Chicago was once home to a now vanished class of entertainer: the famous American stripper. It is where Little Egypt danced the Hoochee-Coochie, at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and where Sally Rand — who took her name from another local institution, Rand McNally — flashed her feather fans, at the 1933 Century of Progress.
They were of course only the most notorious of an army of bump-and-grinders who once entertained at venues around the city, in the days before they were swept away leaving Chicago — singularly among major American cities — a virtual desert when it comes to strip clubs.
Chicago’s lone outpost that serves up both liquor and female flesh, VIP’s on Kingsbury, last week seemed to finally survive a nearly two decade legal effort to close it, with the city deciding it would rather get the millions of dollars in tax revenue than eliminate what had been an occasional irritation.
When VIP’s was “Thee Doll House” it had its moment of front-page infamy, when an accountant embezzled $250,000 from his firm and spent it there, somehow, a reminder that such clubs are often seen — not without reason — as fronts for prostitution, as well as invitations to organized crime. Known as “clip joints,” unwary conventioneers might find themselves presented with enormous bills which, if they declined to pay, would lead to a sidewalk beating while complicit police whistled and looked the other way.
Avoiding fleeced patrons — and to protect dancers from drunken groping — was the rational for separating liquor and striptease, and explains boozeless strip emporiums such as the Admiral Theatre on Lawrence Avenue.
Once, though, Chicago had countless strip clubs. New Yorker critic A.J. Liebling devoted a surprising amount to this topic in his 1952 “Second City” report on Chicago.
“There are scores of strip-tease joints,” he wrote. “The performances … are always the same, but they are invariably unpleasant. …One of the girls, introduced as ‘Mlle. Yvonne Le Vonne, straight from Paris — and I mean Paris, Illinois, ha ha,’ then goes through the familiar business of removing most of her specially constructed clothes, which have none of the sexual quality of other clothes. She does this with an idiot gravity, and as a climax puts one foot on each side of the microphone shaft and does several kneebends. She then shakes herself as if she had just sat down on a spilled beer, and ends up posing on one foot, with the other leg bent behind her. After that, she comes down into the crowd to cadge a drink, but she will settle for a cigarette if only the regular customers are present. Why they are present, night after night, is their own pathologically mysterious business.”
Chicago’s strip club strip — along West Madison and North Clark Street — was swept away after Richard J. Daley was elected mayor in 1955. A man so devoted to order that he once had his limo stop to clean up after a man who dropped a newspaper on Michigan Avenue, Daley plastered the city with “Keep Chicago Clean” signs and purged it of what he considered moral sinkholes.
The suburbs stepped in to fill the void — of course Cicero, where strip clubs could be thinly disguised brothels, and places like Heavenly Bodies in Elk Grove Village.
My job has brought me to many strip clubs at one point or another, and I can’t say I was terribly impressed. The Admiral was just strange — pneumatic-breasted porn stars standing on their heads. Heavenly Bodies led me to the theory — formed while chatting with a quite beautiful gal while she performed a lap dance — that men visit these places, not so much to look at the women as to have the women look at them, to gain the attention of someone who normally wouldn’t give them the time of day, even if it costs $10 to do so.
Thee Doll House was simply excruciating; I was assigned to extract information from the dancers about the guy who dropped the $250,000. This proved impossible, and by the end of the second day trying, I was on the phone with my editor, begging him to pull me out of there before the boredom killed me.
“Burlesque strippers are a great deal like elephants,” Joseph Mitchell once wrote, “when you’re seen one, you’ve seen them all.”
Speaking of “burlesque:” under that moniker an under-the-radar, steampunk-meets-stripping renaissance, of sorts, has taken place in Chicago over the past decade. Rather than relying on specific established clubs, which can attract unwanted city attention, as V.I.P.’s has learned, dancers, as they view themselves, pop up at bars, usually later at night, perform a show and then vanish.
I met one such stripper through Facebook a year ago. We had lunch — a perfectly nice young lady, bright-eyed, ambitious, filled with lofty aspirations to art that strippers invariably embrace to masquerade the essential tawdriness of what they do. Afterward, I witnessed a late night show performed by her and a few of her friends — joined by my wife, I should probably add — thinking it might be fodder for a column. It was an energetic review, well intentioned, with a certain costumed solemnity, like the R-rated grown-up version of preschoolers putting on a pageant with bumblebees and smiling suns. I thought of the Mitchell quote, as well as the dictum, “don’t take a bazooka to a flea,” and never wrote anything about it.