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L.A. has its landmarks, as a world-class city must. There are Forest Lawn, H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D, Olvera Street. And there's the NUDE NUDES sign.

Hardly a day passes that, intrigued by that marquee on Century Boulevard approaching Los Angeles International Airport, someone doesn't stop and, just curious, venture inside the garishly painted building.

Inside is the Century Lounge, where the dancers are naked, the drinks are soft and the action is nonstop from 11 a.m.--when the lunch crowd drifts in--until 4 a.m., when the die-hards close the place.

In the cavernous showroom, with its three stages, twinkle lights play off mirrors. Center stage, China Doll is stripping down to her thigh-high, stiletto-heeled black patent boots. In a minute, she'll be back to retrieve the dollar bills left at the rail by the men in the front seats.

The all-male crowd is youngish and curiously emotionless; as they sip their soft drinks, they might be watching a weather report. Get the fish hooks out of those pockets, beseeches the deejay: "If these ladies don't wake you up, it's 'cause you're dead. . . ."

Scantily clad dancers prowl the room: "Would you like a private dance?" That's where the big money is. Ten dollars a dance for the dancer, $4 for the house. Plus tips, big tips.

What a difference four decades makes. Longtime Angelenos may recall that in the late '50s, this club was a 24-hour bowling alley/cocktail lounge/coffee shop called Carolina Pines, frequented largely by workers in nearby factories.

Then, the factories moved out and name-brand hotels sprouted at the shoulders of the expanding LAX. And Carolina Pines fell upon hard times.

"So they called 911 and I showed up," says Howard White, a onetime talent agent and son of the original proprietor. He perked things up with lingerie shows. Soon, "the lingerie got skimpier and skimpier."

By 1977, the bowling was history. In its place were a nude bar where, by state law, no alcohol could be served, and a thriving disco, Carolina West, where the music was loud and the drinks alcoholic.

Then, White says, in 1987 his lawyer failed to file papers to renew his liquor license. "It killed me," he says. His solution? To go all nude.

Originally the sign said NUDES. People laughed when early in 1981 White added that second NUDE but he did so "with malice aforethought. I thought it would be catchy, a conversation piece."

Then, "It kept growing, like Pinocchio's nose. I kept making the letters larger and larger," until today the wavy orange letters are about six feet tall.

Adding the word live was another White inspiration. Enjoying his own joke, he asks, "What would I have, dummies?" He liked the idea so much that he later changed that to LIVE LIVE NUDE NUDES.

Not everyone has been amused. To circumvent a onetime city ban on the word nude , White inserted the teensiest g, virtually invisible, between the towering D and E. When Pope John Paul II visited L.A., a city father suggested White remove the sign so as not to offend papal eyes. He declined.


The sign is the Century Lounge's better mousetrap, but the club's airport-close location is its big plus. Thousands pass by each day. Back home in Akron or Walla Walla, they make mental notes to check it out the next time they hit L.A.

That sign brings them in; the dancers keep them coming back.


The music is "Leave Your Hat On" by Joe Cocker. The dancer is Raquel . She is wearing a black velvet dress with a flamenco flounce--and a black hat. Soon, she'll shed the hat, the dress and everything underneath. She is a crowd-pleaser, a 21-year-old brunet with an alluring smile, a come-hither wink. Her onstage philosophy: "As long as it's legal, I'll do it.' '


Even though his "girls" are hired as dancers ($4.25 an hour, plus tips), "rhythm is the last thing" White looks for. Adds general manager Gene Lombardi, "Every man who walks in here has his fantasy."


The music is "I'm the Only One" by Melissa Etheridge. The dancer is Sarah. She's poured into a floor-length white lace gown that flares at the hem. Her long lace gloves flutter at her wrists. Soon, she will take off everything except the gloves and her white high heels. At 23, she, too, is one of the Century Lounge's top draws, a blond with a Gypsy-like stripping style and an offstage manner that would endear her to your grandmother.


The men come in limos and tour buses. In bachelor parties. An international mix of voyeurs. $10 at the door, please. Or come before six for just $1.

They know the dancers only by their first names. If they telephone, the cashier will read them the names of that night's dancers--Angel, Jamie, Natasha--much as a waiter recites the day's specials.


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