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.
Even when provoking occasional outrage, or proving a slippery fellow in court over the years, Griffith has still managed to cultivate a grudging respect from city fathers in a profession rife with scoundrels. "He's a likable character who has been around for many years in a business that's not everyone's favorite," opines former Beach mayor Neisen Kasdin. "He's one of the cast of characters on the Beach."
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.)
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.
Griffith gets hot because he feels Vegas Cabaret should have been shut down years ago, given that it is operating for all intents and purposes like an adult club. "Here's someone who comes in with a liquor license four years ago and puts some girls in there and the city lets them operate that way," he grieves. "Their excuse is it's not an adult club, but they advertise themselves as an adult club." It makes Griffith even madder that Vegas Cabaret tries to poach his dancers and bartenders. "When they come down and tell my girls to come and work at their club because they have alcohol [theoretically, drunk patrons spend more on lap dances], I don't like that," he spits.
Rick Howard, a partner with Lofrisco in Vegas Cabaret (and the onetime manager of one of Griffith's clubs when it was called Déjà Vu), claims the club's dancers wear their thongs and latex patches religiously. "We wish we didn't have to do that," he laments. He says Griffith's accusations are just his reaction to another business he feels is a threat to his own. "There's a lot of tension built up [between the clubs] over the last couple of years," Howard admits. "I can understand it. He has been on the Beach a long time. He feels, I guess, that we threaten him in some way, but I think there's enough business to go around." "Rick's not a bad guy," Griffith counters. "Listen, I'm not against anyone operating there as long as it's all fair. But the city is engaging in selective enforcement. They wouldn't let me get away with that."
Meanwhile the two club owners are driving city bureaucrats batty. Deputy city attorney Robert Dixon says both Griffith and Lofrisco are instigating constant on-site inspections because they complain about the supposedly illegal antics in each other's clubs, such as lewd behavior by dancers. "I get telephone calls from both these characters constantly," sighs Dixon. "They want to use the city's enforcement process to champion their [respective] causes. I understand what they are doing, but the city has no intention of becoming a ploy for either of them." Lofrisco refutes the allegation that he or his partner have complained about Griffith or his clubs. "We don't have the time to worry about other people," Lofrisco says. "We heard he goes and complains to the city. If he's comfortable with that, then God bless America."
"These two are having at each other -- it's the Hatfields and McCoys," Dixon continues. "I would say neither one of them is spotless. I don't give a lot of credence to either one. Both of them have been sitting in the first or second row of a cattle auction." Lofrisco, for his part, claims his troubles with the city are over, and he's ignoring Griffith's beef. "The city has always been fair with us," he says. "As far as I know, we don't have any problems right now." Nevertheless, Dixon says the city is pursuing a complaint against Vegas Cabaret for violating city codes in regard to nudity and "sexual conduct." This is the third time. Back in 1999, the city closed the club for 30 days and ordered a $5000 fine and $368 in reimbursement to the police for their undercover work. In 2000, the club was socked with an $8000 fine, and a $2500 reimbursement for police work.
Part of that enforcement included an agreement that Lofrisco's company, Kayrad, Inc., would drop a federal lawsuit it had filed against the city, and would pay double fines and face a possible revocation of the club's business license if it violated the codes again. Kayrad/Vegas Cabaret had filed the suit in 1999 to challenge the city's licensing process, which the club contended was unconstitutional. At the time, code enforcement officials were already knee-deep in the quagmire of violations the club generated because it advertised as a full liquor bar with nudity and because of police reports that dancers were offering undercover cops nude peeks and blow jobs. In one 1999 city memo, an unidentified club employee excused one dancer's behavior by telling inspectors, "It's like training puppies ... they do whatever they want."
Griffith believes that Dixon and the city have allowed the club to continue blatantly violating the rules because it agreed to drop the lawsuit. "How can the city attorney make a deal like that?" he asks. "It's clear they don't meet any of the ordinances. All I know is I get this jackpot of trouble just for having the wrong signs up," because they allegedly violated the historical standards of the area. "To me, it looks like [Vegas Cabaret] knows someone." Dixon denies that, arguing that it is a long and delicate process to build a violation case against the club. "What happened in the past, is their advertisements alone were an obvious code violation," he acknowledges. "On some of those prior [violations], it was worked out. They promised they would behave and now they broke that promise."
From August 2001 to January 2002, undercover city employees documented several instances of Vegas's exotic dancers being, well, too exotic. The reports are offered in the unimaginative language of the bureaucrat. One violation from January reads: "A dancer/employee identified as Maya' while doing a private couch dance' attempted to sell a patron on using the champagne room for a charge of $300. Maya' [said] they would be alone for 30 minutes, they would share a bottle of champagne and she pulled on her G-string and said, Plus, these come off.' The patron pointed to his pants and asked, Do these come off?' She replied, Yes.'" (This is nothing new to Lofrisco and Howard, whose Pompano Beach club Foxy Lady fought that city in 1997 when dancers exposed themselves and offered sex to undercover cops.)
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.)
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."
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 Let'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."
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SHOW ME HOW
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.