Jack Knox: The thong is over: Greater Victoria’s last strip bar shuts

By noon Tuesday, the guy from the bar-supply company was loading torpedo-like beer gas tanks into his van.

The Fox Showroom Pub didn’t need them anymore. The last scene of the brass pole ballet was danced Sunday. After that, employees got word that the strip club in Saanich’s Red Lion Inn was closing, for good, effective immediately.

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And just like that, Greater Victoria’s last peeler bar was gone.

In fact, only one strip club remains on all of Vancouver Island now.

“It’s a dying industry in general,” says Dan Salmon. Still, the suddenness of the end was a shock to Salmon, the beverage boss at the Fox, where he had worked since 1997 (save for a 17-month stretch after fire engulfed the hotel in 2001).

They had tried all sorts of stunts — karaoke stripping, drag contests during Pride Week, male amateur night — to keep the place going, Salmon said. They had tried to make it fun, safe and homey, for patrons and dancers alike. He made it sound (at least on the day shift) like Cheers, except with naked people.

Still, how could the Fox expect to live when so many others have died? With the exception of a couple of places that tried, and failed, to take off (as it were) in recent years, the Fox has been on its own in Victoria since Monty’s closed in 2013.

It’s the same story up-Island. Dancers used to split the week between the Argyle in Port Alberni and Club 241 in Nanaimo, but when those clubs closed a few years ago, that left JJ’s in Campbell River as the lone survivor.

The decline isn’t just local. B.C.’s once-booming stripping industry is a fading echo of what it was. It is still strong in the oil-and-gas towns up north, but just four clubs remain in downtown Vancouver, which used to have a dozen within walking distance of one another. A couple are found elsewhere on the Lower Mainland, though the one in Aldergrove pulled the plug in June. It’s like that right across Canada. Nova Scotia and P.E.I. saw their last strip bars close last year.

Why the change? Some cite a shift in societal sensibilities, but a less rose-coloured explanation is that the popularity of exotic dancers fell as the availability of online porn rose. Strip clubs closed as laptops opened.

Economics kicked in. Liability insurance has soared. Bar owners who used to pay premiums of $15,000 a year grumble about bills of $70,000 to $100,000 now. That’s on top of the cost of dancers, DJs and extra security.

In urban centres, property values pushed out low-rise bars. Highrise towers soared in their place — towers full of tenants who didn’t want to share a building with a strip joint.

In Greater Victoria, clubs were hit by the same changes — the smoking ban, tougher drinking-driving penalties — that sent working-stiff pubs like the Ingraham and Tally-Ho the way of the ashtray and the red terry-cloth table cover. The customers who used to stay for two or three after-work beers are one-and-done now, if they come at all. Nobody wants a roadside driving ban. “The tradesmen stopped coming in because they couldn’t afford to lose their work trucks,” Salmon said. Hotels tend to depend on cold beer and wine stores for their booze revenue these days.

It’s all a far cry from the raucous scene that blossomed after full-nudity clubs were made legal in B.C. in 1972. Strip bars flew and fell in concert with B.C.’s resource industries in the 1980s and 1990s. Those were the days of performers like Jane Jones, who appeared on stage with a Siberian tiger, and Mitzi Dupree, whose ping-pong ball shooting (don’t ask) exhibitions brought her fame, fortune and an obscenity trial acquittal in Kamloops in the early 1980s.

“When I was 18, there were five strip clubs in Victoria,” said Salmon, who is 49. Long gone are the likes of the Icehouse, the Brass Rail, the Sherwood on Gorge, Oly’s on Broad and the Kings Hotel on Yates (“Home of the A Class Dancers”).

Not everyone will rue the demise of the Fox, but Vancouver’s Lexi Luv will. She was one of the last dancers to appear on the stage Sunday. “It was one of the best bars,” she said. “Everyone was really nice and respectful.” She could use the hotel pool between shows.

It was a shock to see it close without warning, though. Some other dancers arrived in town Monday, only to find their week’s work was gone. Male strippers (“Featuring Real Alberta Beef!” the ad said) were due to appear Sunday.

“It’s many reasons,” said Red Lion co-owner Jamie Wu when asked why the Fox was packing it in. He spoke of restructuring the business, putting more focus on room rentals.

The Fox was, technically, a distinct business, leasing space from the hotel. What happens to that space next is uncertain. Maybe the owners will look for new tenants, Wu said. “We haven’t decided yet.”

The only certainty is the city’s last strip club is gone.

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