Strip Wars

It's a balmy March midafternoon in the red-hot center of South Florida's raffish, tourist-trap debauchery -- South Beach. Washington Avenue, to be precise. Club Madonna, to be even more so. Of course, the hallowed lust emporium is closed now, in the middle of the day. The mirrored walls reflect nothing but dim lights, empty stages, and polished silver poles, recovering from the sweat and press of last night's squad of nubile young women dancers. Not a bellybutton in sight. At this too-godly hour, one would have to walk due east, down to Ocean Drive and trudge the sand to see topless teases, dry-roasting themselves for the leathery goddess of narcissism under the tropical sun.

In the cool interior of the silent club, near a set of carpeted stairs, illuminated by miniature white Christmas lights, a cleaning woman scrubs and whisks away the stained evidence of last night's fantasies. At the top of the stairs and to the left, a short hallway ends in an office where Brenda, an efficient brunette with a quick, smoky laugh, serves as doorkeeper for the club's semi-famed owner, Leroy Griffith. Leroy is on the phone, as usual.

Griffith's office is the HQ thousands of little boys who grew up in the Seventies imagined for themselves. Black leather couch beneath a wall of photographs of actors, entertainers, and sports stars spanning the last 40 years, and including -- most recently -- Jimmy Johnson and Dan Marino, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, and the cast of Miami Vice. Cabinets set into the wall display a half-dozen signed footballs and basketballs, a stocked wine rack, and a large television screen split into four views from cameras set up inside the club. For good measure, there are several plaques on the wall commemorating Griffith for his contributions to Miami Beach police and fire organizations.

Leroy himself looks like a granddaddy, which he is. A well-preserved 70-year-old with an appraising eye and an almost vaudevillian way of spitting out chunks of information at lightning speed through barely moving lips; it's as if he's being charged by the second, and by the number of muscles it takes to make his face move -- he doesn't want to overspend. Swaddled in a chunky black sweater brightened with thin lines of vivid color, Griffith's short, plump, and balding person suggests a small-town grocer more than a striptease mogul (besides Club Madonna, he operates SoBe Showgirls on Collins Avenue and Black Gold on Biscayne Boulevard, among others). He hardly seems the kind of guy who'd be engaged in an almost-constant battle with the forces of morality and order in this beach resort, sometimes in surprising directions. What, he wonders aloud, does a guy have to do to get the city to enforce the laws of decency around here?

A curious complaint for a guy like Leroy. But right down the street, he points out, Vegas Cabaret, his only competition on the Beach, is offering liquor -- and nude girls -- even though, legally, you're not supposed to mix the two, and though Vegas is technically too close to a residential area to let the girls operate without their thongs and pasties. So Griffith is wearing outrage: "They've been illegally operating for four years and the city lets them get away with it!" he rails from behind his desk, on which sit family photos and a miniature roulette-wheel paperweight stamped with the word "gambler." "If [city officials] don't do something I'm going to open up on Lincoln Road and do the same thing. If they let me operate the way [Vegas Cabaret] operates, I'll open up tomorrow!"

It's hard to tell if this is an idle threat. Griffith is a savvy businessman with South Florida roots that go all the way back to the days of burlesque, and police raids on his porn theaters (the Gayety, the Roxy, and the Pussycat, previous incarnations of his current clubs), back in the Reagan/Christian Right era of the Meese Commission. So he knows when to bluff, and when to stand pat. Like the time, circa 1961, that he opened a burlesque show at the old Paris Theater (now the Washington Avenue headquarters of Big Time Productions, owners of the crobar club empire). At the time, the tease-queens and ribald jokesters of the now quaint-seeming burlesque shows were considered too risqué for Miami Beach. "I couldn't even use the word “burlesque,'" Griffith remembers. "So I got a stage-show license and brought in performers like Blaze Starr and Tempest Storm." Naturally the good officials arrested Griffith for illegally operating a burlesque theater. But the wily entrepreneur had a good argument for the judge. "I'm not operating a burlesque theater," Griffith told him. "See, the sign says, “Top Stars of Burlesque.' I'm presenting the people of burlesque. There's no law against that." The city responded by telling Griffith he'd have to pay $1000 for the license, but since he was already paying $1600 for his stage-show license, Griffith considered it no big deal. "That's the way these things work out." He offers the well-worn tale with a quick laugh.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Rebecca Wakefield