Montreal Burlesque Festival an ode to city's Sin City days of 1940s and '50s

Burlesque dancer and founder of the Montreal Burlesque Festival Scarlett James is seen in her Montreal studio on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL - The Montreal Burlesque Festival wants to take spectators back to a time when we used to wait.

When homes didn't have entertainment systems and people would invest time in courtship rituals before even so much as holding hands, says Scarlett James, whose three-day festival runs Oct. 17-19.

"Today, with the click of a finger, we can access the most intimate little corner of a human being," James said in an interview, referring to the plethora of flesh-filled content found online.

"So, it's important for us to make the audience wait, to desire."

The festival is an ode to Montreal's Sin City days of the 1940s and 1950s, when hundreds of brothels, nightclubs, gambling dens and bookmaking counters attracted tourists from across the world — and especially from south of the border.

Some of the biggest names in jazz and blues played nightly shows along the city's famed streets, and many of those musical evenings were capped by burlesque performances, James said.

When the singers, trumpeters and pianists left the stage, the smoke-filled rooms lit up for burlesque queens such as the internationally renowned Lili St. Cyr, originally from Minneapolis, but who made her name in Hollywood and Montreal.

She was a regular performer at one of the historical venues in the city called the Gayety Theatre, located at the eastern tip of downtown on St. Catherine Street, where her popular shows reportedly included elements such as bathtubs and parrots as props on stage.

St. Cyr became one of the most famous entertainers in the city and her name graces the award that will be presented to the best burlesque dancer on the second day of the festival, James said.

The festival's first night, Thursday, Oct. 17, will be host to a dinner and burlesque performances at Parisian-style brasserie, Le Pois Penche. The show will feature entertainers Egypt Blaque Knyle and Vayda Rhinestone.

On Saturday, Oct. 19 six dancers will hold workshops during the day to teach participants burlesque techniques including bumping and grinding and the "naughty peel."

About 30 burlesque dancers from around the world are scheduled to perform over the three nights. James said they'll seduce, titillate, amaze and humour — but most of all, she explained, they'll take their time on stage and peel off one layer at a time.

"We are going back to the days when you needed to, kind of, deserve it," she said. "You needed to wait. To enjoy the journey."

The burlesque dance can be as erotic as the more standard striptease, but the two differ in several important ways, James said.

Strippers take the stage wearing few items of clothing — if any at all — and their show is essentially an advertisement, says James, enticing men to spend money on lap dances in backrooms.

For burlesque dancers, it's all about the show — and the peel, James said.

Dancers design and make their own costumes, develop choreography, and produce their routine. "There is so much going on ... that in order to prepare an act like this it could take between six months and a year," she said.

Every move is calculated, said James. The glove peel, the wink, the sultry walk across the stage — it's all timed to specific points in the musical score, she said.

"Everything about the show is important. You are going to peel on a punchline and on the rhythm of the music. Everything is choreographed."

For details about the workshops, shows and to purchase tickets, visit

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2019.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.