Strip Wars

The politics of selling sex entertainment on SoBe

But the contest now is Griffith's attempt to get the city to ease business-killing restrictions on his places, while strictly enforcing the codes for Vegas Cabaret. To that end he hired former Beach mayor ('73 to'77), judge, and current über-lobbyist/lawyer Harold Rosen to promote a change in city codes that would once again allow adult establishments to sell alcohol. Since last summer commissioner Simon Cruz has been quietly putting the issue on the agenda, where it has bounced around among commission, planning board, and city bureaucrats for months. One early issue was that Griffith wanted to craft the proposed ordinance in such a way that it gave his clubs a near-monopoly over adult entertainment on the Beach. The language has since been changed to seem less slanted toward Leroy. "It's not just letting them do anything they want," Cruz says. "We want to make sure we get something that's reputable and of good quality." The commission is expected to vote on it in May.

David Kelsey, president of the South Beach Hotel & Restaurant Association, says it's about time the Beach took a mature and reasonable position on nude clubs. "It is really kind of silly to say you've got to sit in the next room to have a drink," he chuckles, referring to Leroy's glass wall. "Part of the irony of this is the Gleason theater serves alcohol, has minors, and nudity in certain productions, and the city looks the other way on those sorts of things. [But] obviously, that's not a strip club." Kelsey points out that not everyone who comes to the Beach is looking for the hip or flamboyant dance clubs. "There was a plumbers' and pipefitters' convention in last year, and they really bitched about not having the kind of entertainment they wanted [alcohol and naked girls]," he maintains.

Kelsey believes the revised ordinance will probably pass. "There doesn't seem to be any real opposition to doing this," he reasons. "[The ban] really came about because of spite or graft or whatever motivated people back then. Even the [current] planning board, which is sort of on record as being anti-nightlife, has no philosophical objection to it." As for Griffith, Kelsey shares the opinion of many who see him as a sort of personable rogue. "He's a character and he's right out in front," Kelsey says. "He fights the city and I like that about him."

Former Beach commissioner Nancy Liebman proudly considers herself a thorn in Griffith's side
Steve Satterwhite
Former Beach commissioner Nancy Liebman proudly considers herself a thorn in Griffith's side
Once a hustler: Slick Leroy always manages to make controversy work for him
Photos by Steve Satterwhite. Bottom photo by Steve
Once a hustler: Slick Leroy always manages to make controversy work for him
David Kelsey is for anything that will fill up the hotels and restaurants on South Beach
Steve Satterwhite
David Kelsey is for anything that will fill up the hotels and restaurants on South Beach

Liebman doesn't share that view. She thinks the city should hold the line on the alcohol ban. "If I was on the commission, I wouldn't do it," she worries. "Unless we hold ourselves to higher standards, we will slide back to what we were like twenty years ago -- which was nothing." The war of semantics between the Beach's striptease kings tickles Liebman, especially the fact that Griffith is relying on the deputy city attorney (who she derisively calls "Bob ďLet's make a deal' Dixon") to go hard on Vegas Cabaret. "I think it's just desserts that they are keeping an eye on each other," she laughs. "Talk about the pots calling the kettles black."

From his office in Club Madonna, Griffith is still working the phones in his relentless fashion. Calls to Dixon to check on the Vegas Cabaret situation, to Al Childress in code enforcement, to his various attorneys. Plus there are the video-distribution deals, the trip to Atlantic City he's planning, a little matter of an employee who had this problem with a state prosecutor, and a half-dozen other calls to make. He has time for an interview, but it's gotta be a quick one.

The face, schooled smooth by years of poker games, doesn't show his frustration about the city delaying the Vegas Cabaret's violation hearing before Judge Robert Newman four times since January, allowing the club free reign to operate the whole time. Griffith's emotion comes through in his voice and his intense button eyes -- at least as much as he figures he needs for the pitch he's making: "All we would like is a level playing field," Griffith says. "The limos and buses come here and when they find out there's no liquor, they climb back in and they go to Hialeah or Miami. The Beach should want to keep those guys here."

This is where Leroy's agenda comes in. If the liquor ordinance is passed, Griffith has big plans for SoBe Showgirls, a change of pace almost as significant as the day, more than a decade ago, he switched over from the dying burlesque and movies format. "I'm going to make it three clubs in one," he exults. "It'll be like an upscale nightclub on three floors -- better than anything we have now. From the top floor, you can see the ocean." He pauses, reflects on the physical transformation of his little corner of the world -- a new parking garage going up nearby, the future remodeling of the now-closed Wolfie's deli next door, etc.... "You know, [the] whole area is changing," he murmurs. And Griffith plans to be on the leading edge of it, as always.

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