L.A. has its landmarks, as a world-class city must. There are Forest Lawn, H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D, Olvera Street. And there's the NUDE NUDES sign.
Hardly a day passes that, intrigued by that marquee on Century Boulevard approaching Los Angeles International Airport, someone doesn't stop and, just curious, venture inside the garishly painted building.
Inside is the Century Lounge, where the dancers are naked, the drinks are soft and the action is nonstop from 11 a.m.--when the lunch crowd drifts in--until 4 a.m., when the die-hards close the place.
In the cavernous showroom, with its three stages, twinkle lights play off mirrors. Center stage, China Doll is stripping down to her thigh-high, stiletto-heeled black patent boots. In a minute, she'll be back to retrieve the dollar bills left at the rail by the men in the front seats.
The all-male crowd is youngish and curiously emotionless; as they sip their soft drinks, they might be watching a weather report. Get the fish hooks out of those pockets, beseeches the deejay: "If these ladies don't wake you up, it's 'cause you're dead. . . ."
Scantily clad dancers prowl the room: "Would you like a private dance?" That's where the big money is. Ten dollars a dance for the dancer, $4 for the house. Plus tips, big tips.
What a difference four decades makes. Longtime Angelenos may recall that in the late '50s, this club was a 24-hour bowling alley/cocktail lounge/coffee shop called Carolina Pines, frequented largely by workers in nearby factories.
Then, the factories moved out and name-brand hotels sprouted at the shoulders of the expanding LAX. And Carolina Pines fell upon hard times.
"So they called 911 and I showed up," says Howard White, a onetime talent agent and son of the original proprietor. He perked things up with lingerie shows. Soon, "the lingerie got skimpier and skimpier."
By 1977, the bowling was history. In its place were a nude bar where, by state law, no alcohol could be served, and a thriving disco, Carolina West, where the music was loud and the drinks alcoholic.
Then, White says, in 1987 his lawyer failed to file papers to renew his liquor license. "It killed me," he says. His solution? To go all nude.
Originally the sign said NUDES. People laughed when early in 1981 White added that second NUDE but he did so "with malice aforethought. I thought it would be catchy, a conversation piece."
Then, "It kept growing, like Pinocchio's nose. I kept making the letters larger and larger," until today the wavy orange letters are about six feet tall.
Adding the word live was another White inspiration. Enjoying his own joke, he asks, "What would I have, dummies?" He liked the idea so much that he later changed that to LIVE LIVE NUDE NUDES.
Not everyone has been amused. To circumvent a onetime city ban on the word nude , White inserted the teensiest g, virtually invisible, between the towering D and E. When Pope John Paul II visited L.A., a city father suggested White remove the sign so as not to offend papal eyes. He declined.
The sign is the Century Lounge's better mousetrap, but the club's airport-close location is its big plus. Thousands pass by each day. Back home in Akron or Walla Walla, they make mental notes to check it out the next time they hit L.A.
That sign brings them in; the dancers keep them coming back.
The music is "Leave Your Hat On" by Joe Cocker. The dancer is Raquel . She is wearing a black velvet dress with a flamenco flounce--and a black hat. Soon, she'll shed the hat, the dress and everything underneath. She is a crowd-pleaser, a 21-year-old brunet with an alluring smile, a come-hither wink. Her onstage philosophy: "As long as it's legal, I'll do it.' '
Even though his "girls" are hired as dancers ($4.25 an hour, plus tips), "rhythm is the last thing" White looks for. Adds general manager Gene Lombardi, "Every man who walks in here has his fantasy."
The music is "I'm the Only One" by Melissa Etheridge. The dancer is Sarah. She's poured into a floor-length white lace gown that flares at the hem. Her long lace gloves flutter at her wrists. Soon, she will take off everything except the gloves and her white high heels. At 23, she, too, is one of the Century Lounge's top draws, a blond with a Gypsy-like stripping style and an offstage manner that would endear her to your grandmother.
The men come in limos and tour buses. In bachelor parties. An international mix of voyeurs. $10 at the door, please. Or come before six for just $1.
They know the dancers only by their first names. If they telephone, the cashier will read them the names of that night's dancers--Angel, Jamie, Natasha--much as a waiter recites the day's specials.
Raquel (Alicia Raquel Moses), a former high school cheerleader, and Sarah ("Sarah Lee"), who describes herself as "very spiritual" have been dancing at the Century Lounge for 2 1/2 years, smiling at even the creeps, ignoring the occasional shouted obscenity, flirting as they bend down to pick up the dollar bills.
Their route to nude dancing can be summed up in one word: money . Raquel was working in the accounting department of a Newport Beach ad agency: "I wanted to moonlight a little. And I was curious." She hired on as a waitress at the Century Lounge. Five months later, she danced nude one night. She was scared, then excited, so caught up in the moment that she forgot to pick up the money.
Sarah was a marketing researcher who had just taken a big pay cut. "I couldn't pay my rent. I was being evicted, had no food and a detective was looking for my car."
At a religious bookstore on Melrose Avenue, she met a Century Lounge waitress who thought she'd be a good dancer. Sarah came and watched, then "went to Hollywood to do a topless contest just to see if I could take my clothes off. I was very shy."
She was thinking, "I can't believe I'm doing this in front of strangers. I was shaking. I think I blanked out." She laughs. "I still don't change in front of my sister, or the girls at the gym.
She can still remember driving past the NUDE NUDES sign a few years back and thinking, "Gosh, I'd never work there! How can they do that?"
To be nude onstage is to be exposed physically and emotionally. Sometimes Raquel pretends there are only women watching, and sometimes, she says, "I have a picture of the men all naked."
"There's a part of you that feels free," Sarah says. "I feel like I'm having fun and these men are having fun with it."
Raquel has told her friends and her "born-again Christian" mother what she does, but not her baby-sitter. She won't, until her toddler daughter is old enough to understand that "sometimes things aren't what they seem to be."
Says Sarah: "My family doesn't know. With my upbringing, I think they'd probably disown me. I told my female friends, one at a time. Most of them tried to talk me out of it."
Raquel is divorced; Sarah has never married. Neither dates the patrons, although they are frequently asked out. And they do not turn tricks, they say, although some of the dancers do.
The major tippers aren't always easy to spot. "What they're wearing is not necessarily what they're thinking," says Raquel, who once got a $500 bill onstage.
Says Sarah: "I do well with Asian men. And businessmen coming in on their lunch break like me because I have a very conservative look--no tattoos or piercings."
The house rules: Look, but don't touch. A hefty security force makes sure.
You're very vulnerable. There's a lot of different types of men out there, and a lot of them have problems. --Raquel
There's a switch that gets turned on and it's OK to be naked because you're in a safe, secure place. --Sarah
Neither is ashamed of what she does. Money aside, both say they have benefited. And, they mention, holier-than-thou friends in need don't hesitate to accept their tainted money.
Many of the dancers had rough childhoods and are hard as diamonds by the time they're 18. Some are earning college money. Others are single mothers. They stay an average of six months before moving on, some to another club.
Some acquire sugar daddies. One man tipped a dancer $5,000 a month to have a weekly breakfast with him.
Most have had breast implants. Face lifts at 28 are not uncommon. "No matter how good-looking they are," White says, "they get paranoid when a good-looking girl shows up."
Their bodies are their livelihood.
With cosmetic surgery, and if I keep in shape, I can probably dance another 20 years. --Raquel
As long as I'm still having fun with it, I could see myself doing it 10 more years. If my family doesn't find out. --Sarah
Most dancers work three eight-hour shifts weekly and the money is good. Even in this economy, White says, "A good girl will make $300 to $500 (per shift) on tips." But, "They have to deal with these schmucks as if they loved every one of them."
Sarah and Raquel have seen it all--athletes, movie stars, rock stars, newscasters, a fundamentalist Christian.
And heard it all: "I'm just waiting for a plane." "I was just dropping a friend at the airport."
They listen to the men's problems and, within reason, cater to their fantasies. And they tell the would-be touchers, ever so sweetly, "I'll touch for you."
Night after night, they psyche themselves up, put on their makeup and come through the curtain, smiling.
And the deejay keeps on saying: "These ladies have been out there giving you 110%. . . ."