LONG BEACH — The place is a veritable haven for barefoot men in towels.
On almost any day of the week, they can be found wandering the darkened hallways of the 1350 Club--the city's only homosexual bathhouse--past the orange and black doors whose keys rent for $12 to $15 for six to eight hours. Some of the doors stand open, revealing single black-lighted beds upon which naked patrons rest in various attitudes of repose. Most doors stay shut, hiding from view what takes place within the tiny rooms they protect.
Lately the doors have become symbolic of an emotional controversy. On one side are city government and health officials who say the doors must be removed to prevent sexual contact likely to spread the deadly acquired immune deficiency syndrome. On the other are the facility's owner and patrons who see the club as an important link in the fight against AIDS, and the doors as guardians of homosexuals' right to privacy.
At stake is the existence of the club itself, a local landmark since 1977 which, according to owner Glen Moering, will close by June 30 unless the city rescinds its demand for removal of the doors and beds.
'A Grave Injustice'
"I think they're (perpetrating) a grave injustice," Moering, 56, said of his adversaries in the city during a recent interview at the club. "If you were in your own home or in a hotel room, the city inspectors couldn't come in and ask you which side of the bed you were on. I can get AIDS anywhere; I will close the club before I sacrifice the privacy of our members."
Dr. Rugmini Shah, the city's chief health officer, said, "If they don't remove the doors we will turn it over to the city prosecutor."
To be sure, not everyone comes to the 1350 Club on Locust Avenue for sexual encounters behind closed doors. Besides the rooms with the beds, the club features a gym, pool, sauna, whirlpool baths and disco. It even has a television room where patrons can relax in comfort to watch "Saturday Night Live" or whatever else strikes their fancy.
But scattered throughout the facility are video screens featuring X-rated films graphically depicting sexual acts between males. And on a recent Saturday night, all 50 of the club's private rooms were occupied well before 10 p.m. with a waiting list so long that staffers were urging patrons not to add their names to it.
"I come here to (have sex) if they're cute," said Robert Tickell, 35, a Signal Hill travel agent who added that he visits the club two to three times a week but only has sex about 10% of the time. "Otherwise, there are always people I (can talk to)."
Orgy Room Now TV Room
Back before AIDS was on everybody's mind, patrons say, the atmosphere at the club was much more sexually charged. What is now the TV room, they say, used to be an orgy room. And the club's "glory holes"--openings in walls through which anonymous sex acts were performed--have been removed.
Patrons credit the changes largely to Moering who, 2 1/2 years ago on his own initiative, embarked on an ambitious campaign to fight the spread of AIDS through education. As a result, the club today features prominent signs in every room and on nearly every wall urging patrons to engage only in "safe" sex--that which does not involve the exchange of bodily fluids. Also, according to Moering, all customers are required to sign statements pledging to engage only in safe sex practices, employees monitor all areas of the club except private rooms to assure that no unsafe practices take place and patrons caught engaging in unsafe practices are asked to leave the premises.
"The 1350 is one of the most enlightened clubs in Southern California in terms of AIDS education," said Michael Brown, executive director of The Center, a Long Beach organization contracted by the city to combat AIDS.
At the outset of his anti-AIDS efforts, Moering said, his business suffered a 40% decline that he has only gradually been able to recoup. Today, he said, the club--which is open 24 hours a day and attracts as many as 100 patrons on a Saturday night--has 5,000 to 8,000 active members, each of whom pays $12 for a six-month membership and $7 to $15 per visit depending on whether he rents a room with video screen or only a small locker.
But nobody has been asked to leave the club for engaging in unsafe practices in nearly five months, manager Mike Sargent said. And on two recent visits to the facility, a reporter who did not identify himself as such to staffers was not shown nor asked to sign any pledge regarding unsafe sexual practices. (Moering said he could not explain why a pledge had not been required and said he would investigate.)
Unsafe Practices Shock Patron