Memorable Manitobans: Gladys Eva Johnston “Gladdie” Balsillie (1919-1987)
Restauranteur, burlesque agent.
Born in the Rural Municipality of Franklin on 27 March 1919, she attended St. Mary’s Academy. On 30 December 1950, she married musician Reginald Balsillie (1926-1971) and became his booking agent. In the 1950s, she helped to form the Women’s Auxiliary of the Winnipeg Flying Club. The couple eventually saved enough from his shows to purchase a Main Street restaurant called the Swinging Gate in 1961.
She tended bar until the restaurant closed in 1967 after which she set up a bartending school. Around this time, she began booking go-go dancers in hotel lounges, expanding the business by recruiting women from other industries including teachers and secretaries. She also became manager of the Airport Hotel’s Continental Room, where many of her “girls” performed, and her husband led the house band in the hotel’s lounge.
At the peak of her business, she became known as Winnipeg’s “Queen of Burlesque,” managing roughly 100 exotic dancers and booking gigs in 45 Winnipeg hotels, giving her a virtual monopoly over exotic dancing in the city. In 1980, she introduced the first male exotic dancers to Winnipeg. A large woman known for her flamboyant style, she was nevertheless a devout Catholic who made all her performers sign contracts forbidding drug use and prostitution.
She died at her Winnipeg home on 9 January 1987 and was buried in the St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery. At the time of her death, she owed more than $200,000 in back taxes, resulting in the bankruptcy of her estate.
Obituary [Reginald Balsillie], Winnipeg Free Press, 27 December 1971, page 18.
“Restauranteur, agent Balsillie dies at 67,” Winnipeg Free Press, 11 January 1987, page 5.
Obituary, Winnipeg Free Press, 11 January 1987, page 23.
“Burlesque queen’s estate forced into bankruptcy,” Winnipeg Free Press, 27 April 1987, page 5.
Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
This page was prepared by Jim Ingebrigtsen and Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 3 November 2022