Sex-trade workers, strippers and artists unite to save Montreal cabaret bar

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MONTREAL - With her feathered eye patch always snapped in place, Velma Candyass and her troupe of neo-burlesque, vaudeville "zombie" girls have carved out a niche in Montreal's alternative arts scene.
The Dead Doll Dancers' favourite place to shine is under the stage lights of Cafe Cleopatre, a hub for fetish, drag-queen and drag-king shows.
But "Cabaret Cleo," one of the few remaining icons in Montreal's shrinking red-light district, could soon face the wrecking ball, which would force Candyass and her group, including Hussy Loveless, Cammi Mudflaps and Foxy Glitterbush, to dance elsewhere.
"We're basically zombie girls who are very sexy and hot," Candyass said.
Candyass, along with a group local artists, a sex-trade workers' association and Cafe Cleopatre's longtime owner, say they won't let it go down without a fight.
"It does have a history and it does have a heritage - it certainly reeks with atmosphere," Candyass said of Cafe Cleopatre, home to the upstairs show bar as well as a main-floor club where strippers dance in the warmth of black lights.
"There's a thriving scene that's going on."
The once-bustling stretch near Sainte-Catherine Street, long known for its peep shows, pimps and pushers, now features a row of boarded-up businesses.
As part of the city's plans to add cultural venues to its downtown core, the section of Saint-Laurent Boulevard that has been a decades-long home for Cafe Cleopatre could be slated for expropriation.
The city will hold public consultations on the proposed project next week and councillors will vote on a report of the meetings at the end of the summer, a Montreal spokesman said.
"A lot of people complain to the city about the problems in the surrounding area - prostitution, drug dealing and squatters," Darren Becker said.
"Obviously it merits a serious look but at this point there's no final decision."
Montreal wants the area to eventually make way for the expanding Quartier des spectacles (or performing-arts quarter), a district the city hopes will become a tourist destination.
At first, a few denizens on the strip, such as Cafe Cleopatre owner Johnny Zomboulakis, greeted the news of a local overhaul with excitement.
That was until the developer, who has offered to buy out Zomboulakis, dropped off notices a couple of months ago saying the Cleo could be expropriated.
"I always hoped for someone to rebuild, to revitalize, to do something with those properties, and we get to today's date - the person is there but he wants to do it without me," said Zomboulakis, who has owned the 33-year-old Cafe Cleopatre since 1985.
"I have no room in his plans."
The developer aims to replace part of the block, which is also home to a century-old hot-dog joint called the Montreal Pool Room, with a 12-storey office building and storefronts.
A spokeswoman for the developer, Societe du developpement Angus Development, declined to comment on the project until after Tuesday's public hearing.
"It's quite discouraging to hear that there's no proposed plans for show bars or small bars," Candyass said.
"There's low-brow, there's high-brow art and alternative arts and this is just another aspect of the arts scene and we have as much right to have a place."
Cleopatre supporters have planned a rally called "Friends of Cabaret Cleo," which will be held Saturday evening at the bar. They're also ciruclating a petition and have set up a Facebook group.
Emilie Laliberte, who works for Stella, a sex-trade workers' organization, thinks the city should rehabilitate the area, but not at the cost of communities that are already there.
She said Zomboulakis has had a big impact on people in the neighbourhood and often lends out his upstairs space to up-and-coming artists.
"He offers excellent work conditions for the women who are on the first floor - the strippers," she said, adding he hires women of all ages and body types.
"That's something you don't necessarily find in the other strip clubs."

Organizations: Angus Development

Geographic location: Montreal, Sainte-Catherine Street, Saint-Laurent Boulevard

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