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The naked truth

They're leered at, marginalized and shunned. But mostly those who work in the exotic dance industry are misunderstood

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The Queen of Burlesque

You see, back in the mid-1960s, Gladys Balsillie had the keys to Winnipeg’s nightlife. She was a larger-than-life figure who wore colourful muumuus and lived by mottos such as "A woman who tells her age will tell you anything."

In 1968, Balsillie, who already owned her own bar, began operating a go-go dancing booking agency out of her home on Beaverbrook in the wake of the Summer of Love. And business was boom, boom, booming.

Almost every drinking establishment in the city was caught up in the craze. There was no nudity. The dancers wore mini-skirts and high-heeled boots.

"Everybody was after me to provide girls," Balsillie said, in a Free Press story in 1972, "and the salaries were attractive — pretty darn attractive. I recruited them from everywhere — teachers, bank tellers, secretaries and housewives — and paid them salaries ranging from $150 to $400 a week."

In fact, it was Balsillie who first devised "jamming sessions" for her dancers; where they would rotate from establishment to establishment.

However, it wasn’t long before the bras started coming off. By the early 1970s, Gladys was anointed the city’s Queen of Burlesque. She was said to have run her business with an iron fist, once quickly quashing an attempt by the dancers to unionize.

"In this business, 90 per cent of the battle is won on good management but handling about 45 girls at one time includes being a part-time mother, a shoulder to cry on and sometimes a loan officer."

But Gladys had some help in the form of an 11-year-old boy who literally arrived on her doorstep just as the Queen’s burlesque reign was at its peak.

His name was Rick Irving.

Irving was a childhood friend of Balsillie’s nephew and the two would often come to her home to hang out. Gladys had no children while Irving was living in a troubled home with an alcoholic father. He had attended over a dozen schools in his youth.

They became fast friends.

"She was good to me," Irving recalls. "A big blonde lady. Very flamboyant. Very out there."

Balsillie would take young Rick during runs to collect fees from bar owners. By the time Irving was 16, he was chauffeuring Balsillie around in her big black Cadillac to the old Constellation Room at the Airport Hotel.

"As I started up, I learned everything," Irving says. "I was so involved in the business I wasn’t interested in school anymore. I was almost running her office."

"Handling about 45 girls at one time includes being a part-time mother, a shoulder to cry on and sometimes a loan officer."

-Rick Irving

Irving would babysit for the dancers, who came to Winnipeg from all over the world. He would teach choreography to newbies. He would drive some of the girls to shows and pull back the curtains (if he wasn’t spotted) to assess their shows.

"So I never made close friends," he says. "I was closer to the dancers and knew them better than anybody. Some of the best years of my life."

Today, Irving has over 20 photo albums filled with photos of the dancers who performed in Winnipeg over the last 50 years. He knows them all.

"This was one from Paris," Irving says, pointing at a black-and-while glamour shot. "Her stage name was Devil’s Angel."

Turns the page.

"This girl got knifed to death. Drugs."

There’s history, too: The first dancer arrested for taking off her G-string at the Empire Hotel. She got off on a technicality, Irving says. She told the judge she was wearing a hairnet over her vagina.

History

Updated on Saturday, May 3, 2014 at 6:30 PM CDT: Corrects spelling of Chelsea; minor edits.

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