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"Some of the joints are on their way out," he continues, "but there's still a place for them. Your blue-collar guys want to watch girls as much as anyone else. Dandy Dan's and the Paper Tiger -- they're great. They're joints."
The Bullard business history is full of joints. At fourteen, Rusty began washing dishes at his father's many strip bars, including the Funky Fox, the Stage Door, the Clown's Den and Trickie Dickies. By eighteen, he was tending bar. His father, Ted, had no problem introducing him into what many considered a low-life atmosphere. (Of the persistent rumor that dancers at the Red Garter would sell hand jobs, Rusty says, "An urban legend! My mother never would have let me work where that was going on.") Steeped in the business, he decided to make it his career -- in much the same way that Troy Lowrie of the PT's nightclubs empire followed in his father's footsteps.
Troy has built his father's few strip joints into a $30 million empire that comprises at least ten clubs in nine states. "To me, this is just level two," he told Westword a few years ago ("The Daily Grind," April 13, 2000). "My dad was at level one. My son, hopefully, can get to level five."
Like Troy, Rusty has kicked around a few new ideas for a very old business. "I wanted not so much hustle, more food, some real entertainment," he says. "We don't push it. We want our customers to enjoy and relax. We have a killer wine list, and our wines are not even hugely marked up." He envisions a place where a businessman can go regularly for lunch -- perhaps even taking a woman with him.
"Some of our clubs have nearly 50 percent female patrons," says John Soto of PT's.
"There's definitely not the stigma attached to strip clubs anymore," Rusty says, "and we're seeing a lot more women."
A lot more women come in, and a lot more women leave the business through the front door. Speaking of lifted stigmas, Rusty asks, "Where do you think those trophy wives come from?"
Amid all this relaxed luxury and upscale strutting, it's sometimes hard for Rusty to believe that he still works in the same building, in the same business. The Red Garter never had a marketing concept -- much less a full-time marketing maven -- but La Boheme has Bridget LaBoure, who's spent much of the morning talking up the club on the air with KBPI's Uncle Nasty.
"We're going to do the La Boheme Body Buffet," she announces. "Unfortunately for the girls, I've promised that Ed the Intern gets to eat dessert off one of them. Only desserts -- nothing icky. Key lime pie, maybe? I got on the air with the drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. We've had members of Godsmack in here."
"And Tommy Davidson," Gidget adds. "And all kinds of Nuggets and Broncos. And then some musicians I can't mention because their target audience is teenagers and we don't want to be swamped."
"And Tyson Beckford," Bridget says happily. "And who was that guy from the soaps?"
"I don't know," Rusty says. "I watch the History Channel."
Cynthia Stanley was about to begin work as a La Boheme bartender when she discovered she was pregnant. Neither she nor Gidget could wrap their brains around the resulting image, so Cynthia agreed to be a house mom instead, filling in on Pat's days off. Before starting a daycare home, she'd waitressed at cabarets in Denver and Indiana, so she knew what she was getting into.
"I used to think the whole thing was demeaning," Cynthia recalls. "Women taking their clothes off for money. But I was a single mom, and I needed work, and I found out I could make 200 bucks a night cocktailing at a topless place. Then I got to know the girls. Occasionally, yes, a girl will go home with a customer -- some girls don't have the common sense not to -- but they're just real people, in the same proportions as the rest of the world. I understand that now."
So in addition to safety pins, deodorant and superglue for high heels that self-destruct, Cynthia offers a compassionate ear: "I tell them, talk to the customers, but don't really talk to the customers. If you have a problem, come down here and tell me about it. The customers have their own crummy lives; they don't want to hear about yours. They want smiles, beauty and grace. And skin. I remind them that it's nothing more than acting. You just go up there and portray what they're looking for."
For a pregnant woman in her thirties, with the usual aches and exhaustions, the house-mom job is ideal, she says. "I'm reading the new Stephen King during the slow hours, and the girls love my pregnancy. A lot of them have children, too. Although I've had enough of size-four girls complaining about how fat they are," she admits.
A woman who got a job as a house mom at Shotgun Willie's last year had similar concerns. "I weigh about 200 pounds," she says, "and I was worried. I thought I'd be treated poorly by a bunch of girls who make their money based on how they look."