Lusty Lady Theater closes its doors at 3am September 2, 2013 after 40 years in business in San Francisco, California USA
I photograph people.
My favorite subjects are young women.
When I was a young photography student as a teenager at Brooks Institute of Photography, there was no Craigslist or Model Mayhem. I photographed my classmates and friends outside of school, but I frankly didn’t know many beautiful women that would allow me to photograph them.
I was painfully shy back then, so I would not ask strangers.
I never thought to advertise in the newspaper classified ads, and I probably couldn’t have afforded their rates had I thought of it. What did occur to me was to drop off a mini portfolio of my work at the front desk of The Lusty Lady Theater at 1033 Kearny Street in San Francisco, California USA.
This theater was less than a block away from the music venues I went to back then, when I was an enthusiastic fan of punk rock music. The famed Mabuhay Gardens and the club named ‘On Broadway’ on the second floor over Mabuhay Gardens were on the street named Broadway, which intersects with Kearny. I suspect it was the punk rock that brought me to this North Beach neighborhood and put The Lusty Lady on my radar.
I lived in Santa Barbara, California USA at the time since that’s where Brooks was located. But my parents lived in San Francisco, and I returned home periodically. I loved to shoot outdoors in the industrial sections of the City. I couldn’t photograph my Santa Barbara friends, because they weren’t in San Francisco, which is a six hour drive from Santa Barbara.
Amazingly, the nude dancers who worked at The Lusty Lady Theater seemed to like my portfolio because they telephoned me and volunteered to be photographed by me. I never paid any of the women I photographed — remember, I was a student and supplies were very costly. My large format view camera used sheet film that came to USD $.40 a shot for black and white and $3.00 a shot for color.
Two of the dancers I photographed were in their own bands, so I got to photograph these bands. Some of the images I created back then hold up well, and as soon as I get a scanner than can accommodate 4×5″ large format negatives, I’ll scan some of them and post them to this blog.
I used to get invited to parties the theater put together.
These parties were not at the theater.
One party I vividly recall was at a large private home about an hour outside of San Francisco. I took my then college roommate Tom Lounsbury there. There were topless women all over the place — dozens of them. It was like nothing I had seen before. Lounsbury, who has since changed his first name to Ishmeil, pushed me into the swimming pool with all my clothes on. I hadn’t brought swim trunks, and I certainly was not going to go skinny dipping like some of the women were doing. I remember being upset at Lounsbury because my wallet got soaked. But it was all in good fun, and it made the day even more memorable. Of course, there were no mobile phones back then, so I didn’t ruin a phone.
Another memorable party was at a nightclub at the Northwest corner of 11th Street and Folsom Streets in San Francisco. I could not find the current name of the property on Google Maps. At the time, there was a swimming pool in the club — a full size pool like you would find in a hotel. The pool would have a plastic translucent floor placed over it for dancing. But for special events, the flooring was put in storage and the pool was open for swimming. It was at such a private special event that I met Teanna Keller, a dancer at The Lusty Lady. Her stage name was Barbarella. I believe the year was 1986, the year I graduated college and moved back to San Francisco.
Keller mesmerized me by taking off all her clothes in the middle of the afternoon and diving into the swimming pool, while everyone else remained clothed. I had never seen someone do that, before or since. There were over 100 people at this private party.
We met for the first time later that afternoon, when she was again fully clothed. She and one of her girlfriends invited me to head across the street to The Holy Cow, a popular dance club that’s still there today. Eventually her friend just disappeared without saying goodbye, and I was alone with Keller. We dated for perhaps a month, maybe two… I can’t remember.
I ended the relationship, and I remember Keller being upset and crying. She had only recently given me the most impressive bouquet of flowers that any woman has ever given me. It was huge — around three feet high. I was shocked, since we weren’t ever that serious. She gave me these flowers during my lunch break from Newell Color Laboratory, where I worked for less than a year right after graduation from photography school. My work friends were impressed with those flowers. Yes, I got a bit of teasing.
I suspect Keller felt such a bond so quickly with me because I insisted we visit a clinic for the morning after pill. Condoms were new to me in 1986, and Keller was the first person that I had used a condom with. The condom broke because we were not using it correctly, out of mutual ignorance. I was panicked because my friend Lounsbury had just had an unexpected baby with his girlfriend, and at the time that seemed like a bad thing. I didn’t want this supposed bad thing to happen to me, so even though I had discovered the breakage within moments of it happening, I still wanted to play it safe. I took the morning off from Newell and took Keller to a clinic that specialized in female reproductive health. She was prescribed birth control pills with special instruction on how to take some of the pills more quickly than normal. If you use the pills this way, those pills mimic the functionality of today’s ‘morning after pill’ sequence. I don’t think one could buy a morning after pill advertised for that purpose at the time. Of course, Keller didn’t get pregnant, and probably wouldn’t have even without the pills. But she was super appreciative of my being so careful. She told her girlfriend — the one that had invited me to the party where I met Keller, and that friend of mine said how impressed Keller was with me for taking care of her as I did.
In retrospect, I sometimes wish Keller had gotten pregnant and that we had stayed together, because I would have a family now. I soon lost touch with Keller, and haven’t seen her for a quarter century.
I never photographed Teanna Keller, and I don’t even have a picture of her. She was thin with short blond hair, and stood about five feet five inches. I was certainly attracted to her, but I broke up with her because her work was too much for me to handle.
I never went to watch Teanna Keller perform at The Lusty Lady, so I was never her customer. I was poor, but I would have considered it to be poor form to show up at her work to see her without clothes when I could see her in my own home.
I once walked Keller to work from my work and said ‘have a nice day at work.’ She immediately asked me never to say that again when she was heading to her job.
She told me emphatically that she didn’t like the work.
Keller had a nice apartment in Fremont, California. The last time I saw her was at her apartment. We had already split up by then, but she had asked me for help fixing her record player. The phono cartridge was wobbling on the tone arm, and she wanted me to tighten the screws. Sadly, the plastic threads in the tone arm stripped and the cartridge fell off entirely. When I got there she could play records, though not optimally. When I left, her record player was fully broken and useless. I felt awful. Nonetheless, she gave me such a sweet big hug… I think she still wanted me to be her boyfriend. Sadly, I never saw her or heard from her again.
Keller was 19 years old and I was 24 years old.
When I read in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper that The Lusty Lady Theater would be closing September 2nd, I decided to visit as a blogger. It turns out I was a day late.
The venue closed to customers at 3am this morning, September 2, 2013, with what sounded like an epic party. I probably would not have attended this party even had I known about it, since I don’t like strip clubs or peep shows, and I don’t know anybody at The Lusty Lady. But I am really glad I went this afternoon around 3:30pm as a blogger.
The doors were still open. They can’t be locked because there is no lock that I could see. The place has been open continuously 24 hours a day since 1973, so there was no reason to lock the doors. I suspect the theater stayed open even on September 11, 2001 when most San Francisco businesses closed down after four airplanes crashed on the other side of the United States.
When I arrived and introduced myself this afternoon, there were still half a dozen now ex-employees hanging out drinking mimosas. Andi Baker, second from the right in the group picture above, graciously allowed me to photograph the interior of the peep show, including the famous nude dancing stage, a mirror lined room about ten by twenty feet in size.
The Lusty Lady was a peep show. I understand from interviewing the staff today that this theater was the last live peep show in the United States. The theater charged no admission fee to step inside. Instead they made money by offering phone booth sized private rooms that had a motorized panel at eye level. When paper money was inserted into the bill receptor on the wall, the panel would slide out of the way, revealing a glitzy room mirrored on all surfaces other than the floor. Even the back sides of the panels were mirrored. These bill receptors used to be quarter dollar coin receptors a quarter century ago, and the theater used to distribute their own coinage, like many game arcades used to do, to thwart thieves that wanted to profit from breaking into the coin boxes in the private booths.
I forgot to ask how long the window is open for a dollar.
There were two other money making parts to the theater.
The first was a private pair of rooms called ‘Private Pleasures.’ In this set of rooms, a nude woman would sit in one room, and a customer would sit in the other. There was a glass divider between the rooms.
The second was a lap dancing area, something new from twenty five years ago. I suspect the theater was trying to compete with the many nearby traditional strip clubs that feature lap dances. One such club, the Hustler Club, is in the basement of the building The Lusty Lady is housed in, and the entrance door is adjacent to the entrance door to the Lusty Lady, as can be seen in the exterior picture of both clubs that accompanies this post. I was told that Hustler Club will be moving into Lusty Lady’s former space. The landlord for Hustler Club also owns the space The Lusty Lady rented, I was told.
The Lusty Lady was forced to close because the rent of approximately USD $16,000 was too much for the employee owners to afford. Yes, this club was employee owned and unionized. A feature length movie — Live Nude Girls Unite — was made about the long path the dancers took to achieve this apparently unique in the world ownership structure for a strip club. The movie is available in the US over the streaming service of the movie website Netflix.
The six staff I spoke with were shaken over the closing. They were heartbroken from what I gathered.
Courtney Crimson — I’m not sure if this is her real name or her ‘stage’ name — said she was the Theater Madame, which I presume meant she was the general manager. She used to be a dancer at the club, and started work there seven years ago. Her boyfriend Andi Baker also works at the club. They were a couple before they moved to San Francisco, and they both took jobs at the club, though not at the same time. I am impressed a romantic couple could work together at an adult entertainment club for years. Baker and Crimson were very welcoming to me today, and I sensed they were really pleased that I had come there to seriously and respectfully cover the demise of ‘their club’ on my blog.
I don’t know what the current dancers think of their work as dancers. I suspect most of them liked the work and that some, like my girlfriend Keller, disliked it.
My view is that most sex work should be legal.
I think the United States military should set up brothels near or inside its facilities the world over, perhaps even subsidizing the sex workers to encourage their participation. I suspect that sexual assaults that are apparently out of control in the military would drastically drop if there were affordable prostitutes conveniently available all the time. The Japanese reportedly forced women to service its solders during World War II. How much better it would have been for women to be allowed to set up business nearby or even inside military installations. Sex work is legal in advanced countries like Switzerland and Germany. The US should change its laws at the Federal level to override any state law.
I also believe all drugs should be legal, including cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and Oxycontin.
But even though I think sex work and drugs should be legal, I don’t want anyone I am close to be a sex worker or a drug user. I don’t use drugs, strippers or prostitutes. With the exception of the reporting for this blog post and my years ago visits, I do not go to any adult entertainment establishments, and I never plan to in the future. I think sex work is bad for the workers, and I have seen it destroy and harm lives to shocking degrees. But in spite of this, I think such work should be legal. I also think the social stigma should be lifted, since the stigma itself contributes in my mind to the harm caused by the work.
I don’t drink alcohol or smoke, even though both are legal. Even if sex work were legal and without stigma, I would still not be a customer.
One reason I can take this resolute position is that I have lost my shyness nearly completely. Thus, it is now relatively easy for me to meet women, both to socialize with them and to photograph them. I photograph far more young women now than I did 25 years ago, and I still photograph volunteers most of the time. I may hire perhaps one model a year, but that’s not to photograph them but to hear their stories about traveling the world as a model. Such models that really do travel the world while supporting themselves exclusively by modeling don’t volunteer, so to hear their stories and interview them, I have to hire them. I met glamor model Jessi June this way.
I met and photographed many self described Lusties decades ago. Maybe one day I will post their pictures. Right now those pictures are locked away on film negatives, and I don’t have a film scanner.
Many dancers will likely find this post in the coming days. It would be a lot of fun to do a large group picture of as many former Lusty Lady dancers as can be gathered at one time. If a dancer or other theater employee would like to help me organize such a shoot, please contact me via Facebook here. We could do the shoot outside, perhaps in North Beach, South of Market or even in front of the theater before its recognizable facade is replaced. I also have a studio we could use. I can’t pay anyone, but I can promise hundreds of quality photographs, and I will give everyone that models the pictures on DVD before they leave. This is a project that should get done, by me or by someone, before the dancers scatter across the land and can’t be gathered together easily, like they can right now. The male employees should be in the photographs as well, because the theater employed many men. They are part of the family I am certain.
The other dancers I photographed were just friends of mine. I stayed in touch with one for years. I can still find references to her music online. She settled down on a farm, got married and had children. Her name was much more unique than Keller’s name, so out of respect for her privacy, I will not name her on this blog.
The too easy accessibility of pornography will probably see to it that no business like The Lusty Lady will ever start again. In 1973 when this theater opened, people didn’t even have video cassette players, and adult movies were shown only at public movie houses like the California Pussycat chain, where I saw my first adult movie while I was going to UCLA, before Brooks.
The dancers I met were always very nice to me. I liked them. The two dancers I met today were nice to me. Saddie Massoch introduced herself to me before I had a chance to introduce myself. None of these half dozen people I met had any idea what my blog is about, yet they all treated me as if I were writing for The New York Times. Their enthusiasm for The Lusty Lady was genuine, and I suspect their hearts will be heavy for months to come, if not forever.
I hesitated a bit before writing this post. Admitting I once briefly dated a stripper is not something I thought I would do — ever. But Teanna Keller was sweet and we didn’t meet at her work. Everyone likes sex, and the story of The Lusty Lady, with its employee ownership and union representation, is one of the most interesting stories I have encountered. That I have a personal connection to this theater through my hobby of photography makes the story worthy of a blog post. And, look, even The Atlantic Magazine wrote about The Lusty Lady Theater closing!
Here’s a screen shot from The Atlantic website. Be warned, there’s a bit of nudity in the accompanying photograph. Again, this story is in The Atlantic.
I took the photographs that accompany this post, except for the shots inside the screen captures. I uploaded my pictures at full camera resolution of 21 megapixels. To see the full size versions, which are much larger, click on the pictures. I used a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera with a Canon 16-35mm L zoom lens. Most of the interior photographs are long time exposures. I may have the subject names in incorrect order in the caption for the team shot at the top. I had the subjects write their names down for me, but I forgot to have them put them in left to right order for the caption.
If the large group photograph I propose can’t be organized, I am willing to photograph smaller groups or individual dancers. Just message me via Facebook.
In other news, the replacement span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge opened to public vehicle traffic today for the first time.