It is 7:15 on a February evening, and a mob of men is building at the entrance to Chicago's newest strip joint. The opening-night party for Thee DollHouse, on North Kingsbury, was supposed to begin a quarter of an hour ago, and the men are waving their VIP invitations in the air, protesting the delay. At 7:20, a bouncer in a tuxedo consults a list and a few people enter.
Inside there's a stage, a couple of runways, a lot of mirrors, and a canned, pulsating disco beat. Bare-breasted women bump and grind on a wall of video monitors, and waitresses in lacy underwear (over flesh-colored tights) take drink orders. Two women in satin hot pants move through the room with an open liquor bottle in each hand, pouring the stuff straight down the throat of any customer who throws his head back and opens his mouth. But the real attraction is the army of itinerant strippers, resplendent in evening gowns. More than 100 of them have been brought in from affiliated clubs around the country. The place is awash in sequins and silicone.
A man at the next table, a thirtysomething advertising executive, has taken stock of the place and doesn't like it. Still bristling from the wait outside, he says he's seen it all before. "Does Chicago need it? Who knows? I live in the neighborhood, and every Friday and Saturday night the prostitutes are walking up North Avenue," he says. "From that standpoint, you might as well have this. But I've been in these clubs in other cities. It gets old real fast. The novelty wears off. If it wasn't free, believe me, I wouldn't be here."
The strippers are working the room, arching their backs, chatting up the customers. In spite of big hair and heavy makeup, some look like they ought to be back home practicing with the high school pom-pom squad. Many are new recruits. Just seven months ago, for example, the deeply tanned platinum blond who calls herself Courtney was a hairdresser in Orlando, locked into long hours and a rigid schedule. Now she travels all over the country, working as much or as little as she pleases. "It's a good business to be in," she says. "Management is good to you, they treat you well. The money? Just like waitressing or bartending, it depends on how hard you work. You make tips when you're dancing. Five dollars a dance in Florida; twenty dollars a dance in Chicago."
At 9:10, it's show time. The club's vice president and owner are introduced--two guys in ponytails and earrings. A group called the Platinum Dolls does something that looks like lip-synching but might be singing, followed by the main event, a Miss America-style evening-gown promenade of the "Beautiful Dolls," all 100-plus of them. One by one, they parade across the stage and take their bows, waving and smiling to the crowd as their names and credentials are announced: Misty, Kimberly, Cheri, Jessica, Tiffany, Miss Malibu Beach, Miss Pensacola Beach, Miss Nude Minnesota, Miss Nude Tennessee, a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, and the winner of the Fort Worth Strip-Off.
Then the promenade is over and the real business of the night is about to begin. The Beautiful Dolls are surging into the audience, climbing onto the cafe tables, mounting the runways. One hundred women are dropping (or raising) their dresses in unison, exposing buttocks and breasts in all shapes and sizes, the nipples covered with barely discernible latex pasties. Their moves are as old as Salome, or at least Madonna: toss your hair, wave your ass, bend your knees, and spread 'em.
The men are transfixed. The heftiest of the women has dropped her gown around her waist and is moving her ample bosom in slow circles just under the nose of an equally heavy mustaschioed man with a drink in his hand and a blissful smile on his face. His eyes are riveted to her chest.
Back at the adman's table, a delicate honey blond who looks like she'd be more at home at a Lake Forest dinner party has slipped out of her dress. In gloves, stockings, pasties, and G-string, she begins to undulate, running her hands over her hips, turning and bending to flash her crotch. The adman has tucked $20 into her garter and is grinning from ear to ear. He's going to make a joke: "I was wrong," he says. "I take it all back. This is the greatest place in the world."