Heartland strips away its reputation

By Georgia

(U-WIRE) CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Peoria, Illinois. When I moved to this city of 112,000 in June, I expected to find myself living among all things all-American.
County fairs featuring tractor pulls, livestock shows and country western music. An agriculture report on the afternoon news. Packed town hall meetings to discuss the local high school cheerleading squad. Minor league baseball, frequent pledges of allegiance and lots of singing of the national anthem. Soccer tournaments, Girl Scout cookies, barbecues and Bible study classes.
And Peoria has given me all of that. After all, the third-largest city in the state has long been equated with the essence of middle America.
For years, Peoria was the test-marketing capital of the nation before the equally unremarkable Des Moines, Iowa, stole away that distinction. Company after company after company brought their products to the heart of Illinois, assuming that if their TV dinners and stainless steel knives were good enough for Peorians, they were good enough for the rest of blue-collar America. The old vaudeville saying, “Will it play in Peoria?” took on new meaning as the city became a benchmark for the nation, helping to gauge American attitudes toward politics, religion and culture.
Pardon me, then, when I was disturbed to learn that one of Peoria’s most famous and accepted social institutions is a strip club. Big Al’s, a “world-famous gentlemen’s club” located in the middle of downtown, features “the world’s most beautiful women,” fine cigars, cognac, a lunchtime buffet and Wednesday night wet T-shirt contests.
The club has earned its fame. Since the 1970s, it has been the only adult entertainment business in the area that has a liquor license. The club was featured in a 1997 A&E special report on the adult entertainment industry, and the club’s managers were once guests on the Phil Donohue show. According to one manager, Eric Clapton was once spotted in the audience. The same manager says comedian/actor Sam Kinnison was a regular during his lifetime. On more than one occasion, when I have told people outside the tri-county area (that my newspaper covers) that I live and work in Peoria, they have asked — sometimes jokingly — if I’ve been to Big Al’s.
I have long since abandoned my assumption that the Midwest is a collection of small, chaste towns, but I still don’t understand the way many Peorians accept, support and patronize Big Al’s. Men go. Women go. Couples go. Businesspeople here for conventions go. And most people aren’t embarrassed to admit that they go.
So, I decided it was time that I go. When in Peoria do as the Peorians do. I could not continue to criticize what I had never seen for myself.
I called up Big Al’s one day and made an appointment to talk to the managers and visit the club. One week later, accompanied by three male reporters from my newspaper, I ventured into the club, cringing as I walked by a sign advertising that night’s amateur contest.
Before I stepped through those doors on Main Street, I never really thought about what “a den of sin” would look like. But after spending more than two hours in Big Al’s on a busy Thursday night, I have a pretty good idea. Women dancing on stage wearing nothing more than spiked heels. A big, shiny brass pole. Men — some dressed in neatly pressed khakis and polo shirts, others still talking about the last long shift at the local plant — drinking beer, enjoying lap dances, burying their heads in the dancers’ bare chests.
With Dave Matthews’ “Crash” playing in the background, two Big Al’s managers — Lloyd Hendricks and Al Zuccarini — tried to convince me that stripping was just like any other 9-to-5 job, minus the clothes.
“These women are taking advantage of a wonderful situation,” Hendricks said. “They’re young, they’re beautiful, and they can make a lot of money in getting up on stage and dancing. At this age, how else are they going to make that money?”
A stripper usually makes at least $300 a night. Four strippers once interviewed by my newspaper said they had so much money at the end of one night of stripping that they would pile it up in the middle of the apartment they shared and jump in it for fun.
During our interview, one of Big Al’s 50 dancers walked by in a huff, upset because she and another dancer had been harassed by customers who wanted to see more than just their bare breasts.
“I told them, I don’t take off my bottom unless I see some tips. How else am I going to make money?” she said, stalking off after Hendricks told her he would take care of the problem.
Pardon my bias, but isn’t getting naked to make a little money just a bit degrading?
“We live in such a sexually oppressed society,” Zuccarini said, his voice growing impatient. “Models use their bodies. Olympic athletes use their bodies. Pro sports is all about bodies. These women have a talent — their bodies. So they use them. Just because they’re naked, people think less of them.”
All right, so I’m one of the sexually oppressed masses. But Zuccarini, who has worked at Big Al’s for the last seven years, is certainly making money from these women’s bodies. Isn’t that exploitation?
“Everyone is exploited,” Hendricks responds. “Lawyers exploit their paralegals. Your newspaper exploits you as a journalist. Everyone who is here wants to be here just like you want to work for the Journal Star. They enjoy the freedom the industry gives them.”
But paralegals and journalists use their minds, not their bodies, to make a living — or at least so I like to think.
“A lot more goes into the dancing than people give our women credit for,” Hendricks said. “It’s a real talent, and the women work hard to stay fit, look beautiful and be good at it.”
Hendricks went so far as to compare stripping to an art form and the men who come to watch them “perform” to visitors to an art museum. A Maplethorpe exhibit, to be exact.
“We create a very classy feel. We make sure that we are very professional, and we make the customers feel right at home,” Zuccarini said, explaining that he regularly talks to the customers to make sure they are getting all the cognac, cigars and lap dances they want.
My male companions vouched for Zuccarini’s customer service guarantee, saying that within their first hour at the club they were approached three times by three different dancers peddling $4.50 bottles of beer and offers to talk to them and “befriend” them.
“I don’t care what the managers told you,” said one of my fellow interns who is normally pretty mild-mannered. “We’re not here to be part of a gentlemen’s club. We’re here to see naked women.”
Still, Zuccarini insisted that his club was not some beer-guzzling strip joint or touch club. His security staff does not hesitate to ask a drunk man to leave the club or to remind customers that the dancers will not fully unclothe unless they see the tips start flowing. The bigger the bills, the better.
“Our dancers control what is going on. They are not in a position where they can be physically abused,” he said.
For the most part, the customers did behave themselves. Most men really did just watch and sip their beer. There were a few lewd comments from some men who had had a few too many to drink, but no grabbing and no groping. Lap dances and flirting, of course, but the dancers are not officially allowed to date any of the customers, and the customers are not allowed to buy them drinks.
And in the end, both Zuccarini and Hendricks argued that the adult entertainment industry will never die away.
“It makes the world go ’round.” It’s been here since Adam and Eve,” Zuccarini said.
They are probably right. When I left Big Al’s at about 11:30 p.m., the party was just beginning. The place was packed, and on the stage, a dancer was being auctioned off to a customer willing to bid at least $75 for 30 minutes alone with her and a bottle of champagne.
“Get yourself more pleasure for the dollar — a little more bang for your buck,” the emcee said, cajoling two customers into a frenzied bidding war.
That final image of a woman being auctioned off to satisfy some male ego was more than enough to discredit any arguments in favor of strip clubs that Lloyd Hendricks and Al Zuccarini made in our hour-long discussion. More than enough to reserve my right to be disgusted by the success Big Al’s has found in Peoria — this supposed cradle of middle American values and attitudes.
Neither manager could respond to my concern, voiced as a feminist, that a strip club undermines any progress our society has made toward gender equality over the last 30 years. Or that the very use of the term “gentlemen’s club” is a return to an era that most women would rather leave behind.
Big Al’s employees might have chosen to become strippers, and in that sense they are upholding a lot of what the women’s movement fought for. We’ve come such a long way, baby, that we can get naked if we want.
But by becoming strippers, they also reinforce the idea that it is OK to judge a woman based on her body alone. I doubt any of the customers are interested in learning the group’s average SAT score. By going to Big Al’s they pursue some still existing male fantasy that somewhere out there at least some kinds of women are meant to be leered at and ogled.
Welcome to Peoria, this mecca of mediocrity. Many Peorians are happily married, raising children in thriving communities, taking them to county fairs, packed village hall meetings, minor league baseball games, soccer tournaments and Bible study classes.
And on weeknights and weekends, a few choose to strip and a lot choose to leer at the world-famous Big Al’s, the city’s neon-lit tribute to gender equality.

This opinions piece originally ran Friday in the Harvard Crimson at Harvard University.