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NewCityNet 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
No touching
No passing of business cards or personal phone numbers

All coats and briefcases to be checked before entering lounge -- $2

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:

I sit at the gray slate, square-shaped table and watch a girl with long black hair, wet red leather tube top, black pants and long black hair walk toward the bar.

Large woman, not a dancer, enters and talks to bouncer about a problem.

Bouncer approaches man at table, walks man and his two companions out the door. ("He went into the girl's bathroom," George explains when he returns. "We warn customers once but the second time they're out.")

Music is non-stop. Next girl onstage in black, Cher "Dark Lady" outfit.

Next to stage on TV, girl on "Montel Williams" show is saying, "it's degrading." Girl is sobbing. TV is close-captioned.

"So what's goin' on?" girl next to me says to customer.

Girl in Checker cab outfit, blond streaked hair, severe short cut, perches at bar on forties wedgies.

Diva kisses girl onstage -- customers roar with approval, love this. The room, momentarily, comes alive. The moment passes.

A black stripper hugs Diva, who kicks up her clear plastic clogs and screams "Kick butt!"

Jade is down to her T-bar onstage.

Diva dances in booth next to other dancer -- she's very loud, animated.

Diva lights a cigarette, re-ties her Roman sandal-like black boots, heads for stage.

Diva says to girl onstage, "Girl -- look at that great big, wet ass on you." Man next to her applauds.

Diva screams, "Hey hey hey hey." Man in his late 20s grabs her hand, starts to walk with her to fantasy dance area, she runs back to booth, gets other dancer, pulls her along.

They head for VIP area instead. Man in gray sweater and friend pay upcharge and go into VIP with the girls.

Man in faux mink coat, jeans and cream colored work shoes, heads for the exit, glancing back at the stage three times before he leaves.

Jade is onstage slowly removing her T-bar -- she has Louise Brooks/Lulu black pageboy.

Jade is on her back, legs scissored upwards, in a Vargas pose, her heavy black clogs rising above her toward heaven.

Girl in Checker cab drag goes to man at table, walks him to fantasy dance area -- man looks like Son of Sam with glasses.

Girl on "Montel" now smiling.

Man in gray sweater walks by with different dancer in tow, holding hands (this is legal, according to Vadik).

Black man in multi-striped sweater leans up and puts dollar bills in Jade's garter. She moves her breasts very close to him as she does this but does not touch him. ("The girls are only allowed to take tips in their garters. They cannot simulate masturbation or insert money in their pussies," says George.)

Jade leaves the stage -- a few people clap as they are looking around the room. DJ announces next dancers -- but his voice is benign, barely discernible.

George returns and offers a running commentary. He describes how women are hired: "Thursday night is amateur night -- we have anywhere from four to thirteen girls each week. They do one number -- audience and management choose. The girls that have the most opportunity to make money to work at the club."

Megan, tiny blonde onstage, "has big appeal -- she looks illegal, about 16."

There are five security people plus a manager working the floor. "The security people are all martial arts experts."

A hand on TV caresses bright green grass as Megan strokes her breasts onstage.

"Some do hook -- we watch very carefully -- [but]we've had no major incidences in three years. The girls do not like to be hassled. We're here to protect them. We offer good, clean stripping. I like to think of us as a 3-D version of Playboy."

Diva gives a fantasy dance to a Goth-looking woman customer with short black hair, clothes and silver jewelry. "Lesbian couples do come in... we used to do this on Sundays for lesbians -- it slowly took off... we had female bouncers. Guys were barred."

"We may start doing bachelorette parties with male dancers from 6-10. I'm still checking this out."

"We have a shuttle bus -- we'll pick up a party of three to fourteen. We'll send the bus gratis -- and take you back."

Mekoe (Japanese dancer) approaches man at bar. "Boys of Summer" by Don Henley plays on the sound system. "Mekoe -- she's trouble free, does her job."

Jiffy Lube ad on TV. "There are 2,500 gentlemen's clubs in the U.S. today, convention delegates look for them."

Onstage, Taylor removes her little plaid skirt and is nude.

Megan in silver gives Goth chick a fantasy dance.

Mekoe onstage -- has her cigarettes tucked in her shoes by her ankle.

Shelby is the fifth girl attempting to get a customer to have a fantasy dance. Sits at his table and coos in his ear.

"We ask that dancers commit to four shifts a week -- we'll accommodate students (but still ask for two-three shifts a week). A lot of them major in computer science, nursing; one girl is in real estate."

Middle-aged woman on "Montel" shakes her head, looks sad, tears run down her face as dancer onstage collects a tip.

Shelby gets her man.

Precious dances in front of us in black lace outfit. Checker cab girl "is all natural, comes from Czechoslovakia."

George points out Jordan -- she does choreography. "I'd love to do what they did in 'Flashdance.' I'm putting in an espresso/cappuccino bar. The bar next store stays open late on Friday and Saturday if someone really wants a drink -- customers have in/out privileges -- but most stay once they get here."

"There are over 2,000 clubs in Chicago, but you can only see pussy in two places (here and at the Admiral). I hope that doesn't sound too crass," George says, looking concerned.

After lighting his umpteenth cigar, George heads for the exit. "I have a forty-mile drive home," he says ruefully.

Alex (not his real name), an illustrator, timidly approaches me from another table. Good looking, dark hair and large eyes, he comes to Scarlett's once "every four or five months." Can barely speak, very, very nervous, has had a couple of fantasy dances tonight. Finds some of the dancers "interesting, both mentally and physically." Likes their "sense of fashion." I query if he wants to do drag: "Sometime I definitely would like to dress like them. There's only a few places to dress like that in Chicago." I suggest he check out the Baton. Ask if he'd like them to walk on him with their big high heels. A weird little smile comes across his face. I offer to e-mail him with the number of a dominatrix I wrote about. Again, the weird little smile.

Taylor comes onstage.

"One World" music beat comes on TV.

Alex spent "more than he figured he would." He hems and haws and then confesses to "Eighty dollars, that's what I usually spend. I just got a portrait commission so I thought I'd treat myself."

Taylor slaps her ass as she leaves stage. Place is winding down, man in Great Lakes T-shirt sits down at rail, ringside, with two buddies. Alex slides back to table next to mine.

Madonna's "Justify My Love" comes on. Man smiles at woman with gleaming teeth on TV monitor.

1-800-Free-Love commercial on television monitor. Girl touching herself on TV, onstage, in fantasy dance area, in VIP room -- all these girls touching their breasts at once. I am choking on tits.

Free Love ad followed immediately by hair-thinning commercial. "Kiss me, wanting, needing, waiting for you to justify my love," Madonna sings.

Checker cab girl is naked onstage, wads of cash in her garter belt.

"Tell me your dreams, am I in them?" Madonna squeals.

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