Never in their 33 years have the nudists at Elysium Institute felt so exposed.
They created a home for themselves in Topanga Canyon in the late 1960s after gradually convincing neighbors that a clothing-optional recreational center wouldn't harm the mountain hamlet.
They ended the threat of raids by sheriff's deputies on their naked volleyball games and barbecues by winning a bitter zoning fight with Los Angeles County in the early 1990s.
Last year, when their leased, 8-acre Topanga property was sold and they were evicted, they hurriedly lined up a replacement site in Malibu where they could continue to relax in the buff.
But this week Elysium's 270 members have no place to hang their hats--or their shirts, trousers or skirts.
"We're closed," said Betty Meltzer, director of Los Angeles County's last nudist enclave. "Elysium has no money. We've put the property up for sale."
It turns out that in choosing a secluded, 20-acre lot in the Malibu mountains as the nudist club's new home, leaders picked a spot that was too isolated.
Many Elysium members stopped coming to weekend recreation events and weeknight seminars. They were unwilling to make the tortuous drive over twisting mountain roads to get to a brush-covered site 40 miles west of Los Angeles that they viewed as uninviting.
Meltzer, 67, and her 70-year-old husband, Sanford, a former physicist and lawyer from Sherman Oaks, purchased the land for fellow nudists' use. They withdrew $300,000 from their retirement fund to cover the down payment and cost of landscaping needed to make the place usable for sunbathers.
For the steep mountainside north of Mulholland Highway at the western end of Malibu, the couple had sketched out plans for future buildings for Elysium's health seminars and yoga classes. They selected hilltops that could be used for hot tubs and sweat lodges, and ravines and flat areas suitable for a restaurant, volleyball courts and overnight camping. Then they began the land-use permit application process with the county and the California Coastal Commission, which have jurisdiction over the site.
But other nudists soon were giving the Meltzers the cold shoulder.
With the $350 annual memberships (plus a $12 daily use fee) declining, the Meltzers last month tried to refinance the property in hopes of "eking it through the winter months," as Betty Meltzer put it. They failed.
In the post-Sept. 11 economic climate, lenders would finance only 65% of the remaining $1 million note, she said. So the couple were forced to put the 20 acres, along with a residence earmarked as the Elysium clubhouse, on the market for $1.65 million.
"We never expected to close," Betty Meltzer said. "With a very loyal membership, we felt the potential for Elysium growth was so wonderful. We believe an Elysium is needed now more than ever."
By shedding their clothing, Meltzer said, people also shed such things as unhealthy pretenses and fears. She said she has been a nudist for 20 years, since a friend invited her to an Elysium outing. "I remember asking her where should I look," said Meltzer, who met her husband at an Elysium event. "She said to look wherever I wanted, but just don't stare."
Meltzer will not criticize nudists who have blasted the selection of the rugged Malibu site. She said she first tried to find another Topanga Canyon location, but the only land available was in potentially dangerous brush fire areas or lacked adequate parking.
Nudist Steve Katz blames Elysium's demise on those not patient enough to wait for the Malibu site to be improved with hiking trails and other upgrades.
"Some people were more interested in having a country club atmosphere," said Katz, a 37-year-old groundskeeper from Woodland Hills. "Nobody else seemed willing to step up except Betty and Sandy. Now the only nudist place in L.A. is going away."
But the inconvenience of carving a new nudist resort from a Malibu mountainside would have paled in comparison to the difficulties that Elysium's original members faced starting in 1968 in Topanga, said nudist Noel Pugh.
An artist and masseur, Pugh, 72, said institute founder Ed Lange battled neighbors and county officials alike in the early days.
Trespassers climbed the Elysium fence and slashed tires and ripped off windshield wipers, he said. Sheriff's deputies raided the place and arrest club members for indecent exposure.
"The struggle was ongoing. I suggested to Ed that he join the local chamber of commerce. Things changed when he became part of the community instead of fighting it," Pugh said. "We picked up trash along a mile of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and had the Elysium name put up on a sign. I'd volunteer to paint the post office windows at Christmas."
By the late 1980s, what was then called Elysium Fields boasted more than 1,000 members. County supervisors approved a conditional-use permit for it in 1993. Two years later--right before he died--Lange was named by locals as Topanga's Citizen of the Year.
Lange had leased the Elysium Fields land to the club. Last year, his daughters put the property up for sale. Nudists tried to buy it, but were unable to come up with the $2.6-million asking price.
On Monday, Betty Meltzer--a former movie musical dancer who remains limber and energetic--was wearing a sweater and slacks as she hiked to a knoll where a soaking tub had been planned for her fellow nudists. On a clear day, Santa Catalina Island can be seen in the distance. Meltzer said she still hopes someone with a similar long-range vision will come to Elysium's rescue.
But it will take a person with deep pockets to save the day for those who prefer to relax with no pockets at all, she acknowledged.
Down the hill, Margaret McKenzie, 43, of Pacific Palisades, who had worked as Elysium's registrar, took a break from packing to join several other nudists for a dip in the club's Jacuzzi. Actually, McKenzie was clad in goose bumps. That's because the water heater had been shut off.
"There are those of us who are happy with this property. On some level I'm hoping for a miracle," she said, disguising her frustration. Barely.