The Penthouse is rumoured to be the oldest continuously operating nightclub in the land we now know as Canada and is without a doubt the oldest exotic nightclub. Owned and operated by an Italian family who emigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, The Penthouse has survived numerous waves of moral crackdown in the city as well as many offers to buy the prime location in the face of aggressive development. A staggering number of nightclubs in Vancouver, exotic or otherwise, have not shared the same fate. Through conducting an institutional history of The Penthouse I locate it within changing local politics related to feminist activism, policing, and the sex industry as well as larger shifts in cultural attitudes towards sexual labour and sex workers’ bodies. Further I assemble a social history of the dancers, looking at their experiences in the club and their perception of the intersections between feminism, identity, performance, and sex. Feminist theory, women’s and gender history, and performance studies inform this multi-method project, which includes results and analysis from archival research and oral history interviews conducted with dancers employed at the club from 1978-2012. Overwhelmingly, the narrators reflected on their time as dancers as valuable to their lives in a myriad of ways, including helping to foster healthy relationships with their bodies and sexualities. Nevertheless most felt that the stigma they faced as sexual labourers impacted their lives in a negative way and was in conflict with the way they experienced their work themselves. This ongoing stigma was often a driving force for abandoning striptease for more ‘square’ or respectable work. Others continue to work in the sex industry. Eleven dancers shared their stories for this project, as did one member of the serving staff at The Penthouse, booking agent Randy Knowlan, and current owner/operator Danny Filippone. These stories offer a history of the Penthouse which places it as a central part of Vancouver’s history. At a time when conventional striptease seems to be in decline and other facets of the sex industry seem to be under attack by new forms of criminal regulation, the interviews with dancers, staff, and the owner/operator suggest that future possibilities for Vancouver’s contemporary striptease communities might lie in the evolving local neo-burlesque scene.
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Thesis advisor: Campbell, Lara
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