A Prelude to a Kiss

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Step inside the iron gothic gates, past two large trees, and feel your inhibitions rise up and out. Dancers Erica Gudis and Jenna Stewart, decked in stylishly shredded lingerie, perform and arouse inside glass houses behind and above the main bar. The stuffed lion hovering over the entrance looks as if he's ready to pounce, much like the beautiful people jammed inside.

You've just arrived, and already you're in Deep: Hollywood's free-spirited, anything-goes (almost) nightclub on Hollywood and Vine, deep in the heart of La-La Land. A chic blend of European-style erotica and modern and retro furnishings, Deep is about excess and hedonism, truly titillating, madly decadent, deeply voyeuristic.

Inspired by the risque dance clubs of Amsterdam, Deep does not try to mimic the trends in other Hollywood hot spots, like the elegance of the Sunset Room and Las Palmas, or the gimmicks of the manicures and pedicures at the Beauty Bar to attract partyers. Instead, Deep evokes a sexual charge, a palpable allure of the forbidden, without crossing into the X-rated. It's a unique twist to a scene that continually pushes the envelope.

"What I wanted to create was a sexual alternative universe," says owner Ivan Kane, an actor-turned-entrepreneur who also owns Kane, a 4-year-old bar on Melrose and Gower. "L.A. nightlife has been defined by table hopping and being seen and posing and that kind of attitude. That may be beneficial to your career or your social agenda, but it's not about having a great time or having a sexual fantasy. I like to think of Deep as the foreplay for what happens at the end of the evening. My hope is that everyone goes home and makes love."

Kane's 9-month-old dance club, at the former site of the Brown Derby and most recently Jack's Sugar Shack, is unequivocally one of those in-the-know types of haunts (there's no sign on the door or anything to attract attention besides two very tall, attractive doormen). But there are guest lists, even one known as the NFU, an expletive-filled acronym that means heads will roll if that guest is not treated with the highest of regard. Hollywood's elite roster of guests includes Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Helen Hunt and Heidi Fleiss. In June, Steven Soderbergh, a close friend of Kane's, used Deep to shoot scenes for his remake of "Ocean's 11" starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts.

"The crowd is just as important as the design and the feel of the club," Kane said. "The club is nondescript outside so that you walk inside and go, 'Wow!' The crowd needs to be beautiful too. So we definitely monitor who gets in." Who got in on this Friday night is a potpourri of 255 models, struggling actors, movie executives, former professional basketball players, personal trainers, a few regular but very eye-pleasing folks, and the ubiquitous Hugh Hefner with six of his bunny girlfriends, who spend the night dancing and taking pictures with his disposable camera. (Hef says he digs the dancers and the lion, but the music most of all.)

"This club has L.A. taste, but it also offers the L.A. dream," says a perky brunet who gives only her first name, Elizabeth. "It has the mystery, the sex and the teasing. It also appreciates sexuality and women in general, and I really like that."

So Deep.

Want to go deeper? Join the party in the main room where a crowd of mostly white and African American 20-and 30-somethings mix. Damon Bennett, 33, and his buddy, Jay Trementozzi, 35, have just finished their "awesome" dinner and are sipping cocktails when Gudis and Stewart appear in the red-light district glass boxes above the bar. Gudis has Shirley Temple curls, to-die-for long legs, and sensual, burlesque moves that captivate both men and women. She can't see her effect, though. She is dancing behind two-way mirrors, staring at only herself throughout the 20-minute set.

"She's untouchable, and that's cool," says Bennett, of Newport Beach. "It's more about the rest of the people here. You can be standing here talking to a beautiful woman and then stare at another beautiful woman behind her. It definitely sets the mood. She's very seductive."

Gudis walks through a curtain and enters the box next door, where she dances and gyrates with Stewart. Now Stewart is sitting on a chair, with Gudis crawling underneath her toned calves. The two women stand again against a mirror. They move in closer, eyes gazing deeply, mouths wide open, hands on each other's backs and thighs.

Lights out! Just like that, the set is over.

"Aw, that's just wrong!" says Marc Nelson, who works with Bennett at the National Automobile Dealers Assn. in Costa Mesa. Nelson shakes his head and goes to the bar. Time for a cool, deep drink.

Across the bar in a booth full of friends is Sara Gudis, the curly haired dancer's kid sister and biggest fan. At 21, she's an aspiring model and very Hollywood hip. "It's kind of weird to see my sister in lingerie, dancing around, but it's art to her. I love it. It's definitely classy to a point. I think it's very beautiful, and she's very graceful."

Deep's dancers (only one is a man) are hired to evoke images of 1930s Berlin and perform Fosse-esque moves, says Kane.

They never put on a show; they dance to create ambience. Gudis loves her weekend job but doesn't want club-goers to mistake her tantalizing persona for her personality.

"That's not really who I am," says the dancer and actress. "It's a part that I play. People think they know you because you've made yourself vulnerable to them, but that's the art. It's bringing them into your life, expressing yourself in an emotional and physical way. We keep the audience wanting more while keeping it contained and sensuous at the same time."

Throughout the club, there are touches of Kane's sense of humor and sexual energy. Always dressed in black ("in case I have to go to my own funeral") Kane is a chain-smoker who manages both of his clubs with his wife, Suzy. The stuffed lion at the entrance of Deep, he says, is for all men "because all men believe they are lions. I believe I'm a lion!" The photographs of naked, obese women in the men's bathroom--well, that's just a joke.

"It's brilliant, creative and humorous," says bathroom custodian Eric King.

"You don't see that anywhere else in L.A," says 21-year-old Yigal Yedidsion of Westwood, who is using the facilities as he speaks. "It's funny. When you go back to the club, everyone looks good to you."

Kane loves Hollywood so much that he's willing to sleep only four hours a night to help bring it back to life. Toward that end, he's negotiating on a locale for his next project, a hotel and nightclub that he promises will push the limits even further.

A theater actor and dancer in New York City, Kane moved to Los Angeles to appear in films, including "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July." On stage and on screen, Kane loved to perform but did not appreciate his industry's instability. So the self-proclaimed "control freak," who had run nightclubs and bars in New York, decided to give his other love a try.

Like his father, who was a men's clothing designer, Kane grew up with an eye for small details. Each night, before his clubs open, Kane walks through each room, touching everything, turning bottles, rearranging furniture, adjusting the lights and setting the music.

"It's kind of scary, but I'm very nutty that way," says Kane, who has a 7-year-old son, Zak. "I have to learn to delegate, but I'm just anal retentive, which is why I got into this business in the first place.

"Both clubs are theatrical in the sense that the entire night is almost choreographed like a subtle play. I approach each night like a director. I don't open the back room until I've brought the music up to a crescendo and I feel the crowd is peaking and ready to abandon their sensibilities."

The back room is the dance area, the part of the club most people marvel and talk about. The dance floor is a mirror-enclosed room with a glass cube on the ceiling in which a trio of dancers perform a stylized menage a trois, simulating sexual encounters while s dance underneath, wrapping themselves around a stripper's pole with abandon. The black patent-vinyl dance floor is surrounded by booths where loungers can drink, eat and watch the show on the floor and above through two-way mirrors.

Kane relishes in sneaking a peek; the old Brown Derby industrial refrigerators that serve as gritty VIP rooms showcase convenience-store type black-and-white monitors in which to observe everything happening in the club. Right now, Gudis and Stewart are on the glass ceiling with Saul, a dancer so hot that Helen Hunt once requested that he be transferred from Deep to Kane for a party she was attending.

"Sometimes even I catch myself looking at Saul," jokes Kane. He worked with designer Fred Sutherland of L.A., who designed Red and Fred 62 locally, and the Palladium in New York, on the interior of the club. Their mission was to evoke and provoke, even when coming up with the name for the club, which, Kane says, "you can let take you wherever you want."

"You can forget about the whole world when you're dancing in there," agrees Amy Block, 24, of Santa Monica, who has been grooving through house music and hip-hop sets with her girlfriend. "It's very sensual to dance and watch yourself, and see the people on top of you like that. It makes you want to go home and find a boyfriend."

Or temporarily be someone you're not.

"This place is an escape; you wake up in the morning and wonder, 'Did I do that?"' says a 36-year-old former NBA player who wanted the nightlife while remaining incognito. "Most people aren't happy with their circumstances, so this is like a euphoric getaway."

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