The girls have divided most of the patrons into several neat categories. First, there are the "looky-loos," who sit there rubbernecking without ever paying for a dance. Almost nightly at the Flamingo, three old men dock their considerable girths into the uncertain harbors of three spindly chairs and chomp cigars that they wave like batons whenever a pretty--or at least voluptuous--girl walks by.
Then there are the "grabbers," whose offending behavior is self-evident, though it may be that a tip of sufficient size can mitigate the offense. The antics of the fetish mongers are better left to the imagination. One, however, has become a legend. The girls call him "The Foot Doctor." He peels out $20 bills for the privilege of massaging a girl's foot--generally back in the TV room where there's more privacy--while muttering obscure biblical quotations. Most highly regarded are the "dates," the men who clock a girl out for an hour or two at a time, sit and talk with her and tip her generously.
Certainly, married men are no strangers to these clubs. "The first thing they do is tell you they're married," complains Tanya, a dancer at Club Paradise. She's 19, a tall, strapping blonde in a denim skirt, a red sweater and red cowboy boots. "It's like they need to confess. Stuff like, 'My wife and I don't love each other anymore.' And you always have to hear about their sleeping arrangements: 'Yeah, we're sleeping in twin beds now, or separate rooms.' "
Tanya left a small Oregon town two months ago with vague hopes of attending college. If you ask her why she chose Los Angeles, she answers, "Big City?" as if she's not sure.
Sometimes I think I've found my hero
but it's a queer romance
all that you need is a ticket
Come on, big boy
Ten cents a dance
--"Ten Cents a Dance"
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
IN THE WEST, taxi dance clubs were the direct descendants of San Francisco's notoriously lusty Barbary Coast, or " '49" dance halls, where dancing was the drawing card and women earned their keep by enticing men to buy drinks. But the Barbary Coast's picaresque revelry ultimately aroused the indignation of the city's more stalwart citizens, who had the dance halls shut down in 1913. The void left by the halls' closure was swiftly filled by "closed halls"--ones where the only women admitted were those working. There, dancing and drinking were separate enterprises. Dancers were introduced to the ticket-a-dance system, and women earned revenue based on the number of tickets they accrued.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, legitimate public ballrooms, along with dancing schools or academies, were having a rough time staying afloat. Those in declining neighborhoods were forced to adopt the ticket-a-dance system, with proprietors reasoning that patrons would shell out more money in the long run at 10 cents a dance than for a flat $1 admission. Tickets sold for 10 cents each; the girls kept a nickel.
The businesses were known also as "dime-a-dance halls," "monkeyhops," "stag dances." And as the system evolved, catering increasingly to the socially isolated, it didn't take long for them to acquire a shady reputation. "Shimmying" was the nomenclature of the day assigned to the slow, grinding dance still performed today.
"The taxi dance halls are organized to exploit, for a profit, a situation of promiscuity," noted a special agent for Chicago's Juvenile Protective Agency in 1925. "It is a mercenary and silent world. Feminine society is for sale, and at a neat price. The dwarfed, the maimed, even the pockmarked, all find social acceptance there. Together with the other variegated types, they make, of the institution, a picturesque and rather pathetic revelation of human nature and city life."
But Los Angeles attorney Ben Fenton, 81, remembers a more jovial atmosphere, with prominent local businessmen, sports figures and politicians in attendance. Fenton is a former owner of Roseland, Los Angeles' oldest hostess-dance ballroom. Fenton and his brother, Edward, acquired it in 1943 and ran it until 1980, when they leased out the operation. He says the ballroom has been operating since the 1920s.
"It was a fairly nice group of people," Fenton recalls. "A lot of business people. There were some lonesome people; some of them wanted to be away from their wives."
A six-piece band provided music. Neckties, part of the dress code, were sold at the door for 10 cents, which was what a dance cost until Fenton installed the time-clock system after seeing it in a Honolulu dance hall. The Fentons also operated Dreamland, the only other hall in town until the early 1950s.
In those days, the halls were regulated by the Juvenile Protection Agency. Hostesses, who had to be 21, were licensed, fingerprinted and photographed. "We never had a single arrest," Fenton claims.
Above all, he says, "the girls had to be good conversationalists. People didn't care that much about dancing. They mostly wanted someone to talk to."