The Bellevue/Lux Burlesque Theatre was located at 360-362 College St (north side, west of Brunswick Ave), in the Harbord Village neighbourhood of Toronto.
The Bellevue Theatre
Prior to becoming the Lux, the Art Moderne style building was the Bellevue Theatre. Designed by Toronto architects, Kaplan & Sprachman, it opened in 1937. The movie palace’s exterior was faced with brick, stone and granite along with structural glass. Two pairs of doors flanked the outside box office. The dramatic vertical facade was emphasized by the centre stepped parapet, an extension of the wall past the roofline.
When the 770+-seat theatre opened, television did not exist. It didn’t become mainstream until the early 1950’s. So, for entertainment, people flocked to theatres. They enjoyed glamour, drama, suspense and comedy of Hollywood, all in air-conditioned comfort. The Bellevue was a movie theatre until 1958.
The Lux Burlesque Theatre
The year following, it became the Lux Burlesque Theatre. Owned by Ray Lux, the venue opened with a live bill of great vaudeville acts however no one wanted to pay to see them. In the third week, the Lux began showing burlesque acts and this became the theatre’s emphasis. They brought in stars like “Cup Cake Cassidy”, “Linda Fontaine” and “Carmella – The Sophia Loren” while also showing regular Hollywood movies. Toronto’s morality squad kept a watchful eye on things both inside and outside of the theatre.
Toronto the Good was the Capital of Burlesque
Toronto was the burlesque capital of Canada. The Lux’s competitors included the long-established Casino Theatre (on Queen St W at Bay St) and Victory Theatre (on Spadina Ave at Dundas St W).
Not only was their fierce competition between the burlesque venues and the dancers themselves, but there were also publicity stunts. One such stunt was in the summer of 1960. Pink Champagne, a performer at the Lux, entered to be one of the eight CNE models. Pinky was rejected by the judges. The manager of the Lux Theatre, Elliott Abells told The Star “We thought it would be a cute idea to liven things up a bit. A simple, harmless publicity stunt and good fun.”
Never on a Sunday
By the 1960’s, Torontonians wanted to start seeing movies and entertainment on Sundays. A great debate raged on in City Council and in April 1961, the Board of Control approved Sunday movies and lectures. Massey Hall and the Royal Alexandra Theatre then requested permission for Sunday stage performances. But what about vaudeville or burlesque shows? Lux Theatre manager, Mr Abells applied to hold “theatrical performances”. Before the Board, he argued for burlesque questioning if “the City had the moral right to tell Toronto citizens where they may go and what they may see on Sundays.”
City Council nearly passed a by-law to allow only certain designated areas to hold movie and theatrical performances on Sundays. Because this was thought of as being “snobbish” and “political censorship by location”, Council approved a law allowing Sunday movies, concerts, lectures, no-curfew sports and theatrical performances throughout Toronto, without bias. On the last Sunday of May in 1961, burlesque pioneer “Cup Cake Cassidy”, headlined at the Lux.
After the Lux
Lux Burlesque closed in 1962. By the mid 60’s, the theatre reopened as the Elektra, showing Greek films. In the mid ‘70’s, it became the Lido and screened Asian films. A decade later, the building was demolished. Today, the site is home to a medical office building.
Did You Know?
- Along with designing many theatres across Canada, the architect duo of Kaplan & Sprachman also created the Allenby and Eglinton theatres in the City. They also did extensive reconstruction on Toronto’s oldest operating cinema, the Revue Theatre.
- Burlesque started in the UK in the 1860’s. It later made its way to New York City and then Toronto. This was during the Victorian-era when many layers of clothing were worn. In burlesque, to keep their legs technically covered, performers wore tights which at the time, were considered risqué. Burlesque flourished into a type of variety show with comedy routines, song and dance.
- Burlesque performers created characters and became famous for the props they used like a huge oyster shell or a large tea cup.
- Kate Murtagh (in slide below) was an American singer and actress. She appeared as a policewoman in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and was the waitress pictured on Supertramp’s Breakfast in America album cover.
- In Toronto, the popularity of burlesque began to wane in the 1960’s and by the 1970’s, it completely died out when full-nudity clubs were established.
Bellevue & Lux Burlesque Photos
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Apr 19, 1961, page 9
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Apr 20, 1961, page 10
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Apr 26, 1961, page 7
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: May 27, 1961, page 15
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jun 3, 1961, page A7, A8, A9
- Taylor On History: The Bellevue Theatre…
- Britannica: Art: Burlesque Show
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives & Ontario Jewish Archives (used with permission)
- Street Photo: Google Maps