TOPANGA — Throughout the country, businesses that cater to nudists--everything from cruise lines to resorts--are expanding their market.
The American Assn. for Nude Recreation says its membership has grown 75% in the past 10 years. And many nudist resorts are adding such amenities as health clubs to attract new members.
But at Elysium Fields in Topanga Canyon, there are no restaurants, no indoor pool, no lighted tennis courts. And membership has dropped to about 500--about half what it was in the retreat's heyday, longtime patrons say.
As the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission mulls whether to grant a conditional-use permit allowing Elysium to continue to exist, the private "clothing-optional" resort finds itself facing a dilemma.
To modernize, as other retreats in the industry are doing, would almost surely invoke the wrath of some neighbors, including members of one family who have been fighting Elysium almost since it opened in 1968.
Even the modest yurt and above-ground pool now proposed for the site look to some neighbors like proof positive of an expansionist mind-set.
Yet for Elysium, which retains a distinct '60s feel, to stand by as its nude recreation counterparts bulk up for the millennium is to risk continued losses, industry observers said.
"I think it would be great to offer our people exercise equipment, more of a health thrust, which is really what is happening," in the industry, said Lisa Lange, the oldest of two daughters of the late Ed Lange, who founded Elysium. "But there are so many things that keep us from being able to modernize. We can't even build new bathrooms."
In 1993, after a lengthy and costly legal skirmish that wound its way up to the state Court of Appeal, Elysium won the right to exist--provided it adhered to the stipulations of a conditional-use permit granted by the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission.
That five-year permit expired last year and Elysium is now seeking another.
The commission, which has wide latitude in deciding how to proceed, could decide to deny the permit, to reissue it as is or to approve it with more conditions attached.
Some neighbors who spoke against Elysium at a public hearing last week complained of traffic and fire hazards that they say are created by the hideaway, which rests at the top of a narrow canyon road in the hills adjacent to Topanga State Park.
The planning commissioners have scheduled an April 12 field trip to see Elysium for themselves, and are scheduled to take the matter up again at an April 14 public hearing.
Meanwhile, Elysium's backers must decide how to move the facility forward, a task made all the more difficult by the death of Elysium's driving force.
"My dad created an ambience, he created an atmosphere that felt really good," said Lange, a member of the board of directors. "We haven't been able to reproduce that."
Some members said that Ed Lange's 1995 death, coupled with dissatisfaction over previous management, contributed greatly to the drop in membership.
Whatever the reasons, Elysium's attendance figures are moving in the opposite direction of national stats.
Linda Pace, membership marketing director for the American Assn. for Nude Recreation, a Florida-based educational and support organization for more than 230 nudist and clothing-optional clubs and resorts throughout North America, put the current membership at about 50,000.
Despite the lingering image among some of nudists as a bunch of aging hippies, Pace and others said that the bulk of the new recruits are college-educated, upper-income patrons between 35 and 50.
"We've had steady growth," she added, saying that the nude cruise line is one of the fastest growing travel niches in North America. "The trends look real good."
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Betty Lesley Meltzer, a longtime Elysium member who serves as editor of Elysium's newsletter and tour guide, prefers not to focus on declining numbers.
"In terms of membership going upwards or downwards, that's kind of an internal thing," she said during a recent tour. "We're in the process of restructuring here. But [Elysium's] vision and purpose remain unchanged.
"Elysium has always been on the cutting edge in terms of our thinking."
Likewise, she was quick to correct when a reporter referred to Elysium as a business, noting that it is a "nonprofit, public-benefit" organization.
Elsewhere, operators of nudist and clothing-optional facilities see them as businesses, and potentially lucrative ones. Thirty clubs, not including Elysium, have banded together to form TANR International, the Trade Assn. for Nude Recreation.
Glyn Stout, president of TANR and owner of the Lupin Naturist Club in Los Gatos, which has more than 1,000 members, said his group represents "the ones that consider it a business and are trying to improve that business" through marketing, research and outreach for the industry.