These showgirls sparkle with nostalgia and pride

by Barbara Black

The Simone de Beauvoir Institute has rarely had guests who took such obvious relish in getting men excited. The packed lounge of the women's studies centre rang with appreciative laughter and applause on February 11 as three women appeared on film and in person to talk about their youth in Montreal's glamorous nightclubs of the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

The film was Showgirls, a National Film Board documentary made by Meilan Lam in 1997. She got the idea from Concordia Archivist Nancy Marrelli, who had persuaded former dancer Tina Brereton to deposit her memorabilia with Concordia's substantial jazz collection.

Lam interviewed Brereton, her friend Bernice Jordan Whims and another entertainer, Olga Spencer Foderingham, for what turned into a richly historical and entertaining film. It combines their reminiscences with lots of film footage -- high-kicking hoofers, slinky showgirls, neon-lit Montreal streets and enthusiastic ads ("a star-studded sepia revue" and "creole beauties" are typical phrases).

For about 50 years, from roughly 1910 to 1960, Montreal was a glittering capital of drinking, gambling and good jazz. The small black community, restricted in so many other ways, benefited from the entertainment boom. The children of Canada's railway porters, living modestly in St. Henri, could pick up the latest dance moves from visiting American entertainers and get hired in the black "downtown" clubs (below the railway tracks -- the all-white clubs were "uptown" along Ste. Catherine St.).

ShowgirlsTina and Bernice started dancing in the clubs as schoolgirls to help the family finances, but they freely admit that they loved the glamour and independence, too. Now in their late 70s, they laughed as they recalled the excitement of strutting down the ramp of a big nightclub, "patting an old man on his bald head" and dodging attempts to grab feathers, sequins or a well-turned ankle.

They worked hard at their craft, sometimes seven days a week, and took pride in their ability. When the nightclub scene began its decline in the 1950s, they toured rural Canada, putting up with sometimes insulting treatment from the locals. Tina, however, was delighted to discover a substantial black community in Nova Scotia. Both women left dancing for more conventional jobs and raised happy families, but they kept their hand in, Tina with the amateur troupe, the Arcadians, and Bernice by singing in churches around town.

Olga Spencer Foderingham's background and experience were somewhat different. The daughter of a successful Montreal restaurateur, she was given a musical education and studied dancing in New York for a year before joining the Montreal clubs. Towards the end of the war, she and her sister were invited to join a big U.S. troupe that toured the Philippines and Japan entertaining the troops.

She returned to Montreal to mount her own "Rainbow Revue" at Rockhead's Paradise, and then settled in to teach several generations of children as a respected tap and ballet teacher. At 90, she retains the statuesque carriage of a dancer.

Photo: Olga Spencer Foderingham, Tina Brereton and Bernice Jordan Whims, three dancers from Montreal's golden years of nightclubbing, visited Concordia Archives' extensive jazz collection. Note the poster for the NFB film Showgirls in the background, and two young companions peeking over their shoulders.

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