NEW LOOK: Dancing on the Edge http://www.reviewjournal.com/lvrj_home/2002/Dec-10-Tue-2002/living/
Emergence of large, opulent topless clubs leads to questions of whether Las Vegas market is saturated
By MIKE WEATHERFORD REVIEW-JOURNAL
New topless clubs are raising the stakes to a scale previously unseen in Las Vegas. The 25,000 square-foot Jaguars was first to think big and target an upscale clientele. Sapphire, set to open this weekend, is larger still.
Dancers such as "McKenzie" pay a house fee at local clubs including Jaguars in hopes of taking away money from tips and lap dances.
Peter Feinstein is a partner in Sapphire, which will have 40,000 square feet of topless entertainment in the former Sporting House athletic club on Industrial Road. Photo by Craig L. Moran. The main stage of Sapphire will allow dancers to descend from a ramp to dance on a clear pedestal. Photo by Craig L. Moran.
"Look at this lobby," says Peter Feinstein. "It's going to look or feel like the Four Seasons or Bellagio. You'll feel like you're checking into a hotel."
The marble might be similar, but Feinstein is the managing partner of Sapphire, which claims to be spending $26 million for the bragging rights of being "the largest adult entertainment complex in the world."
Sapphire aspires to host 250 to 300 topless dancers on an average night within the 40,000 square feet of the former Sporting House athletic club, 3025 S. Industrial Road, that will be devoted to stripping.
The new owners optimistically left all 700 lockers in the club's locker room-turned-dressing room.
But Sapphire -- which is aiming for a Friday opening -- follows the 25,000-square-foot Jaguars, which arrived in late June. On a typical weekend, the club at 3355 Procyon St. already claims to field more than 200 dancers.
Both are running ahead of construction on a club tentatively known as the Board Room, a reported $7.5 million enterprise taking shape on Westwood Drive, backing up to Interstate 15 almost directly across from Palace Station. The project became infamous long before the first shovel of dirt was turned, thanks to a newsmaking zoning and licensing process.
All three projects make Feinstein's Bellagio analogy a good one to describe the central issue in this "supersizing" of local topless clubs.
The Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and other upscale megaresorts defied skeptics and proved they could fill hotel rooms by growing the market, creating new high-end customers who had never visited Las Vegas, rather than stealing guests from the Stardust or Tropicana.
That's the game plan for Sapphire, says managing partner Feinstein. "I think we're going to help expand and introduce the adult entertainment business to people who never felt comfortable going into a (topless) club."
Others wonder if even the fabled Sin City can trade on this scale.
"It reaches the saturation point, which is exactly what we've got right now," says John Snowden.
He's the brother of Rick Snowden, the Rick of Rick's Tally Ho, a small full-nude club near Sahara Avenue and Highland Drive that, by comparison, looks like it might house Sapphire's valet parking operation.
Snowden figures 14 topless or all-nude clubs have come onto the scene since the Tally Ho opened in 1994. There are now more than two dozen on the landscape, though some operators draw sharper lines of distinction -- and claim less direct competition -- between topless bars with liquor licenses and full-nude establishments that sell $12 soft drinks.
"Right now, the people are just spread between too many clubs," says Snowden. "We predict there's going to be a fallout, and the weak ones are going to fall by the wayside."
A disappointing Comdex computer trade show could be an omen for things to come. "We used to have girls making $10,000 a week," Snowden says of the November convention. "This year they weren't even making $2,000."
A downsized Comdex also had repercussions at Jaguars, says administrator Mike Beezley. "It was much lower than usual," he says, raising hopes and expectations for this week's National Finals Rodeo and January's Super Bowl weekend.
Still, after five months, "we've started to edge toward our goal when it comes to weekend business," Beezley says. "We think it's a one-year build."
Jaguars aims for enough bloodshot eyeballs to ogle 500 dancers on Fridays and Saturdays. That goal was set back by a Clark County Commission vote, which took effect Sept. 1, prohibiting women under 21 from dancing in clubs that served alcohol.
Beezley estimates the change cost Jaguars 30 percent to 35 percent of its dancers.
But supply is no problem, according to Snowden. He says his little room is "turning 10 or 12 dancers away every day. ... All these girls think maybe it's just their club (that's not crowded)."
With rare exception, dancers at most Las Vegas clubs are not on-the-clock employees but independent contractors who pay the owners a "house fee," usually $35 and higher, and hope to make it back by doing $20 table or lap dances for patrons.
"A lot of days, what carries us is dancers paying their house fees," Snowden says.
His club is only a couple of blocks from the Westwood Drive office space once owned by political consultant Sig Rogich. The process of selling the building to a pair of Texas topless club operators became a high-profile story that led to a police investigation of Las Vegas Councilman Michael McDonald and ethics hearings stemming from his friendship with Crazy Horse club owner Rick Rizzolo. McDonald survived the scrutiny and remains in office.
A new 26,000-square-foot building is now taking shape, with a peaked valet port centered between octagonal towers resembling castle turrets. The contractors, Breslin Builders, estimate the club will be ready to open by July.
"These new ones, good luck," Snowden says of his coming competition. "I predict a shakeout among clubs that started too late or with too big an investment. For them to open now is crazy."
If so, Feinstein and managing partner Delores Eliades, daughter of Olympic Garden owner Pete Eliades, are crazy on a grand scale.
The main room of Sapphire is a two-story affair where dancers descend a ramp to a clear, elevated main stage. The stage towers over the floor seating, but is beneath the view from the frosted one-way glass that covers 13 VIP boxes.
The boxes are aimed at "celebrities or investment bankers celebrating the closing of a deal," Feinstein says, though long-term leases are being discussed with some of the casinos.
There's an entirely separate VIP area downstairs, complete with a room capable of catering a private corporate or bachelor party with food from a 6,000-square-foot restaurant called Stake, which will share the building. (There's a separate entry for those who desire dinner without dancing).
A separate 10,000-square-foot showroom houses a more traditional stage. It can be used for corporate sit-down dinners, or might be subcontracted for a ticketed revue along the lines of "La Femme" or "X" on the Strip.
The plans are ambitious but Feinstein hopes his club will seize national attention as the city's latest attraction. To that end, the guest list for Friday's scheduled opening-night bash includes Carmen Electra and a set by Camp Freddy, a rock band led by Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitarist Dave Navarro.
"Las Vegas has really not taken it to the next level, in my opinion," Feinstein says. "I think any woman is going to feel comfortable in this club," he adds. "This is really an R-rated experience. Most couples are sophisticated enough to handle an R-rated experience."
Perhaps the most bullish sign of confidence is that both Jaguars and Sapphire are backed by established local players. The Eliades family risks cannibalizing its Olympic Garden, while Jaguars' owner Mike Galardi also has Cheetahs and the Leopard Lounge.
The hotel analogy raises another question: If Jaguars and Sapphire become the Bellagio of strip clubs (tourists account for 80 percent of Jaguars' clientele), will older ones become Palace Station, creating a separate niche by scaling down their drink prices and door charges?
Beezley says that's already happening, to a degree, at Cheetahs. "Twelve years ago, they said Monday Night Football would never work in a topless club," but it has become a Cheetahs institution.
Radio ads for football or happy hour promotions give a mainstream face to an industry that only a decade ago kept a low profile. A recent civil suit against Crazy Horse owner Rizzolo -- accusing club employees of having "extensive criminal histories" and associations with organized crime figures -- is a reminder of the industry's old reputation for a public shyness matched only by generous campaign contributions to local politicians.
Now, however, Jaguars' Beezley singles out a leather bikini model in a Hard Rock Hotel ad and wonders why, by law, "we can only show a girl's face."
"If we're trying to protect our children, fine. But make it a protection everyone has to follow," he says. Most cab companies refuse taxi-top advertising from topless clubs as well.
But there are other ways of getting a name out there. One early morning before Thanksgiving, Beezley was comparing prices in supermarket ads to make good on a promise of 1,000 turkeys for a radio station's charity drive.
A turkey in every pot might be only a start in a city where, it seems, there's soon to be a dancer in every lap.