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On a recent Friday night at Vegas Cabaret, New Times didn't witness anything so compelling. The club, a dark warren of rooms anchored by a stage, bar, tables, and couches, was nearly empty despite the free hour of liquor between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. A dozen restless girls in improbable heels and outfits only slightly more risqué than those found in dance clubs down the street, lounged moodily at the bar. A handful of women gathered around pockets of bored males, sitting on arms of couches and snuggling chattily in the seats. Onstage a rotation of dancers jiggled out their routines, teasing with the first song and baring all but G-string and latex patches on the second. After their sets, the girls stalked the tables, begging for tips, or selling couch dances in the back. Pretty standard stuff.
As sad and pathetic in its empty routine as the city's continuing discombobulated attitude toward its own nature. What are we selling the tourists, after all? It's not all white-sand beaches and suntans. Naples has that, along with geriatric Republicans from the Midwest. Steve Polisar cancels the illusions: "You can see nude girls [sunbathing topless] and have a beer on Twelfth Street right now," he argues. "The day we get too moral about South Beach is the day we're done. [Strip clubs are] not a moral question. It's a question of taste. You want to avoid cheesy, but sophisticated stuff is good for the Beach."
Business considerations have nearly always driven the political sensibilities of Beach officialdom on the subject of selling sex. And Griffith has been there almost the entire time. In the Sixties, he walked the tightrope between the profitable and acceptable standards of the day, bringing in burlesque shows and fairly tame adult movies to the Twenties- and Thirties-era theaters he bought.
Then, in the late Eighties, perhaps as part of the Republican ascendancy in the state, it became fashionable for a number of Florida cities, including Fort Lauderdale and North Miami Beach, to ban alcohol sales in clubs that featured nude entertainers. Meanwhile Miami Beach was just beginning its redevelopment spurt.
So in 1989, when a strip club operator from Atlanta wanted to build the Gold Club on Fifth Street in South Beach, with liquor and nude girls, it touched off a huge battle, only partly fueled by moral considerations. Then-mayor Alex Daoud led the city's counterattack, which included proposals to follow the lead of other cities in banning alcohol in nude establishments and outlawing strip clubs near schools and churches. This attack was further stimulated by operatives for developer Charles Cobb, who was then working with the city to build a condo project (the Courts, languishing for over a decade despite millions in public money, and just now being built under a new developer) next to Joe's Stone Crab, too close for comfort to the proposed Gold Club.
Then there was Leroy Griffith, who was equally disturbed at the prospect of such a slick operation killing his quaint little empire of vice on the Beach. So Griffith proclaimed that if the Gold Club could open with nudity and liquor, he would convert his Gayety theater (now SoBe Showgirls) to a drink-slinging strip club to compete. That cinched it for city officials, who pushed through the bans in early 1990, just in time to ruin the Gold Club's business; it shut down soon after opening. Neisen Kasdin was a member of the city's planning board at the time. "The notion was if we didn't limit those [strip clubs], the city wouldn't come back," Kasdin asserts. "Also, the whole thing was driven by a host of private agendas, [such as] who did they want to help and who did they want to hurt."
Kasdin remembers his reaction to the proposed restrictions in 1990. "It was quite a scene," he recalls. "I think some of my fellow [planning board] members had taken a trip up to visit the strip club in Atlanta. I'll never forget the great debate -- the great areola debate. “What is it? Why does it need to be covered?' I don't think I ever quite understood why, if you're going to have strip clubs, you can't have alcohol."
None of this stopped Griffith, however. At first, he planned to remake his theaters in the image of one of those owned by legendary strip-club impresario Michael Peter. (Peter, later imprisoned on a mail-fraud charge by prosecutors convinced he was laundering money for organized crime, pioneered the original Solid Gold and Pure Platinum clubs in Fort Lauderdale and North Miami Beach, which introduced current prurient dance policy.) Thus, the Gayety became Déjà Vu, then SoBe Showgirls. Later, Leroy turned his Roxy into Club Madonna (successfully fighting off Madonna, the pop icon and authoress of Sex, when her attorneys ironically protested the strip club was giving her a bad name. Madonna lost because you can't copyright a name that's been in common use for 2000 years).
In recent years, Leroy had a series of minor skirmishes with Beach officials over his display of dancers' photos on the Club Madonna marquee, which was, some said, a violation of historic standards. Former commissioner Nancy Liebman, who doesn't believe a nude-club marquee could ever adhere to historic standards, was the leader in that tussle: "He put up some sleazy graphic on the marquee," she says. "He refused to adhere to the historic district [standards]. He ran the city ragged and then finally gave in at the last minute. Then he did it again and the city had to go through all kinds of hurdles." Liebman also didn't like the limo stuffed with girls and bearing a large "Club Madonna" sign that Griffith would send around the city to drum up business for the club. Leroy says the city was being inappropriately overzealous. "They got me for $160,000 in fines, but we settled for $6000," he grins. "Then I ran an ad that said, “Our signs are covered, but our girls are not.'" Griffith sighs. (The signs are back up again, as Leroy won in court.)