Slipping out early from the office last month, more than 300 of the city's most prestigious stockbrokers descended on the VIP room of Rick's Cabaret, a swank "gentlemen's club" that has heralded a nationwide boom in upscale adult entertainment.
Dressed in pin stripes and gray flannel, they sucked down free cocktails and gorged on a buffet of stuffed crab. Then, to the satiny rhythms of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," they slipped $20 bills into the G-strings of the club's buxom young dancers, who wriggled and writhed in between the legs of the men from Merrill Lynch, Barron Chase and PaineWebber.
Although it has become a remarkably accepted practice in the Houston business community to indulge clients in such risque merriment, this was no ordinary white-collar affair. Rather, the city's brokers had been invited to help usher in an era of even greater legitimacy in the evolution of the girlie bar: As it will formally announce today, Rick's Cabaret is debuting with 1.6 million shares on Nasdaq, making it the first publicly traded striptease club in the history of the stock market.
"There's no question," said the company's president, Robert L. Watters, "we're a legitimate part of mainstream corporate America."
Sex is among the world's oldest commodities. But over the past decade, it has been dolled up in a ritzy wrapping, transforming the smoky topless joint into a stylish, financially lucrative--almost respectable--enterprise.
Across the country, although Los Angeles is notably lagging, these soft-core cabarets have become the heterosexual beacons of the '90s--" la belle epoque of topless," as D. Keith Mano of Playboy puts it. Not only do they draw conventioneers and traveling executives, but also large numbers of visiting celebrities--sports teams, rock bands, movie stars--whose extravagances, including a night of bumps and grinds, can be discreetly charged to a credit card.
In Houston, the cradle of topless chic, most clubs offer valet parking and a first-class menu, shoeshine service and a bathroom attendant. The glitzy Colorado Bar and Grill is stocked with more than 200 wild game trophies, courtesy of its safari-trekking owner. The $1-million renovation of its nearby competitor, Michael's International, made the pages of Texas Architect magazine. Even the women don't look like old-style strippers: Rick's Cabaret boasts that it has produced more Playboy and Penthouse centerfolds--22, including the celebrated Anna Nicole Smith--than any other venue in America.
"It used to be a lot rougher business--dark, totally nude clubs, with a lot of your motorcycle-type girls," said Bob Furey, an ex-manager at Rick's who runs the Colorado. "Now, it's kind of like Fantasyland, just clean adult entertainment."
While feminists and fundamentalists might object to that assessment, the financial muscle of the gentlemen's scene has helped deflect any serious opposition.
With more than 100 high-end clubs in at least 22 U.S. cities, the topless cabaret has shown itself to be a classic example of trickle-down economics. In Texas, the snazziest clubs consistently rank among the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission's top revenue generators, outpacing even the trendiest discos and country-Western bars. During a good month, Rick's may pay out nearly $30,000 in liquor taxes alone.
"It's tolerated here as part of the macroeconomic picture," said Terry O'Rourke, an assistant county attorney in Houston.
But O'Rourke, whose office prosecutes clubs that become public nuisances, fears the hidden costs--drugs, rape, prostitution--far outweigh the benefits. "The clubs and their owners have an image that they're selling," he said, "but in its crudest form, this is nothing more than a sexual stimulation industry."
As a cultural phenomenon, the success of gentlemen's clubs can be explained on many different levels, only a few of which actually involve the libido.
It is, to be sure, safe titillation in a time of AIDS, a touch of naughtiness without the stigma of sleaze. But it is also about being unapologetically male in an ambiguous age, an antidote to the growing acknowledgment of sexual harassment. Behind these doors, the rules of engagement remain constant; even a potbellied boor qualifies for a busty nymphet--sort of like a beer commercial come to life.
"Let's hear it for the heteros in the house!" the disc jockey at PT's Show Club in San Antonio called out one recent night to cheers.
To the extent that a suit-and-tie clientele is using the gentlemen's club to entertain business associates, however, the issue becomes more than just politically incorrect behavior. When Rick's Cabaret monitored its receipts for a 60-day period earlier this summer, it found 584 separate uses of corporate credit cards--many of them issued by Fortune 500 companies, some even by government agencies.
For professional women, having liberated virtually all other male-only sanctums, that boils down to a shrewd new twist on old-fashioned exclusion. "It's just like a golf course, only with strippers," said Peg Yorkin, head of the Los Angeles-based Feminist Majority.
Such sensitivities may account, in part, for the relative dearth of gentlemen's clubs in Los Angeles, where liberalism sometimes translates into a more restrictive view of social issues. Although the city has no shortage of cheesy strip joints, they're not exactly embraced by the mainstream culture, which tends to be shaped more by "contemporary, New Age thinking," said Michael Collins, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Houston, to the contrary, revels in its laissez faire, almost retrograde temperament. There is a deep conservative streak here, but it is more libertarian than moralistic, steeped in the kind of entrepreneurial pluck that has allowed Houston to grow into the nation's fourth-largest city, completely unfettered by zoning laws.
"I think the attitude here is: If it makes money, what the heck," said Betsy Parish, the former gossip columnist for the now-defunct Houston Post who chronicled Smith's storied ascent from lap dancer to wife--and now widow--of octogenarian oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall. "What's embraced is the success of the project, not how it achieved that success."
So established is the topless scene here that the Houston Press, an alternative weekly, actually rates the gentlemen's clubs in its annual "Best of Houston" issue. Even the Houston Chronicle offered its blessings a few years back, after the mayor publicly reprimanded Civic Center Director Jordy Tollett for spending several thousand dollars of taxpayer money escorting visitors to Rick's:
"As a city trying to attract convention business, we must spend money to make money," an editorial said, "and if Tollett was bowing to the demands of clients to go to topless bars, we probably shouldn't fault him too much."
The roots of the gentlemen's industry can be traced to another indigenous phenomenon, as Houston writer Mimi Swartz explained in a recent Texas Monthly article, which documented the city's shift "from an oil-based to a breast-based economy."
Recounting the invention of the silicone-gel implant at Baylor University in the early '60s, she described its creators as "typical Houston innovators--like those in the oil fields and those at NASA."
When Rick's opened as the prototypal gentlemen's club in 1983, those plastic surgeons treated it as a showcase where increasingly well-endowed dancers helped them proselytize a nation with the gospel of augmented breasts.
"Implant manufacturers could not have invented a better marketing campaign than the one Rick's provided free of charge," Swartz wrote. With petroleum prices plunging the city into a tailspin at the time, she added, "Rick's had become a brilliant example of economic diversification, one of Houston's first post-bust business triumphs--pun intended."
Housed in a peach-colored, Mediterranean-style mansion near Houston's premiere shopping mall, the club became a citadel of "champagne wishes and caviar dreams," as Robin Leach deemed in trademark fashion on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."
The list of famous patrons ranges from Wayne Newton to Guns N Roses, Joe Montana to O.J. Simpson. All of the world-champion Houston Rockets--except Hakeem Olajuwon, a devout Muslim--have celebrated inside the mirrored VIP room, where memberships start at $550. When the Republican National Convention came to town in 1992, Rick's was packed every night with delegates and politicos, including President George Bush's Secret Service men.
"We've tried to refine the business--keep all the sexy parts--but run it with a certain amount of integrity," said Watters, Rick's 44-year-old owner, who holds a law degree from the London School of Economics. "If this were not right, humanity wouldn't want it."
What exactly Rick's customers want is not always so apparent. The sexual element of the club is unmistakable, sometimes even steamy, but much of it is also a theatrical tease--"virtual reality," as Rick's matchbooks advertise.
For a $7 cover charge, guests are treated to a parade of comely dancers on a black runway stage, surrounded by chrome and lit in purple neon. During a busy shift--midweek nights are the most crowded--as many as 100 women may show up to bare their breasts. Each is essentially an independent contractor, paying the house a service fee ranging from $7 to $37 but keeping her tips, which can average from $100 to $300 a day.
"Of course, everyone's looking for Daddy Big Bucks," said D'Eva Britt Redding, a Playboy talent scout who, along with her husband, Eric, managed Smith's career during the early '90s. "They're all hoping one of these men will help them get out of this grind."
Although the dancers might make a few dollars during their brief time on stage, their performance is just an appetizer for the main course, technically known as a table dance, but often delivered on the lap--as the new NC-17 film "Showgirls" makes clear. For $20, a man can get three to four minutes of personalized shimmying, which usually grows more intimate in proportion to the amount of money he is willing to spend.
During peak hours, the effect can be decidedly orgiastic, with dozens of dancers simultaneously slipping off their slinky cocktail gowns and gyrating in glittery G-strings. For men, groping is strictly prohibited, so most either leer carnivorously or slump into their chairs with a sheepish grin.
"Let's face it, some of these women are very sensuous--and very astute about getting you to reach for your wallet," said Anthony Osso, a Houston attorney who has represented several local club owners and their dancers.
Prostitution, at least in the traditional sense of paying for an explicit sex act, is considered taboo by the tonier establishments, which say they have too much invested to risk crossing that line. But Houston vice officers still frequently make undercover raids, arresting the dancers for public lewdness whenever the contact--known in the vernacular as "body slides" and "butt grinds"--grows too intense.
Despite the occasional infraction, most gentlemen's clubs insist that what they sell is not sex, but attention--for the shy and the lonely, the bored and the misunderstood, who for a few minutes can feel like they're king of the world. And if anyone is exploited, say the dancers who cater to them, it is not the woman, but the man--whose vulnerability is ultimately what gets milked.
"I'm here to tease them, not to please them," said Paulita Romero, a 26-year-old dancer at Rick's, who has parlayed her shapely physique into a gig as a Miller Lite model. Like many of the dancers, she has also worked her way through college, earning a psychology degree from a local Christian university.
"Women who think this is degrading don't have the power or confidence or courage to come do it," she said, sipping a bottle of Evian water before stripping off her black, leather-trimmed bustier and skirt. "I'm in control of the man sitting there. He's spending his money. I'm making it."
Whether that formula will prove lucrative enough to attract investors remains to be seen. Few of the stockbrokers who attended last month's reception at Rick's came away enthused about the offering, which most viewed as highly speculative, even at just $3 a share.
They listened politely as Watters made his pitch, describing the club's computerized accounting system, its closed-circuit surveillance network and its commitment to raising about $5 million for future expansion, possibly in New Orleans, Phoenix or Atlanta. But when he was done, their focus reverted to more immediate concerns, namely the women leading them into bare-breasted bliss by yanking at the ends of their ties.
"As a business investment, I don't know," said Richard Bruce, 46, a money specialist from suburban Houston, who was making his first visit to Rick's. "But it's definitely one of the best dog-and-pony shows I've ever seen."