Loma Portal nudity healthier than Carol Doda era in San Francisco

Body Shop

"There are nights when the air is so thick with the men's frustration that we can hardly stand it, and that's when the heavy drinking starts."
  • "There are nights when the air is so thick with the men's frustration that we can hardly stand it, and that's when the heavy drinking starts."
  • Image by Joyce Kitchell

At the far end of the bar, a young woman untied her halter top, stepped quickly out of bikini pants, and tossed both garments next to a popcorn machine. She turned, facing her audience, and began undulating slowly forward, lovely to the opening bars of the theme from The Exorcist. As her pace quickened, movements coming faster upon one another, she leaned backwards and spun around and around — her hip-length brown hair streaming out in long tendrils, almost touching the faces of the men for whom she danced. "Chiquita! Chiquita!" once cried, enraptured.

"What I wonder is, what makes 'em do it?" puzzled a man at the table next to mine at the Body Shop. "I head a lot of 'em are college girls, some even have degrees!"

He looked back at the dancer again — a long, lingering look then, collecting himself, he shook his head. He apparently felt, I ventured, that this work was degrading to the women?

"Oh, no. No, I really don't feel that way." He paused, considering for a few moments. "The real question is — and I'd be interested if you could answer this in your story — could one of these girls walk into a place like the Voyager over on Harbor Island, and act like a lady? Now don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying she could or she couldn't. i just don't know."

We sat in the back room of the Body Shop, as the women dressed — or undressed — for work, and discussed the issue at hand: not how they would conduct themselves at the Voyager (what was he considering — whether they would keep their clothes on, or whether the lure of an empty bartop and music would prove too much for them?), but how they feel about dancing nude for men who would raise such questions.

"I really believe that if men are going to be patronizing, to regard you as an object, a servant, then it doesn't matter what your state of dress or undress is," declared Heidi, a student at San Diego State who has taken dance for many years. "I worked as a waitress at the Bratskellar in La Jolla before I came here, and I noticed the same attitude. This job is much better. I get good money, and I get to dance, which I love to do."

"Where else can you get paid so well to dance?" added Karen, also a student at State. She studied ballet for 14 years and has danced with both the San Diego and California Ballets.

How did she get from those stages to his one? "Two years ago, I was teaching ballet, and one of my students worked here and brought me over. I was so poor then, I had just had my boots resoled for the fifth time! When I first started I didn't take my clothes off, so I only made $2.25 an hour, instead of $4.50.

"But gradually, I loosened up. Also, I had ten hours of rolfing, which released a lot of my inhibitions about my body, as well as making it look better." Karen glanced appraisingly into the mirror, seemed pleased with what she saw. She began brushing her pubic hair.

"How good or bad it is depends on how much you've got going for you — some of the girls who aren't really dancers fell like they have to emphasize their female parts more, to keep the guys' attention.

"But the men don't always look at you like you're a chicken ... you know, a thigh here, a breast there," she continued. "Sometimes, when we have a group of good dancers working, the energy level gets so high. You can just feel the place rising, the guys are lifted by it, and hen it transcends just the sexual."

Karen slipped into a pair of orange knit shorts, and high suede boots. "This place has changed a lot in the past few years. It used to be all wigs and sequinned bathing suits — then I came, and I started bringing my friends, and now it's more college coeds than anything else."

It was 8 o'clock, and Karen and Heidi were on. They would work until 2:30 a.m., and if it was a good night, go home with $50 or $60. All the women take turns, dance two numbers, then cocktail waitress, then dance again.

The place was crowded and smoky. As Heidi started to dance, wearing only a belt of gold coins low on her hips, some of the men at the billiards tables glanced up from their games. She combines the techniques of Indian dancing with belly-dancing, creating a fast-moving style, full of precise exaggerated movements. The dance was so dominant that her nudity became incidental; and Heidi, totally absorbed in the form, was undoubtedly too remote for many of the men's liking.

"I usually feel too responsible to the men to cut off like that," commented Laura, the first dancer I had seen, as we watched Heidi. I had noticed that Laura, while clearly conscious of her dancing, was also very involved with the men, appearing at times to dance for each in turn.

"Most of these men are pretty pathetic," Laura explained. "The reason that they need to sit here and assess, with their friends, the merits of each body is that they feel so powerless. And if you're satisfied in yourself, then you can afford to give them something, and you feel, "Oh, I'm sorry it's that bad."

Laura graduated two years ago from Stanford University with a degree in biology, then went to New York to do modern dance, which she had taken for a number of years and performed at Stanford. "I love to dance and this is the first time I've been paid good money to do it. Also, I can't stand working a 40-hour week; here. I can make enough in 18 hours."

Laura finds several aspects of the Body Shop unusual, and appealing. Dancing and cocktail-waitressing, for one. "These eyes come in and play voyeur watching you dance, but then, when you come off the stage and serve them drinks, they relate to you in a much more human way — and at the slightest bit of friendliness, they become so vulnerable. Of course, many of them end up by making them an offer, but the line that goes down most often around here is, 'I've got an old man.' And most of these guys are so straight, they just accept that!

"Another thing I like is that there's nothing furtive about his place. In San Francisco — I remember from the Carol Doda days — you'd get a lot of out-of-town businessmen, acting really uncomfortable, compulsive. But here, it fells healthier than that, and there's a very diverse group, ranging from hippies to college students to the military to surfers to businessmen to working-class."

Glancing at Karen, dancing nude but for her boots, Laura added, "Probably the most important thing about this job to me is the sense of community, the real closeness, between the women. There are some women here whom I, with my middle-class upbringing, would never have gotten to know, if I hadn't come here. So I've come to know my sisters and understand a little more of their lives...."

"It's funny," Laura laughed, "but the top of the bar is really a no-man's land. Even though they watch us there, we're really out of range: they can't hear what we're saying, as we change in and out of our clothes."

"Look at them beckoning!" exploded Laura, as two men at the bar made repeated, peremptory gestures for her. "They can't understand it when they see you sitting down — 'what, you an automaton, can sit?'" And she moved off in their direction — her head held a bit hither than usual — to get their order.

"What do the men come here for?" said the man next to me, echoing my question. He was a law student at the University of San Diego (USD), and came fore study breaks. "I like people to get down to basics, and I guess you could call a place like this pretty basic. A lot of these guys come here so they don't feel like they're missing something, so they can see live what they see in Playboy, so they can see what they don't see at home .... or just so they can forget everything else for a little while."

Debby, another student from San Diego State, paused in her waitressing rounds to talk. She has been studying modern dance for a number of years, and Karen introduced her to the Body Shop a couple of months ago. Her parents, who live in L.A., do not know. (Neither did the parents of most of the girls I asked. With the notable exception of Suzanne,a surfer, who brought her mother in and then, on her 21st birthday, came to work with her mother's blessing — and the costumes which her mother makes.)

"When I auditioned, I was so numb that I don't remember anything about it," said Debby, "except trying to get into the music and forget that I didn't have my clothes on."

"I really love to get people off.... I don't mean just sexually, I love to perform. In the modern dance I do at State, I usually don't even look at the audience, never try to set up individual rapport. So I've learned a lot here about communicating with people ... what gets them off, or what makes them laugh, and what doesn't."

Debby told me that the Vice Squad comes in regularly to see if their rules are being followed. If, for example, the women — when dancing nude — are careful not to bend over, and to stay on the white line which runs down the center of the stage (thus keeping them 6 feet away from the customers, out of arm's reach).

"When I had just started working here, I was doing a duet with another woman and I bent over right in front of the Vice Squad! They called me over as soon as I was done — I told them, 'The last thing I want to be thinking of when I'm up there is what I can and can't do.' It's so absurd."

Then, brightening, Debby added, "Ironically enough, I think this place might be turning people on to modern dance. Unless you're in New York, practically the only place you see modern dance is at a university ... so many people never see it. The other night, Laura was dancing, and one of the guys said, 'My God! What kind of dancing is that?' I told him, 'I guess you'd call it modern.'"

"Still," she sighed, "it is sad that you have to take your clothes off to make good money dancing. And most of these guys, after all, don't see it as an art form. But I just try not to compromise, try to keep my dancing an art, nonetheless."

Not all of the women at the Body Shop are college coeds. if you want to talk to someone who's been working here a long time (since the place opened, nearly nine years), then talk to Ruth, the women advised — she might have a different story to tell.

"The Body Shop used to be a lot different, more of a showplace, and I think we thought of ourselves more as entertainers," said Ruth, 32, the mother of four. "There were more girls from Vegas then, and we'd put on a real show — all sequins and boas," she laughed. "But I'd feel overdressed now, in any of those costumes."

"In the old days, the job had some glamour," she continued. "We used to go in the back room, put on a costume and a cover-up — none of this dressing and undressing onstage. Can you imagine a girl in Vegas getting up on stage, taking off her pants and throwing them next to the popcorn machine, and standing to dance? Or having to wash glasses onstage ... or get a broom and sweep up the spilled popcorn while another girl tries to dance around her? It's changed," she concluded, "it's a college and beach crowd, a bunch of kids."

Ruth agreed with the other women I'd asked that she'd rather work at the Body Shop than at other go-go places in town — the consensus is that the management is considerate and fair, and the money good. But Ruth emphasized that the money used to be better. And her major complaints are that they have no breaks on a six- or eight-hour shift, and that some night there are only four girls working ("fine for management, they take in as much money and pay out less."

Ruth is one of the few women working there who is married. How does her husband feel about it? "He hates it," Ruth answered promptly. "And it's becoming a problem with my oldest son, my 16-year-old. He won't tell me,, because he doesn't want me to feel bad. But you know, his friends' father come in sometimes, and then they say, 'Yeah, we saw Ruth....'"

Being the only black woman dancing for a mainly white audience does not bother her that much, she said. "But what does gall me is how these guys assume that what they see, they can have. The other night, one guy said to me, 'I don't understand. That girl just took her clothes off right on stage, and now she got mad because I touched her.' I said, 'You know when you take your clothes off, like when you take a shower — does your personality change?' 'No,' he said, 'Well, neither does ours,' I told him. 'This is a job, and we're paid to dance, not to be handled.'"

She used to think of her dancing more as a career and the Body Shop as a starting point; but then she turned down an offer to dance in Vegas, because of her children. "These days, I find it really boring. I used to go African dances that were so strenuous I'd lose three or four pounds a night. But if you do anything too artistic, the guys start to yawn ... so you have to get into what they think is a super-sexy bag, and smile." Ruth demonstrated, baring her teeth, and then started to laugh. "I'm looking right at them, smiling, and I don't even see them. And I'm thinking, 'Hmmm, what am I going to cook tomorrow — meat loaf?'"

She leaned back in her seat and hugged her four-year-old son, whom she had brought to lunch with us. "Some nights it does get really depressing, really down. I come in there, take one look around, and say, 'Give me a double tequila, quick!'" She laughed again, that full, ready laughter at herself, her situation.

Then, growing more serious, she added, "All those girls are really sensitive, you know, and the men forget you have feelings. Often enough, a girl goes running for the back room, sobbing.

"In the beginning, a lot of these kids have a very romantic view of that place. They think it's a fairyland, almost. I see them when they start; they don't smoke, hardly drink at all. Then — because I work on and off — I'll come back and see the same girls six months alter, and they're drinking like fish!"

"Yeah, I see them come, and I see them go," laughed Ruth softly. "It's been a long time."

"As far as I know, this is the only nude bar left open in the state of California," declared Paul Richter, owner of the Body Shop.

The Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) ruling against nudity where alcohol is sold has shut down the rest, Richter said, adding that Los Angeles and San Francisco have city ordinances against it as well — but San Diego does not. So the Body Shop is remaining open while he appeals the ABC ruling, and he expects his case (asking for a clarification of the U.S. Supreme Court's LaRue case, which upheld the ABC ruling in 1972) to reach the Supreme Court sometime next year.

Richter contends that nudity is permitted in theaters — "freedom of expression, guaranteed under the First Amendment" — ant that the Body Shop's nudity should be similarly viewed. "It's not lewd or obscene," Richter stated. I agreed that this place, with its coeds dressing and undressing onstage, was unlike any strip joint I'd ever been in. Certainly not reminiscent of New York's Metropole, for example, where tassel-breasted go-go girls did the bump-and-grind and got their tassels spinning clockwise, then counterclockwise — all the while gazing out with aphasic eyes, frozen faces. This place seemed almost wholesome by comparison, I offered.

"Wholesome," said Richter, happily. "I like that. Wholesome."

It was early on Monday morning, the beginning of a working day for Laura. "You know, it might be more oppressive for many of the woman more than it is for me," she said thoughtfully, as we sat by the bar. "There are nights when the air is so thick with the men's frustration that we can hardly stand it, and that's when the heavy drinking starts. Those are the bad times."

She walked over to the jukebox, chose "Just Like a Woman," and climbed the few steps to the bartop. With her back to the stage, she took off her halter. "The first one of the day is really hard."

How so? "I guess it just feels kind of silly," Laura replied. Then, snapping her fingers to the rhythm, she began to move, and soon — it seemed — the dance and the customers' appreciation took over. When she finished, they clapped loudly, and a grey-haired and ruddy-faced man exclaimed, "Laura, you always start my Monday mornings off great!"

"I ought to tell you," he said, as she brought him another beer, "that I've been known to kidnap young ladies with long hair on a sunny day."

"Yeah?" smiled Laura. "Where do you take them?"

"Wherever you want to go." Then, earnestly to the man seated next to him, "I would take her anywhere." His mind seemed to wander on that one; he emptied his glass and sat, quite still, for some time.

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