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The Lusty Lady lures its last

There are cities that would be uncomfortable with the idea of a strip joint stuck like a squashed tomato in the middle of downtown, cities that would summon up a righteous case of outrage over a bawdy marquee offering titillation and temptation right next to the art museum, the hip tourist hot spot and one of the toniest hotels in town.

But these cities would not be Seattle.

Since the Lusty Lady announced it would be closing its doors in June after 27 years on 1st Street, a city that admittedly spent several years trying to shut the place down — or at least tame it into civility — has been practically in mourning.

“There’s just something about the vibrancy of their presence that made it difficult for people to perceive them as a negative force in the community,” said Phil Bevis, owner of Arundel Books down the street, who emphasized, as did many others, that he had never set foot inside the Lusty Lady. “What’s that fancy French word I don’t know how to pronounce? Insouciance. That’s what they had.”

The Lusty Lady’s large, pink-and-black marquee has become one of the best-known features of the downtown Seattle landscape, luring customers with the fine art of the risque pun — turns of phrase that, more than being merely clever, often serve as a barometer of the city and the times.

“Skirt Locker,” the Lusty Lady proclaimed after " The Hurt Locker” won this year’s Oscar for best picture (earlier this month, again on a movie kick, it said, “Clash of the Tight Buns”).

At Christmastime, the Lusty Lady celebrated “Jingle Balls,” and for St. Patrick’s Day it was “Erin Go Braugh-less.” In honor of its neighbor the Seattle Art Museum and its famous “Hammering Man” statue, the Lusty Lady has come up with such tributes as “Hammer Away, Big Guy,” and when the city was paralyzed by protests over the World Trade Organization in 1999, the Lusty proclaimed, “W-T-Ohhhh.”

“There haven’t been any problems of the kind one might typically associate with that kind of place, and maybe that’s one of the reasons Seattle has such a fondness for it,” said art museum spokeswoman Nicole Griffin. “They’ve got this great visual presence on one of the main streets of the city, and they have great humor about it. And you know, Seattle’s a city of individual-ness, and I think people have appreciated that.”

The Internet has been the main culprit in driving down business, the establishment’s owners have said, along with the loss of a nearby parking garage and the collapse of Washington Mutual, the bank once headquartered across the street, whose expensive suits and wingtips were often seen slinking into the Lusty over lunch hour.

“We tried everything — pay cuts, no personal leave hours, no vacations — in order to keep everybody employed. But once the money runs out, there’s not too much we can do to keep our doors open,” said Virginia Lerroy, who started as a dancer when the Lusty opened in 1983 and is now a front office manager.

The Lusty Lady didn’t stick out much in the old days, when 1st Street was awash in drug dealing, strip clubs, adult bookstores and X-rated theaters — a place, as the Seattle Weekly described it, “where they think ambiance is something that takes you from the bar to the hospital.”

That’s all changed now. There’s plenty of vice to be had in nearby parts of downtown, but the main drag on 1st Street slicked down its hair and put on a tie. Multimillion-dollar high-rise condos with views of Elliott Bay loom next door to the Lusty now, and Pike Place Market just down the street is the city’s biggest tourist draw.

Over the years, various city officials, nearby building owners and churchgoers tried to get rid of, or at least more tightly regulate, the place and establishments like it. Most of the X-rated competition gradually faded away, edged out by tough city regulations and upscale redevelopment.

The Lusty and one or two other establishments persisted, in part because city officials seemed to find themselves not nearly so shocked as time passed.

“It’s there, and it’s part of the scene. It’s uniquely Seattle,” former Mayor Paul Schell, who tried twice to close the business, finally said in an interview with the Seattle history website Historylink.org.

The Lusty is in some ways a throwback to a quainter time, when stripping was a no-contact sport. Dancers strut, gyrate and shake on a small red-carpet-and-mirrors stage, fronted by a series of 12 booths in which patrons, behind glass, thrust coins and dollar bills into a slot to keep their screen open. Close-up views are often provided, with very little of the human anatomy left to the imagination.

An employee sweeps in with mop and disinfectant after booths are vacated.

The club is distinguished by the fact that it has been mainly managed over the years, at least on the frontline level, by women. Its dancers work on an hourly rate, meaning the nasty competition for clients and tips that often prevails at other strip clubs doesn’t exist. Dancers start at $10 an hour; top earners make up to $17 an hour, considerably less than the $27 an hour they made during the good days.

Tips are put in a common pool, and when several hundred dollars have accumulated dancers vote on what to do with them: divvy them up evenly, give them all to a girl who’s going through rough times or a pregnancy, or splurge on a sleepover pizza party.

“There were grad students; there were law students working there when I was there. There were a couple of real estate agents; there definitely were some moms. A trapeze artist, I think she’s still there. Some artists and writers. It was a pretty cool bunch of women,” said Elisabeth Eaves, who wrote a book, “Bare: The Naked Truth About Stripping,” after working as a dancer at the Lusty. She later went on to become an editor at Forbes magazine.

“A lot of people stayed for a very long time, myself included,” said Erika Langley, a photojournalist who published a collection of photographs, “Lusty Lady,” from her nearly 13 years as a dancer there.

“Because there was no competition, there was a sense of camaraderie,” she said. “You would watch people have children and raise them and get to know their families. You’d watch someone go through law school or become a firefighter.”

On a recent evening, a middle-aged couple filed separately into adjoining booths as several men with baseball caps pulled low over their eyes walked out.

In the “private pleasures” booth — the only one-on-one booth, equipped with two-way audio for conversation — a dancer named Roux, a slim, dark-haired beauty with a degree in linguistics, beckoned for clients in black fishnet stockings.

“The kind of guys who come here are the ones who want something that’s a little bit different than your average strip club,” she said, consenting to be interviewed so long as $10 bills kept being fed into the slot every two minutes to keep the audio connection going. “There’s a guy that always comes in here in sunglasses and a hat, and he’s wearing a slip underneath, and he just wants you to watch him.

But, she conceded, peep shows aren’t to most people’s taste anymore.

“It’s just an outdated notion,” she said. “This is not what people want. They want a strip club where you can get a lap dance, or places where you hang out with your buddies and drink. Or you go on the Internet.”

It will all be over June 27, when the screens close on the stage for the last time.

“It’s going to be weird. The most time I’ve ever had off is a week and a half. But I’ve been saving money, putting stuff away,” Lerroy said. “I’m going to go back to school so I can work at a nursing home for the elderly.”

A Seattle news website, PubliCola, is sponsoring a contest to recommend the “punniest dirty ending” for the final marquee.

Among the nominees so far: “Thanks for the Mammaries” and “And We’re Off Like a Prom Dress.”

kim.murphy@latimes.com


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