The Naked City
An evening in one of Chicago's all-nude gentlemen's clubs
By Richard Knight Jr.
FEBRUARY 28, 2000: Why does sex still sell? What is it about watching someone disrobe in public that remains so titillating? Thirty-odd years after Hollywood's production code has morphed into a less than stringent rating system, why are breasts, butts and vaginas still the stuff that endless fantasies are made of?
Nudity in public would seem to have become rather passé, a relic from days long ago when your mother hid the National Geographics and ripped the Maiden Form bra ads out of the magazines before Dad got home. But there they are, late at night, every night, those women with their saline-solution-filled breasts thrust forward, cooing "pick up the phone and call me sometime" as yet another 900 number flashes on the screen. Who's calling all those numbers? Logging onto those Websites? Spending umpteen hours in those chat rooms? Popping in that new video, dialing up the Spice channel, tuning in to HBO's "Real Sex" to watch Germany's grandmother of porn proudly displaying her latest line of dildos? Has anyone else noticed that anonymous woman whispering in her "I'm having an orgasm" voice, "It's Showtime," not just before another episode of "Red Shoe Diaries," but as a preface to "Free Willy 2"?
But that's the attitude toward sex today: It's funny, and it's also no longer an embarrassment. Everyone has the go-ahead to crack jokes about yeast infections and Viagra at the office party. Sex is mostly out of the closet. Heterosexual sex, at any rate.
Men, gay or straight, coyly, must still keep their "candy" hidden. Tits and ass are great, good, just fine; but America's not quite ready for male genitals. Or gay sex (although lesbian sex is A-OK, especially when a male partner is added). Even S & M has lost much of its kick -- having paired up with wrestling on one hand and alternative music on the other. Tattoos and piercing and all the other fetishes have become almost middle ground. When John Waters movies have lost their shock value and Oprah gleefully touts her latest book selection with an ecstatic "And it's got sex!" then something has come to pass.
If all things intimate have become mainstream, then wouldn't it follow that strip clubs would have become respectable, a good place to conduct business with the boys? Smoke a few cigars and bring along the wife or girlfriend? After all, Hugh Hefner pioneered this sort of thing thirty-five years ago. For George Vadik, owner/operator of Scarlett's Gentlemen Club, that's exactly the way it is. "Come on by any time," he enthuses, touting the club's respectability. "You'll love the place."
Love it or not, come along west of the Loop to an area that is still awaiting a face lift. On a Friday night, around midnight, the parking spaces are full, and, other than the occasional commuter train roaring past, the area is strangely quiet. The few people walking the streets are all male, and are headed, along with the cabs, in one direction: to the entrance of Scarlett's.
Just inside the door, a woman with thick, long black hair sits inside a glass booth. Without any prompting, she says "Hi, it's eighteen dollars to get in, and the girls go totally nude." As I do not immediately hand over the money, she looks up from her personal phone call, startled. "Hold on a second," she says into the phone with a heavy Latin accent, and asks, "Do you want to come in?" After explaining that I am here to see the owner, she remembers, "Oh yes," dials a number and says, "Go on up." The two gentlemen behind me in line have their twenties out of their wallets before I reach the stairs.
At the top of the dark gray carpeted stairs there is a coat check and a coat-check girl with enormous black leather wedgies and a huge, Marie Osmond smile. "George is coming," she says. In front of me are two large steel doors painted dark plum with tiny windows. A sign next to the doors reads:
No solicitation or propositioning
Vadik, who looks like an older, sloe-eyed version of Ricky Jay, the actor/musician, enters with cigar, checks my coat and walks me into "the show room." After running his own marketing agency for twenty-five years, Vadik decided to go into the strip-club business following a golfing vacation in Tampa. While there, he and his cronies made a visit to the club Mount Venus. "There were guys lined up outside waiting to get in with money in their hand. It was packed. I didn't see a lot of overhead in there, and thought to myself 'This is the business to be in.' Sex never takes a hiatus. It's not seasonal." That was in 1995.
Scarlett's is housed in a former bus garage. "We spent over a million [dollars]," Vadik says, and the place opened its doors in 1997. He's married to his second wife, has a son and two stepchildren. Although his wife had a "big hand" in designing the club, she's not a big fan of the place. "She's come to accept that there's nothing that goes on here. I never refuse her entry. She's always welcome." Warming to his theme, he adds, "I really try to encourage couples to come in. We see nothing wrong with female nudity -- the female form has been celebrated throughout history. We're just putting that female form onstage. Granted, it isn't for everyone."
We sit at the bar and order Cokes. It is illegal to serve alcohol in Chicago if the women are totally nude. Waving his ever-present cigar around, Vadik explains. "In the Chicago market there are three gentlemen's clubs -- and only my club and the Admiral are totally nude." Keeping within the law, his club is alcohol-free. "People can't even bring in their own bottle," he sighs.
A few other rules: All dancers must be at least 18 years old. The girls must be clothed (sort of) when they're not onstage. No lap dances are allowed. Instead, Scarlett's proffers what Vadik dubs the "fantasy dance." This costs $20 and consists of the dancer leaning over the seated patron, perhaps whispering sweet nothings in said patron's ear, and moving suggestively. Each fantasy dance lasts three songs. "Everything is done by songs," Vadik continues. "If they want to talk or buy the girls a soft drink or have the dance, it only last for three songs."
The room, as expected, is dark, but not sinisterly so. Perhaps half full, the club can seat 200. A circular stage thrusts out into the room, ringed by a brass rail and chairs. Next to the stage, a large television hangs from the ceiling, close-captioned and tuned to ESPN. The rest of the main floor is set up with circular four-tops and booths. A large rectangular bar perches a level higher. The DJ booth and announcer are at the back of the room. To the left is the fantasy dance area. A low wall of glass bricks, about 4 feet high, encloses an L-shaped banquette and more tiny tables. This allows the customer a modicum of privacy. These are the areas that are open to everyone.
Vadik walks up a few stairs to the glass-enclosed VIP area. "For an up charge of twenty dollars, our customers can have all-access to this room." Inside, there are several soft maroon couches and big comfy chairs, a pedestal (with a pin spotlight shooting upwards in center), a small stage with its own lights and big-screen TV that is turned off. In the corner, a woman with long blond hair and black lace bikini is giving a fantasy dance to a man who appears to be in his early 30s. He doesn't take his eyes from the girl's face and doesn't acknowledge our presence as Vadik nonchalantly lights another cigar, and insists "Come on, see how soft the couch is." I sink into the couch and peer through the glass at the dancer onstage.
"That's Diva," Vadik points out. "She's one of five sisters -- they're all are strippers." Diva, a brunette, flings a white feather boa toward the men seated below her as she removes her bra. As we head back to the bar, Diva's sister Magic walks by. None of the girls use their real names. There are about thirty of them aimlessly walking around the room, chatting up the men and, hopefully, heading toward the fantasy dance area. Since the club doesn't serve liquor, the dancers rely on tips and the fantasy dances to make their money. Vadik does not pay them a salary (and a customer tells me that Vadik and the security personnel get a percentage of the girl's take at the end of the night). Each girl works an eight-hour shift, and shifts are staggered to keep a fresh supply on hand. The average take is $400 per shift, with $1,400 being the top figure that Vadik knows about.
The women wear variations on lingerie; some of the costumes are fancy and spangled, a few have accessories, all show off the wearer's generous cleavage. The majority of the women are perched high atop clunky high heels or patent leather boots. A few wear stilettos. Onstage, Diva is nearly naked. She leans forward, allowing the men to put the tips in her garter belt. The girls may also take the tips with their hands. They range in age from 18 to 28, although Vadik admits that he has one dancer who's 34. "Usually they're out by the time they're 28. Most of them know that this isn't a career. They're here to make money, put themselves through school." Several of the dancers are married and dance "for a second income."
George mentions that Scarlett's is open for lunch, and his face lights up as he describes the 1/2-pound burger on the menu. Another blonde, this one with a big, Morgan Fairchild smile, drapes her arm over his shoulder. "This is Taylor," he says. She's dressed in a white, sleeveless shirt and plaid school-girl skirt. "I've been dancing nude for three weeks," Taylor offers with a big smile.
Unlike some other clubs, Scarlett's entry fee allows customers to sit by the stage without paying an extra charge. As Vadik and I take our seats, Mercedes, who is topless, is removing her T-Bar (thong). "This is where the action is," Vadik nudges me with a laugh. Mercedes leans over, laughing in his ear. As she exits, her red silk garter belt stuffed with tips, "People's Court" comes on the television monitor to her left.
After escorting me to a table at the rear of the club, Vadik now retires to his office to retrieve a menu for my perusal. My ninety-minute eyewitness chronicle begins, appropriately, at midnight:
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