The Pleasures of Your Company
Michael Wheeler, one of the Pleasures Dudes, is riding the stripper like a horse. She scampers on her hands and knees while Mike slaps her butt and flails for the television camera. It's just after 9 p.m. on a Tuesday -- a slow night at Dandy Dan's, which makes the spectacle all the more peculiar. Along the mirrored back wall, middle-aged men crane their necks from the shadows. A dancer on stage turns her head to watch, gyrating absently. Mike, face contorted in a comic sneer, prods his mount toward the front door. The stripper, Laela, leaves a trail of dollar bills as she crawls on the thin carpet and nearly hits her head on the base of an ATM machine. The half-dozen young guys hovering near the bar howl with laughter.
"He's gonna ride her out into the parking lot!" someone hoots.
Mike has a catchphrase -- "totally sweet" -- and the 31-year-old shouts it now in the caustically screechy voice he assumes whenever the recording light flashes red. Idling outside the Federal Boulevard strip joint is tonight's transportation, a rust-colored H2 Hummer limousine chartered for an evening of filming. On the drive over, to the sounds of Top 40 R&B, Mike told his friend and fellow Pleasures Dude, Fred Gates, about his ideas for this "Olympic strip-off." Events will include stripper rodeo, stripper suction-dart targeting and, of course, the dance competition. Judging will be conducted by the Pleasures Dudes using numbers Mike wrote on some scrap paper. All footage and pictures will then be funneled into their website or their thirty-minute television show, Late Night With the Pleasures Dudes.
Technically, the show is an infomercial, occupying forlorn time slots between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. on a variety of local stations, including CW2 and UPN 20. But for insomniacs, party people and the sexually depraved, this is prime-time television. And somehow the Pleasures Dudes stand out among the glossy Cuisinart and Ab Roller pitchmen who populate the late-night airwaves. Maybe it's the unrefined production quality that charms audiences. Or the groping attempts at comedy: Mike and Fred play the Pleasures Dudes with a crude, boneheaded enthusiasm that make Bill and Ted look like linguistic scholars. What began seven years ago as a simple advertisement for a local porn video-store chain has morphed into a bizarre mishmash of skits, party footage and interviews with adult entertainment stars and C-list celebrities. But it's also become must-see TV for a certain set, and has elevated the Pleasures Dudes to the top of the town's favorite pitchmen (see sidebar).
Fred is a master of goofy smiles and chitchat. He's also part owner of Pleasures Adult Entertainment Centers, the largest local chain of sex DVD and video stores. The 39-year-old former BMX pro recently moved from his luxury condo in Glendale to a loft above one of the eleven Pleasures outlets.
Pleasures first experimented with TV commercials in 2000. The spots were straightforward and simple, with panning shots of the store and a sexy female voice describing the video selection. "And they didn't work," Fred remembers. Sex may sell, but it doesn't always sell itself in a world of 24-hour Internet smut and Craigslist "casual encounters." No, Pleasures needed something that would hook into people's memories like a brain parasite. At the time, Mike was working as the loudmouthed announcer for an independent pro-wrestling league, and he approached the Pleasures owners with the idea of using over-the-top personas to promote the company.
"The psychology behind it is that if two idiots like us could be all happy in these stores, anyone could feel comfortable," Mike explains. And so, for better or worse, "Rusty Boner" and "Derf Digler" were born. The first commercial they did was with legendary porn actress Nina Hartley, in town in 2000 for an autograph signing. The shoot was quick, and afterward, the Dudes claim, they got a surprise sexual tutorial from Hartley in the back of a Chevy Astro Van.
Fred grins. Mike shrugs.
"We got seasoned."
"It was fun."
Hartley, unfortunately, could not be reached for comment.
Since then, the duo has produced more than seventy commercials, sometimes two a month, featuring boggling, on-the-fly interviews with the likes of Ron Jeremy ("You are a damn good person!"), Jenna Jameson ("You are the raddest of the rad!") and former N' Sync crooner Joey Fatone ("Did you ever do, like, more than six girls in one night?").
This is a favorite subject for Mike: the list of celebrities that the Pleasures Dudes are friends with, or have brushed up against, or have taken pictures next to. And tonight he has plans to interview members of a big-time rock band scheduled to hang out later in the posh downtown La Bohème Gentlemen's Cabaret.
"Okay, so blink-182," he asserts into his BlackBerry. "In the VIP room. Twelve. We'll be there with the cameras." Mike is in high spirits, even after he's informed that blink-182 broke up over a year ago and that his source is likely referring to the band +44, composed of former blink-182 members and performing tonight at the Ogden. He admits he doesn't really know much about either group; he's more into Oingo Boingo. But he's arranged the schedule so that the Dandy Dan's appearance will be over in time for him to move the crew to La Bohème.
In anticipation of that stop, Mike is wearing a large Hustler baseball cap and oversized black fleece cargo pants that completely envelop the tops of his platform shoes. On other occasions, he draws from a wardrobe that includes flashy canes, capes and a leather jacket embroidered with the logo "Scarface," as in Say hello to my little friend.
"Sometimes I will go in my suit as Mafia Pleasures Dude," he says. "But when I'm dressed like this, I'm trying to have a little fun and brighten up people's days."
For inspiration, he looks to his role models: Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay. He also loves Andy Kaufman, who "wrestled women." These performers were all loud, obnoxious -- "They were assholes," Mike points out. But it was all an act, as it is for him. "In real life, I'm a pretty mellow guy," he insists. And when the camera lights are off, when there are no porn stars to prod or promotional deals to be made, Mike can be shy, even awkward.
As a kid, Mike was known as the wild type, a goof-off. A child actor, he says he spent most of his time on various soundstages in Los Angeles as a mini-pitchman for Pop-Tarts, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other products. But while he has plenty of experience repeating quick lines for the camera, he insists it's not all fun and games maintaining the Rusty Boner character through these engagements. "For thirty seconds, it's very easy to do it," he explains. "But for three hours at a time in a place, it's a whole different thing."
To help him loosen up, Mike has brought a large plastic chalice studded with fake diamonds to form the word "Pimp," which, like many of his other accessories, is available from Spencer's Gifts. When the limo reached Dandy Dan's, the first thing he did was fill his chalice with beer -- then break a hundred-dollar bill into singles. He tried to convince one waitress to let him ride her like a horse for eighteen dollars, but she refused, pretending to not speak English. But Laela agreed, and Mike hopped aboard.
The ride now complete, Laela climbs back to her feet and totters upright in clear plastic heels. The cameraman lowers his lens and flicks the floodlight off. The girl smiles wanly and adjusts her lingerie in the mirror, then Mike shakes her hand and presents her with a porno DVD. Meanwhile, Fred chats with a group of Latino guys in their early twenties. They know "some bitches" who would be perfect for sex videos, they say. Fred nods enthusiastically, even though he isn't actually involved in porn production.
The Pleasures Dudes get these suggestions a lot; everyone, it seems, wants to be a porn star. This girl "can take it with a beer bottle," one of the guys says, motioning with his Corona. "She's a freaky bitch."
This is the second time the Pleasures Dudes have come to the club. The first was on Halloween, which drew huge crowds. One of the games the Dudes organized that night was like bobbing for apples -- except that instead of apples, they used dildos, and instead of filling the tub with water, they used fake blood. And Mike played a trick on one of the dancers, telling her that he put a "Jenna Jameson 24-karat gold coin" at the bottom of the tub.
"There was no coin," he says impishly. "But she was so fucked up, she was just non-stop bobbing her head in the blood. And I'm like, I don't care! This is good TV!"
Ron Sewick, the nighttime manager of Dandy Dan's, is a massive man with a huge mullet, huge tattoos and huge cowboy boots. "They're controversial," he says of the Dudes. "They leave an impression because they're different. They're loud and crazy." They're not your news people on TV -- "you know, perfect-looking, perfect teeth. These guys -- boom -- they go the other way. Messed-up hair, funky attitude, loud and obnoxious. And people say, ŒWho the hell are those guys?' But then they remember them."
While Mike got to keep the door charge on Halloween, the club isn't paying the Pleasures Dudes for tonight's appearance. They get "the publicity, they get to shoot here, they get the use of our girls," Ron says. In fact, Mike doesn't get paid by Pleasures, either. He says his reward is perks, like free DVDs and free entry to events. But alas, free money shots aren't the same as free money. That's why Mike uses the minor fame of being His Royal Dudeness as a platform for pushing assorted businesses through a marketing agency called Cross Promotions Inc. He calls himself a "creative consultant" for the Denver-based company, even though it's registered with the state under his home address and the contact number on the website leads directly to his cell phone.
The basic concept is to use one business to promote another. The elongated Hummer, for example, was provided at no charge by Sunset Limos, a client of Cross Promotions. Since Mike is able to buy wide blocks of TV time, he incorporates ads for these businesses into breaks during the Pleasures Dudes show, making a kind of commercial within a commercial. Other clients include Dandy Dan's, La Bohème and, according to the Cross Promotions website, porn companies Red Light District and Wicked Pictures.
All of this comes in handy for Mike's main project, Porno Pro Wrestling. He started the venture with his friend Damian Barker in 2005, melding his love of porn and professional wrestling. "It's basically porn stars using sex as a weapon," Mike explains. Porno Pro has held events at local bars and strip clubs, but currently the custom-built ring is located on the top floor of Mike's house, where he films matches that are posted on a membership-only website. The most recent match was between "Bridgette the Midget" and "Little Lacy," three-foot-tall strippers who battled wearing mini police uniforms and tiny platform heels.
Back at Dandy Dan's, the crew follows the Pleasures Dudes outside to film a commercial in front of the Hummer. A blond stripper heads out with them. It's cold, and the wind is starting to pick up.
The cameraman does the countdown.
"Dude!" says Fred.
"Sweet!" Mike replies on cue. "Late Night With the Pleasures Dudes on Comcast 15. It's going to be fun. Look at this, we've got tons of hot chicks with tons of prizes, and it's going to be totally gnarly...okay, wrong, wrong, wrong," he says, breaking from voice. They try again. One, two, three. Dude. Totally sweet. "Late Night With the Pleasures Dudes is on at 2 a.m., every Saturday night on Comcast 15."
Mike cocks his head and points to the camera. "Totally sweet!"
Mike asks the limo driver to stop by his house so he can grab his leopard-print cape. The Hummer pulls up before a faded Denver Square in Capitol Hill. In the front yard, a small wooden bridge traverses a moat-like dirt hole the size of an SUV. Mike dug the pit in the early fall with the intent of creating a pond and filling it with piranhas.
"But I'm not sure if you could get piranhas and if they could survive," he says. "I might just fill it with kois -- but wouldn't piranhas be awesome?"
An avid real-estate investor, Fred sold the house to Mike about eight years ago. Since then, Mike has remade it into a fourteen-year-old boy's dream home. Sure, the carpet is stained and the kitchen counter's piled high with dirty dishes and takeout containers -- but the shelves are filled with various action-figure collectibles and Medieval-looking swords, and the tables display vintage games, like an original Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, a Welcome Back Kotter home edition and boxes of Garbage Pail Kids cards. He also has nearly a hundred photos hanging in frames or mounted to corkboards. "This is me and Mike Tyson. I had to shoot it with a cheap Instamatic camera. That was at the Adult Video News awards," Mike says. He motions to another picture he snapped during a random encounter with Wellington Webb. Other walls are filled with posters and framed glossies of porn stars, as well as a napkin and letter from imprisoned gangster John Gotti.
"Basically, I like playing the Mafia character," Mike says. "You know, it's fun, it's fun to be a tough guy. I enjoy doing that." And the tough-guy persona can spill over into his real life -- or what passes for it. Over the course of the evening, Mike makes several vague references to people who want to "put a hit" out on him, and also starts a few cloak-and-dagger declarations, only to cut the confidences short.
He points to another photo. "Can you tell who that is?" he asks.
It's Mike at eleven years old. He's in what looks like a school auditorium, wearing a hot-dog costume. "I was the original Oscar Mayer Weiner kid," he says. And he's not joking.
Mike's family had moved to Bel-Air, California, from New York the year before. His father, who worked as a manufacturing executive, soon split from Mike's mom. Mike was in fifth grade when a talent agency came to his school "looking for precocious kids." They chose him out of everyone, he remembers. After that, he sang the Oscar Mayer Weiner song in a hot-dog suit. He did a commercial for BBQ ribs, as well as a stint on a Laugh-In revival. "It was just a lot of fun working with the stars and learning how business goes and having school on the set with just one teacher as opposed to being at a regular school," Mike says.
But his mom wasn't happy with her son being a child actor. So she made him quit and go to boarding school, a ski-racing school in Squaw Valley. Mike went on to graduate from the University of California at Los Angeles with a degree in psychology, then moved to Colorado to live with a friend.
He had no money, so he slept on couches, in cars, spent a few freezing nights at the bus station. He worked random jobs, and even did an off-and-on stint as a car salesman and then personal assistant at Rocky's Autos, which was becoming known for its slapstick Shagman commercials. That experience helped inspire the Pleasures Dudes.
"Except we're Rocky's Autos on acid. Ours are a little crazier than theirs," Mike says. "I took the idea of wanting to do a funny, crazy commercial, yes. Did I steal? No. I wanted to take characters that were memorable. More than them. More than Shaggy."
Mike credits Rocky's Autos with teaching him a lot about business. But owner David Rothrock seems puzzled by this assertion, since Mike's employment records show an inconsistent work history there. Between 1995 and 1998, Mike worked for the Rocky's dealership during four different periods, the longest of which was two months. "Undoubtedly, he's personable," Rothrock says. He thinks about this a while, then concludes, simply, "He's a busy young man."
Mike isn't as wet-behind-the-ears as he was in his Rocky's days, but he's just as busy. BlackBerry ringing, he leaps back into the limo and directs the driver to head toward La Bohème. He takes a huge slug from his Pimp chalice and puts it in the cup holder. Fred, who doesn't drink alcohol, attempts to stabilize the goblet as the ship takes a sharp left.
Despite his perma-grin and looping chuckle, it's clear that Fred is the steady one in this pair, a successful businessman with eclectic interests. He grew up in Thornton, and at fifteen became a professional BMX freestyle rider. The flatland style of biking was just poking into the mainstream in the mid-'80s, and Fred picked up sponsorship deals -- like the Swatch Impact Tour -- that took him around the world for demonstrations. "I was always more of a performer," he says. "I loved big shows."
His parents always told him to invest his money wisely by spreading it across a number of investments. After almost earning an economics degree from Metropolitan State College, he put his BMX earnings in a bike shop and a software company, and later a chain of flower stores. He also got into adult-video sales by putting an ad in Westword for "4 XXXX VHS for $20" and made thousands of dollars. Then in 1989, Fred invested in Pleasures Video, which already had three stores in central Denver.
Professional BMX rider Jay Eggleston remembers the days when local bikers would hang out with Fred, never realizing the full extent of his entrepreneurial tendencies. "I think when we were young, we thought he was just a big talker, talking about his limos and his penthouse," says Eggleston, who lives in Denver and ranks in the world's top ten for BMX Vert. He laughs. "But then we found out it was all true."
After the Pleasures Dudes started promoting the business, Pleasures just kept growing, with the eleventh outlet opening in 2005 on North Federal. Fred likes being a Pleasures Dude "just for fun," but doesn't see it as a long-term role. His latest interest is development, and he's built some Section 8 housing behind the Pleasures store on West Alameda.
Mike, though, has talked about taking the show national. But first, there's tonight's next stop.
"We'll go see what we can do with these La Bohème girls," Mike says. "They've got much higher-grade pussy here. This is a whole other higher-grade shit. So the question is, let's make them do some dirty shit." Like proposition one of the dancers to have sex for $50,000. "We've never done that before," he adds. "I actually just realized it right now -- I'm a little altered on alcohol. Let's just see what it would take. Fifty thousand? Twenty thousand? We're not going to pay that. I definitely don't have that kind of money. But people probably feel that we have a lot of money, probably. But they don't want to admit they're a whore. They say, 'Oh, we dance, but we're not going to fuck for money.' But how could that be, Fred? You're the good guy, I'm the bad guy. Let's just see if I can say $100,000 and she would say okay."
The limo pulls up outside La Bohème. As Fred and Mike get out, two girls passing by recognize them as the Pleasures Dudes.
"Daaaammnn," says Fred.
"Today's my birthday," says one girl, slurring slightly. She's turning twenty.
"Wow," says Fred. "That's prime. I bet that shit's tasty down there." He points to her crotch and laughs. His tone is so inane that the girls crack up, too.
"We're going to bring you into this club right now," Mike says. "You want to fucking have some crazy shit happen?"
But eventually the Dudes realize there's no way to get the underagers in, so Mike gives them a birthday present of dildos and asks if he can feel the girls' breasts.
"Do you agree that the Pleasures Dudes do deserve to touch just a little bit?" he asks. The girls laugh, but agree.
"Cruise to our stores," he says, handing one a card.
"I always go to Pleasures," she yells.
La Bohème has come a long way since it was the lowly Red Garter. The cabaret has been remodeled in an indistinct, modernish French theme, but the customers care less about the décor than they do the dancers slinking from their clothes. The Pleasures Dudes and their crew bypass the stages and head straight for the VIP room, where they want to start filming in anticipation of the band's arrival. Lance Migliaccio, a principal owner of the club, is sitting at the bar.
When Mike first approached him three years ago about signing up with Cross Promotions, Migliaccio says he was skeptical. But that quickly changed after he saw that being a Pleasures Dude was only one part of his plan. "Mike has a lot of relationships around town," Migliaccio says. "So he's become a go-between with some of these businesses that don't seem to be in competition but yet share all the same customers. It's an interesting niche."
This was especially true when the Adult Film Stars Ball brought dozens of high-profile adult studs and starlets, as well as some 2,000 attendees, to the club last year. Alhough La Bohème was the main backer of the event, Mike provided a significant number of sponsors, such as Pleasures. And porn stars.
He made many of these connections through his notoriety as a Pleasures Dude. "He might have started out in commercials, but then it turned into this kind of late-night-oddity TV show, almost like helmet-cam," Migliaccio notes. "Guys identify him; people see him."
But not too many people are thrilled to see the Pleasures Dudes right now. While a few men in their forties respond well to Mike's offer of free hats and T-shirts, most of the other guys stare right past them. Mike's attempt to gain laughs by rating one dancer a 2 out of 10 falls flat. He returns to the VIP room, has his chalice filled with a margarita, and passes the time by playing "Shoot the Stripper in the Butt" with his suction gun and riding yet another dancer like a horse. When the camera light goes off, he returns to his chalice while Fred listens to a group of guys discuss their dreams of one day becoming porn stars.
Mike starts talking about his parents and what it was like being a child actor. The music is loud and it's hard to hear, but his bitterness is clear. All the money he made acting was gone before he was old enough to legally spend it. He looks at the club's clientele with their flashy clothes and wads of cash, and suddenly becomes nostalgic for the working-class environs of Dandy Dan's.
"These guys here, they're all rich," he broods. "My father never gave me a dime."
He doesn't like the club any better when a bouncer comes in and tells them that they have to leave because the musicians "don't want cameras in here." As the Dudes exit La Bohème, they pass Travis Barker, Mark Hoppus and other members of +44 entering.
"How about I piss on this Bentley?" Mike asks.
"If you do that, I'll have to kill you," a guy standing by the car says matter-of-factly. He looks like a bodyguard and has a British accent.
Mike pretends he doesn't hear. "Watch this," he says. "This might be an event." As he walks up to the car, the crew gets out the cameras. The bodyguard doesn't move. Mike stops, stands and stares at the Bentley, talking on his cell phone.
The Hummer is parked nearby. "Let's get out of here," Mike orders, and the Dudes get in.
Fred has his usual grin, but his partner is miffed. "If they're going to out-famous me, they can go fuck themselves," Mike says. "Because I'm fucking for real. I want to be nice, have fun. So what if we take a few pictures? Fucking N' Sync hooks us up. Fucking Mike Tyson hooks us fucking up, you know? I can tell you straight up that given the right place and time, Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson probably would let us get hooked up. Blink whatever!"
The limo drops Fred off at home. He waves as Mike continues to punch numbers into his BlackBerry.
He's still a little hurt by the way La Bohème handled the situation. The managers could have at least come over and talked to him instead of having some "bouncer bitch" order him to leave like he was a nobody. But then his mood begins to brighten. The night wasn't a total bust, he offers: "riding some chicks horsey-back, some fun stuff." If a jackass like Rusty Boner can mess with beautiful women, then normal guys might get up the nerve to approach females they feel intimidated by. That's who all these stunts are for, he insists -- the dudes. "Doing stuff that normally guys wouldn't do with girls is always some fun stuff."
(Later, in the cold, sober light of day, Mike will carefully explains how grateful he is to La Bohème and Dandy Dan's and anyone else he may have inadvertently maligned this night. He'll be so thankful for all the opportunities he's been given, so totally grateful, he'll sound like he's making a self-conscious Emmy acceptance speech. The guy who shows up to work deals for Cross Promotions wears a suit and tie -- and is definitely not Rusty Boner. "Mike's a pretty happy guy, not very doom and gloom, and people have a love/hate thing," Migliaccio says. "He's got some pretty thick skin. But people don't realize that there are two individuals there.")
The limo comes to a stop before Mike's house. The driver opens the door, and Mike gathers all the empty dildo packages and release waivers signed by the strippers who were filmed, including Laela. He's already thinking of his next adventures, like midgets wrestling on the top floor of his house and the Adult Video News Awards this month, when the Pleasures Dudes will head to Las Vegas and find some famous porn stars to shoot.
It's difficult walking in his platform shoes, but he makes it past the gate and over the bridge that traverses the empty dirt hole in his front yard. One day it will be filled, probably stocked with koi. But piranhas would be totally sweet.
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