Take it all off, take it all off: Political hanky panky threatens Toronto strip bars
by Gil Kezwer
Falsies aren’t what customers expect at Toronto’s 28 strip clubs. But that’s exactly what the Metro Licensing Commission (MLC) has been doing when it comes to telling the truth about the burlesque dancers it taxes, make that licenses, to take it all of in Toronto.
Metro’s no lap dancing by-law, enacted August 25, 2021 ostensibly to protect the peelers from STDs and assault, has resulted in most of the licensed exotic entertainers leaving the business, according to data obtained under a Freedom of Information and Privacy Act request.
At the same time, there has been a burgeoning increase in massage parlours and escort services in the city. Ads in Toronto’s Yellow Pages for the two businesses – widely perceived as prostitution – have ballooned from 17 pages in 1995 to 34 the year after and 50 in the current directory.
Sex industry insiders suggest a direct correlation between the demise of lap dancing and the increase in prostitution in Metro. (See sidebar). Some even suggest the by-law capped a carefully orchestrated campaign to drive customers out of the peeler bars and into the massage parlours and escort service establishments, a number of which are said to be run by local mobster Eddie Mello.
Lap dancing began here in 1993 when Judge Gordon Hachborn of the Ontario Court Provincial Division ruled that the touching of burlesque dancers by patrons is "not indecent". The price went up from $5 per song to $10 and then $20, the lights went down, and customers came in droves. Then came the 1995 by-law banning physical contact. Once satisfied with a brush up against a bosom during a lap dance – no longer legally available under the look-but-don’t-touch by-law which restricts dancers to non-contact table dancing, those erstwhile patrons of exotic entertainment are now seeking manual masturbation, fellatio and intercourse.
At the centre of the bare boob caper is twice divorced Ms. Carol Ruddell-Foster, the MLC’s General Manager. The 60-something redhead has it in for strip bar owners. In particular she is carrying on a vendetta against Theodoros "Terry" Koumoundouros, the president of the House of Lancaster, which operates licensed establishments featuring bare-naked ladies on The Queensway and Bloor Street West near Lansdowne.
Peter Foster, Ms. Ruddell-Foster’s second husband, used to be a regular at the Etobicoke pleasure palace operated by the Koumoundouros and his brother Spiros. Jealous to the point that it destroyed her marriage, Ms. Ruddell-Foster has had little appreciation for saucy striptease artistes performing in the tradition of Josephine Baker, Blaze Starr and Gypsy Rose Lee, or the shrewd Grade 4 dropout who built a successful business employing dozens of people after immigrating to Canada from Sparta, Greece with the proverbial $5 in his pocket.
In a telephone and fax interview, the redoubtable Ms. Ruddell-Foster told this reporter there were 4,547 licensed dancers at the end of the September 30, 2021 licensing period – when the exotic dance business began to sour following Metro’s newly enacted by-law. In the current 1998 licensing year there are 3,344 dancers, she noted.
However a Freedom of Information and Privacy Act request revealed there are only 1,400 peelers (almost all female) currently doing their bump-and-grind routine. Seeking to minimize the huge attrition caused by the no touching by-law – only some 200 women from the 4,547 licensed two years ago are still working in the business, the MLC now claimed only 2,857 women and men were dancing at the 1995 peak.
Ms. Ruddell-Foster was at a loss to reconcile those conflicting numbers. But then the MLC has a history of obfuscation regarding lap dancing. A MLC investigation report dated June 20, 1995 was buried because it failed to substantiate allegations brought by one-time peeler Catherine Goldberg that fondling posed a threat to the women’s health or safety. The document was obtained by Toronto Sun columnist Ian Harvey in December 1995 who used it to decry the hypocrisy of the MLC and the city fathers.
Goldberg was a key player in the manufactured brouhaha that led to the 1995 enactment of the no lap dancing by-law. Documents obtained by this reporter purportedly indicate that between 1991 and May 1996 the Jamaican-born Goldberg fraudulently collected $122,413 in welfare cheques using the names Joan M. Clarke, Joan Maxine Nealon, Joan Nealon, Joan Maxine Smits and J.M. Millen.
Some of this money seemingly came from a $300,000 Metro Welfare Fund administered by Metro Councillor Jack Layton. A March 10, 2022 memo seemingly from Layton requested that Joan Maxine Nealon’s welfare application be expedited. Layton also seemingly arranged for Goldberg to receive a $3,250 consulting fee from Parkdale Legal Services as part of her campaign against lap dancing.
A further e-mail memo, signed "J.L.", states: "I will be requesting from the Metro Licensing Commission a complete report of their current investigation. However, if possible, could I be notified first if it becomes necessary to change our funding commitment. Our federal friends insist on tight security and no direct link to our special witness or mention of their financial support."
Interviewed at the SkyDome where Layton was volunteering for a white ribbon men against violence against women campaign, the Metro politician said he was aware of the allegation of fraud but claimed a hacker had fraudulently tampered with the documents. "Metro councillors don’t have that kind of access to welfare files," he said.
Goldberg was the star witness for the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) before the Copyright Board of Canada in an October 1995 hearing regarding Tariff 3B. The challenge was brought by the Ontario Adult Entertainment Bar Owners Association. At issue was the type of electronic music systems being used in strip bars – record turntables, tape decks or CD players – each of which has its own royalty fee schedule. Goldberg testified the maximum in artist royalties owed.
She and Layton were seen drinking champagne together at the end of October 1995, just after the Ontario Divisional Court upheld Metro’s no touching by-law. Ironically Layton allegedly cancelled a March 18, 2022 Metro Police morality squad raid of four downtown strip bars. He was concerned the crackdown might not reflect well on the city while a number of Hollywood feature films were being shot in the area.
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Terry Koumoundouros’ efforts to protect his livelihood from being destroyed have cost him dearly.
On December 17, 2021 the first in a long series of by-law offences were laid against the House of Lancaster on The Queensway. Previously only his dancers had been targeted by MLC by-law enforcement inspectors.
In a January 2, 2022 meeting with Councillor Dennis Fotinos, Koumoundouros said the ban on lap dancing was unenforceable. Instead he recommended Metro adopt a by-law similar to neighbouring Mississauga’s which prohibits sexual rather than physical contact. Quick to take back the offensive, Metro Police raided the Blood Street House of Lancaster on January 26, 2022 capping a four-day undercover investigation, and charged the doorman, manager, refrigerator technician and DJ with keeping a common bawdy house.
Fotinos’ suggestion to the MLC that it examine the Mississauga by-law resulted in a March 4, 2022 Peel Police raid on the Airport Strip. Since it occurred at the dead hour of 1 p.m., only five customers were present. The charge of keeping a common bawdy house was subsequently dropped for lack of evidence.
On March 8, 2022 Fire Department inspectors visited the Bloor Street House of Lancaster, notwithstanding a routine inspection only eight months previous. They ordered $23,000 in repairs under the Fire Marshall’s Act.
In September 1996 Carol Ruddell-Foster announced that as a result of a 180-hour investigation, 18 charges had been laid against dancers and a similar number against striptease bars. Thirteen clubs were charged with a single offence; the House of Lancaster was charged five times.
Putting salt on the wounds it had inflicted, in October 1996 the MLC denied leave to stay the by-law infractions pending an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Ontario Adult Entertainment Bar Owners Association is seeking to have the country’s highest court rule on the legality of lap dancing. The Supreme court has yet to announce if it will grant leave to hear the case.
Starting out the new year on the wrong foot, a MLC inspector was arrested on January 3, 2022 by Metro Police for taking bribes from an adult entertainment bar operator. Shortly thereafter MLC Field Supervisor John Watkins resigned from his position under a cloud following that fiasco, suggesting more than one inspector was on the take. Astonishingly the inspector was acquitted at his trial on February 23, 1998, notwithstanding prima facie evidence.
Metro Police raids and MLC harassment have become routine at strip bars across the city. On October 3, 1998 five MLC inspectors visited the Bloor Street House of Lancaster, fining three dancers and laying four charges against the establishment for permitting those illegal acts of physical contact. This raid, it became clear, signalled the beginning of yet another city-wide crackdown.
At the Brass Rail on Yonge Street two dancers were charged that night, two charges were laid against the owners, and two further charges were laid for obstructing the view. At Cheaters and Zanzibar, both also on Yonge Street, two dancers were fined and two charges were laid against bar owners.
MLC by-law officers routinely work in pairs. Yet five inspectors were involved in the October 3 investigation at the House of Lancaster. Ms. Ruddell-Foster explained three of the five were new inspectors undergoing training. According to her, the House of Lancaster has received so much of her inspectors’ attention because it offers Toronto’s dirtiest dancing.
Ms. Ruddell-Foster is adamant the raids will continue until there is full compliance with the by-law. In addition to fines and her ongoing effort to have the House of Lancaster’s adult entertainment license revoked – hearings have been continuing intermittently since 1996 – the MLC’s ultimate recourse, she noted, would be to issue a two-year closure order against a business and the building in which it operates – tantamount to forcing a bar into bankruptcy.
Some clubs have attempted to revive customers’ waning interest by dropping beer prices. Others began hiring women on entertainment visas from Latin America, Eastern Europe and Thailand – until the federal government disallowed exotic dancers to qualify for the permit intended for visiting professional entertainers.
Notwithstanding the MLC’s campaign against the House of Lancaster, the Brass Rail has continued to offer the hottest lap dancing this side of Bangkok’s infamous Patpong Road sex night-club and red-light district. Late night line-ups there – when most competing clubs are half empty – attest to the popular preference for the Brass Rail’s liberal interpretation of the no-touching by-law. Bars north of Toronto like Fantasia in Richmond Hill and Whiskey A Go Go in Vaughan enjoy an equally raunchy reputation.
Yonge Street’s landmark Le Strip closed recently. Koumoundouros fears it’s a harbinger for the whole burlesque business, a victim of political correctness, personal vendetta and civic small mindedness. Who knows how many hundreds of pages of ads for massage parlours and escort services will pad out Toronto’s Yellow Pages by the time the last strip joint has closed?
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Former exotic dancer now turns tricks
Belinda, whose sultry looks remind one of famed Hong Kong prostitute Suzie Wong, fondly recalls the lucrative days before August 1995 when Metro enacted its by-law prohibiting physical contact between customers and strippers.
One of the 4,547 exotic dancers at the end of the Metro Licensing Commission’s September 30, 2021 licensing year, she quickly left the moribund world of bump-and-grind to work for an escort service. Today only some 200 of her fellow pre-by-law danceuses remain in the burlesque business. Belinda, who requested that her real name not be used, won’t speculate what happened to those 4,350 women. But of her 20 working girl colleagues at a downtown escort service, she notes seven were formerly peelers in Metro. "They’re very pretty girls, but they have no jobs," she says. Anecdotal evidence suggests many former dancers have become hardcore sex workers.
Beginning in 1989, two years after the Beijing-born beauty immigrated to Canada, she began dancing at clubs like Filmore’s and Jilly’s in downtown Toronto, and the Million Dollar Saloon and Runway 66 in Mississauga, as well as venues in Montreal and Oshawa. She averaged $300-$400 nightly. "A good night was $1,000," she says. "After the [no] lap dancing by-law there was no business anymore. People didn’t even come to the bar. I would make $100 with difficulty."
For Belinda, the last straw came in the late fall of 1995 when MLC by-law inspectors demanded to see her license. Frightened by rumours of a $20,000 fine, she explained the photo ID was in her dressing room locker, excused herself, and slipped out the club’s back door never to return to the dance stage.
With few other skills, the high school graduate began working for an escort agency. She currently averages three tricks per night at $180 each, of which 60 per cent is the agency fee. Being Oriental and having voluptuous if surgically augmented breasts puts her in high demand, she adds. Other women earn less. She estimates she is now earning a fifth of the $10,000 per month she used to bring home as a stripper. The huge income drop has forced her to sell her Honda Accord, two-bedroom condo downtown and jewellery. Moreover, she’s on call 24 hours where previously she worked an eight-hour shift or less.
"It’s very dangerous [being a prostitute]. There are strange people," she observes of her johns, with a bitter edge in her voice. "Before the guys would line up just for me to dance for them. Now I have to fuck to make money."