Bare Necessities

Sometimes a girl -- even an almost-naked girl -- just needs a mom.

The Bullard family has leased the building at 1443 Stout Street for 35 years, most of which were seriously downscale.

"It was nothing but a joint all those years," Rusty Bullard, now forty, admits. And until five years ago, that joint was divided down the middle into two clubs: the alcohol-free Red Garter, with all-nude dancing, and Sweet Dee's Saloon, into which an all-nude dancing fan might pop for an alcoholic pick-me-up.

"Then my dad and I decided to combine the two places under one license, and that process took forever," Rusty says. "At that point, I was going to sell, but I finally decided it could be marketable. Let's just say it cost me a bundle."

Girls! Girls! Girls! Pat Patterson oversees the action in 
La Boheme's basement dressing room.
John Johnston
Girls! Girls! Girls! Pat Patterson oversees the action in La Boheme's basement dressing room.
The lowly Red Garter.
Gary Isaacs
The lowly Red Garter.

It may have cost a bundle, but with an expanded Colorado Convention Center going up just blocks away, it stands to make a bundle. Rusty felt sure that a new, improved strip club -- with a new, improved name like La Boheme -- could become an integral, and lucrative, part of the downtown scene, even with the very upscale Diamond Cabaret nearby. "We just weren't the wave of the future," he says. "My dad was all for it. Plus, you get tired of the reputation, of being on the bottom of the totem pole.

"My first impression was, let's gut it," says Gidget Sanders, the entrepreneur and former stripper Rusty hired as a manager and right-hand woman. "We ended up taking out thirty containers of pure trash." But Gidget was able to see beyond the trash, into an exotic future that came, in part, from her own imagination. "Topless dancing, with a flair," she recites. "Go-gos and fire. Not just dancers, but entertainers."

"Our architect went nuts," Rusty admits. "I mean, there's a Tibetan oak wall unit -- I wouldn't say there's another strip joint with that in it. I guarantee there's not another one with an Egyptian sarcophagus in it."

"And there's the Egypt thing," Gidget says. "That's because we want to appeal to guys who go to Las Vegas. We want to be high end without being stuffy. The Hindu part is because that's a very sexual culture, the Kama Sutra and that sort of thing, and then the whole Middle Eastern thing is very popular right now..."

And the French thing, too. The corsets and fishnets, the fin-de-the-last-siècle furnishings in the lobby and, of course, the name. "It's a gentleman's dance, a gypsy, an opera," Gidget says of La Bohème. An opera with a heroine who eventually dies of tuberculosis, but all the girls here appear to have very healthy sets of lungs.

"In a way, it's more like a regular nightclub," Rusty says. "Different from the Diamond, which appeals to business guys, whereas we're very couple-friendly. People go out and hit the clubs and then they come here."

"But we call it a gentleman's cabaret," Gidget carefully points out, "and the young crowd is not really the crowd we want. We want businessmen. We want the conventioneers. We target the older, more affluent residents of downtown. That's why we have the Opal Room -- I mean the Pearl Room."

"Is that what we're calling it?" Rusty asks, amused.

The Pearl Room, separated from the rest of La Boheme by panels of smoky glass, is almost a VIP lounge, where gentlemen -- and possibly ladies -- can relax on cushy sofas, watch a fight on the flat-screen TV, maybe order a bottle of one of the 53 champagnes available from the club's cellar. Here an entertainer might engage a visiting conventioneer in pleasant, modern-day geisha conversation, perhaps proposing a table dance after a proper interval has passed.

"These are good-looking girls, but also girls who are funny and upbeat," Gidget says. "We can do the angel wings; we can do the big feathered headdresses, Vegas style. These are really some incredible girls."

And these girls have an incredible surrogate mother. Pat Patterson serves as a sort of valet/medic/counselor/disciplinarian to the dancers, working out of La Boheme's basement dressing room. In the business -- or at least the upper end of the strip-club business -- this job is known as "house mom." Having already worked at several local topless clubs, Pat has more on-the-job experience than almost any other house mom working at a Denver strip joint. And unlike most house moms, she is neither a former dancer nor a younger woman who could easily be mistaken for a bartender or cocktail waitress.

"I don't tell anyone my age," she says indignantly, "but you can call me 59."

In those 59 -- or thereabouts -- years, Pat has worked not just as a house mom, but as a real mom, too, and as a legal secretary, a medical assistant and a legal-plan saleswoman. She's a writer, too, and most of those jobs have been ways to support that habit. Her house-mom hours -- 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., three nights a week -- work particularly well. But she's also an avid collector of interesting details, and she finds plenty at La Boheme.

Pat's territory is a large locker room with deep red carpets, oak lockers and a row of red armchairs lined up in front of the traditional chorus-girl mirrors. At the moment, one of those chairs is occupied by a stripper named Cassandra. Pat is applying ointment to her vicious sunburn.

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