A motorized scaffold creeps along the interior walls leaving a trail of mounted he of buffalo, elk deer, and antelope 12 feet above the sunken floor, carpeted in leopard-skin patterns. Craftsmen from Oregon are positioning a 2-inch-thick slab of wooden door on its hinges. Beyond the entryway, under a sturdy awning of hand-hewn oak and cedar, Hispanic masons are wrapping a pillar in limestone trucked in from the Hill Country. I wanted a place that looked more like fun than expensive. For 13 years he has owned Caligula XXI on Northwest Highway, where he has milked the topless business for enough cash to open what may be the most elaborate skin bar to hit town so far.
At Caligula he created a mirage of celebrity by putting on stage a string of ex-Playmates, minor-league models, and porn stars.
Nick knows a gimmick, But is anyone going to think this place is cheap? Behind the main room is a darkly paneled, library-esque cigar room and billiard hall and a kitchen that Rizos promises will turn out four-star cuisine. Inexpensive fun? In fact, Rizos is actually raising the ante in the increasingly competitive business of melding sexual fantasy with country-club elegance.
By all s, the upscale topless t was invented in Dallas 15 years ago. The Convention and Visitors Bureau may not brag about it, but these clubs are a boon to the local economy, drawing in eager visitors from all over the country and the world.
Inwhen Don Furrh opened the Million Dollar Saloon on Greenville Avenue-the first upscale topless club in Dallas and, perhaps, the first of its kind in the country-he announced that the place was named for its price tag. That seemed a staggering investment in a business ly thought to cater to the shallow-pocketed masses of bored husbands, blue-collar rowdies, perverts, college boys, and 5 dirty old men. Valet parking at a strip bar? A VIP S room? Lights and sound to rival a Stones concert? But Furrh had found the pulse and hit a vein. The suits and gold chains showed up in droves, and instead of holding old pick-ups and Chevettes, the parking lot on most nights was curb-to-curb yupmo-biles.
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The but-toned-down boys in the glass caverns from Commerce Street to Las Colinas, the rich young professional athletes, the conventioning professionals, and corporate executives had found a playground and the sexually oriented business SOB, as it is known in licensing circles would never be the same. Were Don Furrh alive today, he might be a little astonished at the world he helped create. It also had a gourmet restaurant, a fully equipped gymnasium for the dancers, and a business center-conference room with telephones and fax and copy machines-for customers.
Now The Lodge, built at a cost Rizos would not disclose, weighs in with a whole new fantasy. And there is a fine irony to the proliferation of topless bars in Dallas there are 11 topless clubs and 17 class-A dance halls, where the dancers wear transparent, latex pasties over their nipples to comply with a peculiar city ordinance.
Club owners, some of whom have establishments in other cities and other states, say the official attitude in Dallas is more hostile than anywhere, yet the clubs prosper here like nowhere else. Each month the state comptroller tabulates mixed-beverage taxes collected from every d tavern, restaurant, hotel, caterer, and concession in the state and prints oui a list of the top 50 booze dispensers. Consistently, five or six of those top-grossing establishments are topless clubs in Dallas. In most cases, owners say, liquor s for only about 40 percent of the take.
The rest comes from cover charges, meals, memberships, and assorted other items. In retailing, the markup on merchandise tends to have some relationship to the turnover time. The markup on a sofa is large, but a sofa may sit in the showroom for six months before it is moved.
The markup on a loaf of bread is small, but a large grocery store moves hundreds or thousands of loaves a day. Saloons generally-and topless clubs especially-get the best of both scenarios: big markup, fast turnover. After 30 years of feminism, 20 years of consciousness raising, a decade or more of political correctness, and a numbing onslaught of talk-TV boy-girl psychobabble, the essential nature of our cultural universe is still, as always, held together by the sinew of sexual titillation.
Businessmen are comfortable in these places.
Clubs in those days, scattered along strips such as Harry Hines and Industrial Boulevard, tended to be small and seedy and more likely to smell of urine and mildew than cedar wood and prime rib. Within nine years, Furrh owned 18 topless clubs and had a lock on the business in Dallas. But, by the late 70s, Furrh told D Magazine several years ago, he was weary of the constant skirmishes with the vice squad and confrontations with politicians eager to revoke his s.
His marriage to his high school sweetheart, Nina, also was disintegrating in part because she did not share his enthusiasm for the topless business.
So Furrh sold all of his clubs. But after a three-year hiatus, during which he and Nina became estranged but not divorced, he was back with the Million Dollar Saloon, which quickly became the highest-grossing topless bar in town.
The success of the MDS was widely heralded and duly noted, especially in Houston, where Salah Izzedin, head of Oceanic Oil Corporation and a member of a Lebanese-American family that controlled corporations on four continents, smelled opportunity.
With a group of partners operating through a complex bundle of corporate entities, he opened Rick s Cabaret in Houston in and the cash flowed like a flooded bayou. Izzedin had visions of a sex empire that would rival the heyday of Playboy. Cabaret Royale in Dallas was the next stop on his avowed goal of a club in every major city in the United States. It seemed that the Dallas topless wars had started with a bang. In the week that Cabaret Royale opened, Don Furrh was found shot to death in his home.
But the street talk and private suspicions did not exactly elevate the image of the topless business.
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Nevertheless, Cabaret Royale scored big, just at the time Nina Furrh was taking over her late husband s business. She had never been enamored of topless bars and had no experience running one. She could have sold out and walked away rich, but she stayed and got richer. A few years ago, she teamed up with Bjorn Heyerdahl, an entrepreneur who also recognized the topless business as just that, a business. You have no s to maintain. And it is really an infant industry, only 20 or 25 years old.
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Over the past few years, MDS has dropped out of the pack leaders in gross liquor sales, but the club remains highly profitable. With S3. Reverse mergers, which cut the paperwork and the waiting period, are a common strategy for going public.
Four months earlier. We will not build new enterprises; we will acquire existing ones. And what became of Izzedin and his plans for a Hefnerian juggernaut? Well, he may not exactly be in hiding, but he has no residential telephone listing in Houston and the phones at Oceanic Oil Corporation have been disconnected.
With Cabaret Royale, Izzedin showed a flair that brought new dimensions to the skin industry. For al! Visiting it was more like checking into a resort.
Instead of floor managers and bookkeepers, he had hotel administrators and ants. He had press agents, advertising agents, lawyers, a marketing department, and big plans. He recruited the best dancers he could find and planned theatrical productions, not just dance routines. Izzedin knew how to throw a party and how to promote it, but could he run the business? For a while he soared, but like the mythical Icarus, he eventually got a little too close to the sun. His wings, in fact, had begun to melt even before he arrived in Dallas.
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Against that backdrop, Izzedin opened Cabaret Royale. Movie stars, millionaire jocks, and executives lapped it up. Izzedin continued charting his march around the world, but while he was making deals in Mexico City and New York-he turned the old Studio 54 into another topless dub-his schemes were beginning to unravel. Not so, said the DOL. Dancers are employees and muse be paid minimum wage. As the debts and the lawsuits piled up, he placed some of those entities into bankruptcy, temporarily closed Cabaret Royale, and left town.
At the first of this year, a new corporation-The Ritz Royale-took the club over.
He ratcheted up the standard for upscale clubs, introduced new elements of entertainment, and, with the DOL lawsuit, changed how other clubs operate-or are supposed to operate. At most clubs, the dancers turn in their tips each night; the company withholds federal taxes, deducts the draw, and remits the balance in the form of a regular payroll check.
Look again. While the posh ts at the top of the pecking order are propagating and slugging it out for supremacy, many of those a few rungs down the status ladder are bogged down in a long-running legal fight for survival. Essentially, that ordinance prohibited topless clubs from operating within 1, feet of a home, school, church, hospital, park, historic area, or another sexually oriented business. Clubs in violation of that provision were given three years to relocate. The problem was that for most of them, there was no place to go try to find any place in Dallas that is more than three blocks from one of the above and some had made long-term commitments to their present locations.