At the Queen Mary, the grande dame of city drag shows, a female impersonator recently quipped, "If you're cruising, you're in the wrong room."
The sequin-bedecked performer then told the audience, apparently in jest, that the pickup action is in the club's back bar.
Los Angeles police agree--but they say they find nothing humorous about it. They say that action sometimes comes with a price tag.
The police say the Studio City club's back room, the King's Den, has become a mecca for transvestite prostitution. The North Hollywood vice squad has made 70 arrests in the past year, mostly for soliciting prostitution on or near the property. Officers say 15 arrests originated inside the club and 55 on adjoining streets and a nearby parking lot.
"Many of these dressed as females will approach other patrons and ask them to buy them drinks, ask them to dance, and then they'll make a date," said Police Lt. Raul F. Vega, who heads the vice squad. "A 'date' is a street term for soliciting an act of prostitution."
Vega said 12 arrests were made during an undercover investigation Feb. 6, four of which originated inside the club. Another 31 arrests, four of which originated inside, were made Jan. 9 and 10. The eight-man vice squad was beefed up by five to eight additional men for both weekend operations, Vega said.
Most of those arrested have been male patrons dressed as women, Vega said, though at least one was a female impersonator featured in the show. The going rates range from $20 for a sexual act to $200 for a night with one of the more attractive, feminine transvestites, he said.
The back room of the Queen Mary has also caught the attention of the state Alcohol Beverage Control Commission, which licenses establishments that serve alcohol. The ABC is investigating police reports of the Ventura Boulevard nightspot, and may levy a fine or suspend or revoke its license, said F.J. Smith, ABC district administrator for northwestern Los Angeles County.
The investigation has been opened under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act, which prohibits bars or clubs from causing a neighborhood disturbance or injuring "public morals, health or safety." Fines for a first offense range from $300 to $1,500 and a maximum 15-day suspension of an establishment's operations. Revocation for an initial transgression is unlikely, Smith said.
But Vega, who says his undercover unit has been stretched thin by the Queen Mary, vows he will seek to padlock the club for up to a year under the city's Red Light Abatement Act unless management cleans up the extracurricular activity.
Queen Mary owner Robert Juleff maintains he took steps that have alleviated the problem after a 90-minute meeting with Vega and Smith on Feb. 9 that all parties described as cordial and cooperative. Juleff said he has made staff changes, added walkie-talkie equipped security guards to patrol behind the club and barred anyone considered a problem from the King's Den.
Created No-Stopping Zone
In addition, the city has approved making the narrow street behind the club, Ventura Court, a no-stopping zone from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. to discourage loitering. Vega said tow-away signs will be installed shortly.
"I feel that everything is very well-controlled now," said Juleff. "We're cooperating with each other."
Juleff started the club with his mother, Mickie Lee, in 1964. It was the city's first club featuring female impersonators. Juleff said the club's management was not involved with the prostitution. He declined to say whether he had disciplined or fired any employees for soliciting for prostitution.
The club has enjoyed an impeccable reputation with local merchants on the palm tree-lined commercial strip. In fact, 85 members of the Studio City Chamber of Commerce attended a benefit performance there last Monday that raised $1,100 for the chamber.
No Complaints About Club
"It's not something you would go to every day, but most of us had a good time," said Jerry Hays, a former chamber president. "We've had no complaints about the Queen Mary itself. The only complaints we've had is what goes on in the alley behind the block."
Hays said it is his impression that the street activity can be traced to customers who patronize a nearby bookstore, Le Sex Shoppe. Vega said that while there have been problems outside Le Sex Shoppe, the prostitution has been associated primarily with the Queen Mary.
Police and ABC authorities say the Queen Mary is really two worlds. Most patrons, a majority of whom are heterosexual, only see the front room, with its theatrically styled show featuring elaborate outfits, lip-synced musical numbers, drag impersonations of Diana Ross and Tina Turner and raunchy humor. "We are what we are, and what we are is an illusion," the theme song goes.