THE YOUNG WOMEN IN THIS
meeting are, some would say, victims of on-the-job abuse, exposed to improper advances and fondling by strangers. But in their line of work, uninvited caresses are considered an occupational hazard, and “improper” advances need rigid definition. Hence the meeting, a kind of group-not-grope session designed to help these topless dancers survive in a smoke-filled jungle of booze and lust called the Million Dollar Saloon.
Nina Furrh, a slender. 53-year-old blond grandmother of five and owner of the Million Dollar, is conducting the meeting. She’s especially concerned about the younger girls who can handle pink-cheeked boyfriends, but not necessarily Armani-suited dudes offering C-notes for table dances. “Intimate touching allowed in other clubs is our biggest problem,” Nina says, “because we don’t allow i it at all.” She tells her dancers, “Handle (he aggressive ones without making them mad. Put them down nicely, with a smile.”
The impeccably groomed and ladylike Mrs. Furrh looks like part of the Park Cities do-gooder set, and seems incapable of even a smiling put-down. However, when she says, “I’ve been around for a while,” Nina is confessing intimacy with a business few women have even seen from the other side of the footlights.
Nina not only inherited Dallas’s most renowned topless club, but endured a personal trial by fire after her husband’s murder in December 1988. The death of topless club czar Don Furrh required that genteel Nina take charge of a suddenly reeling macho empire. Don’s death, nagging lawsuits (disgruntled employees, etc.), restrictive city ordinances, and tough competition from an upstart rival, Cabaret Royale, posed staggering challenges for this Irving housewife who, in spite of years around the business, was more familiar with the PTA than the TABC (Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission).
NINA CARPENTER WAS RAISED
in Oak Cliff, the middle child in a religious family deeply involved with the Church of Christ. She was 14 when she met Don Furrh, a Baptist-raised country boy who became a high-school football star. They were soon sweethearts, and after Nina’s graduation from Adamson High School, they married.
Early in their marriage, Don began running a private club. He had no experience; what he did have was the guts of a riverboat gambler, and he parlayed people skills and business savvy into a small empire, buying truck stops, bars, and topless clubs. “He always had something going on,” recalls Dewanna Ross, the Furrhs’ bookkeeper since 1976. “He walked in one day and said he’d just bought five clubs. We already had five or six then.” Don hit a streak in the topless business, rolling his early investments in low-rent topless joints on Industrial and Harry Hines into upscale, cabaret-style clubs like The Fare and, finally, the Million Dollar Saloon.
By the time he opened the original MDS in 1981, Don had risen to the top of the topless scene-and redefined it in the process. At that juncture, mere naked bodies were no longer enough. That was old hat. and came sagging and tattoed at many a Harry Hines dive. The Rolex and Rolodex set needed goddesses: pneumatic, taut-bodied dream girls who could make guilt seem worthwhile or vanquish it altogether. Furrh had them by the score.
Initially, Nina didn’t know the clubs Don was buying were topless. “When I found out, I blew my stack,” she says, adding that Don’s often paternal concern for his girls gradually changed her attitude about the business. “We took in strays off the street,” she recalls. While Nina raised their two children and became involved with Girl Scouts and troubled dancers, Don was a ringmaster in a circus of earthly delights.
Don’s world was the Saloon; it beckoned, and they came: celebrities and pro athletes, doctors and dealers of questionable commodities. Greenbacks flowed with the alcohol. Top waitresses were making $5,000 a month in tips, and dancers as much as $10,000. Former employees tell tales of snorting massive loads of cocaine in limos.
Finally, their orbits pulled too far apart. Don and Nina separated in 1978, although they never divorced. “Divorce would have been too final-for both of us,” Nina says. While most conventions of marriage ended, an unusual closeness remained between them. As longtime family friend Sam Hug-gins says, “They were still in love even though their worlds were different.”
A high-school dropout turned millionaire, Don had many friends and more than a few detractors -including, not surprisingly, the police. Don’s pillorying in the press for supposed ties to organized crime enraged Nina. “My family was dragged through the mud for nothing,” she says with a flash of the bitterness that has kept her from granting any interviews since Don’s murder. Fourteen days before Christmas. 1988, Don was found shot to death in his home. Because he was clad only in boxer shorts, and the security system was turned off, it seemed like an inside job. No one ever was charged, however. The private investigator retained by the Furrhs has had no success.
Of course, the world doesn’t pause for murders, even unsolved ones. When Don was killed, Nina found herself thrust on center stage in a time of grief. “Nina walked into a mess,” recalls Dewanna Ross. “Everyone wondered if they would have a job, and if the place was going to be sold. And the lawsuits and Cabaret Royale opening up… we’re talking a full-stress headache.”
Nina quickly reassured the employees that the Million Dollar would remain a family-run business, and then plunged into the operational side of the club. “It was much tougher than 1 expected,” she says. “Neither the customers nor the longtime employees were sure about me at first.” Dancers, managers, and customers left for new haunts, and the losses felt like defeclions, but “there was no time for self-doubt,” says Nina. “I’ve always been able to put out a fire and cry later.” Today, a newly renovated Million Dollar testifies to her stewardship.
DRESSED IN SUBDUED BLUES AND AMPLY ORNA- mented with jewelry, Nina Furrh smokes a cigarette in the nondescript Million Dollar offices across the parking lot from the Saloon. Nina is wary about the interview, but seems comfortable with ownership of the Million Dollar, even in light of her religious upbringing. “I don’t believe any of us has the right to judge for others,” she says.
Nor does she feel her employees* work is intrinsically degrading. “Choice is not degrading. It’s the girls’ choice and their right.” Pressed, she admits that she finds practices in many clubs (lap-sitting, table-dancing, etc.) to be offensive, but not at the Dollar, where she says girls are encouraged to keep their self respect. “Dancers can only be in control of the situation if they’re in control of themselves. They are not the customers’ toys.”
As for the inevitable rumors of dancers engaged in extracurricular dating for dollars, Nina believes that’s infrequent, but adds, “Anybody would be a fool to say they know everything that’s going on.” One former waitress says, “It’s sad for most of the girls. They can have 80 men but not one.” The dancers stay for one reason-money, and Nina knows it. “I’ve seen girls refuse marriage because of the money they make,” she says ruefully.
Nina says she feels that customers who flirt with the girls at the Million Dollar are doing nothing worse or different than those who flirt in their offices. “It’s sad that so many people don’t make their marriages exciting,” she says. “I’d like to think our customers want the excitement at home that they feel at the Million Dollar.”
The excitement afforded by G-stringed voluptuaries, shimmering lights, and pulsating music, however, is rarely portable. And so the Million Dollar endures, a place of dreams both broken and fulfilled. This pink place on Greenville is one of life’s wild cards, changing everyone’s hand who plays there, not least the owner’s. Little Nina Carpenter, after dreaming of becoming a fashion designer, after eight years of water ballet, after marrying her high-school sweetheart, is now House Mom and Empress at a tit bar.
As for how long the Million Dollar’sMomma will continue vending fantasy, that’sanyone’s guess. Nina says she still has somethings to prove, but she has already provedherself to a number of employees. “She’s notjust sucking money out of MDS,” says oneformer dancer. “She’s providing a reputableplace to work that’s a legend. Girls know thatif no one else is going to be there, Nina andthe Million Dollar will be.”