Johnny Zoumboulakis, the trim 61-year-old owner of the Montreal strip club Café Cleopatra, favours button-down shirts and dark ties underneath rumpled sports coats. He could pass for Ralph Nader promenading through a blacklight-bathed maze of scuffed bar tables and naked flesh.
“I like the Main,” Zoumboulakis said recently of St-Laurent Boulevard, the heart of Montreal’s historic red-light district. The man who just wants to keep his little piece of the street fabulously trashy speaks quietly, his accent tzatziki thick. “I don’t see anything wrong with being red-light. Almost every city has a red-light district. Some people want to erase it, change the image, and the Cleopatra is the last one standing, I guess.”
That Cleopatra’s sign still advertises strip-teaseuses and spectacles continuels between glimmering lights (along with two stark naked lasses beckoning patrons to come inside) is a testament to Zoumboulakis, who recently fought off a two-year expropriation campaign on behalf of developer Société de développement Angus. Already, SDA has bought out all the businesses (save for an electronics store and a Chinese restaurant) on the west side of what is known as the Lower Main, and plans to turn the area into condos, office towers and an entertainment complex where strippers and drag queens won’t likely be on the marquee.
What might otherwise be a tale of displacing a girlie bar for the sake of safety and tourist dollars—think New York City’s 42nd Street in the early 1990s—is muddled by the fact that, well, Cleopatra isn’t just a girly bar. Ever since it opened in 1976, Cleopatra has hosted drag queen and transsexual shows upstairs from the more traditional strip club downstairs.
For Montreal’s gay community, the place was something of a saving grace, and the idea of appealing to both a straight and gay clientele is revolutionary, says queer issues columnist Richard Burnett. “Having both clienteles is pretty unique,” says Burnett, who writes the blog Three Dollar Bill. “Even today, venues in the gay village aren’t that open. It was also an important venue for transsexuals, who weren’t made to feel welcome, even in the gay community.”
Attempts to “change the Main’s image” are nearly as old as the street itself. The Catholic Church long considered the street a naughty, boozy scourge. A sweeping inquiry into organized crime in the early ’50s brought to the fore a young lawyer named Jean Drapeau, who in 1954 rode into the mayor’s office with promises of cleaning up the Main. (Needless to say, it remained as scuzzy as ever throughout Drapeau’s 29-year reign.) In 1992, then-mayor Jean Doré tried another tack: outlawing signs depicting “any images representing the human body” outside of strip clubs. Superior Court Judge Ginette Piché struck down the law, saying it was beyond the city’s jurisdiction.
Since then, attempts to push out strip clubs in general—and the Cleopatra in particular—have been more market-driven than ideological. “My neighbour came to me in the mid-’90s and said he wanted to build condos, and that if I don’t move out he was going to kick my butt. I told him you’d have to shine your boots a long time to kick my butt,” says Zoumboulakis. The most recent development plan would have seen Cleopatra removed to make way for a 12-storey office tower. Only the bar’s facade (minus the blinking sign) would remain. “If anyone can convince me that building a 12-storey glass office tower is good for artists, maybe I’d think differently.”
For once, the city agreed with him. In a 2009 report on the Lower Main, Montreal’s public consultation office president Louise Roy wrote how the district “was once the centre of Montreal’s red-light district” and as such should be protected from development. Mayor Gerald Tremblay’s administration dropped expropriation proceedings last March; SDA, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with its plans for condo and office towers—which must now incorporate a certain stubborn relic from the past. Zoumboulakis says he’s ready to welcome new customers.