After 40 years of showcasing gyrating buff bodies to the cheers of women celebrating an impending marriage or the ending of one, and the distinct displeasure of the church next door, Montreal’s iconic Le 281 male strip bar is calling last dance.
Owner Annie Delisle, who took over the establishment started in 1980 by her father, announced the building she owns on Ste-Catherine St. just east of St-Laurent Blvd. has been sold to a developer, and will close Sept. 5.
“At 50 years of age, the night life is starting to get hard on my body,” Delisle said. “The heart is still in it, but the body is a bit less enthusiastic.”
Delisle said she’s willing to sell the business to a serious promoter, but is no longer interested in running it.
The club will continue operating through the spring and summer, with new acts and lighting installed to celebrate its 40th anniversary, which it will hit in April. The closure will put more than a dozen dancers and other staff out of a job.
A sensation when it opened, with lineups down the street in part because of its policy of not accepting reservations, Club 281 was Montreal’s first male strip bar geared toward women.
Delisle’s father took the idea from the Crazy Horse Bar in Miami, converting his South American-style dance bar at 281 Ste-Catherine St. E.
He placed a newspaper ad seeking nude dancers, or “go-go boys” as they were then known, and worried no one would respond. There were 75 men at the first audition.
The club benefited from the feminist movement, when “women were asserting themselves and standing up for what they wanted,” the owners said. Daily lineups for the club, which was open seven days a week from 2 p.m. to 3 a.m., moved the owners to open a second and third floor to accommodate the crowds.
The club took in more than 1.5 million visitors in its first three years, celebrating weddings, divorces, anniversaries, birthdays and bachelorette parties, the owners said.
Unlike strip bars with female dancers frequented by men, clubs like the renamed Le 281 tended to attract women going out in groups to have a good time.
“Women are having a crazy night out with their girlfriends,” Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher told the Gazette in 2004. “They’re sharing stories and building friendships. It’s something that connects them to their friends. They could be going out to the zoo.”
It was not without its detractors, however. When the club had to move in 2004 because the Université du Québec à Montréal bought the building (making it the only university in North America to own a strip club), it reopened down the street, next to a United Church.
“I know we’re in a red light district, but to have a place exploiting the human body, dedicated to eroticism and nudity, side-by-side with a historic church, is unacceptable,” said Pierre Landry, a member of Eglise Unie St. Jean’s council.
Once it was opened, Landry said church members would accept it and move on, but, he noted drily to the Gazette, he was not invited to the pre-opening party. The owners tried to allay fears by installing soundproofing and diverting lineups away from the church.
Times changed, and the allure of strip bars in the age of the internet, even in sin city Montreal, dimmed. Le 281 went to opening just three nights a week, with a cover charge of $10 to $15, and beer selling for $8.50.
And in six months, the announcer will call last dance and the gyrating will come to an end.