Bare Necessities

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

"Last night I was in tears over this, and she fixed me up," Cassandra says. "She takes care of us. She gives us first-aid and treats."

"The poor girl was in so much pain," Pat remembers.

A harried dancer runs by, grabs a tampon and mutters, "Tonight of all nights!"

From skank to swank: Rusty Bullard has watched the 
family business at 1443 Stout Street go from the Red 
Garter to La Boheme.
John Johnston
From skank to swank: Rusty Bullard has watched the family business at 1443 Stout Street go from the Red Garter to La Boheme.
The very upscale La Boheme.
Anthony Camera
The very upscale La Boheme.

"Mom, did we iron that outfit yet?" another stripper asks Pat.

"Not yet, dear, but it'll be ready for you in time," she promises. "Dancers are mostly very friendly," she observes. "I iron, mend, bring them treats. And I guess I worry about them, too. I wonder, how can some of them be so health-conscious and yet smoke?"

"Are you trying to get us fat with these Oreos?" a dancer asks.

"No, dear, but everyone's got to have their chocolate."

In a profession as old as Salome, house moms are a relatively new development. They may date back to the burlesque days, or maybe just the '60s-era Playboy Clubs, which hired "bunny mothers." But even now, they're only in the best joints, "only the classier clubs," Pat says. And not all of those, either.

House moms are paid in cash every night, generally through tips shared by dancers. Other than a basic medical kit provided by the club, they're responsible for their own supplies. But even though their relationship with the club may seem somewhat tenuous, owners recognize that they provide an important service.

"In my opinion, it's always been a problem keeping your eye on the locker room, whether they were partying or had a bottle or something," Rusty says. "You could hire a manager to sit down there, but you kind of want to give the women their privacy. And the way the thinking went was, so as long as you have another woman down there, hell, why can't she do a little hair and makeup, too?

"And actually," he concedes, "that whole security thing was years ago. The truth is, dancers don't really want to hang out down in the locker room anymore. They don't make money unless they're on the floor."

Good advice helps there, too, whether it comes from a house mom or manager. Even Rusty, who doubts he could sit through a table dance without laughing, has been known to hand out specific dancing hints, such as, "Sweetheart, you don't actually dance out there; you strut." Nevertheless, he has a terrible time telling a prospective dancer that she is either a) past her prime, or b) not the caliber he seeks. So these days, he leaves that job to Gidget.

"Some of them roll in here, and I do mean roll," he says, "and you want to say, 'What are you thinking?'"

Some of them are probably thinking that stripping has become a much more respectable career choice (if one that's relatively short-lived). Rusty can back this up; he knows strippers and stripping backward and forward, from skank to swank.

"These places are going a lot more mainstream," he says. "It's become just another form of a bar. It used to be in 99 percent of them, no unescorted ladies were allowed, because they were all working girls. But now, even in Vegas, the clubs are upscale. It's what everyone's going for: a nice, comfortable, beautiful place."

A nice, comfortable, beautiful place in a part of the city that's growing nicer all the time.

According to Helen Gonzales, director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, six "adult cabarets" are currently doing business in the city, two of them downtown: La Boheme and the Diamond Cabaret. There are also two "adult entertainment" clubs, which are alcohol-free but permit all-nude dancing. A set of hilariously specific laws govern what personnel can and cannot do inside a strip joint that serves alcohol. These rules reached their zenith when former zoning administrator Dorothy Nepa submitted detailed drawings of buttocks and their possible coverings to Denver City Council.

Rusty has held many informational meetings for dancers, in which he explains that they may touch "the sides of their breasts, but not the top or the bottom, and no areola," he says. "And they each have to wear two T-bars [thongs], because if you pull out the side of one to grab a dollar bill and there's nothing underneath, the customers can see everything, which they're not allowed to do.

"I swear," he sighs, "the regulations seem to change every five minutes. And you have to remind the girls over and over again."

A near-compulsive hanger-outer, he knows and is generally friendly with the competition. A notable exception is the Diamond Cabaret, for which he feels no love lost. And he'd rather not discuss details, he decides, except to say that the two clubs are expected to engage in heated competition for the downtown business, and to add that he's not worried about the rumored reappearance of Cliff Young at the helm of the Diamond, which suffered the loss of founder Bobby Rifkin several months ago.

Rusty often pops into Shotgun Willie's or Cheerleaders or PT's for a drink and a chat, though free drinks make him uneasy. "They have a business to run," he says, "and what if I found out my bartender was doing that to me?

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