret started, at roughly 9:30 or 10pm. They told organizers that an audience member phoned in a complaint during the first half of the show. Some performers left rather than be questioned by city staff, but officers did not try to shut down the performance.
Representatives from the City of Toronto bylaw department confirm that two officers were at Revival on Sunday night.
Contrary to some reports circulating online, the Toronto Police Service was not involved.
“There was no big raid,” says David Vickers of the 14th division.
Another officer, Brian Kelly, confirmed that Revival, located at 783 College (near Ossington), is “not a problem premise.”
Bruce Hawkins from the city’s bylaw office says that while two bylaw enforcement officers did check out the show, it’s “not unusual” for them to do so. They were investigating whether the venue and performers required a burlesque licence, usually required of strippers, but not other kinds of performers.
“That would be how they determine if a licence is required,” says Hawkins.
By the end of the show, the bylaw staff were satisfied that no licences for the performers or venue were required, says Hawkins.
Hawkins and Red Herring, a Toronto burlesque performer who was helping out at the show, agree that the officers paid to get into the show and even signed a joke waiver at the door that warned would-be patrons of the sexual content of the show.
The officers didn’t go into the greenroom, but they asked everyone to bring ID to them if they were performing, “whether to check their age or to take names and numbers, I don’t know,” says Herring.
Herring, who did not perform, says that she stayed away from the officers, but they appeared respectful.
Still, they put a damper on the mood of the show, says Tanya Cheex, a member of Skin Tight Outta Sight who performed two numbers at Ridiculesque.
Herring says the Toronto burlesque community is worried, especially in the lead-up to the Toronto Burlesque Festival, which happens every year in July.
“Something like this would set a bad precedent,” she says.
Cheex agrees, although she thinks it will probably all blow over. She spoke to the officers and, although she didn’t present identification, the bylaw staff took down her name.
“Some people are really scared. I would be very disappointed with the city if they pursue this,” says Cheex.
“I don’t think they will,” she continues. “I don’t think they thought it was a big deal. They were just going through the motions.”
Folks are beginning to organize on Facebook, where someone has set up a Burlesque Is Not a Crime Facebook group.
“Is there any logical longterm action we can take to amend these draconian bylaws?” asks the group’s info page.
Toronto’s burlesque bylaw is vague and doesn’t distinguish between strip clubs and burlesque shows on paper, even though the flavour of the performances (and the audiences) are wildly different. Strippers are required to buy a $400 licence and are only allowed to perform at licensed strip clubs. Most burlesque performers are not licensed.
Chris Mysterion, a burlesque producer, says the law is too subjective because different bylaw officers can treat the same show differently. But if anyone had been fined, “it would have been extremely easy to refute,” he says.
Revival will host another burlesque show in two weeks, on April 25, called the April Fools: A Comedy Cabaret. Tickets for that show are available at aprilfools.eventbrite.com.