TORONTO – Few people tell Madonna what to do, but Toronto police certainly tried.
It all came to a boil nearly 26 years ago — on May 29, 1990 — at the third and final Toronto show of the “Blond Ambition World Tour.”
Friction between the pop singer and local police had captured global headlines and Supt. Frank Bergen remembers it well — because he was assigned the unenviable task of standing up to the “Material Girl” at the height of her stardom.
As the story went, police told Madonna’s management they’d received complaints from audience members at the previous evening’s show over her simulated masturbation while singing “Like a Virgin.”
Officers said if she didn’t scrap her crotch-grabbing antics at the SkyDome, now known as the Rogers Centre, they’d be forced to arrest her on obscenity charges.
Bergen, a 29-year-old Toronto constable at the time, was grappling with his own perspective on the situation.
He says the obscenity kerfuffle was led by a police detective and Crown attorney who took a strong position that Madonna’s show shouldn’t go on.
“What I was struggling with was how do you go to the microphone and tell everyone the show is cancelled,” Bergen says.
“My role and my position was we were not going to shut the show down.”
The confrontation was immortalized in “Madonna: Truth or Dare,” the singer’s 1991 documentary. Looking back, he says the film didn’t exactly capture the full story.
“We were portrayed as being real knobs, if you will,” he says.
“I don’t think we were.”
Some of Madonna’s dancers still fondly remember the backstage drama.
“Oh, we wanted to get arrested, we really did,” says Kevin Stea, who was part of the tour.
“That may have been the most powerful moment I ever felt with Madonna. As a team we were all together.”
Cancelling the show was an option — but one that Madonna didn’t want to entertain.
The tour had already been generating controversy for its racy themes. Toronto concertgoers were handed a $1-off coupon for condoms as they entered the stadium.
Madonna also took a scripted moment in the show to encourage her male dancers to practice safe sex, in a nod to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that was near its peak.
Both moments placed extra scrutiny on the show and led some critics to accuse the singer of encouraging young fans to partake in casual sex.
A scene in “Truth or Dare” depicts Madonna gathered with her dancers and backup singers before the show for a prayer.
“Dear Lord, this is our last night in Toronto — the fascist state of Toronto,” she said.
“Remember that in the United States of America there is freedom of speech.”
She then marched past Bergen and his colleagues, hand-in-hand with her singers singing “Holiday,” as he and his fellow officers watched the documentary cameras capture it all.
The concert began and Madonna took advantage of the opportunity to tease Toronto police.
“Do you think that I’m a bad girl?” she asked the crowd to cheers. “Do you think that I deserve to be arrested? I hope so.”
When “Like a Virgin” began, Madonna started the performance as she always did, curled up on a red velvet bed.
Jose Gutierez, one of the dancers in the number, will never forget gazing into the abyss of the audience.
“From the stage you could see their (police) badges at all the exit signs around the arena,” he recalls.
“All you saw was shimmers.”
Madonna writhed and groped herself with the help of the dancers as her 1984 single reached its climax.
Then she moved on to her next hit.
When the show wrapped, Madonna’s entourage approached police to ensure they weren’t going to cart the singer away.
The officers assured them there were no problems.
“I think they just wanted free tickets,” jokes Gutierez with a hint of disappointment.
“I was into seeing what the jail system in Toronto looked liked with Madonna. I mean, how bad could it be?”
Madonna’s dancers recall touring with the pop singer in the upcoming documentary “Strike a Pose,” which recently screened at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival.
Bergen says he respects concerns over obscenity but concedes it would’ve been difficult to satisfy a “loose interpretation of the Criminal Code.”
It took a year before the officer would hear about his cinematic debut in “Truth or Dare.”
One afternoon, his teenage neighbour excitedly shouted across the backyard that he’d spotted him on the big screen.
Bergen admits his musical tastes didn’t sway towards Madonna, so the sheer magnitude of her celebrity was lost on him at the time.
And while he never spoke to Madonna himself, he ponders how the situation would’ve played out had officers arrested her that night.
“I don’t think we ever got to the (point), nor would we have, where we walked up onto the stage — and onto her bed — and handcuffed her,” he says.
“Then we would’ve been part of a different history.”
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