NYC RFD: Dirty
The Cutting Room
Before he became the Savior of Western Civilization, Mayor Giuliani rid Manhattan of titty bars. In the mid-1990s, he lobbied local zoning boards to enforce ordinances that forbid such establishments to operate in the residential neighborhoods in which nearly all of them were located. Among the last of the old joints to throw in the towel was Billy's Topless, a venerable fleshpot on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 24th Street. For a time Billy's soldiered on with bikini-clad dancers (under the brave and awkward new name, "Billy's Stopless"), but business understandably slowed and the franchise collapsed before the dawn of the new millennium, leaving Manhattan virtually grindhouse-free.
But one still can see topless and even nude women onstage, just down the street from where Billy's girls once bumped and ground. It is conceivable that the City will one day raid the Blue Angel Cabaret, playing Saturdays at the Cutting Room on West 24th Street, and carry its players off in a paddy wagon on grounds of public lewdness, but that is unlikely. The Blue Angel offers performance art, not mere exhibitionism; its well-rehearsed acts, many involving props and costumes, unfold on a real stage, not a runway, in front of mixed and well-turned-out audiences paying $20 a head, not T-shirted plug-uglies and tired businessmen waving fivers. A halfway decent lawyer could get the case thrown out in minutes, and the Blue Angel would take its place among Lady Chatterly's Lover and Paradise Now as glorious victors in the endless war against narrow-minded Comstockery.
The Blue Angel began life as a modish burlesque on Walker Street in Tribeca. Some costumes and performance elements were involved, and there were always arty locals in the crowd, digging the insouciance of the concept and--it must be said--tits. But the Blue Angel had not yet fully transcended its roots. Some performers went directly from the stage to an ill-lit back room to give lap-dances to high rollers decidedly not of the demimonde. Some smoky savor of the grindhouse persisted.
With the Giuliani crackdown, The Blue Angel acceded to new realities. In its new home on Bond Street, lap dances disappeared from the menu, and the acts became more elaborate and artful. Eventually the club gained a following among cognoscenti and show-biz types who preferred their raunch with an ennobling overlay of artistic merit. So, while professional basketball players were riding limos out to Long Island to get blowjobs from strippers, the cream of Hollywood flung brassieres over, and danced upon, the bar at Hogs & Heifers, and took in the Blue Angel. Ralph Fiennes, Demi Moore, Wesley Snipes, Jim Jarmusch, Goldie Hawn, and Lou Reed were all sighted there, and Drew Barrymore captured the nation's imagination by peeling off on its stage one legendary night.
Late last year the Blue Angel removed to a theatre space in the back of the Cutting Room, where I recently attended a performance.
We were seated at tables running trestle-fashion toward a plain, black stage, and served by waitresses. There were no brass rails, no poles, no floor lights; even the best-situated patrons would not be able to stuff bills down, or up, anyone's anything. Not that they would have done so if they could; the crowd was mostly young, well-dressed, exuberant and chatty, like assistant account executives who'd scored comp tickets to a hot new major label artist's show at the Beacon.
The performances, languidly emceed by a stripper named Olympia, were, for want of a better word, erotic. Miss Asia wore backless gold lame festooned with many beads, which she made much of removing before finally peeling off. ("How about those legs!" said Olympia as the nude Miss Asia bent from the waist, ass to house, to retrieve her clothing. "My God, it's inhuman.") An older, less inhumanly leggy woman called Tanya the Mistress of Magic performed parlor tricks in a jewel-encrusted teddy to swing music; the crowd simmered low till the next performer stormed the stage in a tiara, diaphanous American flag and thigh-high leather boots, thrashing to "Revolution" by the Beatles. In extremis, she kicked high and flashed beaver. Thereafter the ante was upped.
A Victorian doll with a mop of blond hair topped with a funereal black bow came out and swallowed swords in a suggestive manner: Daggers and samurai swords slowly slid down her gullet, and one neon shaft, hilt fashioned to suggest testes, flashed blue through her straining throat. Sister Ammo stripped off a nun's habit to Motorhead, and worked her pussy with rosary beads. Miss Pink Snow wore a hilariously abbreviated nurse's uniform complete with starched white cap, and crouched and gyrated savagely like a Frank Kozik drawing come to life, tits spilling out of her tunic, big ass dusting the stage.
And on and on: A couple of guys (one a comical Elvis impersonator, another a fire-eater) "for the ladies"; a clever backwards strip by Olympia; a woman named Velocity Chyald (sic) pretending, with the copious help of blood packs, to slice open her vagina with a knife; a real belly dancer, her white top fringed with silver, her butt whipping a taffeta train; and, for some reason, two nude women in clown wigs, face paint, and glowing red noses getting it on to "Love To Love You Baby."
Thus several angles on the old boom-boom were explored with great creativity and energy. The performers knew their stuff and obviously enjoyed it. Neither was the subtle, traditional contempt of the sex performer missing: We were repeatedly teased, flashed, warned off, left wanting more.
Certainly it was expensive, and the artists also came around the room after their acts, soliciting tips. I had been exempted from the cover charge, and still dropped about 40 bucks, including tips to the men's room attendant. But everything costs more these days; why shouldn't this?
Besides, money sanctifies the Blue Angel. Tell the folks at work about your night at an erotic cabaret, and they'll be curious and admiring, and may even leer vicariously. Tell them you went out to a strip joint in Jersey, and you're a perv. No sensible person will ever call the Blue Angel sexist or demeaning. It is erotic--the way about half the modern novels on the front tables at Barnes & Noble are erotic--but it's not really dirty.
I stepped out into the cool night and walked to the corner. I paused a moment before the blue-gray French doors of a business called Empire City Bagel ("All Baking Done on Premises"). This had been Billy's Topless, a place where men who didn't have 20 bucks for the doorman, and didn't bring dates, sat gazing at women who were paid to dance for them. Some of the men knew the dancers (you couldn't really call them performers) by name, and gave their favorites extra money for, mainly, eye contact and acknowledgement. Sometimes, if they were not offensive, they could talk to the dancers at the bar. It is a certainty that most of these men had problems with women, temporary or permanent; but at Billy's, as long as they behaved themselves and occasionally bought a beer, they had no problems at all.
It wasn't the Blue Angel, or The Red Shoe Diaries, or any of the other things we now call erotic. But I'll say this for it: It was dirty.
December 10, 2001