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TAXI DANCERS : It's No Longer 10 Cents a Dance, But Lonely Men Can Still Hire Partners by the Minute in Dim Downtown Clubs

July 15, 1990|MARTIN BOOE | Martin Booe is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles

Whatever the criteria for successful taxi dancers, today's clubowners find that just keeping enough girls around is a full-time job in itself. Although there seems to be no shortage of newcomers for the job.

"Some of the girls are new in town, living in cars, and they're just trying to get the money together to go home," says Josephine Walker, blowing a plume of cigarette smoke toward the dance floor at the Flamingo. She and her husband, Marty, have owned and operated the club for eight years since they moved here from Hawaii. "Some aren't very well-educated. Lots of aspiring actresses. Some part-time college students. A certain percentage are married."

On the average, the girls last about two weeks, which creates a constant demand for others to fill the dance shoes of those who've waltzed out of whatever misfortune drove them there in the first place. The club's principal form of recruitment is through the classified ads, which, Marty grumbles, cost him $2,300 a week.

But it's not all gloom and desperation, Josephine says. The Walkers know of at least three marriages that have bloomed from the interminglings of hostesses and patrons.

Marty presides over the operation from a cluttered office equipped with a surveillance system that includes a TV monitor overlooking the dance floor and audio monitors in the restrooms that enable him to interrupt any unseemly monkey business. "We run as straight a club as we can, considering how many people come in here," he says.

He claims that the proclivity for taxi dancing is passed from grandfather to father to son. "Once you've been in three times, it's in your blood." What draws men into the clubs, he says, is "the thrill of the chase. Guys want to see if their lines still work. This is fantasyland."

Now acquiring Roseland, which was owned by former Los Angeles police officer Dave Brewer, operator of other taxi dance halls, the Walkers say business is so good that they're considering a twist on the theme: a club where women would pay to dance with men.

The taxi dance business is considerably more vigorous than it was a few years ago, when the clubs nearly died out. By the late 1960s, there were only four in Los Angeles, but they began to rally in the early '70s, doubling in number. Sociologists chalk up the initial resurgence to the sexual revolution, with its free-for-all attitude toward sex and seduction. Larry K. Hong, professor of sociology at Cal State L.A., conducted an intensive, four-year study of the clubs during their revival. In those days, the clubs seemed to develop a social club atmosphere, sort of a Playboy Club-in-training. With most of the clubs in decaying parts of downtown, however, they were soon reclaimed by their original denizens: lonely men looking for a little sympathy or a cheap thrill.

Gentrification thwarted, Los Angeles clubs found eager patrons in the city's booming immigrant population, which provides a steady supply of the socially estranged. The clubs now tend to cater to one ethnic group or another, with the bulk of the clubs--such as El Gaucho, Danceland and Savoy--employing Latina dancers for Latino customers. Others, such as the Flamingo and the Paradise, feature a mix of white, Latina and Asian girls, a fair number of them immigrants themselves, for a more diverse clientele.

"The two biggest immigrant populations in Los Angeles are Asian and Hispanic, and those are who the clubs cater to," says Hong, who pointed out in a 1976 article about his findings that "taxi dance halls offer special attraction to foreign-born males because they have difficulty finding female companionship in the natural setting. Being new to this country, they have not yet mastered the skills and strategies of the American dating-courtship game. Consequently, they find it convenient to go to the taxi dance halls where essentially the same goals could be achieved with minimum efforts."

A recent visit to several clubs, however, revealed to Hong a more regimented environment. In the '70s, he says, the halls were places where men would gather with friends. "The girls were encouraged to interact more informally with the customers," he says. "The customers were younger. Often, they'd bring candy and flowers to the girls. There would be buffets, and they'd even have Christmas dinner." The problem apparently was that all that friendliness wasn't profitable.

Hong pauses, trying to remember something. "Oh, yes. And there used to be a very strange character who went around to all of the clubs. They called him The Foot Doctor."

THE "DANGER ZONE." That's what the girls at the Flamingo call a mirror-lined nook off the dance floor. It is haven to the inextricably intertwined. It's where the heavy necking and petting take place. Sometimes the men lead the women back there, hoping that they'll prove affectionate. Sometimes the women are the initiators--a ploy for good tips. To make things even more interesting, asserts one dancer, "a lot of those girls don't even wear underwear."

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