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You Can Fight City Hall! It’s Not So Easy to Fight Changing Times

| Sep 19, 2011
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I walked up the stairs and in to the once familiar lounge. Still early in the evening the lounge was deserted except for two people, a man behind the bar and a woman standing beside it. As had been my routine for many years my first steps were to the lady’s room where I could refresh my makeup and run a comb through my hair. Just as I approached the door to the washroom the man behind the bar called out in French, “il y a un long temps!”

“Oui, c’est vrai,” I replied. ‘That’s Alain,’ I thought to myself, ‘How did he recognize me after all these years and I’m wearing a different colored wig and all?’

I did my thing in the lady’s room and headed to the bar.

“Comment ça va?” I asked Alain.

“Ça va bien et vous?” Our conversations continued in French but I will recreate it in English. After many years absence I had returned to Cleopatra’s, a once popular female impersonation show bar in Montreal, Canada. The visit and our conversation brought back many memories from the 1980s and ’90s when the club was in its heyday and I was a frequent visitor.

But first some more recent history: Cleopatra’s  is much better known for the strip club downstairs and, in the last three years, for the fight the owner put up against a plan by the City of Montreal to expropriate his property to turn it over to a development company. It seems the company had purchased and boarded up the rest of the buildings in much of the block, ready to tear them down to build bright new condos, an office tower and ground level retail boutiques. The only hold out was Cleopatra’s owner Johnny Zoumboulakis. Faced with Zoumboulakis’ intransigence the company, Angus Developments (SDA), had turned to the city for help. It seems one arm of the city, Economic Development, was willing to help and it urged the mayor and council to use its powers of expropriation to obtain the property ‘in the public interest’ and turn it over to SDA. No doubt the mayor, Gerard Tremblay, had visions of mounting a campaign similar to the one that rid New York’s 42nd Street of its strip joints and video parlors. No doubt the mayor thought his campaign would be just as popular. When I heard of the proposal I must admit I assumed that Cleopatra’s would soon be going the way of Club Edelweiss (New York) Backstreet (Atlanta), the old Ziegfeld’s (DC) and the Queen Mary (LA) and closing its doors.

However, Zoumboulakis, the strippers who worked for him and many supporters rallied against the expropriation. They found many allies in Montreal’s influential artistic community and among those in the general population who hated “government’s heavy hand.” They also found an ally in another arm of the city. A Maclean’s magazine article quoted a 2009 report from Montreal’s public consultation of?ce president Louise Roy who wrote how the district “was once the centre of Montreal’s red-light district” and as such should be protected from development. Roy and public pressure won out. The mayor abandoned his plans. SDA was left to redesign theirs. It was as if in Atlanta the city had said that despite the gentrification around it Backstreet is an historic landmark and should be preserved to operate in place!

So it was that several years after I’d thought I’d paid my last visit to Cleopatra’s I was back. The brightly lit façade of the building looked just the same except all the neighboring taverns, hot dog parlors and even the Burger King on the corner had been closed and boarded up. The strippers taking a cigarette break on the street looked the same except they were probably the daughters or at least the younger sisters of the girls I’d seen in years gone by.

Walking up the stairs I saw the once familiar montage of drag artists’ photos from past shows. I didn’t think they’d added a photo in the last ten years. However, now the montage shared wall space with a collection of posters advertising the club’s still popular once monthly Fetish Night.

It wasn’t unusual for me to find few customers in the lounge. I was a notoriously early arriver. But no customers: that was unusual.

Alain asked in French what I wanted to drink. “Rum et coke,” I said with a wink. Rum and coke had been my drink during the close to twenty years I’d been a regular customer at Cleopatra’s.

Alain placed two shots of rum and two glasses of Coca-Cola and ice in front of me. “You still have two-for-one?” I asked, also in French.

“Up to ten p.m.” came the smiling reply.

“Some things never change. I am so glad to see you are still working here. How long has it been?”

“Since 1983.” Alain had started as a waiter and had always been the one to bring my first rum and cokes, usually without asking, to my table. When the original bartender, John, retired due to illness Alain had taken over behind the bar.

I thought about the empty tables around me. “But you must also have another job?” I asked Alain.

“No, not at all. There were some very lucrative years some time ago.

Linda and Leanne.

Linda and Leanne.

Leanne chipped in, “You are from Ottawa, aren’t you?” Leanne had originally been the girl at the door checking coats and collecting the price of admission. Now she would wait tables if any customers arrived.

“You have a good memory. I was but I live in another town now. How did you two recognize me?”

Alain looked to Leanne and replied, “We just knew you from the way you walk, the way you look and carry yourself.”

“You used to always be blonde,” Leanne said, “now you are brunette but we still knew you.”

We chatted for a while about the old days and about the recent campaign to save the club. I asked about old friends and characters that used to frequent the club. The sad reply was that many of the old-timers were no longer among the living.

Our chat brought back a flood of memories for me, memories of how trips to Cleopatra’s had helped grow my femme persona.

•    How the first time I had planned to attend ‘Cleo’s’ I’d been so nervous that I stayed in my hotel room and did nothing more than take photos and videos of myself.

•    How I enjoyed the FI shows starring Frankie Knight, Lady Brenda and especially Vicki Lane. Vicki has chronicled a lot of it on a web page.  The shows often played to full rooms.

•    How despite again being nervous at first I gradually became comfortable with men sending over drinks and then inviting me on a “date.” I was taken for being one of the club’s unofficial “working girls.”  Sometimes the dates covered the cost of my trips to Montreal.

•    How another t-girl had advised me about waxing to rid myself of unwanted body hair, how excruciatingly painful the first treatment had been but how easy it has become in the years since.

•    How evenings at Cleo’s had allowed me time for Linda to visit shopping malls, art galleries, museums and restaurants during the day. Cleo’s helped me grow comfortable in the straight world. I even took a day trip en femme for a day of downhill skiing during a visit to Cleo’s. (I wrote about that in TGForum.)

•    How one time when I was in Montreal to run the marathon I met at Cleo’s another marathon tourist who invited me back to his hotel. We made love before going our separate ways to run the marathon two days later.

•    How a similar thing happened when I was in Montreal to watch a golf tournament and I met a golf fan from Nova Scotia only to see him the next day. No way recognized the male standing in front of him. (I also wrote about that adventure in TGForum.)

•    How all kinds of men loved to take their “walk on the wild side” at Cleo’s. I had regular dates with a college teacher, a grocery manager, a police officer who also crossdressed and a rugby playing lawyer. Besides the marathon runner and golf fan I dated dozens of men from out of town who somehow in those pre-Internet days had learned about or happened upon Cleopatra’s. I told all that I wasn’t a working girl but I couldn’t undercut their business. I had to ask the men for help with my room cost or something. They usually obliged.

•    How one time I came to Montreal with plans to possibly meet up with a married woman I was seeing. When she hadn’t arrived an hour after the expected time I decided to go to plan B — get dolled up and head over to Cleo’s. I was just ready to leave when a knock came on the hotel room door. A look through the peep hole showed my friend in the hall. There was nothing to do but to let her in and face the music. We talked it out. I told almost all. She thought about it and still chose me over her husband. That was one evening I was happy to miss a trip to Cleo’s. We were together for several years before a career change took her to western Canada.

There were so many memories. It was hard to relate so much of my life to the dance mix music reverberating in the near-empty lounge.

Lisa dances on.

It felt so different yet I looked around and suddenly there was Lisa. About 15 years ago Lisa, a t-girl, started showing up at Cleo’s. She would park her bag and coat and head straight for the dance floor. Alone she would dance until the start of the first show. After the show she would dance again until the music started for the second show. Then alone she would leave. Here she was again, parking her bag and coat and heading for the dance floor.

I turned to Alain and gestured to Lisa, “Some things never change.”

“No,” he replied with a smile.

Lisa danced on. I joined her for a while and we exchanged smiles but I soon left her to dance on alone.

Eventually a few customers wandered in. The first show began. The two performers went through their routines as if the place was packed. Lisa sat at a nearby table. I went over to chat with her, remind her that we’d met several years earlier and ask how she’d been. She also remembered that I used to live in Ottawa. We brought each other up to date on our lives and I agreed to take and

Charity performs to a near empty hall.

send her a photo of her dancing. We compared theories about the decline in Cleopatra’s business. We decided some old customers had faded away and Johnny had been doing nothing to attract new clientele. I theorized that a lot of t-girls and admirers were just as happy to make their contacts through Internet dating sites like Craig’s List. They no longer need clubs like Cleopatra’s. Lisa was not so sure. She mentioned that a lot just preferred the more lively shows at a rival bar in the city’s gay district.

Then for me the evening was winding down. Perhaps it was the melancholy of the near empty hall. Perhaps it was the realization that so much of the old times were lost forever. You can go back but you can’t really go back. Johnny Zoumboulakis won the fight to save his building but now it seems he must do some promoting to save his business. Apparently the only really good nights at the lounge are when outside organizations promote and hold their events such as the Fetish Nights (1st Fridays) and the Montreal Amateur Drag Contest (4th Fridays).

I got to feeling very tired. I bid adieu to Lisa, to Leanne and, with a kiss, to Alain. I wonder if I’ll ever see them again.


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Category: Transgender Community News, Transgender Fun & Entertainment, Transgender Opinion

Linda Jensen

About the Author ()

Canadian writer Linda Jensen is a long time contributor to TGForum. Before the days of the Internet Linda started her writing with the Transvestian newspaper. Her writing ranges from factual accounts of her adventures to fiction although frankly sometimes her real life adventures are stranger than the fiction. Linda is married to a loving partner who upon learning about Linda said, "she was part of you before I met you. Although I didn't know it she was part of the package I fell in love with. I don't want to mess up that package." "Does it get any better than that?" asks Linda.

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