SHE’S GETTING older now, and she keeps telling herself she’s never going to punch a time clock in another seedy topless joint. From a distance, she looks younger than her years, but as she reaches the table, even the heavy makeup and dim lighting cannot completely hide the lines beneath her eyes. A thick mane of jet-black hair still frames her face, but years of long hours and late evenings have prematurely worn what must have once been a voluptuous, full-figured woman. Now her stomach creeps over her G-string, her hips are as wide as one of Titian’s women and her thick, pale thighs no longer complement her shapely calves.
In a way, the years have been cruel, but experience has been her teacher. She is in the twilight of her career as a topless dancer, yet she seems to compete admirably with the fresh-looking, lean young women who dance for the rowdy audience composed mostly of young, blue-jean-clad men. She knows her business well and is willing to talk about it candidly only because she is promised anonymity. We’ll call her Misti.
Misti tells the story of a woman-masquerading as an entertainer-who is a professional at beating men out of their money. Money gives her the courage to dance, almost naked, to loud rock music in front of gaping men. Money brings the seductive smile to her face and sparks the friendly conversation with a man she has never met before. It even gives her the strength to ignore the lewd remarks men sometimes make as they stuff her G-string with dollar bills.
Misti has danced for much of her adult life. Occasionally she quits, but she always comes back. Like most topless dancers in Dallas, she is paid only minimum wage by her boss, so she must seek tips from her male customers to pay the rent and feed her family. For that reason, Misti dances on the stage every chance she gets. When she’s not on stage, she dances erotically at customers’ tables; gyrating, writhing, often brushing her body against a customer’s knees or flopping her hair in his face. Almost instinctively she finds a good tipper, seats herself at his table, plunks down her cigarette case and chats as long as the customer is willing to keep the Tanqueray-and-tonics coming.
“I’m sitting here with you only because you’re a friend,” Misti says. “Normally, there are only two reasons a dancer would be sitting here at your table talking with you. Either you’re tipping her big and buying her drinks, or the two of you are talking about a drug deal. There’s simply no other reason for her to be at your table.”
Only a few miles away, another dancer, who calls herself Tori, is descending a stairway onto the main stage at the Million Dollar Saloon, a “gentleman’s club” on the Greenville Avenue strip. Unlike Misti, Tori, a 28-year-old blue-eyed blonde with an hourglass figure, has only been dancing for two and a half years. Tori has quickly gone to the top of her profession.
The MDS, as it is known to its devotees, has the finest decor, lighting and sound system in Dallas. Most of the men who watch her dance are dressed in coats and ties, and many of them are big tippers.
Although their job conditions and clientele may differ greatly, Tori and Misti have a lot in common: They are dancers because the money’s good. Tori worked for five years at a Mid-Cities automobile interior company and says she’ll dance as long as she can make good money. On an extremely bad day, Misti may make as little as $50, but on past occasions she’s had as much as $1,000 a night stuffed into her G-string while dancing in rotation on four stages at the Million Dollar Saloon.
Dallas has hundreds of dancers like Tori and Misti with backgrounds and aspirations as varied as those in any livelihood. They’re women like Sandy, who graduated from a Piano high school two years ago and appears well-suited both physically and mentally for her work; Billie Jean, who is pursuing a master’s degree in the performing arts; Julie, who plans to become an orthodontist; or Gemini (yes, a stage name), who made her way to Dallas from Alabama and doesn’t have any career plans-other than to make enough money someday to get out of the topless dancing business.
But no matter what their background, nearly all the dancers live constantly with the allure of plentiful drugs and the temptation to turn a trick for a quick buck. Some succumb to the temptations; their lives literally pass them by as they anesthetize themselves with liquor and drugs. Others resign themselves to the work because the money is good, then attempt to lead private lives no different from other women.
“It just got to be too much for me, the partying night after night,” says one former dancer. “I just couldn’t take it any longer. I drank so much that my body never seemed to catch up with my head. I just couldn’t handle the partying all night and sleeping all day.”
Although they often refer to themselves as entertainers, a dancer who says she actually enjoys what she does for a living is a rarity. Most would switch if they could make a comparable living-as much as $200 or $300 a day-at some other job.
“I’ve never met a dancer yet who wasn’t absolutely appalled at having to take her clothes off in front of a bunch of guys,” says another dancer, who asked not to be identified. “We’ve even got L5- and 16-year-old girls working here, and drugs are all over the place. But the money is good, and I’ve got a 5-year-old kid at home to take care of.” Until two years ago, most topless dancers in Dallas tecnhically worked under contract for talent agencies, whether or not the talent agency actually landed them the job. Dancers were paid anywhere from $25 to $40 an eight-hour shift (not including tips) and the talent agency took a percentage of their pay checks.
However, Don Furrh, owner of the Million Dollar Saloon, said he changed that practice because of difficulties with talent agencies, and most of the other clubs soon followed suit. Part of the problem, says Furrh, was that the owners never even knew the real names of the dancers and that the agencies were not deducting withholding taxes from their wages, a practice that bothered the IRS. Now dancers are paid minimum wage ($3.35 an hour). Dancers also routinely share their tips with deejays, bartenders and doormen.
THE TWO DOZEN or so topless clubs in Dallas collectively do a big business: more than $1.5 million in liquor receipts alone each month. Topless means just that: women, mostly between 19 and 23 years old, who dance bare-breasted on small stages in front of customers-nearly all men-stripping down to nothing more than a G-string. (Current state liquor regulations do not permit any establishment featuring totally nude dancers to serve alcohol or beer. Nude dancing bars serve “near-beer.”)
Although the topless dancing business has been around for two decades (the first topless club opened on Harry Hines in 1965), it is a business that continues to thrive, partly because sex always sells and partly because the business has changed with the times. The better topless clubs in Dallas these days are often renovated nightclubs with sophisticated sound and lighting systems operated by deejays and are overflowing with attractive women who could pass for college coeds or secretaries in a downtown office building. In some cases, dancers actually are former secretaries who found they could increase their earnings significantly, or are coeds who attend college classes by day and dance by night.
Although they are the first to admit that the business can be volatile at times, many of the people who own and operate topless clubs are businessmen who apply a number of the same practices that any Dallas real estate broker or insurance executive would. One of the most successful is Don Furrh, owner of the Million Dollar Saloon, Dallas’ largest grossing topless club. Not only is Furrh’s business courted by everyone from liquor salesmen to Southwestern Bell, but Furrh claims to have a $2 million line of credit at RepublicBank Garland. (Another sign of legitimacy: Furrh has placed the first ad for a topless nightclub in the 1985 edition of Guest Informant, a hard-cover tourist guide placed in virtually every Dallas hotel room.)
Furrh’s biggest competitor, MJR Corp., which owns several topless clubs in Dallas and other Texas cities, is a sophisticated concern replete with computers, bookkeepers, a personnel department, executives who could pass for bankers and even its own plane, a Cessna 421.
In that respect, the business has come a long way from the old days, when topless bars were seedy taverns owned by thugs and thought to be havens for dirty old men or high school kids sneaking out after bed check. Walk into the Million Dollar Saloon or The Fare any night, and you’ll see a number of well-dressed Yuppies in the audience. Both clubs draw lawyers, professional athletes and corporate executives. Still, some topless joints have their share of police characters-both as customers and employees.
Some of the dancers use and sell drugs, and some will go home with the customers for a fee. A few years ago, Dallas vice officers conducted a surprise search of The Fare that netted a large cache of drugs. Periodically, vice investigators make prostitution busts on topless dancers who make blunt offers of sex for a price.
“Overall, they run a pretty clean ship,” says Dallas vice Sgt. Terry Howard. “But that’s not to say that there are no drugs being dispensed. Some clubs tend to be more of a trouble spot than others. A few of the clubs allow lewd activities, like letting the customers touch the dancers. But in general, most of the topless clubs tend to do a Mr job of in-house policing of themselves. They like to avoid attention from the police because they know we’ll take charge if they don’t.”
“This is a tough business,” says the silver-haired, 48-year-old Furrh. “It’s a hard business to run, and you’ve got to stay on it or you’ll get busted real quick.” Furrh should know. Once called the “go-go king” of Dallas, his businesses landed him in jail numerous times in the early and mid-Seventies. Furrh has been arrested 11 times but has never been convicted of anything more serious than an expired auto-license tag. Those arrests were largely related to activities in his clubs, such as serving drunks, lewd dancing or dancers soliciting money to play the jukebox. “They even arrested my lawyer and CPA once because they were listed on my incorporation papers,” says Furrh.
“A lieutenant in Dallas vice wanted me real bad,” he recalls. “One time, I was arrested for serving a drunk in one of my bars even though I was in Las Vegas the night he got drunk. Things got real bad. I remember one day a neighbor called me to tell me a car was watching my house. I called the office and told them I was leaving for work and that if I didn’t show in 30 minutes to come and bail me out of jail. One day I was even arrested twice.”
Furrh is a pioneer in the topless dancing business. Although he was not the first to open a topless club, his clubs were the first to serve mixed drinks. Furrh opened his first Dallas topless bar in 1968 and by the mid-Seventies owned 21 bars in Dallas and Fort Worth, 18 of them topless. On the average, he was opening a new club every three months, and by 1975, he had a virtual monopoly on the local topless club business. But trouble with the Dallas vice squad in 1976 resulted in his putting the clubs on the market in 1977. Furrh even got into a legal battle with Tarrant County Judge Mike Moncrief, who tried to suspend the liquor licenses for some of Furrh’s Fort Worth clubs.
“I wanted to get out of the business,” he recalls. “I was getting hassled so bad that I finally filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the City of Dallas. Then one night, I was sitting toward the back of the bar at Geno’s [a topless bar on Harry Hines], and this guy who heard my clubs were up for sale sent over a cardboard coaster with a price on it. He wanted to buy The Fare and The Huddle Club from me, and the price was right-actually more than they were worth.”
The man was John Harrison Woodruff, then a jewelry distributor who owned a Greenville Avenue convenience store next door to The Fare. Legend has it that Woodruff, 41, a native of Amsterdam, New York, and Michael Jay Murphy, a 41-year-old former executive with Southwestern Bell, had gone in to have a beer at the topless club one night and decided they wanted to buy it. After purchasing The Fare, the two founded MJR Corp. and began buying Furrh’s topless clubs one by one. By 1980, they had almost cornered the topless market in Dallas. Furrh eventually sold all of his topless clubs, temporarily retiring from the topless business until he opened the Million Dollar Saloon two years ago.
Since its formation, MJR’s takeover of the topless dancing market in Dallas puzzled police, who routinely monitor sex-related businesses. For some time, both local and federal law enforcement officials had speculated that MJR might be nothing more than a front for Furrh- that perhaps the clubs were silently owned by Furrh. “Murphy quit his job at the telephone company in Corpus Christi, and now MJR operates clubs in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston,” a recent federal law enforcement memo read. “The fact that Woodruff and Murphy had not been involved in the liquor/go-go business prior to the formation of MIR Corp. certainly raises the question of their ability to-in such a short time-exercise such a complete control. For one not familiar with these particular businesses, the amount of money involved, the amount of business done and the amount of liquor that must be purchased from the wholesale liquor distributors is almost mind-boggling.” Furrh and MJR have repeatedly denied such speculation, and so far police have been unable to prove any financial links between the two.
The financially lucrative nature of the topless dancing business is staggering. The most popular Greenville Avenue nightclubs sell $1.75 or $2 glasses of draft beer, but in a typical topless joint, a customer pays $2.50 or $2.75 for the same and at least $3.25 for a mixed drink. Not only are the drinks more expensive, but topless clubs hire swarms of waitresses who hover around customers, asking them if they want another drink when their glasses are barely half-empty. The topless bars also charge a $1 to $3 cover charge, even on weeknights. Currently, the state gets 12 percent of a club’s total liquor take, but TABC officials estimate that clubs buy their liquor at a cost equal to roughly 15 percent of what they sell it for. In other words, a $2.50 beer in a topless bar costs the club about 38 cents.
OWNERSHIP OF DALLAS’ topless bare is much more fragmented today than it was in the Sixties and Seventies, but Murphy, Woodruff and Furrh remain the giants. Not only are the three men friends (Furrh claims he introduced both of them to their current wives), but collectively, $1 of every $2 spent on liquor in Dallas topless bare is plunked down in one of their clubs. In Dallas, MJR still owns The Fare at 5030 Greenville, Baby Doll’s Topless Saloon at 3039 W. Northwest Hwy., Geno’s at 8014 Harry Hines and Showtime at 5736 E. Lovers Lane.
Although Furrh operates only one club, the Million Dollar Saloon, he still maintains an economic leverage over Murphy and Woodruff. As of spring 1983, Furrh held a $170,467 note against MJR, and the partners owe $22,602 and $37,000 notes for two of Furrh’s topless bare they purchased during the late Seventies. Furrh currently owns the property and building where MJR operates Geno’s on Harry Hines. He leases the building, fixtures and bar equipment to MJR for $2,750 a week.
Furrh also holds a $219,000 note against another topless club, Southern Belles at 9737 Harry Hines, which is currently operated by Ron D. Shaddox. Shaddox, 36, does business under the name Associated Entertainment Services Inc.; he is also a part-owner of De-ja Vu, a topless club at 3039 Northwest Hwy. Associated Entertainment is currently immersed in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Until it closed recently, Shaddox also operated Minsky’s, a Harry Hines topless club. In light of his troubles, Shaddox is no threat to the kingpins of the Dallas topless business.
About a year ago, Furrh, Murphy and Woodruff embarked on yet another business venture together. The three founded Quality Vending Co. and promptly told B&B Vending Co.-a company with a virtual monopoly on the Dallas nightclub vending business-to remove its electronic video games and pool tables from their topless joints. The trio planned to replace them with Quality’s amusement machines. B&B retaliated by filing a lawsuit against them, alleging that they had violated contracts that gave B&B the exclusive rights to put machines in their clubs.
B&B claims it has already lost $1.5 million in revenues, but the three club owners countered with signed affidavits alleging that before they asked B&B to remove its machines, the mammoth vending company had been “robbing” them of their rightful revenues, had been receiving “kickbacks” from tobacco companies for placing off-brand cigarettes in machines, and in general had been providing bad service. The lawsuit has yet to go to trial.
For all its legal headaches and its inevitable exploitation of women, the topless dancing business is here to stay. Like any enduring financial venture, it caters to consumers, and it fills a demand. Young women will continue to grow old before their time, as young and old men will forever be drawn to the female form. Any reasonable man knows when he walks into a topless joint, he’s liable to spend a lot of money and get nothing more than an eyeful and a hangover. But when he walks in the door, it doesn’t seem to matter.