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!"

You must grasp up front that Samantha Strong is sex incarnate, a living blueprint of the American definition of pure, raw, hetero lust: big-haired (and blond, natch, or maybe not so natch), big-chested, thin-waisted, red-lipped, and generally as subservient as a shoe. Even dressed down as she is for this occasion -- entering the anteroom that leads to the modest Collins Avenue office of the guy who hired her for a Miami Beach striptease gig -- Samantha Strong should rivet all male attention, especially since the only distraction is the person with her: a slight, aging, poker-faced man with little more than a diamond pinkie ring in the way of ostentation. At first glance, somebody's grandfather.

Strong is politely convivial, as sweet and demure as any superstar of pornographic movies could be. Smart. Even so, and much to your chagrin, your attention is drawn to and stays with Leroy C. Griffith -- the understated guy who hired her, the grandfather. It's not charisma, really, or magnetism, but it's there: a presence.

He might not look the part, but Griffith is a highly successful flesh purveyor with a 30-year faith in South Florida real estate and a knack for either avoiding or creating trouble, depending on which might better achieve his goal of the moment. Lining the walls of the anteroom are framed photographs of Griffith posing with various pals and acquaintances: the late Sammy Davis, Jr. (a close friend for two decades), former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, the cast of Miami Vice, and a pugnacious actor named Mickey Rourke, who once worked for Griffith as a porn-movie cashier and projectionist.

Less prominently displayed is Griffith's history as a theater owner, and his legal and civic crusades as a shaper of one vivid aspect of South Florida's cultural milieu. Though he's waged war (and won plenty of times) on a number of fronts -- typically against the government and the press, the twin pillars supporting America's superego, the two entities that keep trying to tell everyone else "no" -- the right of adults to choose their entertainment as they see fit has been his most sexy campaign. It has led him into skirmishes with activist community groups, with the cities of Miami, Hialeah, and Miami Beach, and with the State of Florida as well.

Samantha Strong, sitting ladylike on the black leather couch in the anteroom, is too young to know much about Griffith's storied past. What she wants to know is whether she can have a soda. Just a minute, honey, Griffith tells her, and then he'll take her to Wolfie's, the landmark restaurant next door, where Griffith often invites visitors for a bite. First, though, he wants his secretary to negotiate a deal on a rental car for Strong. "Just get the best rate. Here's a gold card, use that, or whatever the best rate is." He looks up from his handful of plastic money. "Oh, and make sure she has a driver's license, would you?"

Strong must be well cared for because she is the "talent." Over the next two weeks, she'll perform live shows at two Griffith theaters -- the Roxy on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach and the Pussycat on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami -- wagging her wares for gawking onlookers who will pay fifteen dollars to experience the popular porn actress in the flesh. For now Griffith will provide her that cold drink, as soon as he takes this phone call concerning the lighting for Strong's stage show, makes sure it's set up right and on time. The rental car is on its way. Now the accommodating grandfather can escort his star up the sidewalk to Wolfie's, a nice family place.

You are confused and uncomfortable, but that's because you have to be here. Everyone else seems to be enjoying it to the point of drooling, but you keep looking away and asking inappropriate questions, your attitude all wrong. And Lacy's feelings actually appear to be hurt. Lacy is an extremely petite, 24-year-old blonde who, for ten dollars, will sit you down on a loveseat and instruct you to immobilize your hands by holding onto the couch's upright back. For the next several minutes, to the throbbing backbeat of DJ-spun rock songs, she will remove all her clothing and gyrate provocatively within inches of your face and crotch.

Lacy says she's been in Miami Beach for three years, waitressing until five months ago, when she landed this job at Dej… Vu, Leroy Griffith's upscale strip club at Collins Avenue and Twentieth Street. She took the job because the money is better, she says, though she certainly doesn't intend to make a career of it. After the "couch dance" ends, Lacy finishes the four-dollar, nonalcoholic drink you've been asked by a waitress to buy for her. You have just one more question for Lacy. "No, I don't feel exploited at all," she answers. "Not at all," she repeats firmly.

Griffith says he doesn't have to recruit dancers like Lacy; they come to him on their own, independently, in search of a paycheck. "In the old days," he says, "it wasn't that way. Dancers had agents, they'd have a contract, and they'd have 20 or 30 weeks' work for them, steady work from theater to theater. We'd bring in road shows. Now it's a different ball game. There's not nearly the talent involved that there used to be. Now it's just a pretty body and the woman is willing to take her clothes off. They apply like any other job. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Sally Jessy Raphael, every show has carried these new gentlemen's clubs, and they tell how these girls make $1500 and $2000 or $3000 a week. So that's gonna attract a lot of people."

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.

The City of Miami has suffered its own humiliations in trying to go after Griffith. In 1987 officials had confiscated movie projectors, a refreshment stand, and other property from his Pussycat theater. Griffith, who'd just won a court fight with the city over his right to exhibit a film called Three Ripening Cherries, was accused of owing more than $50,000 in fines dating back to 1978. The city bungled part of the collection process in a technical snafu, so Griffith ended up accountable for only $21,400. An auction of his theater equipment was conducted to satisfy that debt. The city was chagrined to learn that the winning bid came in at only $13,500, but not nearly as chagrined as learning that the winning bidder was Leroy Griffith himself, who neatly shaved another $8000 off his penalties.

The Pussycat, on Biscayne near 79th Street, has proved to be a quagmire for the Dade State Attorney's Office as well. When Griffith bought the theater more than two decades ago (it was then known as the Boulevard), the film being shown was Patton. It ran for a few days before Griffith renamed the place and changed the screen fare to something less violent than George C. Scott's famous military biopic. When the neighbors declared war, the government charged onto the field.

Between 1976 and 1987, the Pussycat was raided eighteen times. Griffith's lawyers were kept busy, and state prosecutors were kept at bay. Efforts to pin him with a felony for screening two obscene movies within five years collapsed when Griffith's attorney simply pointed out that too much time had elapsed between incidents. When prosecutors then indicated they might like to charge him with a simple misdemeanor for the more recent indiscretion (showing the film American Babylon), his attorney, David Shenkman, argued it had been two years since that film had been confiscated, thus denying Griffith his right to a speedy trial. The judge agreed and threw out the case.

But the state wasn't ready to give up. On April Fool's Day, 1987, the State Attorney's Office filed a ten-page complaint demanding that the Pussycat be shut down. This time the charge was brought under the very serious Florida Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO). The state felt that because Pussycat had been raided eighteen times in eleven years, it must be an ongoing criminal enterprise. "That's not what the RICO Act was put in for," Griffith now says. "That's how they use the law, to go whatever way they want to go with it."

They didn't go far. For reasons neither side will discuss today, prosecutors agreed to allow a judge to dismiss the complaint.

Leroy Charles Griffith was born on March 26, 1932, in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, due south of St. Louis and a bit north of the Arkansas border. His father was a theater owner, and Griffith says his childhood was normal, until he was seventeen and left for St. Louis and a job at the Grand Burlesque Theater. "Live entertainment," he sighs, a current of nostalgic fondness running through his voice. "In those days, they had probably 30 people in the cast, a chorus line, an orchestra, two comics, a singer, a vaudeville act, and then five exotic dancers. It was a good show."

But an elaborate show, Griffith learned, was not where the money was to be made. The reliable profits came from the concession stand. "That's where I was," he explains. "In between acts, the pitchman would sell prize packages, candy, stuff like that. Concessions was where the real money was, just like it is with regular movies today."

After working his way up to concession manager, Griffith began socking away money and expanding his vision. By his midtwenties he had acquired his first theater, in Detroit, and he had found his life's path. By saving money and identifying what he calls "legitimate" theaters that were going out of business, Griffith quickly built an empire. "These places would go under," he recalls, "and I'd go in and take over and make them successful with an adult policy." Soon he controlled venues throughout Ohio, in Philadelphia and Indianapolis and Chicago. He had visited Miami, liked it, and, on one trip in 1961, he noticed the Paris theater at 550 Washington Avenue was for sale. He leased it, then bought it, originally staging burlesque, including the legendary Tempest Storm.

But back in the early Sixties, Griffith didn't call it "burlesque"; doing so would have been against the law. "You couldn't even use the word," he recalls. "I had one big stage show called The Top Stars of Burlesque,' with Blaze Starr and all these people. I told the city, It's not burlesque. It's the top stars of burlesque. There's no law against the people of burlesque.' The city decided they'd fix me by charging me $1000 for a special license to do the show. I said fine. I was going to have to pay $1600 for a regular permit anyway."

Despite the offended sensibilities of Miami Beach officialdom, Griffith was on his way. In addition to bringing in live acts, he began showing movies, and covered both ends of that business by producing films and then exhibiting them in his own theaters. "You were lucky to see breasts at all in those," he remembers. "We shot at nudist camps and so forth. We even shot at the Seaquarium once."

After the Paris (which he sold in 1986, took back after its owners failed with the glitzy nightclub Paris Moderne, and sold again recently to Big Time Productions), he acquired the Roxy, further up Washington Avenue at Fifteenth Street. He generated publicity there when, in 1967, he publicly invited city officials to a screening of a film called Man and Wife. "It was advertised as the art of making love 49 different ways," Griffith recalls. "I don't remember inviting them, but I vaguely remember the incident. I think that was the first hard-core movie ever shown down here." According to press accounts at the time, the officials seemed to think the movie was boring, but not obscene.

Eventually Griffith came to control as many as nine theaters in South Florida alone -- the Paris, Roxy, Gayety, 21st Street, Cameo, and Carib in Miami Beach; the Pussycat in Miami; the Dixie along U.S. 1 in South Dade; and the Paramount on Flagler Street downtown. Today he runs the Pussycat, Deja Vu at the old Gayety location, the Roxy, and Hollywood's Pussycat, plus another club in New Orleans. None of the properties, however, is in his name, a technical maneuver not unusual in the business world.

When you add it all up, the 30 years of investing and buying and selling and promoting and staging has left Griffith well off. He lives in the exclusive walled community of Bay Point, just a couple of miles south of the Pussycat along Biscayne Boulevard. The Miami Herald once called the residents of Bay Point "the cream of Miami's crop." Griffith isn't so sure about that, but he concedes that his family -- four children and two grandchildren -- is "not hurting for anything."

Griffith says he gets up about 10:00 a.m. each day, has breakfast, goes to his office, takes care of business until about 7:00, picks up his wife, and they go out to dinner, then maybe to a movie or something else normal people do. His vices are limited to a fondness for card playing (he and a partner, the late Bill Berger, once extended a gin game over fifteen years) and having fun. "I love to gamble," he says, adding that he takes occasional junkets to places such as Atlantic City, and that he'd like to run a casino, if the State of Florida would legalize them. "But I don't do drugs or smoke or drink. Never have." He pauses to take a phone call. It's his wife, Linda, asking about their dinner plans for the evening. "My best friend, I would say, is my wife," he continues. "We've been together now for about 22 years, [legally] married, let's see, it'll be four years in June. I wanted to make sure Linda was taken care of, the family was taken care of, and that's why we got married."

Griffith's efforts to take care of his eldest son, however, have consumed him. Thirty-two-year-old Charles Leroy Griffith (born from a previous marriage) is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. The highly publicized incident took place seven years ago, when Charles shot to death his young daughter as she lay hospitalized in a vegetative state following a freak accident. A tragically misguided attempt to end the child's suffering, Charles's action and its aftermath haunt Griffith every day. He constantly monitors his son's situation in prison and the efforts to win clemency from Governor Chiles and his cabinet. Just two weeks ago Griffith's attorneys presented new evidence to the state clemency board in hopes of gaining a hearing before the governor.

Griffith welcomes the man from the awning company, invites him into the office to talk. "I've been trying to get this guy out here for weeks," Griffith remarks. He wants awnings built around the building that houses Dej… Vu and Wolfie's and a few other businesses. He wants nice awnings, and he wants the job done right. There is some talk about how to negotiate through the city permit process, but Griffith's real concern is this: "This area is filthy, dirty. With these awnings, with the place well-lit, we might get rid of some of these people who hang out around here. I want to clean up the area, make the neighborhood better."

If that sounds like an indirect criticism of police efforts to control the criminal element that has long plagued the neighborhood around 21st Street and Collins, so be it. Besides, Griffith says, attention from law enforcement doesn't bother him. "When you're not doing anything wrong," he observes, "you don't have to worry about it. The cops would rather sit down inside and watch these movies themselves than go out to a schoolyard and get some guy for selling drugs to schoolchildren."

He said virtually the same thing when popular radio-show host Neil Rogers was arrested outside the Gayety one year ago, and the Herald elicited a quote from Griffith: "It's great to live in a city where there is no crime and police have the time to go into these theaters and watch movies." The Herald opined that Griffith's comment was made sarcastically. "Well, why did they arrest him outside?" Griffith asks now. "If you see somebody about to shoot someone, you don't wait until they pull the trigger and walk away before arresting them."

Criticism aside, Griffith has a history of sympathetic support for charitable causes involving both police and firefighters. "I used to do [benefit] shows at the Carib, which seated over 2000 people," he recalls, "donated the theater, staff, advertising, and helped get talent. This all went to the widows and orphans of the firemen and the policemen." A plaque commemorating his generosity hangs on Griffith's office wall, which prompts another recollection, about the time some years ago when Griffith was reported to have quipped that he had the Miami Beach Police Department "in his pocket" after making a $2500 donation. "I never said anything like that," Griffith now says. "There was a big benefit, and Danny Thomas came out and made an announcement that he was taking $2500 of the money raised for the wives and children of police and firemen and giving it to the actors' guild. They had a retirement fund, too. I said I didn't think it was right and that I'd match whatever he took back. That's why I donated it. I might have said something like, `I got my money's worth already.' At the time I was building the Gayety here, and we had a fire, and the [fire department] guys came in and opened up the doors, didn't break them down, and they were very pleasant, vacuumed up the water and got all the smoke out. They did a good job instead of tearing everything up, so it saved me $2500 just by that."

The fact is, Griffith doesn't even remember the last time he encountered legal problems in Miami Beach. "And I'm sure," he adds, "that they check and recheck my places. There's no drugs, no prostitution. Never has anything like that been connected with us."

So why has he always encountered such antagonism? And why in particular from newspapers, those bastions of free expression? His battles with newspaper business managers reach back to 1969, when he sued the local dailies for restricting the size and content of his advertisements. They continue today, even with New Times.

After much negotiation, the paper finally allowed him to advertise, but told him how big his ad could be, what could or could not be used to illustrate it, even what the copy could say. And the longest contract he was offered was four weeks.

New Times publisher Greg Stier says, "We're not comfortable with those businesses. We restrict him to four weeks because it gives us an out. There's nothing wrong with sex or nudity, but a woman getting on top of a bar and stripping? It's legal, but it's demeaning to women, and it abets the demeaning of women."

Griffith, obviously, disagrees, even though he doesn't pay much attention these days to the product he provides to his adult customers. "I haven't watched it in a long, long time," he notes. But he is not immune from pondering the moral implications of his business. "I've been thinking that over quite a bit," he says. "If I was a judge taking bribes, a banker trying to swindle my customers out of bank funds, a doctor selling drugs, I might feel bad. But seeing a nude girl? There's nothing immoral about that. And there are more judges and lawyers and cops and bankers in jail than theater owners. I'm not hurting anyone or stealing or anything like that.

"All those people -- those judges, lawyers -- are our customers. They have collections of more adult films in their homes than we have in our theaters. I don't feel too bad about the business I'm in any more, but if fights come up, and we think we're right, we fight it. If I walked away from fights, I wouldn't have been here for 30 years. There's nothing immoral about the human body. Evil's all in the mind.

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