Even before they found the body, we talked about that girl.
“She looks like a cat,” my husband said, the day that Lola arrived in Gaslight Gables.
He had said it casually, almost dismissively, like the way you’d say “the sun’s come out” or “it’s gone cold outside.” But Lola did look like a cat, with her yellow hair, moon shaped eyes and sharp little teeth. And the way she moved! It was as though her body didn’t really belong to her, like it was just some exotic, fantastically shaped instrument hanging from her neck.
Lola liked to stare – she was always staring at everyone around her and if you smiled at her she’d never smile back, she’d just keep staring. I did see her smile once, only once, and I’d swear to you that when she did, razor blades fell out of her mouth.
On the day that the body was discovered, we clapped our hands to our cheeks like that kid from Home Alone and arranged our faces into Edvard Munch masks of horror.
“Shocking!” we cried, stuffing our fists into our mouths to keep from laughing. “It’s all so shocking!”
And long after the body had gone cold and the reporters went away, we still talked about Lola.
We talked about that girl until the blood dripped down our chins.
(This flash fiction was inspired by one of my favorite movies, Cat People (1942). I may eventually turn this into something longer…a novella perhaps.)
The sleek, white plastic tube of flame-orange wax called out to me from the bowels of the Zellers’ cosmetic aisle.
The year was 1988 and I was ten years old. At home, a large poster of Madonna, in character for Who’s That Girl (1987), hung over my bed: clad in fishnets, a leather jacket and fingerless gloves. More intimidating than the revolver in her hands was the stark red lipstick on her face. Fierce. Fabulous. I didn’t understand why the other girls at my school didn’t like her. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to wear lipstick too.
Every Saturday, my mother would go grocery shopping at the Kipling Queensway Mall and my dad would give my sister and I a dollar each to buy either trash or a treat at the mall’s dollar store or Zellers. But this Saturday, I didn’t feel like a chocolate bar or a bag of chips. I didn’t need another whoopee cushion or copy of Tiger Beat magazine.
I wanted that lipstick.
It didn’t matter that it cost a little more than the dollar my dad had given me. To my ten-year-old mind, that was an unfairness that could be easily corrected. And so, taking advantage of my then-mousy invisibility, I quietly slipped the coveted tube into the pocket of my Levi’s. I don’t remember feeling nervous or even giddy about it and I certainly didn’t feel guilty – that red lipstick belonged to me. It was mine. I did however make the colossal mistake of boasting to my sister about the steal, in proud whispers, on the ride home.
“Hey Daaaa-dddd,” she called out smugly. “Heather stole a lipstick!“
And so, before I knew it, I was back in the Zellers department store, handing over my swag and stammering out an apology to the bored teenage clerk whose only response to my foray into crime was a glassy-eyed shrug.
Ever since I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s as a teenager, I’ve held an admiration for the art of burlesque. If you’ve never seen the movie, or it’s been awhile, there’s a great scene where Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard duck into an early morning girlie show with the goal of getting zozzled. A voluptuous beauty in a skintight fishtail hemmed dress appears onstage and begins bumping her shapely hips to the beat of a vaudevillian drum. “Gracious!” Audrey exclaims, yanking her oversized sunglasses down her nose. “Do you think she’s handsomely paid?”
As an adult, I had the pleasure of attending burlesque performances in Toronto; my friend Lizzie used to run a great Cabaret Noir which often featured burlesque dancers. I love the sexy cheekiness of this artform, as well as its unapologetic femininity. Much imagination and preparation goes into planning and executing these performances; the skill of the burlesque dancer is often overlooked and/or underrated.
Much of the action in my debut novel Filthy Sugar takes place at a burlesque house. One of the joys of writing Filthy Sugar was that I got to be my own Busby Berkeley. Coming up with ideas and choreography for my protagonist Wanda Wiggles was super fun. Some of the burlesque scenes were inspired by famous striptease performers: a chapter in which Wanda bathes almost naked in a giant glass of champagne is a nod to Lili St. Cyr, while Bettie Page and Tempest Storm’s act in the 1955 film Teaserama gave me the idea for the sexy maid/mistress routine between Wanda and fellow burlesque dancer/lover Lili Belle. In addition to watching vintage footage of burlesque performances and wiggle movies, I also took a drop-in class at the Toronto School of Burlesque, which helped me to learn the basics of the artform.
Some of the routines were inspired by nothing more than my imagination. Here is one of my favorites, excerpted from my novel:
The chorines, dressed in shimmering onyx black cat suits with a mammoth feather affixed to the back of each girl’s bowed head, lock arms as they arrange themselves into the shape of a giant almond. At the sound of Eddie’s fat drumroll, the hoofers roll their shoulders backwards and bob their heads: the assembly line of feathers fluttering flirtatiously. I emerge from the centre of the elephantine eye with arms outstretched, spinning atop a small revolving stage like a little ballerina doll in a jewellery box.
Coyly, I peer over my shoulder at the audience. Is Mr. Manchester in the house tonight? Is he watching me? I part my lips and slip a gloved finger into my mouth. Slowly, I remove the soft satin grey glove with my teeth, tossing it toward the footlights. The band kicks it into high gear and I wiggle my bottom and shake my hips as the crowd roars. I wrap my left arm over my chest and unzip the back of my dress with my right hand. Holding the gown loosely over my breasts, I throw out a wink and a smile to the audience. With the impatient pounding of Eddie’s drum, I let the dress fall as the eye blinks and swallows me whole.
Filthy Sugar is available from Inanna Publications as both a paperback and as an e-book. It is also available in Kindle, Kobo and audio editions. Or ask for it at your local bookseller!
Honest Ed’s was one of the most inclusive places in the city of Toronto. It wasn’t just a bargain basement; with its fading posters and head-shots of long forgotten stars scotch taped to its poorly painted walls, Honest Ed’s was a free museum of Toronto’s theatrical history. Toronto tends to take itself a little too seriously sometimes and Honest Ed’s was a reminder that it’s okay to be a little silly and to have some fun.
The delightfully tacky and iconic landmark permanently turned off its lights on December 31st, 2016. A couple of years prior, the very talented photographer Nigel Hamid of Toronto Verve took some photos of me, outside and inside of Honest Ed’s. I feel very lucky to have these photographic memories of a fun and never-to-be-forgotten historic wonder.
“My first awareness was the sound of laughter and applause, the scent of powder, perfume, greasepaint; and as the months passed, my world became a kaleidoscope of music, colors, and lights, the rhythm of train wheels pressing the tracks, the wail of a whistle, the exquisite harmony of the orchestra playing, the exquisite discord of the orchestra tuning up, the cadence of that familiar call, ‘Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jack!'” – Joan Blondell, Centre Door Fancy (1972)
Curvaceous and quick witted, Joan Blondell was the quintessential sassy dame of the Pre-Code era. One of the hardest working actors in Hollywood – she starred in a total of fifty-four films during the 1930s alone – Blondell was “born in a trunk” and began her lifelong career in show business at the age of four-months on the stages of Vaudeville.
In 1972, Blondell published her novel Centre Door Fancy, described by her publisher as “a fascinating (story) of the world of Vaudeville and the world of Hollywood by a woman who was born into one and became a star in the other.”
“Immediately, she examined Miss Armstrong closely as a mistress. (…) Francie looked at her legs. They were long, slender and exquisitely molded. She wore the sheerest of flawless silk stockings, and expensively-made high-heeled pumps shod her beautifully arched feet. ‘Beautiful legs, then, is the secret of being a mistress’, concluded Francie.” – Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)
“One of the most important things in being well-dressed, to my way of thinking, is to watch your hose. No matter how expensive the rest of your costume, if your hosiery is not sheer and clear and in the right shade, the entire effect can be ruined. Therefore I am careful about the shade of hose I wear with each frock, and always, always have hose that are sheer and utterly ringless.” – Joan Blondell, Modern Screen Magazine, January 1937
Stockings have steadily fallen out of favor over the past four decades. Fishnet and patterned leggings are still donned by fun loving fashionistas, but today drugstore pantyhose is only one step ahead of crocks in the style department. However, there was a time when stockings were the must have accessory, for both everyday wear and to complement an elegant outfit. Held in place by garter belts, with a straight seam up the back, fully fashioned stockings (or “back seam stockings”) were worn by everyone from factory girls to movie stars.
Looking for the perfect gift for the vintage lover on your list? My publisher Inanna Publications is currently having a holiday sale: use the coupon code HOLIDAY20 at checkout and receive 30% off my debut historical novel Filthy Sugar.
Set in the 1930s, Filthy Sugar follows the adventures of my voluptuous redheaded heroine Wanda Whittle who finds fame on the burlesque stage at the Apple Bottom theatre as “Wanda Wiggles”. Shady coppers, coke-snorting temperance ladies, cowardly boxers and dime-store bootleggers: Wanda will encounter them all on her journey from rags to riches and back again as she discovers that a girl doesn’t need a lot of sugar to be sensational!
“Filthy Sugar is so delicious it’s positively sinful! Wanda Wiggles will take you to another time and place, but a place where love, lust, greed, sex and power are just as heartbreaking and complex as they are today”. – Lisa de Nikolits, author of The Occult Persuasion and the Anarchist’s Solution and The Rage Room
Support small businesses and local authors this Christmas and get your hands on some Filthy Sugar here.
Brazen and busty, Wanda Wiggles, the star of Filthy Sugar, has taken the burlesque world by a storm! She’s been described by the Underwood bangers as both a “voluptuous dream sweeter than a whipped cream strawberry sundae” and a “Vengeful Vamp”. Here at the Soda Fountain, we thought it was high time to sit down with the rebellious redhead herself. So we put on our best negligee, broke out the rotary dial telephone and gave Ms. Wiggles a call on the horn. Join us below as we discuss everything from burlesque to brassieres and bathtub gin with the infamous hoofer!
Last week, my partner and I visited beautiful Niagara Falls. Staying over for four nights, we had the opportunity to go exploring past the tourist hotspots and discovered that there are indeed many forgotten treasures to be found beyond the Horseshoe.
Unlike Toronto which, to rephrase Joni Mitchell, paved paradise to put up a condo lot, Niagara Falls has held on to its many interesting historical buildings, such as the vacant Toronto Power Generating System, which despite its name is located along the Niagara River. Built in 1906, the plant shut down operations in 1974 but the impressive, Beaux-Arts style building still stands. We also spotted an iron scow, above the Falls, that has been there since 1918 after a historic rescue.
It was the abandoned Inn on the Niagara Parkway Motel however, which captivated my interest and imagination the most. We spotted this Hitchcock-ian relic on our drive home and I insisted on stopping to take some photos.
Perhaps due to its mouthful of a name (is it an Inn or a Motel? Pick one!), there is frustratingly little information to be found online. The sign and building look to my untrained eyes to be from the 1950s or 1960s and according to AbandonedCanada.com, it seems to have been closed for sometime. In April of 2019, there was a fire at the abandoned inn but I can’t seem to find the cause of it.
Once a quiet and cozy get-away for Niagara sightseers, the Inn on the Niagara Parkway Motel is now a hideaway for tired ghosts.
Addendum and Update May 5th, 2021: Thank you to two local readers who advised me that sadly, there was another fire at the abandoned Inn on Saturday, May 1st, 2021. For more information on the Inn on the Niagara Parkway Motel, please see this great article by the Niagara Falls Review, which reports on the recent fire and also provides some interesting background info on the Inn itself. According to this article, the Inn on the Niagara Parkway Motel opened its doors in June of 1959 and at the time boasted both a restaurant and a dairy bar (mmmm…ice cream!).
My debut novel Filthy Sugar is now available with Inanna Publications! I thought I’d share a short excerpt with you on this lovely Friday morning.
“Highballs and hard times! Diamonds and breadlines!”
Clad in his trademark checked suit and comedy derby, Brock belts out “Highballin’ Hard Times,” a song he wrote to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. A row of chorines dressed up as nineteenth-century saloon girls dance the can-can as I bathe centre stage in an elephantine cocktail glass filled with real champagne.
Humming along with Brock’s booze tune, I joyfully kick my legs out towards the Apple Bottom’s newly installed mirrored ceiling.
“My pockets are empty but my honey’s got money!”
I dunk my head under the golden liquid, not caring if my hair gets sticky.
“As long as I’m with her all my days will be sunny!”
I take a generous gulp of fizz water before coming up again for air. Happy and dizzy, I shake my tassels at the mirthful audience, who roar their approval. I wonder if Mr. Manchester is in the theatre tonight. Just the thought of him watching me like this, with my wet, near naked body glistening under the hot lights, excites me. I have only ever known one man “in the biblical sense”: Guy Bacon, a rather plump banker, eleven years my senior, whom I had met while taxi dancing. I had not found Guy particularly handsome or interesting, but he was very persistent; I was kind of bored. So, one evening, after he had spent all of his tickets on me, I agreed to go for a ride down to the lake in his cherry-red Chevrolet Sports Cabriolet. Continue reading “Filthy Sugar: An Excerpt”→