Doing her part
For most of the 1970s and early 1980s, I hung out at a small go go bar in Passaic. Although near naked women danced on a small stage at the end of the rectangular room. Unlike many of the other places, these girls teased, but didn’t flash, a fact that did nothing to make the bar unpopular.
For many of us, the place felt more like a neighborhood establishment, with a string of characters coming and going, people not much different than those broadcast on the television show Cheers.
And though I pretended to come because of the neighborhood feeling, something about the dancers intrigued me, as if each had schooled in a method of dance now long out of date. This special quality eluded me until one night a few days after Christmas when a serve chill kept most of the patrons home, and I found myself seated alone with the bar’s owner, a middle-aged women named Matilda.
Rumors claimed Matilda had once been a grand dame in the Manhattan social scene, an international model or some other glamorous profession that was still reflected in slim body and her amazing grace.
“Model? Me?” she laughed when I confronted her with the tale. “I was never so classy a broad as that. If truth be told, I’m a Capital Theater gal – though I did work a few bigger Manhattan stages when I was very young.”
When people hear the name “Capital Theater” in Passaic, New Jersey, (if they are old enough) they think of it as a icon to American rock and roll, a place that presented acts from the early 1970s through to the end of the 1980s. Although its fame rested on rock stars like The Grateful Dead and Bruce Spingsteen, the Capital had a richer history for me, going back to my childhood when it still operated at a conventional movie theater, then later, during my formative sexual years, it became the center of striptease.
Strip meant something distinctly different then than it does today. This was not your lap dance crap you get in go go bars generously renamed as strip clubs. Long before prostitution sullied the art form, strip tease artists teased us with their wit and their charm, often leading men on with their seductions that never led to nudity, and even when we did get as far as bare flesh, strip tease made it seem a satisfying meal rather than an advertisement for prostitution.
Where as most of my friends during our teen years got titillation from slick magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, I was never satisfied with these airbrushed visions of reality, always more intrigued by the Capital’s marquee advertising “real live strip.” At 16 years old, I was too late to have come to the art form during its heyday. Strip tease even in the Capital had become something of a dirty joke, an act rapidly losing favor to the blue movies theaters like The Fine Arts presented a block away. Young women rarely took up the craft, so that those women found on the stage had survived from post World War Two vintage or had learned their craft in the fading days after the war. Most were old or ugly, and often their performances were greeted with heavy heckling from men who had come to jeer rather than masturbate – as they did in the porno theaters.
In my desire to catch sight of one of these live acts, I knew none of disdain the public had come to feel for the art form, so I was shocked when after I bribed the doorman to let me in one of the side fire doors, I found people laughing at the poor woman on stage. I also found that the women did not match up to the pictures on the posters outside, or if they did, the photographs came from the pre-war period when striptease was popular. Those young enough to have possibly excited me at first glance, proved so ugly that it was no wonder men laughed; striptease had settled into a limbo made of old or ugly women.
It took me some moments to get over my disappointment and to notice the performance itself. Although I could have imagined what striptease must have been like when performed with prettier women, I was still amazed at their ability to attract me, each movement, each suggestive slip of cloth, causing revolutions in my hormones I have yet to duplicate in any other venue.
It became a cherished memory that I kept from ruin by never repeating a visit to the theater, even though I soon became old enough to get in through the front door. Each time I walked passed the theater, I took notice more of the rapidly yellowing signs for striptease than I did the headline rock and roll acts plastered across the marquee, and each time, the early, seductive memory resurfaced filled with the initial excitement I felt.
Eventually, management ended the farce, and discontinued the striptease portion, a vacancy in the world that was not refilled with the sudden proliferation of nearby go-go bars or the transformation of the formerly legitimate Montalk Theater into a porno paradise. Because several of the go go bars in Passaic also served as neighborhood taverns, I had the occasion to see local girls strutting on smaller barroom stages. I also had opportunity to talk to some of the bar owners, who had adapted their facilities to meet the growing, hungry demand for female flesh.
“Sure the profession changed,” Matilda told me, putting down a refill drink I had not ordered, her eyes so bright I could tell she saw the scene again in her head. “People didn’t look on striptease as an art form anymore. The old jazz clubs were closing down, or turning into go go clubs. Customers didn’t just want to sit out in the theater staring at some girl teasing them, they wanted something more.”
Matilda, who started stripping just after VE Day, said the change confused her.
“I was still naive enough to think we were in a legitimate profession,” she said. “I guess that’s why I have it up early in 1970, when I realized that people wanted me to be a prostitute, too.”
She decided she had to escape the whole meat market. So moved out to the Bergen County, looking to get “a straight job.” She was nearing 40 and the best she could do was a job as a receptionist.
“I didn’t do anything hard,” she said. “The advertisement didn’t ask for any skills, just good looks, and I still had those.”
She managed to work for two weeks, thinking she was getting on well, until her boss closed up shop early one day.
“He gave me that look,” she said. “It made me feel like a whore.”
That was before sexual harassment laws, so her refusal ended her brief employment there.
“I had a hard time,” she said. “It had cost me a bit for the apartment and my savings dried up quick trying to afford the rent. I looked for jobs, but companies wanted girls half my age, so I was out of luck.”
Then, one day, she stepped out onto her balcony. It was dark. She had not bothered putting on her robe so that she stood there with about as much as she had on at the end of a striptease set. A wolf whistle greeted her from out of the dark.
“I knew there was some kind of yard out there when I moved in,” she said. “But I never figured it for a military base or anything – at least I thought it was than when I saw all the uniforms, some blue and brown, others more like those police wore.”
One of the men kept telling her how beautiful she was.
“It brought back the better days at the capital,” she said, “and those days when I was young enough to work even higher class places in Manhattan. I smiled and waved, then went back inside.”
The next day she discovered the ugly truth. She hadn’t moved next to a military base, but a low security jail for deadbeat dads and drunk drivers, fence covered with scrolls of razor ribbon, yet not so dense as to block their view of her balcony.
“I guess I was a bit relieved to learn none of the men were hardened criminals,” she said. “Just ordinary working stiffs caught in a bad situation, more or less the way I was.”
She knew she did not have to fear any of them climbing over the fence to get at her, the way the rowdy crowds sometimes did when she stripped at the Capital.
“The more I thought about it, the funnier the situation seemed,” she said. “For years, I always felt captive on stage, even as I teased the hell out of men in the audience. But suddenly, I had a host of men outside my window, just ripe for teasing. You might call them a captive audience.”
She suspected the men were in sore need of entertainment – more even than the crowd she paraded before at the Capital. Each time she stepped out onto her balcony, they were waiting, smiling and waving. Guards and prisoners a like. She learned later that it was a guard that had whistled the first night, but eventually they all did.
“How was a girl like me to resist?” she asked. “I mean it gets into your blood, and never really goes away, even if you pretend it does.”
She had the power to turn these men on, tease them to her heart’s content, and not have to worry about the cheap crap of go go style dancing. So she turned on her eight-track tape player and began to strip – a daily routine that filled the yard and guard houses.
“It was like we had gone back in time to way strip tease use to be before the war, when we performed a public service helping men appreciate the body without having to sell ourselves in the process,” she said. “They didn’t just glare at me. They respected me.”
The men couldn’t hear the music, but they didn’t care much about that. They just stared and cheered.
“Doing that for them made me realize a man needs to be teased even when he can go and buy sex wholesale,” she said. “While the days of the Capital Theater might be over, I could still recreate the feeling in a small place like this. So instead of running away from the go-go scene, I opened a place of my own. You might say I’m doing my part to help men.”