"Towels," Megan says. "Lots and lots of clean towels."
Scarlet Ranch has plenty of towels. They are white and rolled up and neatly stacked on racks for convenient access. The racks are located throughout the "back room," which isn't actually a room, but the rear half of a renovated glass shop that since January 2005 has housed Colorado's largest swingers club. This isn't obvious when you approach the signless, worn-down brick building at 424 Broadway, wedged between a Family Dollar and a folk-art store. Inside, the front half of the room looks like any other hip lounge in Denver: high ceilings, a long bar, candlelit tables, a dance floor.
"Every aspect of the club has to appeal to the girls," says Megan, who helps run the members-only Scarlet Ranch with her boyfriend, Kendall Seifert. "We cannot be seedy; we have to be ultra-clean. Everything that your most anal-retentive woman would worry about, we've got to worry about."
Earlier this month, hundreds of members showed up for the monthly foam party and flopped around the dance floor, naked or mostly naked, while massive television screens flashed art-house erotica. Fortunately, Scarlet Ranch has a brand-new industrial washing machine and dryer that could handle all the towels from that night.
Like many adherents to "the lifestyle," Megan doesn't want her real name used. She is in her early thirties and has a soft, round face and upbeat demeanor that often get her described as a "girl-next-door type." Tonight she is wearing high heels and a pink lacy blouse with ruffles that flounce everywhere as she moves across the threshold separating the front lounge from the back room. The decor is supposed to be tropical, but she admits they still need to work on it, adding ferns and making plans for a waterfall.
"A lot of on-premise clubs you walk into, it's like a hallway with closed doors," she explains. "We are very different than that. We've got this open feel."
Anchoring the center of the back room is a grouping of white leather couches, "for chatting," while the "other stuff" occurs in the six canvas cabanas that each contain a bed. The cabana with the tree-trunk bedposts is the mountain lodge, while the cabana with the glowing red lights and the little wooden dragon on the wall is the "Asian" room. By far the most popular cabana is the one that contains a bed equipped with specially made elastic tie-downs for basic bondage exploits. Patrons can close the flaps of the cabanas if they choose, Megan points out, "so you've got the privacy of the rooms without losing any of the openness we were going for."
Seifert overhears this. "If you want to be private, you should go home," he says, half joking and half serious as he places fresh trash bags in the wastebaskets outside of each cabana. At 42, thin, with sloping shoulders, Seifert looks more like the tech junkie he is than some kind of libido-infused porn star.
While he freely admits his disdain for the nightclub scene, he says he enjoys operating his club because the candor of the lifestyle "fits my personality more." Formerly a video producer and IT guy, Seifert installed top-of-the-line sound and lighting systems at Scarlet Ranch, which he thinks could go head to head with some of the best small music venues in town. But trash bags need to be replaced, too. Once the party really starts hopping, sometime after midnight and before the 4 a.m. closing time, this task will fall to Casey, a kind of all-night cabana boy whose job description involves changing bedsheets after each use, mopping up spills, refreshing the condom supply and, of course, restocking towels. The club also features a massage table, a group-play area, a sex swing and a smoking lounge.
"Actually," Megan says, "running a swingers club is a lot like running a hotel."
And with approximately 4,700 members each paying in the vicinity of $450 for a one-year membership -- or $850 for the Gold Pass that gives exclusive access -- running a swingers club is a growing, ever-evolving business. While the stereotypical impression of swingers is still stuck on images of suburban casseroles, bristly mustaches and bowls filled with keys, swinging has become much more widespread and sophisticated than it was in the days of rumpus-room wife swaps. An estimated 400 "lifestyle clubs" operate across the United States, according to the North American Swing Club Association, catering to a projected 3 million swingers. While that number may be calculated more on wishful thinking than hard data, swinger conventions in Las Vegas regularly attract 4,000 couples, and "swinger friendly" resorts such as Hedonism II in Jamaica boast a 90 percent repeat guest rate.
The Denver area has become a hotbed of swinger activity, with five officially recognized swingers clubs that operate either "on-premise," with a home base (like Scarlet Ranch, which is open Wednesday through Saturday), or "off-premise," with members meeting at hotel banquet halls or bars and arranging later sexual rendezvous at private locations. There are also a half-dozen promoters around the city who host private lifestyle-specific events at local clubs and market directly to the swinging crowd via such websites as www.adultfriendfinder.com and www.lifestylelounge.com.
Even though they're devoted to bringing consenting couples together for evenings of hot action, the heads of the various swingers clubs have been less touchy-feely with each other, traditionally tolerating rival events with silent restraint. But recently, competitive tensions have gotten a lot less restrained. While the lifestyle tends to attract professional couples in their forties and fifties, newer clubs have emerged that gear their events toward a younger, more urban demographic. This has expanded the pool of swingers, but it's also created increased competition. And no competitors are more fierce than Scarlet Ranch's Seifert and Scottie Ewing, a former professional skier who owned the on-premise club Sindicate until it was shut down late last year.
Seifert and Ewing both label each other as the aggressor in a feud marked by fire-marshal raids, secret letters sent to neighborhood groups and landlords, threats of lawsuits and a not-so-hard-hitting TV exposé. But no matter who started the hostilities, everyone agrees that the battle for swing-club supremacy has caused bad vibes to spread like stale lotion across the ever-sensitive back of the local lifestyle community.
And, as with any good swingers party, it all comes down to the details.
As the Scarlet Ranch party gets under way, a competing lifestyle party is hitting full swing at a large, upscale strip club across town. Most Saturday nights are chaotic scenes outside this southwest Denver venue, as men and women pour out of limos and Audis and into the main entrance. But tonight, some couples are bypassing the front doors and discreetly making their way toward a side entrance. This leads to an upstairs space periodically rented out for gatherings of "professional, sexy and attractive lifestyle couples and singles" organized by lifestyle promoter JD Sweets Entertainment, according to the company's website.
Among the couples are "Regan and Anthony," the swingers behind the now-defunct Sindicate who have a company, 4Play, that continues to hold off-premise parties every few months in the Skybox nightclub at the Red Lion Hotel. As usual, Anthony -- the pseudonym that Scottie Ewing uses in the swingers world -- and Regan are late. As they approach, the doorman recognizes the two and lets them pass with a nod.
David Schisgall's 2000 documentary The Lifestyle is considered the definitive work on swinging in America -- a film that can be either traumatizing or empowering, depending on your feelings about uninhibited group sex between the elderly and the flabby. But Regan and Ewing are the physical opposites of the film's stereotypes. Tonight's party theme is "The Beach," and Regan is petite and beautiful in her tropical dress. The 36-year-old Ewing has an athletic build and hair cropped close to his skull. Beneath his collared shirt, three large tattoos run down his back: a snowflake, a flaming spade with two dice and an "XXX" with ski tracks running through it. They represent his three great interests: skiing, gambling and sex.
But there will be none of that at the JD Sweets party tonight. Because the off-premise event is at a location that holds a liquor license, organizers are bound by rules that allow people to be "flirtatious and risqué, but there can be no full nudity or sex ever," warns the website. No outsiders, either. As Ewing and Regan head up the stairs, the "J" in JD Sweets -- a tall, graying man with a thick mustache -- steps up and orders a reporter off the premises. Some clubs do not allow single males at all, while others put strict restrictions on who can enter on a given night, and then usually charge double or triple the entrance fees for lone wolves.
A BMX pro back in New York, Ewing moved to Crested Butte in 1991. Within five years, he'd become a professional skier, part of an up-and-coming set of extreme riders who brought a more aggressive and experimental style to the legendary mountain. Ewing's specialty was racing down mountain steeps and catching big air off cliffs, though he was never able to break into the top echelon of professional freeskiers.
"He was not at the same caliber as a Seth Morrison or a Shane McConkey or a lot of the other people that came out of that era," says Derek Taylor, senior editor of Powder magazine, who knew Ewing from his days in Crested Butte. Ewing's real assets were his gregarious personality and knack for self-promotion, which scored him a spot as one of Crested Butte's official mountain ambassadors. In 2001, Boulder-based Skiing magazine gave a nod to Ewing for having the Best Skier's Business Card, which read: "Scottie Ewing - Male Prostitute." But within two years, the self-described "snow pimp" had moved on from his winters in Crested Butte and his summers dealing blackjack in Las Vegas, and was now operating an after-hours club in Denver.
Ewing got into swinging a couple of years ago, soon after he and Regan started dating. They visited some of the other clubs around town, but found that shabby hotel ballrooms filled with septuagenarians about to get naked wasn't their cup of tea. "We went to a couple of the swinger clubs, but the crowd we wanted to mess around with, they weren't there," Ewing says. Since both he and Regan had experience in event planning, he adds, "We were like, shit, we know people, let's throw a party."
The parties went so well that in 2005 they leased a vacant storefront at 3648 Navajo Street, in the heart of the alternative-arts district, posted a sign that pronounced it the "Seven Cafe and Art Lounge" and began transforming the 3,600-square-foot building into a late-night events club. On their website, they pitched Sindicate as an "upscale lifestyle scene that caters to young, attractive couples and single women." And to make sure the club stayed exclusive to the young and attractive, they introduced a screening process requiring potential members to submit photos and personal essays. They also co-marketed events with promoter Kevin Larson, who throws "sensual parties" at downtown nightclubs like Tabu.
"It's the same demographic," says Larson. "We cater to the twenties, thirties demographic, and we tend to cater toward a prettier crowd, a younger crowd. And that's kind of what [Ewing] does. And we tend to have a lot of mutual friends. So it tends to be a good fit."
But while Sindicate fit well with some, it rubbed others the wrong way. Seifert in particular, Ewing says.
"He was after that same crowd, and we were young, and we're not ugly, and we knew a lot of people," Ewing explains. "So he knew we were going to get the crowd. And he didn't like the competition."
The afternoon powwow in July 2005 was supposed to establish some sort of local protocol for lifestyle promoters -- to essentially serve as a chamber of commerce for swingers.
The meeting had been organized by the newest clubs in town, but more venerable outfits were represented, too. Leaders of the area's oldest swingers group, the fourteen-year-old Rocky Mountain Connections Social Club, were there, as were representatives of Nova NiLLa, a northern Colorado motorcycle swinging club, and the couple behind QTPA2T's, which specializes in takeover-style parties at local martini bars. "We thought this was great," remembers Lady Suzanne of RMCSC. "Finally, we're hearing that we need to work together as a community."
That spring, the growing animosity between Seifert and Ewing had spilled onto the popular swinger meet-up website www.lifestylelounge.com, with negative postings about both Scarlet Ranch and Sindicate, which had opened that March. Michael Andre (who'd also represented Koleen Brooks, the stripper turned Georgetown mayor turned stripper) had even sent Seifert a cease-and-desist letter, asking him to stop the defamatory e-mails and rumors about Sindicate.
Lady Suzanne had seen feuds between swing-club owners in other states create such a commotion that eventually both venues were shut down. She thought the meeting was a signal that the differences between Ewing and Seifert had been settled, but she was wrong. "It ended up being a forum for these two guys to argue," she recalls.
Little progress was made on proposed rules for the fledgling owners' group, and there was no resolution of the Denver rivalry. In fact, it was about to get a lot more heated.
Although everyone in the industry recognized the rivalry between Scarlet Ranch and Sindicate, others outside the lifestyle didn't know the industry existed. Sindicate's landlords, for example.
For fifty years, the small storefront on Navajo had housed a tailor shop. Then Chandler Romeo and Reed Weimer, married artists who've bought several of the buildings on the block that houses Pirate gallery and the Bug Theatre, took on this space, too, and put it up for rent. Ewing and his girlfriend said they wanted to open a coffee shop and art gallery there. "And we were kind of looking for that type of dynamic," says Romeo. "We thought a coffee place would be great for that corner."
As the months went by, though, they noticed that the business never seemed to be open. They also began to hear complaints from neighbors about small crowds emerging from the building at four or five in the morning, people who were noisy and disruptive. "We didn't want to operate on conjecture, so we kind of defended them to other people," Romeo remembers.
But then a friend told Romeo and Weimer that he'd paid money to go to an after-hours party in the building, and that alcohol had been served. When Romeo and Weimer asked their tenants about this, Ewing and Regan told them they were hosting some events in the space, Romeo remembers, and that "everything they were doing they had checked out with the city and was legal."
The www.denversindicate.com website offered a lot more detail, describing an upscale club with a bar and dance area, a "group play/voyeur area," a massage table and a shower.
Like gay bathhouses, porn arcades, S&M dungeons and any number of businesses around town that provide a venue for adults to get off with fellow participants, private swingers clubs are legal. "There isn't anything in the state statutes that would outlaw it," says Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's Office. "Presuming that they are all of age and are not under the influence of anything that would hinder their ability to consent, etc." But problems can arise when alcohol is served -- not only could liquor affect the ability to consent, but it could put the club in violation of city and state regulations -- or money changes hands.
"The sex is not going to get you shut down," says Lady Suzanne. "It's going to be your liquor laws and your zoning laws." And because the average lifestyle couple is typically over thirty, white-collar, with kids and a mortgage, swingers have a tendency to become skittish when fire marshals come marching through their late-night parties.
In October, Romeo and Weimer got an envelope with a Glenwood Springs postmark and printouts of the Sindicate web page -- their first hard evidence of what was going down in the building.
They wanted the club out, but their lawyer told them they didn't have enough to force an eviction. But then the fire marshal started showing up at Sindicate parties, and shut down an event in November. A subsequent fire inspection found several code violations. On December 17, Ewing and Regan had a meeting with Denver Fire Department representatives and a city attorney where "the City Attorney's office advised the business owner that the social club's operation was not in compliance with city ordinance and could not operate under current conditions," says a memo signed by Fire Prevention Division Chief Joseph Gonzales. (He declined Westword's request for an interview.)
Ewing says fire-department officials told them the club could operate if the building had a back staircase to the basement. The landlords quickly built one in time for their tenants' planned, 4Play-sponsored New Year's bash. That left just the matter of obtaining a new certificate of occupancy for large events -- the responsibility of the property owner, Ewing and Regan argued. But Romeo and Weimer disagreed; if their tenants were running the actual coffeehouse and gallery they'd promised -- and for which the city had issued a use permit on November 10, 2005 -- no events-use permit would be necessary.
Finally, facing the possibility of another raid, Ewing canceled the New Year's party on Navajo and arranged to have members attend a Kevin Larson New Year's Eve celebration at the Westin Hotel in Westminster. "It was a semi-formal party, so I said, 'What the heck, come on over,'" remembers Larson. "What they do in their hotel rooms is their business. They just have to keep their clothes on at the party."
In a December 29 e-mail to members, Ewing and Regan blamed the canceled party on Seifert. "The owner of the Scarlet Ranch has made numerous false complaints to various city officials in an effort to thwart our business and lifestyle community," it read, adding that while their events were compliant with every city agency, due to the "unsavory nature of the gathering, the city has requested (not ordered) that we cease business until further review..." We find it extremely unfortunate that a club owner in the lifestyle has created undue attention to our fun," the e-mail concluded. "We have extended every effort to promote good will and harmony amongst club owners and promoters, and one bad apple is jeopardizing the scene."
On February 1, Romeo and Weimer evicted their tenants for non-payment of rent. Ewing and Regan countersued their former landlords, claiming that their failure to obtain the new certificate of occupancy caused them to lose thousands of dollars. The case is set for trial in October.
In November 2005, Brandy and her husband, Kirk, read a posting on lifestylelounge.com in which a female promised to bring a group of friends to Scarlet Ranch one evening.
"We are not technically full-swapper swingers," explains Brandy, who got into the lifestyle with Kirk six years ago. Their motivation, she says, was "to explore my bisexuality in more depth." Kirk is 33 years old and works in the technology industry, while 26-year-old Brandy works in politics. "The people are just a lot of fun," she continues. "They put on a lot of cool theme parties. It's a real open environment where you can just talk to anybody about anything. So there's no restrictions involved with basic conversations about the things you're interested in."
The first swingers party they attended was put on by Double Entendre Presents at Bender's 13th Avenue Tavern, and open only to Lifestyle Lounge members. "We were definitely nervous, because we didn't know what to expect," Brandy says. "So we're kind of looky-loos. We thought that everyone was going to, like, try and attack us. And someone would walk up to you and try and talk to you, and you're thinking, 'Oh, my God, this person wants to have sex with me.'" Instead, they found that people were very welcoming and friendly -- and much less boring than their non-swinger acquaintances.
"If it wasn't for the Lifestyle Lounge, we probably wouldn't have good friends," Brandy says. "Honestly. So even more so than the play avenue, we count a huge social life from the lifestyle. People that we can identify with."
There are social rules for how people should approach each another, but mostly it comes down to common sense. Initial chitchat should be no different than any other getting-to-know-you conversation. Talk about the event or life. If there's chemistry involved, you start to discuss in-depth what you're into. "You don't assume," Brandy says. "For example, we're not full swappers -- but you don't know that until you have a conversation with us, so it's not assuming that people are into the same things that you are into. Not touching without asking. And I think you might be more sensitive to it just because of the nature of being in the lifestyle."
Brandy and her husband were enjoying the lifestyle, but they were disappointed by the Scarlet Ranch event, which was definitely lacking in females. And in mid-November, Lifestyle Lounge administrators banned Seifert from the site for posting falsely under fake profiles. Seifert, however, says he was kicked off because he called Ewing on some false statements.
The conflict between Scarlet Ranch and Sindicate was big news in the local swinger world. "It's like being back in high school, and we honestly tried to stay out of it, because to us it was completely ridiculous," Brandy says. "And our take was, whoever it is out there putting out a negative vibe will eventually show themselves."
"A great number of people in our club don't have sex with others," says Seifert, back at his desk at Scarlet Ranch. "That isn't their main goal. They're just here to be more sexy in a bar than they can in the Church or something without being booted out."
Maybe a girl likes to lose her top or something like that, for example. "But that's different than what would be the old swing club, where everybody comes in and they swap partners, have sex with somebody they don't know and leave," he says. "This is more of a social action, if you will."
"You have a forty-year-old woman who comes in a club, she has two or three kids, and people flirt with her, they're attracted to her, and it just makes her day, makes her year," says Megan. "And her guy is sitting there going, ŒHere's this woman that I've been with, and other people desire her and she's still beautiful, she's still a sexual being.'"
Adds Seifert: "The biggest advantage that you get for those couples is that they've been together for twelve years, they have two kids, they may not do personal hygiene as detailed, they don't buy new clothes. All of a sudden it's almost like a couple dating, where they're going out and she's buying cute dresses and he's losing fifteen pounds."
"They're courting other couples," Megan says.
"But the biggest benefit is what they see within themselves," Seifert continues. "All of a sudden they revive and strengthen their own relationship, which is far better than what happens here."
"And that's what it's about," Megan concludes.
Seifert opened the original Scarlet Ranch in Evergreen in 2001. Soon he moved operations to a nearby mountain lodge. It was at one of these parties that he met Megan, who had come with her then-boyfriend. Seifert and Megan eventually became a couple and decided that they couldn't afford to be so far from Denver. "It takes a long time to build a base," Seifert says. "We had years of dead nights."
Business quickly took off on Broadway.
Like many private, on-premise swinger clubs, the Scarlet Ranch gets around the liquor-license issue with a strict BYOB policy. Staffers label each bottle with a member's code and pour only from that member's stash. Drugs are strictly forbidden. Most of Scarlet Ranch's demographic is "upper-middle-class, white, Highlands Ranch people," Seifert says, "people who want to venture out of the mainstream lifestyle but stay clear of the drugs, stay clear of the escorts. And so anytime any group comes in and tries to mix the drugs and the escorts in here, it turns into a battle, and we try to fight them off."
The fight got ugly last fall. Scarlet Ranch had a large Halloween party planned for October 29, and when Sindicate announced its own event the night before, Seifert stretched his party to two nights in an attempt to snag Ewing's patrons. "I think he saw this as a personal attack against him," Seifert admits. "I see it as business, nothing personal."
Things got personal after someone complained to the city and fire marshals showed up at the Scarlet Ranch party, kicking out more than 200 patrons (including one Denver firefighter) and shutting down the club for numerous fire-safety and building-code violations. Seifert kept the place shuttered for a month while he brought everything up to code.
Then one evening in late December, fliers were stuffed in mailboxes and on car windshields around the Baker neighborhood. Headlined "There is an Illegal Sex and Drug club in our Neighborhood," it named Scarlet Ranch as a den for "live sex shows, orgies, prostitutes and hookers as well as heavy use of the drug Œecstasy'. SEX OFFENDERS FREQUENT CLUBS LIKE THIS AND WILL BE IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD SATURDAY." It named Seifert as the owner, gave his date of birth, and encouraged readers to check out his criminal record on the Denver courts website, where suspicious neighbors would find a listing of that fall's code violations. (The city had issued a use permit on November 22 for Seifert to run a private membership club in the building.).
Rich Dockter was one of the neighbors who got a flier, and it immediately raised his suspicions -- not about Scarlet Ranch, but about who was behind the stunt. "I went out and I saw this," he remembers, "and I thought, 'This is weird. I've never seen something like this in my whole life.' And the point of that flier was obviously to try to stir up the neighborhood to cause problems and try to get [Seifert] taken out." Dockter knew all about Scarlet Ranch, though he'd never been there. He's the director of Thunder in the Mountains, an annual BDSM convention held in Denver. The BDSM scene -- think whips, paddles and dominatrices -- is quite separate from the swinger community, which sticks to more traditional sexual play. But they both support the rights of the other to operate.
The flier was also faxed to local media outlets, including CBS4. On January 26, the station ran a report by Brian Maass. Seifert had let the reporter interview him in the club's office but would not allow cameras in the main club area; attorneys from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, a lobbying group, had advised him to stay as bland and calm as possible when answering questions. Maass also interviewed neighbors who said they worried that Scarlet Ranch might project a bad image of the area. But since this part of Broadway also holds several gay bars and sex stores, that point fell flat. The biggest news wasn't news at all to anyone in the lifestyle: The sex club was legal.
Seifert says the story had little effect on business. "The problem with too much publicity is then you get the wrong people coming into your group," he notes. "If they're coming for sex, it doesn't work. It's too expensive, and they might as well go to some club where they can pick up girls. Publicity in the swing world is difficult, because then you get the single guys or the guy with the hooker trying to come in."
Seifert thought the flier sounded like the e-mail that Ewing and Regan had sent Sindicate members the same day, saying the Scarlet Ranch owner was the reason their New Year's Eve party was shut down. Seifert denies ever calling anyone in the city about Sindicate.
"I think when he pissed off our membership by having our events closed down," Seifert says of Ewing, "or him and his friends and so forth, it pissed off some of our core membership. These people are pretty loyal. And I think he blames that on me. And we tried to talk and say, 'If these things happen, our people are going to be displeased.' But it's never been in my nature to spend so much time against somebody. Every time he tried to battle us, we just worked harder to build this up."
Scottie Ewing says he's working hard to build his business, too, and insists he's never pulled a dirty trick on Seifert. In fact, he says, he's been trying to keep the peace between the swingers clubs, even as he starts a new venture.
A former boat-repair shop in the rough-hewn Valverde neighborhood doesn't seem like an obvious place to put a restaurant/ nightclub. But this two-story brick building at 1395 West Alameda Avenue, surrounded by warehouses and a used-car lot, is where Ewing and Regan envision creating The Loft. After purchasing the structure in April, Ewing secured financial backing from individuals in the oil business and other "people who believe in us," he says. Originally, their use-permit application described a spot with dancing and food on the first floor and a five-room hotel and banquet center on the second. After consulting with their attorney, though, they decided to drop the hotel and focus on the club. Not a swingers club, they insist (although they'll continue to promote off-premise swingers parties through 4Play), but a venue for parties and events that promote their online dating service, Friday Night Flirts.
They've applied for a liquor license, with a hearing set for August 9.
Lady Suzanne hopes that Ewing's new project doesn't inspire another round of hostilities. "The lifestyle struggles with the normal community as it is," she says. "So if it's fighting amongst itself, members are going to say, 'I don't want to risk being at a party and having the cops show up.' Because it's still a secret society. So numbers have dropped, because they're like, 'Well, we're just not going to risk it.' You don't want to get involved. But our members still wonder, 'What if someone decides to do something to RMCSC?' So there's a fear factor among your members."
"To me it's sad," Brandy concludes. "There are enough people to go around. The lifestyle is actually a big community. So there's enough people to go back and forth. We can just all get along and promote each other and let people choose what's right for them."