Jim Graham, the 69-year-old former four-term D.C. Council member and clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren, had recently decided that in his retirement, he wanted to embark on a new career. He was still testing titles: Marketer. Special-events director. Adult entertainment businessman.
In short, he had determined to work at an all-nude strip club, so on a Thursday evening, he parked his convertible near the House nightclub on Georgia Avenue NW and felt around the car’s back seat for a plastic grocery bag. It was filled with postcards depicting a male torso and advertising an event he was launching called Rock Hard Sundays. The inaugural Sunday was the upcoming Sunday, which was just three days away, which Graham had been relentlessly planning and promoting, because its success or failure would answer the question of whether Graham was transitioning from politician to ringmaster of the exotic and alluring, or from politician to crazy old bat.
“Here we are,” he said, turning off the engine.
His partner in this endeavor was Darrell Allen, who owns the House, having inherited it from his parents. Seven nights a week, for 36 years, the House had done steady business featuring African American female dancers, with a few recurring conundrums.
One current conundrum: basketball season. During basketball season, Thursdays and Sundays were very slow. Second conundrum: weather. Summer was bad for Allen’s establishment, because men could see plenty of skin on the street. Basketball and weather could conspire against Allen, resulting in nights where he would sit in the audience at his mostly empty club and call out, “Easy, Baby! You’re beautiful!” just to keep up the pole dancers’ spirits.
A final conundrum was the neighborhood itself. It was changing, the whole city was, and Allen wanted to be able to attract a more diverse clientele. When Graham suggested collaborating to introduce male dancers on the two slow nights — one for ladies, one for gay men — Allen thought the idea was nuts. He and Graham went way back, and their relationship hadn’t always been smooth; the council member hadn’t approved of the Easter party that Allen threw for neighborhood kids inside a strip club.
But eventually Allen came to feel that a short, gay, white, bow-tied, bespectacled politician with his own constituency was about as diverse as you could get from the world he knew, and thought, “Jim Graham working at a strip club? What the heck. Why not.”
Jim Graham and Darrell Allen were ready to take the world of all-nude male stripping in Northwest Washington by storm.
“Jim Graham!” As Graham opened his car door, a man in a turtleneck ran across the street, calling his name. “Jim Graham! My councilman! You’re going to be president one day.”
“Oh my, that would be difficult,” Graham said. “As I’m no longer in office.”
Can I shake your hand?” The man introduced himself as Michael, and Graham shook his hand and then suddenly found himself asking Michael the question he had already asked two other men in the past 30 minutes:
“Hey — You could dance! Want to dance?”
The first recipient of the question this evening had been a friend outside of the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that Graham — more than 30 years sober — attended nightly. “You could dance for men or women,” he’d reassured the man, but after getting a negative reply, he went to the parking lot and asked someone else. “You’d just need to lose that belly,” he said, and the man said “Me?” and Graham said “Yes!” and the man said “Nah,” and a woman sitting nearby said “This is so random,” but she accepted a Rock Hard postcard nonetheless, and Graham smiled. “Come tonight,” he’d told her. “Ladies night. Or Sunday!”
Now Michael walked away and Graham shook his head. “One of these days I’m going to find someone on the street who wants to dance,” he said. He hadn’t found any dancers this way yet, but then again, he was still figuring out how all of this worked.
The whole idea started six or seven months ago, after Graham lost his council primary to a 34-year-old upstart and began to think about his remaining years. He wanted to make some money. As a gay man, he enjoyed looking at male bodies. He also had a passion for the arts, and a vision of tasteful erotica, and wondered whether there was a way to bring all of those things together. He spent several months calling up renowned choreographers, talking and talking about Vaslav Nijinsky, and Nijinsky’s seminal ballets, and one ballet’s scene in which a lovelorn faun simulates a sex scene.
“I thought — we should do that. I mean, not that, but like that,” he said. “But then one night a friend of mine said, nobody wants to see that. They want something not artistic.”
And so instead of erotic ballet dancers, Graham had an ad on Craigslist reading “No Experience Necessary” and an inbox containing correspondence from the prospective auditioners in which he instructed them, “Wear tighty-whities.”
He’d found a professional “stripper impresario” to hire the main dancers, but he was still short a waiter — a “shooter boy” — for Sunday, and he still wanted more publicity, and these considerations were on his mind as he crossed the street and walked into the House (leather sofas, one main stage, two side stages, three stripper poles) where the third asset he had was Allen.
Tonight, as it was a Thursday, Allen was in the kitchen, surrounded by the Ladies Night dancers and delivering a pep talk before the doors opened. The Thursday performances with Graham’s involvement had begun a few weeks ago; it was a different crew of dancers, different costumes, different music than Sunday would be.
“We’re gonna tear it up tonight,” Allen encouraged Playboy, Pretty Mike, Black Ice and the other dancers. “Whether it’s a big crowd or a little crowd, we’re ready to — .”
Graham poked his head in the door with news. He’d managed to get a reporter for Channel 5 to come interview him about the Sunday debut, he said, and she was outside with her cameraman. “Can the guys come and take it off for two minutes?” he asked. “Just for Channel 5?”
Allen shook his head. “They got to get ready first; they just got here.”
“Well, they don’t have to look like a million bucks,” Graham wheedled. “Just half a million. They can just take their shirts off.”
Allen rolled his eyes. “All right, guys, shirts off.”
He herded the dancers back into the main room, but by the time they got there, they discovered that Channel 5 had left the club.
Graham grabbed his phone. “Please come back,” he wrote to Channel 5. “I have them ready.” He turned to Allen. “You’ve got to work with me,” Graham said. “It’s Channel 5!”
Allen knew the nightclub business, but Graham knew the media, so Allen trusted him, just like he’d been trusting him on the hires and arrangements for Sunday. “I’m not gay,” he explained. “That’s the part where Jim has to enlighten me.” Like the other day, when the two of them had auditioned a pouty young guy from West Virginia for a waiter job. Allen thought he was too soft, but Graham said he would be very popular with gay men, so Allen said okay, but later he turned to his wife, Cyrene, and said, “Tighty-whities? Really?”
Channel 5 came back, took half-nude shots, then left. Then the dancers went backstage to take off their pants and replace them with tiny costumes.
The music was turned up to deafening volume, and the show began. Onstage went a man who could do back-somersaults. Onstage went one who could do the splits. In the audience were approximately 60 hollering women, including one who carried a “cash cannon” that she used to spray dollar bills like bullets across the stage while going “Wooooo.”
Graham’s favorite dancer was Playboy, who entered with his own theme music, a sample of the Old Spice jingle. “He’s magnificent,” Graham yelled as women began to empty their wallets into Playboy’s underpants. When Playboy finished his set, he loped over to Graham’s table, and Graham offered him a fist bump, mulling something over.
“You didn’t ever get naked, did you?” Graham asked.
“Naw, I only do that at private parties,” Playboy explained. “Here, since everyone else is doing it, I want to be different.”
Graham tapped his forefinger to his temple. “Smart. Really smart.”
He wandered outside, where Allen wanted his opinion on a landscaping issue. “I’m thinking about getting some flowers out here, maybe some seating,” Allen said, gesturing to the strip of concrete.
“Oh, that’s nice.” Graham nodded approvingly, and then remembered a conversation he had earlier with a neighborhood association. “And I met with the Georgia Avenue task force earlier. We’re going to be members.”
Allen shrugged. “Anything positive!”
A small cluster of men seeking the usual show came to the door, but Allen paused them. “What, no dingalings allowed tonight?” the man asked.
“The dingalings are all dancing on stage. Ladies night.”
The men moved on. Another cluster approached, two women and a man.
“Wait, there he is — that’s the guy,” one woman said, pointing at Graham. “I heard Sunday is going to be men.”
“Yes!” Graham brightens. “Come Sunday. Bring your gay friends.”
“Noooo, I’ve been in there once before.”
“Oh, sweetheart, let me show you,” Graham insisted, trying to usher her into the club.
The group continued on their way and Graham waved after them, and it was becoming apparent that Sunday could become extremely popular, but it could also be a flop. “Come Sunday!”
It was a little after 5 p.m., two hours before the doors opened. The stripper impresario — Harry Thompson, an organized man who carried a notebook to keep track of his employees — had arrived, and so had the waitstaff, including the pouty West Virginia recruit, Dareke, who was accompanied by an older bearded man who introduced himself as Scott, Dareke’s mentor.
“I want to be more than just a shooter boy,” Dareke told the others. “I’m actually auditioning to be an extra on ‘Walking Dead.’ ”
Scott nodded. “We’ve got to work on his zombie makeup.”
“Yeah,” Dareke said.
“Hopefully next year you’ll see him get stabbed in the head or something.”
“Hopefully,” Dareke said.
Dareke left to find a restroom, and Scott looked after him, concerned. “He wants tonight to be his big break in the dancing world,” Scott explained, but he had cautioned Dareke to take it slow, to work on perfecting his moves and being the best shooter boy he could be rather than jumping onstage right away.
Graham arrived, all nervous energy, wearing a silver bow tie and plaid blazer, and he went immediately to the couches where the bartending and waitstaff had clustered.
“Dez, is that you?” he called out.
“Yes,” answered a man with blue hair.
“I’ve got a bartender!” he said delightedly, before shaking the next man’s hand. “Who are you? Oh my word, are you here to strip?”
“I’m a shooter boy,” the man said, saying that he’d come with an acquaintance.
“Let’s see you take your shirt off.” The man obliged, revealing a pale, flat set of abdominal muscles. Graham nodded and moved on to the next task, toting around a paper bag full of bow ties from his own closet which, he’d decided, could be incorporated into the performers’ costumes. “You see, I’m going to tie one of my bow ties on you,” he explained to one performer. “And then you’ll take it off. And you’ll throw it in the audience. And whoever catches it will get a free drink.”
The professional core dancers began trickling in a little before 7, towing roller suitcases full of costumes, and the stripper impresario took attendance in his notebook. Rick, the torso from the promotional postcard, arrived, and the room rippled with excitement: “Rick from the palm card. Rick, from the palm card.”
Graham pointed to his watch and exclaimed, “It’s 7. It’s 7 p.m!” and, as if on cue, the door opened and eight customers walked in, one after the other, wearing polo shirts and button-downs, shaking Graham’s hand. A little later, a dancer in a leopard-print bow tie emerged from the dressing room, leaped onto one of the side stages, and began doing what appeared to be a set of deep lunges as more customers streamed through the door. “I mean, it’s Jim Graham — it’s weird,” one man told his friend as they looked around, unsure, before ordering drinks at the bar.
Graham went to the dressing room’s door by the side of the stage and cracked the door. “We’re ready,” he said.
Allen got on stage, and then Graham got on stage, and then he told Dareke the ambitious shooter boy to come on stage, so the audience would have something to look at during the welcome speeches. “Do something distracting,” Graham encouraged him, and Dareke walked across the stage.
“The one, the only Jim Graham,” Allen said.
“Welcome to Rock Hard Sundays,” Graham said. Dareke walked across the stage in the other direction.
Don Blanchon, director of the Whitman-Walker health clinic, got onstage because his organization would be receiving $5 of every $15 cover charge as part of a special opening-night fundraiser. He encouraged everyone to have fun, and for those who had a lot of fun, “I would remind you of our Tuesday and Thursday free STD clinic.”
Rick (from the palm card) was the first dancer, but Graham didn’t stand still to watch him, weaving restlessly through the room, accepting congratulations and greeting the newcomers who entered in twos and threes, asking everyone if they were having fun.
“We’ve got some Latin flavor — it’s Mario,” the announcer said, introducing a compact, dark-haired man as Graham examined the stage from the center of the room.
“This one goes by the name of Tenacious,” said the announcer, and Graham moved to stage right.
“If you don’t know, you’ll find out very shortly why they call the next one Ridiculous,” the announcer called out, and Graham loosened his bow tie and went to spell the doorman, who needed a break. “That’s $15,” he told a customer, using a hand-held counter to tally another admission. “We’ve got more than one hundred,” he said.
“This is a pretty good night,” Allen said a few minutes later, and a couple of feet away Mario had taken his act to the floor, gliding through the audience whose fingers lingered as they tipped his performance.
“More than two hundred,” said Graham.
“A pretty good night,” Allen said, and a few feet away, Dareke had ignored his mentor’s advice and was now dancing on a side stage while fans tucked money into his socks and waistband. Every so often, he hopped off the stage and emptied his clothing of crumpled bills, which the mentor carefully smoothed out.
“A really good night,” Dareke said.
Allen cast his practiced eye across the room. Years of running a successful enterprise had taught him when the night was winding down. It was almost midnight when he announced last call. Graham’s blazer had been removed, the bow tie had come completely undone, and his smile was genuine but flagging.
The lights came up, and the remaining crowd blinked and stilled. Allen instructed the shooter boys to get rid of their last shots by passing them out for free.
One man shyly approached Graham with a glowing red drink, presenting it as if it were an offering. Graham accepted the glass, but instead of drinking, raised it in a toast and set it aside, kissing the young man on the cheek — the newly minted don of the strip club reveling in his success.
A minute later, another shooter boy appeared, also proffering a tray of drinks for Graham. Graham shook his head no, smiling. Then he reached out his hand and gave the shooter boy a little pat as the debut night of Rock Hard Sundays officially drew to a close.