Report from the Inland Empire: Strip clubs stinging from recession

FONTANA – from – Peter Hook may have spoken for many a man upon his first excursion into the world of strip clubs.

“I’m going to be smiling for about a week,” he said.

It was noon on a recent weekday as the 21-year-old stood outside the Spearmint Rhino Gentlemen’s Club on Riverside Avenue.

“I’m beginning to see how this can be a weekly thing.”

Industry insiders hope so.

They say the recession has stripped revenue from those who make a living inducing customers to “make it rain” money by tossing wads of dollars at exotic dancers in clubs across the Inland Empire and throughout the country.

“This year there has been a rebound and it is still (down) around 10 to 30 percent,” said Larry Kaplan, executive director for the California chapter of the Association of Club Executives, a trade association representing more than 3,800 adult nightclubs throughout the nation.

Anecdotal evidence of Kaplan’s estimates abounds at Inland Empire venues, where operators of clubs like Fantasy Topless in Colton, Bare N Legal Showgirls in Pomona and the Villa Theatre in Ontario said they have seen a drop in business compared to years past.

Kaplan speculated that the recession might be forcing some folks to seek alternatives to a once-marginalized scene that in recent years had gained traction in mainstream culture.

“Sometimes I’d rather go to a dance club than watch some rude chick (at a strip club) dancing,” said 20-year-old Pablo Ruiz.

Dissipating attendance has forced club owners to shift marketing strategies in order to survive.

In the Bay Area, clubs have had to re-invent themselves because the crowds of white-collar, Silicon Valley customers with fat money rolls are no longer there.

“Clubs are getting customers who are not spending (that kind of money),” Kaplan said.

In some cases that means big discounts to see buxom beauties. The Spearmint Rhino is offering its “December Stimulus Package” featuring $5 dances all day and night.

Those who run businesses that send exotic dancers into private homes said the downward trend in clubs holds true for their trade too.

“I’ve dropped about 30 to 35 percent,” said Michael Stickler, who runs the Chino-based Risque Kitty.

Stickler said the slump becomes more pronounced during this time of the year. During the summer months, weddings are common and often accompanied by bachelor parties that feature strippers.

“Our industry basically begins in March and continues through Halloween,” he said. “After that, people are thinking about Christmas and the holidays. They don’t think about strippers.”

It’s not only tough for business owners, but also for the dancers, who work as independent contractors and have been chased by a bruising economy from one battered industry to the next.

Stickler said some dancers are former teachers, nurses and real estate agents.

Many have their eyes set on the higher-end clubs that analysts say are more apt to survive the recession.

Randi Newton works at Rick’s Cabaret International in Manhattan, the flagship shop for the publicly traded company.

Newton said it is not unreasonable for a dancer to make $1,000 a night at the bigger venues.

“They are looking for this fast cash which is readily available in the gentlemen’s clubs,” she said.

The 29-year-old Newton formerly worked as an analyst’s assistant at Morgan Stanley. She left that job for a management position in a prominent liquor company but was eventually laid off and sought work for more than a year.

She writes at that she “wandered into a strip club with a friend and walked out with a waitress job.”

A year later, she “got drunk and took off her clothes on Valentines day, there the excitement began.”

“I said, I’m single, I have bills to pay and I’m going to take it to the next level and do it my way and not compromise my morals,” she said.

Mitchell McDonald, a manger at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club in Redlands, said an influx of new dancers there has helped business tick up about two percent, compared with this time last year.

“It’s probably the best lineup of women I’ve had,” he said. “New girls keep the customers coming in.”

McDonald has been in the business for more than 18 years and has seen the industry bounce back after economic downturns, which he hopes is happening now in his club.

“It’s not necessarily the same customers spending more, it’s more coming through the door,” he said.

Hope for the industry may lie in the type of customers strip clubs attract – which seems to be men over 18 with a pulse, a paycheck and plenty of free time.

Taggert Brooks, an associate professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, has analyzed the socio-economic trends of strip clubs for more than 15 years.

He conducted a study in the 1990s that found one out of five men over 18 said they had attended a strip club in the past year.

Attendance figures were consistent across religion, race, regional and income lines, Brooks said.

“My research suggests that peoples’ popular perception (of who goes to strip clubs) is off,” Brooks said.

His research found that if one doesn’t drop out of school, one will probably drop into a strip club.

“That throws people for a loop,” Brooks said. “More educated people are more likely to go. They have this perception that it’s guys out of high school in rural areas who are more likely to go.”

Brooks said clubs that are faring best these days are typically part of larger chains.

A spokesman for Rick’s said he has seen that play out this year, especially in larger markets such as New York City and Miami.

“We’ve never claimed to be recession-proof,” said Allan Priaulx. “But we’ve demonstrated to be recession-resistant.”

The company this week reported revenues of more than $75 million for the fiscal year – ending Sept. 30, compared to $57.9 million in fiscal 2008, an increase of 29.8 percent.

Priaulx said customers are drawn to the red carpet treatment at his venues, which offer tasty steaks and cognac running up to $3,500.

But perhaps it’s Hook, again, who summed up the sentiments of many men who are drawn to gentlemen’s clubs.

“Where else can you see naked chicks for five dollars,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

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