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Dolls return to their not-so-innocent youth

Amter is a Times staff writer.

For the Viper Room’s new owner, Harry Morton, the path to the future at the Sunset Strip club runs through the past.

No, onetime co-owner Johnny Depp is not coming back, but an act Depp brought to the club in the 1990s via his friend Christina Applegate will: the Pussycat Dolls.

The burlesque-inspired troupe, not to be confused with the pop group of the same name, is effectively taking over the recently remodeled club every Friday and Saturday night for a year starting this weekend. (In fact, Paris Hilton will host and dance with the Dolls tonight.)

Pussycat Dolls founder Robin Antin “has had, over the years, an amazing run. . . . Now it’s come back home,” Morton said from his office on North Robertson Boulevard near Beverly Hills.

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“No one’s doing this on the Strip amongst our competitors,” added Morton, the 27-year-old founder of the Pink Taco restaurant chain and son of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino owner Peter Morton. “I think it’s always important that you evolve with the times. The Strip itself is obviously changing.”

Morton need only look behind the Viper Room’s parking lot to see some of those changes manifest -- after all, the pricey new London hotel no doubt will be a source of future weekend guests, if the concierge is doing his job right.

So it is only fitting that Morton is taking the club -- once better known for being the spot where River Phoenix fatally overdosed in 1993 than for anything else -- in a new direction. He started earlier this year with better lighting, leather couches and an upgraded sound system. Now, the programming is being tweaked. Past owners have been solely dedicated to the grittier side of rock ‘n’ roll, and though Morton still plans to feature rock on weeknights, with the Dolls, he’s adding entertainment that might appeal to tourists.

In other words, Morton still wants a bit of rock sleaze, but with a healthy side of Vegas-style sizzle.

“The Pussycat Dolls show exposes the Viper Room to a new target market,” he said. “The punk rock market is one market, but there are many different niches. It drives the customer in [because] it’s a cabaret-style show. . . . There’s a lot of hot girls.”

So what will the new 45-minute Pussycat Dolls set at the Viper Room look like? According to Antin, a lot like the old show that made the Dolls a hit with L.A. night-crawlers 13 years ago.

“There are nine new girls,” selected from more than 150 hopefuls who showed up at a July audition in North Hollywood, the choreographer said. “And I’ve got my champagne glass and my hot tub still,” she added, referring to her props from the old show. But Antin said she had all-new routines lined up to tracks by bands such as Led Zeppelin and more contemporary offerings like the Pussycat Dolls’ own “Buttons.”

“There are a few from way back in the day that are revamped, but it will be mostly new numbers,” she said. “I’ll be adding numbers and taking away numbers as the show progresses. There will be rowdy sailor guys in 1950s sailor suits dancing with the girls in one. . . .

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“It’s actually kind of funny, and it even feels like a musical. It’s such an eye-candy show.”

And though surely some Viper Room regulars may cringe at the notion of scantily clad women (and men) running around onstage in front of expensive, bottle-service-only tables instead of a regular rock band being booked on weekends, others see it as a shrewd business move.

“They will fill what has been a void, because what the Pussycat Dolls do, they do better than anyone else,” said night life impresario Ivan Kane. The 51-year-old ran Forty Deuce, a nightclub devoted to burlesque striptease shows, from 2002 until it closed earlier this year. That left a relative vacuum for burlesque fans here, despite sporadic events at venues such as downtown L.A.'s Bordello -- and, of course, the presence of a Forty Deuce and Pussycat Dolls Lounge a drive away in Las Vegas.

“Since I opened the Pussycat Dolls Lounge in Las Vegas in 2005, I’ve had many opportunities to open one here, and I kept saying no, no, no, because it’s L.A., and it’s very risky here to try to open your own club,” Antin said during pre-rehearsal preparations.

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“Being back at the Viper Room, there’s something about it,” she continued. “I remember when Gwen Stefani came to see the show. . . . She said, ‘I love the underground thing. Don’t ever lose that vibe.’ ”

It remains to be seen whether Antin and Morton can keep that vibe, which originally helped draw celebrities such as Stefani and Christina Aguilera to the Viper Room around the turn of the millennium. When Antin launched the Dolls as a weekly event at the club in 1995, burlesque was still relatively fresh with the twentysomething set in L.A.

By 2002, the show became almost mainstream, with celebrities such as Charlize Theron, Paris Hilton and Carmen Electra doing guest spots at the ensemble’s new, larger home, the Roxy. They were the hottest act in town for a certain demographic, eventually helping a pop group spinoff also named the Pussycat Dolls land a record deal with A&M;/Interscope records.

Today, the Pussycat Dolls are an internationally recognized brand, selling more than 7 million CDs since their 2005 debut “PCD.”

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“So now, 13 years later, I’ve got a brand, I’ve got all this under my belt,” Antin said. “But I still have the same fire that drove me back then. I put a lot of energy into what I do, so people will come to the show and go, ‘Wow.’ I’m showing you how to do it in a space that is so small and still make it amazing.”

Even rival club owners welcome the Dolls’ return to the Sunset Strip. “What’s good for our neighbors is good for us,” Roxy owner Nic Adler said. “The more action on the Strip, the better.”

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charlie.amter@latimes.com

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Pussycat Dolls Lounge

Where: Viper Room, 8852 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

When: 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, except for Dec. 12 and 13

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Price: $25, standing room. Reservations for parties of four with bottle service from $350 per table.

Contact: (310) 657-7228, or table/booth reservations at PCDLounge@viperroom.com


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