The Pioneer of Porn

What do you say to a naked lady? For more than 30 years Leroy Griffith has been saying, "You're hired!"

The "gentlemen's clubs" Griffith refers to are the newest phenomenon in adult entertainment (despite the phrase, couples are welcome), the latest in a trend that began with nude-dance emporiums such as Solid Gold, the Gold Club, and Platinum Plus. The Michigan-based corporation that operates Deja Vu, for example, boasts 31 franchises across the nation (90 percent of which don't serve alcoholic drinks) and even publishes its own magazine, Showgirls, which recently featured a glossy, in-depth, and wholly inaccurate article about the rich history of the Miami Beach outlet. Griffith, a Deja Vu franchise partner, is planning to convert the Pussycat and the Roxy to the new format: lots of naked women, high-tech lighting, formal waitstaff, professional-DJ sounds, and a seven-dollar cover.

The Deja Vu approach to titillation seems far removed from the traditional strip joint -- bars with small stages, a jukebox, a few dancers, and a collection of men nursing beers. And barely related at all to the obsolete, teasingly suggestive dance form known as burlesque. Just as today's hard-core porn videos, viewed by yuppie couples in the privacy of their condominiums, is a world away from the early days of grainy footage shot at nudist camps. Leroy Griffith, a versatile entrepreneur in a controversial and rapidly changing business, has been there from the beginning, has adapted to innovation, and has thrived. He's also taken his share of grief in the process.

You have to look deep to find the true motivations behind the attacks Griffith has endured, and equally deep to discern Griffith's own motives in launching his various public campaigns over the years. Sometimes you must look in the scrap pile to find the remains of those who have dared to battle with the pioneer of South Florida porn. It's not that Griffith has had his enemies kneecapped and dumped in the Miami River. It's just that bad things sometimes happen to people who decide to tangle with him.

In Hialeah it was Raul Martinez, mayor, 1985. Griffith had turned the Atlas Cinema into an X-rated theater on August 29 of that year and the mayor was outraged. "The issue is not censorship," Martinez said at the time. "It is morality. They will bring in derelicts, the sick of mind. They're like herpes -- wherever they go, everybody gets infected. We don't need that."

The day after opening, in a pre-emptive strike, Griffith's lawyers sued the city, charging that a Hialeah zoning ordinance banning porn cinemas within 500 feet of residences was unconstitutional.

Griffith was gambling that the city would grant him a waiver to the ordinance rather than risk having a judge declare it unconstitutional, which might then open the floodgates to X-rated theaters. He lost. A judge eventually ordered the theater shut down. "The ordinance stood up," Griffith recalls matter-of-factly. "If not, I would still be there."

But Raul Martinez also lost. At the very same time he was attacking Griffith and preaching morality, he was orchestrating extortion schemes involving (of all things) zoning matters. Today he is appealing his 1991 conviction on six of eight corruption counts brought by the federal government.

In Miami Beach it was Alex Daoud, mayor, 1989. This showdown developed late in the year, after Fort Lauderdale and North Miami Beach outlawed alcohol in establishments that featured nude entertainers. The purported concern among Miami Beach politicians, Daoud in particular, was that every strip-club operator in South Florida would head for the sunny safety of Fisher's Folly, and the Beach would be overrun with sex-mad drunken men and immoral, naked women.

Feeding the hysteria was the imminent debut of the Gold Club, whose owners had constructed a fancy new building on Fifth Street, where they intended to combine the dreaded nudity and liquor. The fact that the city had no law on the books preventing a Gold Club, or many Gold Clubs, sparked the city commission to action.

During the debates regarding creation of a restrictive ordinance, Griffith announced that if the Gold Club was allowed to open with liquor and nudity, he would move his hard-core films from the Gayety theater (now the Deja Vu) to the Roxy, which then was showing second-run movies for general audiences. Then he would turn the Gayety into an upscale nude bar to compete with the Gold Club.

Griffith's gambit apparently offended Mayor Daoud, who spearheaded the attack against the threats and righteously intoned, "We don't have to sit idly by and watch [adult clubs] open up. It would be detrimental to the growth of our city that has been developing so nicely."

An ordinance was passed in January 1990 prohibiting not only nudity and alcohol sharing the same room, but also banning any nudity near schools and churches. (It remains in effect.) The Gold Club did open with nude dancers, but soon folded under the handicap of the no-liquor policy.

Griffith, meanwhile, successfully transformed the Gayety into the all-nude, alcohol-free Deja Vu (without local competition), and turned the Roxy into an adult theater. Somehow Miami Beach survived. The same can't be said of Daoud. Last year in federal court he was convicted of taking a $10,000 bribe from a drug dealer and still faces trial on six charges of tax evasion and 24 charges of corruption.

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