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Dance With a Stranger

August 11, 1996|Marc Gerald

Nobody stops at Club Starlight by accident. Situated in the ruins of downtown at 12th and Broadway, it might be a Chinese restaurant, what with the red vinyl booths, plastic flowers and massive aquariums. But the Starlight is actually the glitziest of downtown's remaining taxi-dance clubs, a withering relic of old Los Angeles where men trade cash for a few minutes of close dancing or, more typically, stilted conversation with a "hostess." There were once dozens of taxi-dance halls in Los Angeles, but half a century removed from their heyday, apparently only five survive. (At 25, Club Starlight is actually a newcomer.)

If the clientele at the Starlight, mainly Asian businessmen and their American counterparts, seem bland and interchangeable, the hostesses are exotic by comparison. In exchange for first-names-only and semi-serious cash, they are frank--"if a guy gets out of line with me I just tell him he'd be happier with someone else--it's not like I'm going to get a good tip if he's unhappy"--and even wistful.

"I came to the Paradise to start over," says Erin, a 24-year-old with Audrey Hepburn's neck and a scarred face. Raised in Santa Barbara, she was, she says, a child actress and later a model--until bum makeup damaged her skin--and more recently the co-owner of clothing store on La Brea until her partner gambled it away.

For the past eight months she's been one of the Paradise's 25 or so hostesses, who bide their time in a glass-walled room--smoking, filing nails, catching up on homework--while they wait for a floor manager to steer prospective clients their way. Once a hostess is chosen, a staffer wearily pulls down her time card from a lengthy rack, punches it, and she goes to work.

A hostess is expected to make pleasant conversation and laugh at jokes in a delirium of foreign tongues, fend off clients with venturesome hands, sometimes sing and--less than one would think--dance. So it is on a quiet Tuesday that only two couples slow-dance to the Platters' "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" under a glittering disco ball, while nearby a hostess dutifully watches her client play a sloppy game of pool. In the darkened karaoke lounge, a Vietnamese colleague harmonizes with a patron and Elvis to "Love Me Tender."

Anna won't be dancing tonight; she recently wrenched her knee. She won't be singing either, "unless you want to see me chase the clients away." No one seems to mind. Anna is 22, blond and crammed into a tight black dress. In the dimness of the Starlight, she is Barbara Stanwyck beautiful. Besides, she says, "most of the men just sit there. They complain about their wives or their work. Most nights I just stare at my watch, go over shopping lists in my head."

And practically every night, another would-be hostess responds to the ad in this newspaper's classifieds (Gals. Earn up to $13.50/hour or $650/wk plus tips. Full or part time . . . No nudity, liq. or dating). There are inevitable aspiring actresses and models. And, less predictably, students. Anna is an undergrad at Pepperdine University and works the Starlight summer nights to earn tuition. Nicole, 22, skittish, with crooked teeth and wavy hair, works days at a stationery store and dreams of opening her own. Her parents give her a lift to work. "At first they were nervous," Nicole says, "but they sort of realized it was OK."

The Starlight's customers don't seem to mind dropping $10 to enter, $25 an hour to make time with one of the hostesses and $20 for the floor manager's guidance and advice--advice that essentially inflates these numbers twofold. Hostesses pull in $200 on a good night; on a great one, the sky is the limit. "Last week," says Pauleen, a Chinese-born UC Irvine student, "a guy came in and just sat with one of the girls for a couple of hours. He didn't say anything at all. The next day, he bought her a car."

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