San Francisco’s Lusty Lady Theater closed this past Monday, after decades of providing budget-friendly naked entertainment to the masses. It’s been over a year since I submitted my resignation, but I still found myself close to tears on the drive home from their final Playday.
When I started dancing at the Lusty, I was a shy, awkward, nerd, a few months past my 21st birthday. I had done a little nude art modeling, but nothing overtly erotic. I didn’t make the cut at my first audition, mostly because I was terrified. When the window in front of me slid open, I froze, realizing I had no idea how to dance “sexy”. The madam called me the next day and apologized for my not making the cut, but invited me back to try again the next month. I worked on my moves a bit, and was hired on the spot. Not a moment too soon: I was beyond broke.
My first shift was Easter Sunday, and a nice goth girl lent me a pair of bunny ears for the occasion. The afternoon was surprisingly busy, and I was only slightly intimidated by the incredibly hot and confident girls on stage with me. The next day, however, I woke up barely able to move my legs: I’d never done so many squats in my life! I took a few days to recover, and then hobbled back in for the first of many late-night shifts at the theater.
As the spring and summer passed, I grew confident in my dancing ability and body, and I noticed my legs, butt, and back becoming more muscular. Stripping is hard physical work, especially at the Lusty Lady, where you’re on stage for 4 hour shifts, dancing continuously. I’d been a dancer my whole life, but nothing prepared me for the grueling work of constant gyration. Poverty and working out for a living did have a nice effect, however: I dropped about 20 pounds in my first month, and continued gaining muscle throughout my time there.
Dancing naked in a hall of mirrors is a love-your-body bootcamp. I’d been chubby since puberty, and hadn’t thought of my body as exceptionally attractive. Having strange men stare at me, entranced, for hours at a time, changed my mind. Watching myself spinning and twisting, all done up and under good lighting, I began to regard myself as sexy, as a commodity that men would gladly pay to appreciate. The Lusty, unlike other strip clubs, fosters a positive attitude among its dancers, hiring girls of all ages, colors, sizes, and styles. Working together with that amazing group, my negative attitudes about fat bodies, specifically mine, began to break down. I wasn’t offended when men left my windows to look at thinner or bustier girls: that money went into my paycheck just as much as theirs.
Once I was trained, I started working in the Private Pleasures booth on a regular basis. This booth had a two-way intercom, and far less boundaries than the main stage, not to mention a higher rate of pay. Customers would step inside, and I would show them my various toys and gadgets, negotiating price and time for whatever they’d like to see me do. Many came in just to talk, to have a sympathetic female voice to reassure them that they were interesting, funny, or sexy, or that their fetish wasn’t too weird or gross. Of course there were plenty of cheapskates, who would proclaim loudly, “Twenty dollars?! For four minutes?! I can get a girl in the Tenderloin to blow me for that!” To which I usually replied that I certainly wouldn’t stop them.
Working in a coop was another revolutionary experience for me. There was no boss to bullshit, no manager to fear, and if the customer was unpleasant or rude, we could kick him out with no questions asked. I started volunteering for organizational duties soon after my hiring, and eventually went on to work in almost every position in the company. When I threw my back out from overwork, I was given shifts at the front desk until I healed, and I was allowed to work in ballet slippers and cowboy boots when heels were too painful to wear. I did my time managing both the support staff and the dancers, and served on the Board of Directors until my resignation.
As the years wore on, I watched our weekly revenue figures slowly dip downwards. By January of 2012, we were just barely making payroll some weeks, and everyone was worried. The Board of Directors started having emergency meetings, and making changes to forestall the inevitable. We installed another private show booth by the main stage, and pondered offering lap dances on the weekends. We even considered opening webcamming booths to try and move the business into the 21st century. But sadly, nothing worked well enough, and we started to discuss selling the business. It was during this debate that my love for the theater started to wane. Screaming matches, nasty rumors, and tension you could practically see started inhabiting the building at all hours. Finally, after weeks of unproductive meetings, nearly all of the management and Board of Directors staff quit. It broke my heart to leave, but the panic attacks weren’t worth it. I collected my coop buy-in money, threw my heels into a duffel bag, and left.
Over the next year, as most of my good friends quit and moved on to other things, I heard plenty of rumors about goings-on at the peepshow. Some were good, some terrible, but all signified the end of an era. Lapdances were now offered around the clock, and management was becoming stricter. Turnover was so high that they were holding auditions on a weekly basis. Support staff had all left or been fired, and replaced with guys that wore all black and were required to be nicer to customers. I can’t argue with most of these changes: the theater definitely needed lots of improvement if it was going to survive. But when I heard the news about its impending closure, I wasn’t at all surprised.
I arrived the night of September 1st to a scene I’d never before witnessed: the lines for booths were 6 deep, and there were so many people that 50 or 60 spilled out onto the sidewalk, drinking, smoking, hugging, laughing, and crying. I hadn’t been planning on it, but I raced downstairs, stripped off my clothes, borrowed some heels, and went onstage for the very last time. It only took about 30 seconds for me to fall into the old rhythm: smile, wiggle, turn around, bend over, squat down, jiggle, stand up, and start over again. The geography of that stage is more familiar to me than my own bedroom. As more and more former dancers poured onstage, we began to ignore the faces at the windows and just dance for each other. Girls poured champagne into each others mouths, giggling and hugging. At one point, some male staff stripped down and joined us, showing off their upper body strength on the pole and gyrating nervously. It was the best memorial I’ve ever attended, with that odd combination of mourning, drunkenness, and friendship that brings people together in the face of tragedy.
I left earlier than most, just before closing at 3am. On the way home with a very old friend, she remarked that she didn’t think she could have stayed until closing without breaking down in tears. Despite all of her faults, the Lusty Lady was a mother to us, helping us dip our toes into the world of paid nudity while nurturing us and providing a home. At the height of my career, I probably slept there, on the creaky breakroom futon, more often than in my own bed. I loved her, with all my heart, and now I’ll never see her again.
Check out Chris Hall's piece on the Lusty Lady.