Politically correct strip joint seeks financial suitor

Friday , May 11, 2012 - 11:45 AM

C.W. Nevius

SAN FRANCISCO — The Lusty Lady has been serving the nude dancer and peep show needs of San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood for nearly 30 years. But now that it is facing financial problems, citizens should remember the club’s place in the city’s colorful history.

A case can be made that the Lady is the most pro-feminist strip club in the city -- and maybe in history.

In 1996, the dancers at the Lusty Lady created a national sensation when they became the first nude club to create an "exotic dancers union." Seven years later, they had another landmark moment when the dancers banded together to form a workers’ cooperative and buy the club from the original owners.

The board of directors also made a point to employ diverse body types and ethnically diverse dancers. So they are exotic, erotic and politically correct. How much more San Francisco can you get?

But now the Lusty Lady’s business model is failing them.

On Wednesday, a few of the girls -- stage names Bijou, Prince$$, and Miss Dolores Park -- went on record with the problems and called on the city to recognize and support this civic jewel.

Granted, once you walk over the tattered and stained rug in the back room, "jewel" is not the first word to come to mind. And it is hard to imagine San Francisco’s power brokers banding together to save a venue where the business model is to insert a $1 bill (no more quarters) in a slot so customers can watch live, nude dancers through a window.

Yet the ladies argue they are one of only two privately owned venues left in the city -- the rest have gone corporate with strippers that look like Barbie dolls. They don’t serve alcohol (which also allows them to put on a totally nude show). And they made "talk to a live, nude girl" a local catch phrase.



"We’re a San Francisco institution," said Dolores, a dancer since 2005 "If you can walk into a place, pay a dollar, see a beautiful nude girl and give her a wave, there’s something to be said for that."

Their effort to unionize was an uprising against the power brokers.

Tristan Salazar, a former member of the board of directors who has worked there over six years, says there were several issues, beginning with the fact that management was filming the women through one-way windows -- and then putting the video online without their consent.

"There was also what was seen as racist and size-ist scheduling," he said. "You couldn’t get center booth space if you weren’t skinnier and more light-skinned."

When the business began faltering, the workers purchased it for $400,000, but the poor economy, along with online porn sites, have taken their toll.

"Since 2008 my paychecks have been going down, down, down," said Bijou. "I’m making half of what I was making when I started in 2005."

She says she’s out of the Pleasure Booth and out in the job market, where she hopes to use the doctorate she says she earned in sociology.

"Our high ideals led to a business model that doesn’t work," said Salazar. "We’re buggy whip manufacturers. All the things we offer are available on the ubiquitous broadband."

The Lady has been trying to reorganize financially. A buyout offer was recently presented to the board, but not only was it low, employees said the cooperative and the union would almost certainly be done. The dancers, who pride themselves on their diversity, also got the impression they’d be replaced with strippers that all look alike.

The board rejected the offer, causing some of the dancers to give up and quit. But others stayed on, running the show and hoping for a financial windfall. What they are really hoping for is a financial angel.

"I think San Francisco is going to step up just for the fun aspect of it," Dolores said. "In the next couple of months, we’re going to decide whether to stay open or sell. We’re hoping to find investors we can work with."

(Contact C.W. Nevius at cwnevius@sfchronicle.com)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

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