Washington world of declining returns for burlesque houses and his luck is still holding. As Harry MacArthur once wrote of him, "If Sam Shanker fell through the ice in the river in mid-winter, he would come up with a hot stove under one arm and a mermaid in the other."
In the days gone by when Jimmy Lake - the unofficial mayor of 9th Street - operated the Gayety, Theater here, burlesque was a legitimate form of entertainment. There was chorus girls and comedians, and the ecdysiasts hardly peeled at all. The comics were the top bananas, working in lowbrow skits of Falstaffian dimensions.
"Pure" burlesque changed by the end of the Twenties. The comedy became increasingly genteel and respectable, and the main attraction was girls, lots of girls, increasingly naked. George Jean Nathan, the eminent theater critic who loved burlesque, bitterly lamented the passing of this form of rowdy ethnic humor. Nathan wrote: "The Hebrew comedian, instead of stealing up on the cooch dancer and jocosely belaboring her rear with a large bologna sausage, as in the happy days of the McKinley era, simply sidled nervously around her for a moment or two and made his exit. The Irish comique, instead of leaning under the table to get a better view of the soubrette's ample limb and falling on his nose as a result, simply went into a tame song and dance with the lady."
These comedians are forgotten, but the demure peelers of the Thirties are still legendary: Ann Corio, Georgia Sothern, Gypsy Rose Lee. Their acts were tame by contemporary standards of indecency: G-strings and pasties stayed firmly in place. These girls were dancers of the veil, twirlers of the tassels. They had class; they worked only the big theaters and made big money.
When the stars of burlesque came to Washington, they played before presidents at the old Gayety Theater on 9th Street. It was a busy daytime and nighttime amusement area then. But not longer. The street is now deserted at night and only a few peep shows and dirty bookstores keep company with the Gayety Theater. This reincarnation of the Gayety (recently the Art Theater) is not to be confused with the Gayety Theater (once the Shubert) which stood across from the FBI building and sported a forty-foot-high sign of Tempest Storm. That theater, which fell recently to a wrecker's ball to make room for a parking lot, is in turn not to be confused with the Gayety Theater once owned by Jimmy Lake. One of the last links with the old days of burlesque in Washignton is Abraham Attenson, the portly manager of the Gayety Theater, who has been in burlesque since Hector was a pup. He is at the theater afternoons and nights, six days a week, sitting in his new office on the second floor or pacing the worn sidewalk in front of the theater. A master of blarney and ballyhoo, he occasionally stands in front of the Gayety and works on the passing crowds. He is a man who plays the angles, looks for the gimmick. His offer of senior citizen, discounts (half-price on Thursday) got him on TV and in the papers. For a while, he had a midnight show with female impersonators but gave that up when he found the boys were irresponsible.
Attenson, who has worked in the business for fifty years, remembers well back when "the strippers really couldn't do anything. They worked with G-strings and pasties." He says that he changed all that a decade ago by ordering his strippers to perform without pasties to challenge the local ban on going topless. On October 7 and 10, 1966, five of his strippers, therefore, were arrested for performing "obscene" dances, and he would up in the Court of General Sessions. Attenson's attorney, John T. Bonner, called to the witness stand Velvet Solange - a stripper not on trial - who testified that the residents of D.C. were denied the sights seen by audiences in many other cities across the land. Two pairs of her pasties were offered in evidence. When the federal prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence Lippe, asked Miss Solange the purpose of her act, she gave this memorably reply: "The main purpose is to remove my clothes, I suppose."
The star witness for the prosecution, Dr. John R. Cavanaugh, a psychiatrist at Catholic University, testified to prurient interest which he defined as an "abnormal interest in sex." The good doctor assured the seven men and five women of the jury that "about ninety-eight per cent of the audience would get a bad effect from such performances. You see, ninety-eight per cent of the men who go to burlesque theater houses are sick when they go in." The testimony of the doctor, who admitted on examination that he attended burlesque shows (solely out of psychiatric curiosity, he said), convinced the jury, and Attenson was convicted under the indecency law. The conviction was later overturned, and Attenson's girls began to go bare-breasted.
The show at the Gayety now leaves nothing to the imagination. "The limit," he says, "is if they touch themselves there . . . I have signs in the dressing room and I instruct every girl who comes here how to work. There is nothing wrong with the nude body of a woman. If she's onstage and parades around, that's good enough. That's all you need. Besides, the police have been in here; they are very efficient and they don't let you get away with anything."
"Fasten your seat belts! This girls is going to give you a trip around the world - not in eighty days but in twenty minutes. You have not seen the Nation's Capital until you have seen the sexy and sensational MISS SANDY KING!!!"
A tall strawberry blonde walks out on the stage of the Gayety Theater dressed in a full-length black gown and a red cape. She parades across the stage, matching her stride to the rhythms of the taped rock music. She starts spinning, her long hair flashing around her head like a berserk nimbus. The tempo picks up when she turns to the front; her thighs begin to pump as she works into her carnal rhythms. There is no mistaking the message of her lips.
Sandy begins to peel. The gloves come first. She seems to have an unnatural affection for one of them, caressing its white length and lovingly popping a cloth digit into her mouth. After her fingers a hidden catch, her dress comes off, dropping softly to the wooden stage. She is still wearing a panoly of lace undergarments and stockings locked together with a network of sinister straps. Sandy King has a fine, strong body.
She walks across the stage and down a twenty-foot-long runway that extends out into the audience. She is talking dirty to the suckers in the front row and letting out what sounds like a war whoop. "Oh sex," she shouts, "I LOVE IT!" She moves over to the edge of the runway and asks an ogle-eyed-man for help getting out of her bra. He goes fumbling respectfully for the hooks, and she grabs his head and then she suddenly backs away and takes it off herself. Applause. She turns and turns and turns, then whips her back with the bra - hard.
The music has picked up tempo again, the spotlight is a deeper shade of red. She sits on a crimson couch to strip off her stockings, then pulls away the rest of her outfitts. She is as naked as the day she was born. She hunkers down on the runway and thursts her hops at a Japanese tourist who makes an obscene gesture in appreciation.
Another song begins. The stripper goes into a rountine that must have been choreographed by Jack Lalanne: acrobatics, five-finger exercises, third positions, tumbles, splits, headstands, somerassults, and bridges. She works up a sweat that beads on her forehead and shines brightly along her sleek back. She is lying on the runway, scant inches from the anxious faces out the delighted patrons. She chews on her fingers as her body goes into quick convulsions, subsiding with the music.
You ain't seen nothing yet.
Next Sandy King brings a chair out onto the runway and kneels at the feet of her imaginary lover. And after a long, erotic pantomime the act is over. The patrons applaud strenuously - a few bold enough to give her a standing ovatin. She blows them kisses as she stoops to gather up her undergarments and then walks carefully down the stairs back into the narrow dressing room behind the red curtains handing across the front of the theater.
The light is harsh after the wicked red glow of the theater and the long mirrow along one wall catches Sandy's tiredness. She is a tall girl with a sharp, thin face, whom you might not notice on an empty street; soft-spoken and reserved, she speaks the argot of the clubs and theaters were she spends most of her waking hours. She was born in Miami, Florida, twenty-three years ago and raised there. She was married at an early age, had a baby, was divorced and then worked as a nurses' aide and an assistant in a child care center. Burlesque, she says, is the only satisfying work she has ever done.
She got into burlesque on a dare. "I was staying with a lady who was a stripper working in Miami at an art theater," she recalls. "All the girls left, and she needed another girl. She asked me if I would like to try something different. I was high and I says OK and I got up there and danced a couple of numbers and kept failing on my butt." She learned how to strip professionally by watchigh other performers and by utilizing her natural abilities as a dancer. "I met several of the big stars and they showed me the basics like working with my hands and how to twitch," she says. "My act is like theirs, only a little funkier. I do lotion. I do stockings. I do a little bit of everything when my head is into doing it." Normally, the gents who line the runway in Sandy's King's act are granted the visual privileges of the practicing gynecologist. "My number is to please the audience," Sandy explains without embarrassment. "I get up there and just do things that they don't think I would do. I get down to the nitty gritty." She doesn't want to spend her life being second banana to girls less talented than herself. "Burlesque is gonna start coming up again," Sandy says, "but not like the old days, 'cause it's changed so much - it's gonna be strange. They say there is no such a thing anymore as the Queen of Burlesque, but I believe there is. I hope to get good, really good. If I really enjoy something, I get into it and do it well, so it's gonna happen good when it happens. I want to become fantastic."
The Gayety picks up most of its customers - at $6 a head - off the busy afternoon streets. The art of the nighttime now has a daytime patronage. The audience at a midday performance is, as you might suspect, mostly male, middle-aged, and given the stiff admission charge, fairly well off. "You'd be surprised to know the clientele we get here," Attenson says. "Businessmen, lawyers. We get people from all these office buildings here; the FBI is right next door. There is a demand for burlesque. I would say that this is still a good burlesque town but it's hard to do anything at night." The Gayety is almost empty for the late show some weekday nights. The last show is 9:40, when a lot of people, afraid of the streets at night, are home in bed.
A bad week hurts because the overhead at the theater is high. "You can lose $1000, $1500, $2000 a week," Attenson says. "I'd be happy to make $1000. Weather can knock you out; the World Series or football on Sunday or Monday night. There are a lot of things that can hurt. You can lose money very rapidly. There's a show on-stage right now that cost $1800. You have operating costs besides that: house nut, cashiers, ads. These girls cost me an arm and a leg. The side girls get $350 or $400, and I average $500 to $700 for the headliners."
Attenson will pay more for a big-name act. "People still know the names like Templest Storm and Blaze Starr. I paid Miss Nude Universe through commission and she made $2500. Our best draw is Amber Mist. I opened up with her. She's a $1000-a-week girl. She does a beautiful talking number and kids the audience and does very well, she's very sharp. T.T. Red is a real polished girl. Rusty Wayne is very good."
The phone rings. It is Sol Goodman in Baltimore calling about a booking at a house that Attenson manages in Youngstown.
"Yeah, Sol? . . . Who's the sex change? . . . I've never heard of her . . . I know she's a good worker . . . Costs a nickel? . . . When's the last time she's played Youngstown? . . . She ain't been there in eight or nine months? Then put her in and send some photos . . .
Amateur night: Friday. The house is packed, expectant. Kitty Karson and Sandy King and April Love - Gayety regulars that week - are taking their last bows as Delmar signals the beginning of the amateur show. The house lights are turned up while Delmar walks down the stage stairs and into the audience.
"Let me find somebody - here I come," Delmar in tones, sounding like a sinister child playing hide-and-seek.
"You're not a lady even if you have long hair," he says to an understandably shy man. "you want to go up there?" Scattered boos are heard.
He wends his way to the back of the house and finds - RITA! She is a slim young black girl, a go-go dancer who wants a shot at the $300 in prize money. Rita looks a little nervous. "It'll be all right," Delmar reassures as they walk down the aisle, "They don't bite." A wit among the audience calls out an obscene rejoinder and there is laughter. Delmar and Rita sit on the red prop couch as Delmar asks her about herself. "Just a housewife," she says, not altogether candidly."
The music starts. Rita strips like a flash out of her red boots and Farmer Brown jeans. She has a finely-muscled body and small breasts. She thrusts her pelvis at the audience and does an occasional split. There is a lot of energy here, but not much finesse. She finishes fast to strong applause. A contender.
Delmar walks back among his people, insults a few more men, and then stumbles upon two farm girls who have been sitting in the back of the theater since early that evening. Delmar takes the nearest one, Joyce, with him up on stage. She is a tall, stout girl, still wearing her brown street coat, who is clearly terrified and hangs her head as Delmar attempts to engage her in a little repartee.
The music begins. Joyce begins to dance. A few people laugh as Joyce strips out of her black skirt and blue top. She is wearing a white bra and pink underpants. People leave. She strips down to her bare skin and dances some more, snapping her fingers out of time to the music. The song ends. Joyce scratches her head. She has still not taken off her low-heeled brown shoes. Music again. Joyce dances some more. Waiting in the back of the house, her friend, Ellie, yells, "Sit down, Joyce," knowing what the boys in the front row want to see. Joyce ignores her.
Delmar helps Joyce off stage and then brings up Ellie, a big women in a short, black skirt and purple top. Her dark hair hangs straight to her shoulders, and her skin is winter pale. She must weigh 200.
"Ladies and gentlemen - Ellie."
She does a little rock and roll, then quickly strips to her prosaic undergarments. She is surprisingly light on her feet for a fat woman, and was probably once a good dancer. Her breasts are enormous. She unhooks her bra with difficulty. She holds one of her breasts in each hand and runs at the audience. APplause and laughter rise up to greet her. She swings her giant breasts from side to side, then kicks like a Rockette manque. She drops her drawers, holding her stomach in place.
Ellie is up there working; awkward and out of breath, she still has all the right burlesque moves. She even gets down on the runway, displaying her massive charms and doing headstands. People shout encouragement. She starts playing with the guys in the front rows, one of whom plants a kiss on her quivering back.
Ellie finishes to loud, sustained applause. Delmar comes back on stage as she gathers up her belongings he dubs her "Big Momma Ellie," and asks if she ever has taken off her clothers for a living. "No, only in bed," she innocently replies.
Ellie wants the prize money badly, and she has the best of motives. Standing tiredly in the lobby after the second show, she explains "You get money for just entering. I've got seven kids and I want to be able to buy them nice things. Same with Joyce. We did this for the kids." Ellie then names her seven young children one by one, ticking them off on her fingers.
Ellie and Joyce had decided to enter the amateur show after reading Abe's ads in the paper. This is Joyce's first show, but Ellie had done a couple before in Baltimore. The shows are hard on the girls because of their fear and inexperience. "I was scared," Ellie confesses. "So I took a diet pill and had a coupld of drinks. The music wasn't right for me; it was too slow. But I had watched a couple of the other gilrs and just did what they did and got right down on the floor." She is exhausted and wants to go home.
Amateur night: Saturday.
Rain. You can see the gloom on Abe's face. The street is empty in front of the Gayety. "Rain has washed us right out of the box," Abe complains. "If it hadn't of rained we'd of had a full house." You can sense the depression when you walk in through the doors of the theater. The seats are only half full. It's quiet, perhaps a little surly.
This audience is going to be rough.
But before the amateurs begin, the pros come on.
The headliner, April Love, is decked out in a black evening suit and a spangled top hat. Some guys asks April what her birth sign is and, before she can say Pisces, a wit among us yells "money." People laugh. April is little goofy; perhaps she has been smoking a little funny weed. She has s-l-o-w-e-d d-o-w-n a lot since the night before. She walks to the back of the stage and looks at the audience through her legs, waving aimlessly. She parades up and down grinning like a Cheshire cat. Three songs go by before she bares her breasts. Some malcontent yells, "What happened to your chest?" and April smiles, actually smiles at him.
She goes over to old guy and kisses him full on the mouth, unsettling his hat. She talks dirty to the audience. She winds up her act, naked at last, squatting mindlessly on the edge of the runway, her smile steady and unbending.
And old guy with no teeth and a battered hat stumbles down the aisle looking for a place to sit. Another takes a drink from a bottle in a paper bag.
The amateur talent is again thin tonight, and Delmar is going to have to stretch the early show as far as possible. So before venturing into the audience, he decides to tell a few jokes. This is a mistake.
"I'm gonna go out now in the audience and find a few girls," he begins, "unless you want me to take off my clothes. I got more to show than they do." The leer in his voice fools no one. "I'm actually a boy and a girl," Delmar continues with a crooked face. Nobody laughs. Delmar calls for the lights and walks bravely into the audience.
There is a sudden, desperate vulgarity to the evening. "Laugh, I thought I'd die," Delmar mumbles while trying not to find Rita too quickly. After she gets off, Delmar goes back on his treasure hunt. "Everybody's bashful down front," Delmar observes, "everybody's sitting in back. I don't know why." Delmar goes over to a young guy in a Redskin hat who is a regular at the Gayety, a devout fan of Sandy King who brings her chocolates. Delmar gets Redskin up on stage and sits him down on the strip, and Redskin refuses. "Come on, Redskin," Sandy King yells out from her seat in the balcony. The boy drops his head. Delmar really wants the kids to take off her pants. "Would you like to parade around on the runway?" Delmar wheedles. "All you have to do is smile. You can't see the audience. Want to do a double? I'll take mine off if you take yours off. That's legal."
"I'll put fifty on Redskin," Sandy yells.
The kid wants no part of this, and Delmar walks him back to his seat, mumbling aimless asides.
Delmar finds Joyce sitting in the back row. She is less nervous than the night before, but she was not born to dance. Every time she puts her foot down it looks like she was stepped in something. The only new wrinkle in her act is that she tries to stand on her head but toppless over.
A few people in the front row leave; others rush to claim their places.
Joyce goes off to scattered applause, and Delmar finds Ellie.
He does a little patter to put her at ease.
"What a hunk," Delmar says.
"It's all woman."
"Are you nervous, honey? Yeah? Well, you take your clothes off in front of your husband, don't you?"
"He left me," Ellie explains.
"I hope you win first prize," Delmar says, consolingly.
"They'll all leave," moans Ellie as a few disillusioned souls begin to make tracks for the exits.
She starts to dance. Ellie is working hard to bring back the stomach as an ergenous zone. She rolls across the stage like a seal stranded on high ground. The music goes on too long, and she gets red in the face. More people are leaving. The hottest part of her act comes when she accidentally brushed against a hot runway lightbulb and jumps straight up like she had been dynamited.
The music stops and Delmar walks back on stage.
"I lost twenty pounds," Ellie tells Delmar.
"You did beautiful, honey."
Ellie picks up her clothes. As she disappears down the stairs, Delmar tries another joke. "As of January 20 all the hookers are leaving D.C.," he says. "They don't want to work for peanuts." Silence. "You don't have to laugh at the jokes, I get paid for them anyway. Laugh, I thought I'd s -." The early show grinds to a silent close.
The late show is a disaster. Gone is the laughter of yesterday. April Love is almost immobile, goofy. She grins and grins and tries to wipe the grin off her face; it doesn't work. She has forgotten to take her clothes off, but she has nice teeth.
A few guys in the front row shout insults. Does she care?
She begins to strip, her movements slowed down and blurred like she was under water. Every now and then she sticks her desultory tongue out at someone in the audience and then breaks up.
When Delmar comes out on stage to begin final and conclusive amateur show - the one that will determine the division of prize money - some guys down front have gotten ugly and insulting. As Delmar tells the audience that next week's attraction loves children and cultivated men, a hard case yells, "Yeah, then what's she gonna do withe you"? Delmar ignores him. His friend accuses Delmar of lisping too much, and the comedian - stunned by this injustice - replies, "I don't. I don't lisp at all."
Two cops walk in to get out of the rain.
Delmar goes through the motions and gets the girls up on stage again: Rita, Joyce, Ellie. THe judging begins, and each man is asked to applaud for his favorite. The contest is close, and Delmar sends the girls up to Abe for a final judgement, Ellie wins herself first prize.
The gorilla grabs the sleeping girl and shakes her awake. This dark beauty struggles and screams piercingly as the beast tears away the flimsy garment covering her ample breasts. When the performance ends, the illusion shatters like a funhouse mirror.Taking bows up on stage is a bizzare figure, half-woman, half-beast; the left claw and thick foot, black hide and fearsome head of a gorilla seemingly melted into the body of a beautiful woman.
The body beautiful - and the gorilla suit - belong to Sabina Savan, a headline exotic at the Gold Rush, a strip club on 14th Street. Sabina's act - a carnal reworking of the legend of Beauty and the Beast - is a good one to have in this, the Year of the Great Ape. By way of tribute to its power and originially, late evening patrons at the club - who have talked and laughed their booy way through warm-up performances by belly dancers, red hot mammas, schoolgirls, somnambulists, and even a pregnant contortionist - stop talking to watch the ape rape the white woman. Come to think of it, King Kong was never like this.
Sabina Savan, a thirtyish woman of medium height, generous build, and nightblack hair, alternates her gorilla act with belly dancing and fire eating. Sabina has spent her adult life getting in and out of her clothes. She was raised by middle-class parents in Turkey where, after completing her high school education, she became a secretary in a bank. She was married at sixteen and divorced two years later; her son, as only child raised until recently be relatives in Turkey, now shares her Alexandria townhouse.
Sabina left Turkey in 1963 in order to study commercial art in Germany where she became an exotic dancer to finance her studies. Like many other strippers, Sabina's entry into the body business was unplanned; she needed money, and a friend, a nightclub waitress, suggested that she become a professional dancer. "I had danced the belly dance since I was a little girl," Sabina recalls, "so I auditioned for the manager and he said, 'Start tomorrow.' I put him off long enough to make a costume. Two weeks later, I went on stage for the first time; I was so nervous - I was scared to death. I was afraid that everybody would laugh at me, and I didn't want to look like an amateur - like garbage. So I had a cognac and I felt good and I went on stage. I still don't know what I did.
"Since I was a belly dancer, I didn't take my clothes off at first. After a month, my boss says to me, 'Why don't you take you bra off?' and I say, 'No,' and he says, 'I will give you more money,' and I say 'How much?' I was so shy then I wouldn't even let my boss come into the dressing room. His wife came in and said, 'Let me see your breasts,' and then she said, 'You look beautiful.' The first time I took off my bra I ran off stage and everybody laughed at me, but it doesn't bother me any more. I'm not thinking of the audience, I don't see anybody ' cause Im concentrating on the show. It's like being in the theater; I'm acting, trying to give a good performance. I want to entertain."
Sabina performed on the European stage for a number of years without her family knowing that she had gone into burlesque. She often performed for American soldiers and when she first visited the United States in 1969, she remembers being surprised that not all Americans had short haircuts and wore white socks. She began to dance professionally here and even posed for cheesecake picture magazines, one of which eventually found its way into her parents' hands; they were not pleased. "My father was in the equivalent of the Turkish, FBI," Sabina explains. "He was a strictly disciplined person. The first time he saw a picture of me in a magazine was when I was in United States. I called my parents long distance to see how they were and the first thing my father said to me was, 'You are not my daughter. I am ashamed of you and all your bikini pictures in the newspaper.' My mother told me that my father was ashamed to be seen in his neighborhood. I said, 'Mom, I don't do bad things.' I later brought her to the United States and she came to the club and saw my show and then she finally said, 'Okay.'"
Burlesque is not a business that most mothers envision for their daughters. The pay may be good, but the hours are long and the working conditions graught with erotic peril. In many clubs, the exotics are expected to mix with the customers and hustle champagne. You never find a stripper who drinks anything else.
This intimate proximity with the customers, many of whom are tipsy, creates hazards for the performers. Strippers are grabbed, insulted, pawed, propositioned, and obsessively, adored. "I got a love letter from a man who asked me to marry him," Sabina confides. "I opened it and I didn't even know the man. They will tell you that you are the One and Only, the Queen, and that they will give you everything. They invite you to dinner and they ask you to be their girlfriend. One time this guy says to me, 'Here is $20,000, quit you job.' I said, 'Who are you?' and he said, 'You are so beautiful, I don't want to see you on stage; please take the money and quit the job.'"
Sabina does not like the world of the burlesque theater where the women must work naked. She performs with a G-string at the Gold Rush. "I hate burlesque theaters because they are going too strong," she states. "For $10,000 a week I would never do that. I want to give some art, not just show what I got. Everybody knows what the woman has. That is dirty and I don't want to be lost in the dirt."
There are five strip clubs in Washington. Le Marquis, a dark, claustrophobic room crowded with more performers than patrons; Frederick's, where the blazing red interior looks like a version of Dante's Inferno; the Merry Land Club, a vast empty room with all the ambience of a West Virginia roadhouse; the Silver Slipper, whose fading notoriety was briefly revived by the presence of a love-struck congressman; the Gold Rush, a club with everything from pinball to fire-eaters. They are clustered like pigs in the mud around the lower end of the 14th Street corridor. This is not a pretty place. There are gay bars, hot-bed hotels, go-go places, fast-food franchises, dirty-movies houses, and sex supermarkets where rubber novelties are highlighted in the sinister glare of fluorescent lights. It is a comment on the peculiar nature of local nightlife that 14th Street is one of the few areas of this city - along with Georgetown and Capitol Hill - where there is life after dark.
The choicest cut of this tenderloin lies between New York Avenue and K Street, and the Gold Rush lies in the block of blocks, standing four stories tall on the east side of the street. It is owned and operated by Jim and Nick Bakalis, Greek brothers who have been in the night-club business for a quarter of a century. Before that, they were in sports: Nick played football for Jim Tatum at Maryland until a bad knee put him permanently on the sidelines, and Jim was a high school football and basketball coach in West Virginia. In 1952 the brothers borrowed a little cash and opened the Players Club at 5th and K Street in Northwest. They were into exotics from the beginning, and built up a following among local businessmen and sports celebrities.
The Bakalis brothers bought the Gold Rush in 1963 and spent almost fourteen months in renovation. Interior decoration was handled by Ray Bates, the local designer who later conceived Clyde's of Georgetown and Circle One. Since opening in 1964, it has survived good time and bad.
"I think we have a cross section who come here," Jim Balakis says. "Monday through Thursday are the nights for our biggest spenders. We do most of our business with conventions and business people who come into Washington. We also have our regulars, what I call my bread-and-butter customers: I know 'em by name or by sight. On the weekends we get mostly couples and servicemen."
The strip club business is seasonal in the District. The best times of the year are the weeks between the end of September nad the beginning of December, and the middle of January through the middle of June. Christmas is dead, and the summer is bad because Congress is not in session.
The operating costs of the Gold Rush are high. On stage every night there are eight to ten strippers who average $225 to $275 per week, and about thirty full-time support employees including hat-check girls, elevator operators, hostesses and cooks.
Theris a four-dollar minimum on the second floor to defray the modest salaries of the local talent, but many nights there will only be twenty or thirty customers between 9 at night and 2 in the morning. So how does the club cover overhead? Simple. The owners are always hoping for a few good men who want to sit with one of the "performers" and - to buy that privilege - will spring for a bottle of champagne. "It's against the ABC regulations for girls to go over and solicit the customer asks one of the girls to join him socially for a drink, we do allow our girls to go over and sit with him. There are still big spenders who will come in and buy a girl some wine and spend a couple hundred dollars."
The high rollers who look for a good time at the Gold Rush don't seem to mind the high price of conversation - they keep coming back for more. "I look for repeat business," Jim says. "I have people who come into two every six months and they always come by. They are entertaining clients, showing them a good time and saying, "The sky's the limit.' That's the reasons we have been able to survive all these years. But if a customer thinks he'e entitled to anything more than that, we let him know about it."
Sometimes the conversations at a club get a little personal: the men proposition the women, and vice versa. Laws are violated. The Gold Rush was forced to close between December 9 and December 29, 1970, for violations of ABC regulations which included, according to a published report, "allowing prostitution by the club's go-go grils, allowing the dancers to solicit drinks from customers, serving alcohol after hours, and permitting the girls to remove their 'pasties' while performing."
One of the officers charged with the preservation of moral order in the community is Detective Sergeant Tony Drouillard, a fourteen-year veteran assigned to the morals division.
"One night a few months back I was out checking on performances from the obscenity standpoint and I went into one of the clubs and they had fifteen or sixteen girls standing at the bar, and the woman who runs the place tried to tell me that all of them were dancers there. Well, there is no club in this town that could support sixteen dancers - they were B-girls and I wouldn't doubt that they probably turn a few tricks.
"This is one of those situations where they look for the businessman with $400 or $500 in his pocket, or his credit cards are good. He gets a real snow job: It's mostly the old trick of buying the girl a drink and then buying the rest of the girls drinks and magnums of champagne which are going for $200 a bottle, and it's some rotgut stuff that goes for $3 a magnum. They don't require a lot of patrons to make a buck."
Perhaps the most spectacular ABC raids in recent years came in October 1973, when police cracked down on the Silver Slipper and Federick's. The license of Federick's was revoked for sixty days (an unusually tough suspension) because of the testimony of two girls - one 14 and the other 16 - who had run away from the Montrose School of Girls, lied about their ages, she found work at the club. The older of the girls testified, according to a story in The Washington Post, the "she was told by the waitress who was teaching her to be a 'mixer' that if a man bought a small bottle of champagne, he was aloowed to touch her legs; if he bought a large bottle ($90) he could touch her breasts. She was told she'd get a $30 commission on a $90 bottle of champagne."
There was a crackdown at the Silver Slipper at the same time, and their license was revoked for thirty days because, according to police testimony at the ABC Board hearing, B-girls and strippers - working under the stage names Kim, Venus and Jade - were hustling drinks and soliciting for Prositution. At that time, Sam Shanker, then the owner of the club, told reporters, "I've been in business for forty years and I've never had such trouble . . . So what if somebody wants to buy a girl a drink . . . Everybody likes to have a pretty girl at their table - even me and I'm 67 years old. These guys know what they're doing."
Everybody at the Slipper knows what they are doing.
The owner, uncertain about what to do with the club, recently persuaded a local restauranteur to come in and run the place for a few months to see if it could turn a profit. This pro-team manager, Johnny Becker, is the owner of a Mideastern restaurant in Washington; he is a solit, thirtyish man of strong ego and forcefully expressed opinions who has not enjoyed his descent into the demimonde of burlesque. Becker took the assignment as a favor, works at the Slipper under a pseudonym, has a private phone line to talk with his restaurant, and wants to get the hell out. He occupies his temporary office like a general in the combat zone, locking his phone and the ledgers in the safe at night. Johnny Becker is pesismistic about the state of the business.
The $12,500 the club grosses each week is made up out of the credit card charges of a few big spenders. This is not a volume business. "One weekend night we did only a hundred $5 minimum," Becker tells me. "That wouldn't keep the doors unlocked. There is, however, a certain type that comes in and speeds big money - I can show you the totals on the credit cards." Becker picks up a green book with each day's charges listed on a separate page and leafs through it at random.
"I could sell this book for $100,000," Becker says jokingly, "but I'm not in the blackmail business."
He finds the right page. "Here we go: $194, $291, $248. Those three totals are the same guy, $511, $251, $32, $45, $51, $40. That was Tuesday night, October 12. But I'm looking for the big totals. Here's $945, $777.70. It's all American Express and Diners Club - they are billing their companies." Becker continues to look through the ledger. He finds $1250 and then chortles, "How about $2000 in a half hour?"
Time is money. Silver Slipper customers pay well for the privilege of keeping company with a pretty woman in one of the dark booths that disappear out of sight on the edges of the nightclub. This is where you can't see your hand in front of your face (or anywhere else for that matter), a no man's-land where veterans flinch where you light a match. "We have ten girls," Becker explains. "Some go out and six down and talk, and the guy buys them a drink. They talk for a while and then leave. If they are mixing, they don't get up and do the show; from a show business end this place would never make it any more. If it weren't for those men who come in here tired and worn out form business and wanting an ego boost, we would go out of business.
"These guys are not looking to get laid," Becker continues. They aren't looking to be tested physically. Some of these guys are 75 years old. One guy can't walk, he comes in a wheelchair. The guy does not drink, but he deliberately spends $1000. He'd spend $5000 a night but I cut him off at $1000. I say, 'The girls will sit with you for another hour for nothing." I could bust him open for four or five grand, but I'm trying to get him to come back and be a steady customer."
Johnny Becker, who frequently quotes Jung in his conversations, is a student of human behavior. He haunts the Silver Slipper watching his customers and doesn't like what he sees, believing that many of the men who frequent the club are deeply troubled. He excludes from this number the young guys who come to see the show for kicks and the couples who come, as Becker inelegantly phrases it, "because the boyfriends gets off watching his girlfriend watch a strip show.
"I see the people, and I know why they come here," Becker states with distates. "It's from some deep-seated emotional malfunction. The people who keep us open - who spend $1000 and $15000 in an evening - are sick."
The conversation is over. Johnny Becker asks his secretary to lock away the green ledger with the credit card numbers and names in the safe. He is afraid of scandal. "When Wilbur Mills was busted," Becker recalls, "this place almost went out of business. No big names would come here any more. It scared them away."
Johnny Becker is getting ready to go to Le Bagatelle and meet over dinner with the owner of the Silver Slipper. His advice will be to sell the place.Becker is fed up. "I get bent out of shape sitting here," he says. "Today I said, 'Screw it.' I don't want to sit here any more."
We walk out together through the Scene, a softcore movie bar located above the Silver Slipper. The place is almost empty. Becker directs my attention to two middle-aged men at a corner table. One man's hand are not where they should be. Becker turns says, "See?" See what I mean?" On the opposite wall a flickering image of two young lovers dances on the uneven screen. The setting is a wooded glade somewhere along the Big Sur. The wind is blowing the girl's hair. The sun brightens their bodies.
Becker and I walk out into the night, older, but not much wiser.
Amber Mist walks seductively out onto the stage of the Silver Slipper, confident and fully at ease. She is wearing a brilliant, jade-green dress, long black gloves, and a diamond choker, her high heels are needle-sharp and a red rose nestles in her substantial cleavage. A cigarette dangles languidly from an oversize holder. She is a woman of substance, giving the crowd her measurements (42-24-36) and bragging, "That's not my area code."
Amber looks appraisingly over the audience. "I see we have a lot of degenerates tonight," she observes. "The more you applaud the more I'll take off." She asks a guy at a front table where he's from and when he's slow to answer, quips, "Is the question too hard for you?" The three-piece house band - the only one left in Washington - breaks into "Pennsylvania 6-5000" as Amber begins to take her clothes off. The [WORD ILLEGIBLE] makes a silvery whispering sound as it scrapes across her flesh. Each breast is covered with a stick-on bow like those used on Christmas gifts (the mind boggles!!!), and Amber asks a guy in the front row to take one off with his teeth. He does so, to be randily complimented on his suction.
The cozy, erotic chatter and carnal familiarity wane toward the climax of the act, replaced by some low-down dirty talk.
Down to a thin G-string, Amber again points at her crotch, and the tease continues. "Are you ready for me to take my pants off now? . . . You gotta be ready 'cause here it comes." the spotlight narrows down to a small circle of hazy red light focused on the middle of her body. There is a flash of bright pubic hair, quickly covered up. "One more time." And again. Then the act is over. The MC does exit lines, and Amber Mist walks off stage in semi-naked glory.
This is the last show of the evening. It's late, and Amber Mist is tired, unwinding with a drink in the tacky, jerrybuilt dressing room in the club's basement. A rack of gaudy costumes bisects one corner of the room, a pink bra hangs suggestively from a nail in the wallboard. An electric heater is all there is to warm the flesh.
Amber Mist is a proud, strikingly good-looking woman with sensual lips and flaming red hair. She is, in many ways, a very old-fashioned women; her language is free of obscenity, her manner teasing and calculated. She will probably grow old like Mae West - breast ever larger, perfecting her soft-spoken, mocking femininity. She is one of those women who are rivals with other women, friendly with men, and close only to themselves.
"Burlesque is supposed to be funny," Amber says with conviction. She has mastered a profession that has deteriorated since she started taking her clothes off for money over a decade ago. Many legitimate theaters have closed, and some perfomers who once worked mostly before an audience in a theater now work on the patrons between shows in the clubs. Many strippers don't like hustling champagne, but it may be the only way that burlesque will survive.
"There's one thing about the strip clubs," Amber says in her soft, little-girl voice. "They are common meeting ground. You have everyone from your bum in the streets to your congressmen. I don't think it's just girl-watching; the man from Sioux City, Iowa, he's got to sit with a star and have champagne."