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.
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.
“They're girls into kink, BDSM, fetishes, hairy legs, hairy armpits,” Farrell proudly notes, rattling off the whole catalog of Lusty Lady types. Prince$$, who has danced at the club for 12 years, adds that it features performers of all races, ages, and sizes. It's always been a safe haven for the college hipster who wants to put herself through school, or the punk girl who prefers wearing a Mohawk, or the strident feminist who just wants to celebrate her body. Since dancers all earn the same hourly wage, they don't have to hustle to recoup a stage fee, Prince$$ says. Sure, the co-op model might stymie revenue, but it also promotes sisterhood — and in her mind, that's what counts. “It's about the sale,” she explains. “It's not about who's selling.”
But fair, cooperative business practices also begat disorganization. No one ever changed the carpet, Farrell notes, because everyone disagreed on what a new one should look like, and everyone had an equal say. “Six wanted blue, three wanted red, four wanted pink,” he recalls. And bigger decisions languished even longer; Forbes says that when he offered the dancers discount rent, they'd take so long to reply that he'd change his mind in the interim.
But the club itself is an anachronism, and not just because of the Barbary Coast facade or the tawdry furnishings. Lusty Lady is, in fact, not a proper strip club at all; rather, it's an old-fashioned peep show. Patrons step into individual booths and pump dollars into a slot to view women behind a plexiglass wall. The booths form a horseshoe around a single stage, where two or three women dangle among Christmas lights and stripper poles. A dollar gets you about a minute of viewing time and a chance to goad one of the performers into a VIP session, also held behind glass.
That ritual alone seems redolent of the days when men watched pornography by depositing coins into old Mutoscope viewing machines and turned a hand-crank on the side. Even to a neophyte, the format seems ancient, solitary, and somewhat perfunctory. The conspicuous absence of a bar means no one need worry about a two-drink minimum, but it also means there's no place to clamor on the sidelines. It's not a venue to hold a bachelor party, or ogle at girls with your bros, or withdraw half your bank account in an alcohol-fueled splurge. Where most adult establishments provide a never-ending party, Forbes says, Lusty Lady's model does the opposite; it serves the workers, rather than the desired clientele. It doesn't cater to the fraternal aspects of strip clubs at all.
And, as a result, the business wilted. When the dancers unionized in 1997, and then formed a cooperative in 2003, they became torchbearers for progressive San Francisco. Lusty Lady's model seemed anathema to everything that strip clubs are about, and everyone rooted for it. Everyone, that is, except the people most likely to patronize strip clubs. The crowd that Lusty Lady drew was decidedly not a strip-club crowd; rather, it was full of Amherst College students writing term papers, or old people who want to avoid crowds altogether. Sean McClung, who's manned the club's desk for two years, says that while he'll occasionally see college frat boys, he'd pin the median patron age at 30 to 40 — or older. The men drifting in and out of Lusty Lady on a recent Thursday certainly fit that profile. A few wore business slacks and glasses; one came in a tie-dyed shirt. All of them were alone.
Apparently, that clientele isn't large enough, or loaded enough, to grease the wheels of business. On the eve of its closure, the Lusty Lady pulls an estimated $20,000 a week. Forbes believes the numbers are actually a lot lower. “I find that number very hard to believe,” he says. “If you can't pay $16,000 a month in rent, what's wrong with you?”
He believes the Lusty Lady's peep show format is “a failed kind of business,” because it provides few carrots to lure in customers. After all, there's little reason to leave the house when the Internet can provide plenty of live nude girls via webcam. Although Farrell planned to install webcams within Lusty Lady to make it more competitive, Forbes says that still wouldn't address a more fundamental problem. “In a regular strip club you can sit down and have a conversation,” he explains. “They're two very different kinds of businesses.” He says his other strip clubs are still prospering.
By late August, Farrell had conceded defeat, and most players at Lusty Lady were planning alternate career paths. Prince$$ wants to be a writer and sexologist in the vein of Carol Queen. McClung wants to finish his degree at Academy of Art College. Farrell plans to return to his previous job as a wallpaper-hanger, though he'd like to become a security guard — his dream job is to be a cop. He'd resigned himself to two more weeks as the Lusty Lady's official “management consultant,” which was about as close as he could get to being owner, given both the co-op model and the fact that he's not on the lease.
Then, on Friday, the dancers voted to fire him. “I was informed by the board of this decision this morning,” he writes, in a somewhat dejected text message, after calling Forbes to report the bad news. To Forbes, that suggests the lusty ladies aren't planning to vacate the premises on Sept. 2 after all; Prince$$ demurred, saying that as far as she knows, the club will close Sept. 2, as scheduled.
Either way, Forbes isn't worried. “It'll take me all of two days to get the sheriff out there and evict them.”