HOUSTON — Slipping out early from the office last month, more than 300 of the city's most prestigious stockbrokers descended on the VIP room of Rick's Cabaret, a swank "gentlemen's club" that has heralded a nationwide boom in upscale adult entertainment.
Dressed in pin stripes and gray flannel, they sucked down free cocktails and gorged on a buffet of stuffed crab. Then, to the satiny rhythms of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," they slipped $20 bills into the G-strings of the club's buxom young dancers, who wriggled and writhed in between the legs of the men from Merrill Lynch, Barron Chase and PaineWebber.
Although it has become a remarkably accepted practice in the Houston business community to indulge clients in such risque merriment, this was no ordinary white-collar affair. Rather, the city's brokers had been invited to help usher in an era of even greater legitimacy in the evolution of the girlie bar: As it will formally announce today, Rick's Cabaret is debuting with 1.6 million shares on Nasdaq, making it the first publicly traded striptease club in the history of the stock market.
"There's no question," said the company's president, Robert L. Watters, "we're a legitimate part of mainstream corporate America."
Sex is among the world's oldest commodities. But over the past decade, it has been dolled up in a ritzy wrapping, transforming the smoky topless joint into a stylish, financially lucrative--almost respectable--enterprise.
Across the country, although Los Angeles is notably lagging, these soft-core cabarets have become the heterosexual beacons of the '90s--" la belle epoque of topless," as D. Keith Mano of Playboy puts it. Not only do they draw conventioneers and traveling executives, but also large numbers of visiting celebrities--sports teams, rock bands, movie stars--whose extravagances, including a night of bumps and grinds, can be discreetly charged to a credit card.
In Houston, the cradle of topless chic, most clubs offer valet parking and a first-class menu, shoeshine service and a bathroom attendant. The glitzy Colorado Bar and Grill is stocked with more than 200 wild game trophies, courtesy of its safari-trekking owner. The $1-million renovation of its nearby competitor, Michael's International, made the pages of Texas Architect magazine. Even the women don't look like old-style strippers: Rick's Cabaret boasts that it has produced more Playboy and Penthouse centerfolds--22, including the celebrated Anna Nicole Smith--than any other venue in America.
"It used to be a lot rougher business--dark, totally nude clubs, with a lot of your motorcycle-type girls," said Bob Furey, an ex-manager at Rick's who runs the Colorado. "Now, it's kind of like Fantasyland, just clean adult entertainment."
While feminists and fundamentalists might object to that assessment, the financial muscle of the gentlemen's scene has helped deflect any serious opposition.
With more than 100 high-end clubs in at least 22 U.S. cities, the topless cabaret has shown itself to be a classic example of trickle-down economics. In Texas, the snazziest clubs consistently rank among the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission's top revenue generators, outpacing even the trendiest discos and country-Western bars. During a good month, Rick's may pay out nearly $30,000 in liquor taxes alone.
"It's tolerated here as part of the macroeconomic picture," said Terry O'Rourke, an assistant county attorney in Houston.
But O'Rourke, whose office prosecutes clubs that become public nuisances, fears the hidden costs--drugs, rape, prostitution--far outweigh the benefits. "The clubs and their owners have an image that they're selling," he said, "but in its crudest form, this is nothing more than a sexual stimulation industry."
As a cultural phenomenon, the success of gentlemen's clubs can be explained on many different levels, only a few of which actually involve the libido.
It is, to be sure, safe titillation in a time of AIDS, a touch of naughtiness without the stigma of sleaze. But it is also about being unapologetically male in an ambiguous age, an antidote to the growing acknowledgment of sexual harassment. Behind these doors, the rules of engagement remain constant; even a potbellied boor qualifies for a busty nymphet--sort of like a beer commercial come to life.
"Let's hear it for the heteros in the house!" the disc jockey at PT's Show Club in San Antonio called out one recent night to cheers.
To the extent that a suit-and-tie clientele is using the gentlemen's club to entertain business associates, however, the issue becomes more than just politically incorrect behavior. When Rick's Cabaret monitored its receipts for a 60-day period earlier this summer, it found 584 separate uses of corporate credit cards--many of them issued by Fortune 500 companies, some even by government agencies.