Knox: Yearning for the days of Mitzi du Pree

A stripper taught me a move on the brass pole this week.

I nailed it. Didn't even put my back out. Just saying.

It's good to learn new skills, particularly in this uncertain economy. Not sure that stripping is the greatest back-up plan, though.

In truth, the exotic entertainment industry has been in decline for years. The point was punctuated this weekend when Victoria's last surviving peeler bar, Monty's Showroom Pub, closed its doors for good.

That's where I met the dancer who showed me the spin move on the pole. I was interviewing her because she was scheduled to be the last dancer on stage. With the exception of some resource towns, the business is languishing all over the province, she said. "B.C. is definitely a labour of love."

The change is particularly noticeable in Vancouver. Where there were once a dozen strip joints crammed downtown, there might now be a dozen in the entire Lower Mainland.

Why the drop? Blame (or credit) Internet porn, the economy, the mainstreaming of sexuality.

"Stripping is not as risquÉ as it used to be," a booking agent told me. "You've got Oprah on television doing pole work."

Then there are the drinking-driving laws and smoking bans that have prompted people to party at home instead of at the bar, or at least to leave after one beer, not 100. Hotels make their money on cold beer and wine stores now.

The strippers' acts are a lot less flashy, too, the product of tighter liquor laws. No more Siberian tigers on stage. No more snake charmers. No more props (at Monty's, a dancer once made the mistake of placing her flaming cauldrons under the sprinklers). Can't have two dancers on stage at the same time. Definitely no touching the customers - the dancer I talked to got yelled at for handing, not tossing, a poster to a patron.

That's not the way it was in the 1980s, when Kamloops was a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah, or at least Amsterdam-On-The-South-Thompson. Back then strippers were found not just in raucous hotel beer parlours like those in the Rendezvous and the Plaza ("Somebody just tried to sell me moose meat!" a wide-eyed big city reporter once told me after staggering out of the latter) but in outlying neighbourhood pubs.

The legendary Mitzi Dupree, she of the smoke rings and flying ping-pong balls (don't ask), rose to stardom after bringing her act to one of those neighbourhood pubs on the north shore in the early 1980s. It was the Kamloops News that first raised a fuss, a brouhaha that eventually resulted in her being hauled into court on obscenity charges.

After being acquitted at trial, Mitzi made a point of marching up to the reporter who broke the story.

"Thanks," she said, shaking his hand. "I came to town making $500 a week, and now I'm making $5,000." Or something like that.

Older residents might remember that before Rafe Mair was a radio star, before he was a cabinet minister, he was a Kamloops lawyer who in the early 1970s gleefully defended stripper Linda Adama in a case that was sheer carnival. Mair even dragged in a newspaper columnist to testify as an expert on public morals, which was kind of like hiring Tiger Woods as a marriage counsellor.

I assume there must still be a peeler bar or two somewhere in Kamloops, customers furtively ducking in and out. (There was always the chance of an awkward chance encounter with your mother on the sidewalk outside the peeler bar, forcing you to ask "what was Mom doing in there?")

But really, it's nothing like it was.

The thong is over.

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