Lust's Labors Lost: The Downfall of Progressive Strip Club the Lusty Lady

To an outsider, Scott "BIGRED" Farrell might seem an unlikely savior for the Lusty Lady strip club in North Beach. Yet the 41-year-old, erstwhile management consultant enjoys rattling off his credentials. He's a motorcycle aficionado, wannabe cop, and celebrated member of the local kink scene (he's Mr. September on this year's Bare Chest calendar). When a stripper named Prince$$ approached his motorcycle club last year, asking for donations so the Lusty Lady could make its payroll, Farrell saw a way he could help. The Lusty Lady needed a competent manager to refurbish its digs and parlay with its landlord; Farrell needed a new project. He got seduced by the idea of being useful.

"It felt like with some structural changes, some upgrades to the interior decoration, and some webcams ... we'd be able to generate enough revenue to stay in business," Farrell says. He had big plans for the Little Strip Club That Could. He would need to dissolve the Lusty Lady's co-op model — leaderless, egalitarian, and consensus-driven — and institute a more traditional business structure, and he would need a few concessions from strip club kingpin Roger Forbes, who purchased the property in 1998. But with a little bending, Farrell thought, they could all work together.

If only he could persuade the lusty ladies to let go of their fair-trade model and institute a few competitive business practices — like having a manager, for instance.

Lusty Lady's co-op model meant all dancers are created equal, but made it tough to decide on everything from carpet color to acceptable rent.
Lusty Lady's co-op model meant all dancers are created equal, but made it tough to decide on everything from carpet color to acceptable rent.

If only he could persuade Forbes to become a benefactor.

Unfortunately, that's a lot to ask of a mogul attempting to consolidate an empire. Forbes owns real estate for many adult enterprises in San Francisco, and he's a minority stockholder in all but two of them — Crazy Horse and Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre are the only ones left that don't bear his imprimatur. An astute businessman, he didn't easily cotton to the Lusty Lady's cooperative template. "I'd given them discounts on rent before," he says by phone from Reno, Nev., close to his home in Crescent City. "But I was tired. It had nothing to do with the rent, really. There was no one in charge."

In May, he began eviction proceedings over protests from Farrell, who was still trying to negotiate the rent down to a number Lusty Lady could afford — around $8,500 a month, or half the going rate. In the meantime, Forbes found a new tenant and drafted a lease with a 10-year personal guarantee that rent would be paid on time. He allowed Farrell and the dancers to stay until Sept. 2, at which point he'd send a sheriff to rout out anyone who hadn't vacated the property. It was a fair shake, as far as Forbes could tell, even if it secured his reputation as a killer of San Francisco institutions — many locals were rankled after he sold North Beach's beloved Tosca Café to a pair of New Yorkers, because the old owner, Jeannette Etheredge, owed $100,000 in back rent.

While some experts, such as long-time commercial broker Mark Casagranda, say Tosca and Lusty Lady are just casualties in the life-and-death cycle of North Beach real estate, others say Forbes is running a hatchet-job operation. To long-time urban planning consultant Brad Paul, it seems that Forbes has little reason to care where the dominoes fall. "I'd hate to find the list of buildings he owns," Paul says. "That's your hit list." (Though it's perhaps not surprising that Forbes, a non-local real estate investor, is less concerned with the cultural history of the neighborhood than with renters who can pay rent.)

Performers at the Lusty Lady sometimes present themselves as victims of that killing spree, but the reality is a lot more complicated.

Forbes bought the Lusty Lady building at 1033 Kearney Street in 1998, part of a larger land parcel that took up most of the square block — it included Larry Flynt's Hustler Club next door, and Tosca on the other side. A 40-year veteran of adult entertainment, he's also a shareholder in Deja Vu, the Seattle behemoth that runs most of San Francisco's strip clubs through its management arm, BSC Management. (Forbes is listed in Nevada Secretary of State records as manager of an LLC called 250 Columbus Ave. — BSC's address — which has the same Seattle P.O. Box as Deja Vu.) According to Farrell, Forbes immediately raised the rent from $5,500 a month to $13,500, which devastated the already-modest operation. In the ensuing decade, rent increased another $3,000, just based on the consumer price index. Casagranda says it sounds like a competitive rate for the area, where most restaurants pay about $5-$6 a square foot per month, which is commensurate with the Lusty Lady's $16,500 for 3,423 square feet. (Strip clubs should theoretically pay more, Casagranda says, because they require special zoning and can't move easily.) But Farrell and the dancers insist they were being overcharged.

In the meantime, though, they embraced a business model that favored high-minded ideas over revenue. Workers at the 37-year-old club unionized in 1997; in 2003 they bought the business back from its original Seattle owners and formed a legal co-op, which meant that everyone earned equal pay and all decisions were made by consensus. To use a familiar San Francisco analogy, Lusty Lady became a vegetarian, hippie-loving, Rainbow Grocery of strip clubs. Its board had always hired dancers who violated mainstream norms of beauty, and if anything, the shift took those preferences even further.

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Jessica Tovar
Jessica Tovar

Forbe's is a douche he would have to degrade the co-op model in the process. SF isn't punk rock anymore.


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