Strip Wars

The politics of selling sex entertainment on SoBe

This particular go-around, however, has the city on the defensive rather than Leroy, as he battles his competitor and angles to change an ordinance banning alcohol sales in nude clubs. Miami Beach is at another turning point in its evolution, facing a question of what its future will be; the situation is not unlike the one in the late Eighties, the decade of revitalization that transformed South Beach from a moldering, crime-ridden sandbar into an international playground for the arrestingly rich and foolish. That post-Miami Vice glamour -- which in turn sparked Bruce Weber, Richard Avedon and other vogue fashion photographers (and then Madonna, Sly Stallone, Michael Caine, Gianni Versace, etc.) to lend the Beach their posh auras -- and which subsequently transformed SoBe into Euromodel Central in the mid-Nineties -- is, of course, long over. Now Miami Beach is left with the infrastructure of that boom, gorgeous hotels and condos, and a glut of luxe restaurants and clubs. But the party, as SoBe knew it, has moved elsewhere. (No better example of this, and of the Beach's unwillingness to accept the inevitable, than last year's Memorial Day weekend fiasco, when a new generation of young, black, cash-fat hedonists descended and the hoteliers and club glamorosi called desperately for cops and Xanax.)

So the Beach today waits, as its leaders ponder how to adapt to changing times, and the whims of the tourists who feed its economy. And as much as Art Deco, tropical breezes, and sand have to do with SoBe's eminence as a Florida destination, its real cachet is sex appeal -- sexy nightclubs, hot stars, free-flowing alcohol and drugs, an endless supply of thongy young things traipsing Collins, Washington, and Ocean in outfits designed to gladden the hearts of men.... Yet, Beach officialdom continues to totter an uncertain line between unabashedly selling itself chic, and selling itself out, while across Biscayne Bay, the City of Miami winks at dance-and-drink-'til-noon joints where practically everything goes, including a lot of tourist dollars.

This kind of cognitive dissonance explains the Beach's approach to the out-and-out flesh merchants who represent a side of the city that some prefer to cover in a veneer of sophisticated glamour. Hence Griffith's and his competitor Sal Lofrisco's (owner of the Las Vegas Cabaret) frustration with an ordinance created in the late Eighties banning alcohol in nude clubs. This was ostensibly an attempt to keep then-struggling South Beach from becoming a low-rent red-light district. "At the time the Beach was so down on its knees that people were afraid [the strip clubs] would hurt the redevelopment," explains ex-mayor Neisen Kasdin. (Discreet, pricey escort services operating out of hotels and clubs, being "invisible," apparently are just fine.)

Leroy Griffith's strip club empire runs wide-open on chutzpah and an endless supply of nubile flesh
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Leroy Griffith's strip club empire runs wide-open on chutzpah and an endless supply of nubile flesh
Leroy Griffith's strip club empire runs wide-open on chutzpah and an endless supply of nubile flesh
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Leroy Griffith's strip club empire runs wide-open on chutzpah and an endless supply of nubile flesh

By threatening to open a risqué business on Lincoln Road (unlikely or not), an old pro like Leroy Griffith knows just where to point his gold and diamond pinkie ring. The city is still recovering from the hullabaloo caused by public reaction to the owners of KISS, a restaurant that opened last year in the Albion Hotel on Lincoln Road. KISS is the sort of eatery where you can get a little cheesecake with your $40 steak. Originally, the restaurant was to be called the Diamond, after co-owner Robert Rifkin's similar establishment in Denver. The concept was simple -- incredibly beautiful young women dancing topless on lit stages while you dine. But after several dozen nearby Lincoln Road businesses protested the prostituting of their little high-end tourist mill, the city commission blustered, and the restaurant owners caved -- conceding to clothe the dancing girls in skimpy outfits.

The commission went on to bellow ineffectually about "community standards" and considered banning future fleshtaurants on Lincoln Road, although market forces would probably do the job just as well. But the commission's reaction suggests to some a disingenuousness about the nature of South Beach. "South Beach is a sexy place," pronounces Steve Polisar, local attorney and chairman of the Nightlife Industry Council, a loose association of clubs and restaurant owners. "The day it's not is the day you should sell your condo and move to Coral Gables."

Griffith has weathered the changing temperaments of the various city officials who have regulated him in the past 40 years. He's adapted to the evolving tastes of his patrons, from the days they clamored for vaudeville stars Henny Youngman and Tony Martin, to the burlesque era, the adult-movie stage, and finally, the modern flesh circus. And now he's taking on a competitor, Sal Lofrisco and his Vegas Cabaret (who also operates a club by the same name in Fort Lauderdale). Leroy's problem with Lofrisco's place is really an issue he has with the city. Due to the ordinance banning alcohol in clubs that feature nudity, Club Madonna and SoBe Showgirls dancers are allowed to peel to the altogether, but customers are limited to near-beer, juice, and soda pop (although Griffith cleverly compensated at SoBe Showgirls at one time by buying the bar next door and installing a glass wall between them so patrons could drink and still watch the show). Vegas Cabaret has the opposite problem. It has a liquor license, but because it's too close to the aforementioned residential area, it can't get an adult-entertainment license (another city ordinance bans adult entertainment within a certain distance from homes, schools, churches and other nude clubs). So its girls must wear G-strings and cover their areolas, which the girls do with a sparkly, translucent latex. The fact that they sometimes forget that rule has been well documented by the city's dutiful code enforcers and police. (They've been cited three times.) And it is this that drives the slightly absurd battle between the two club operators.

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