Flesh and fantasy win hearts at Club Octane's male strip revue.
Thursday, July 26, 2001
Never did I expect the show to be hot.
At best, I thought the show would be cheesy and good for a laugh. It was. But it was also sweet and even sexy. I did not anticipate that I would become enchanted by the characters that come together to bring off this fascinating tradition week after week. I couldn''t imagine a male strip show actually drawing a serious clientele. Did today''s women really go for this?
Downtown Monterey seemed a highly unlikely setting for the survival of such a sexually charged spectacle. To me, downtown anywhere--except maybe Las Vegas--seemed an unlikely setting for this type of show in the 21st century. Hasn''t the outdated feminist approach of imitating male behavior fallen by the wayside?
From flipping through the back pages of weekly newspapers, I had the distinct impression that men are the target audience for exotic dance reviews. It seems that exotic dancers everywhere fall into one of three categories: Large-breasted women named Cherry or Bambi who dance for men, oiled-up buff dudes named Shawn who dance for men, or dudes named Shawn dressed as women named Cherry or Bambi who dance for men. I wondered: Exactly what types of men are the women at Club Octane imitating?
Strolling down Alvarado around 9 o''clock on a Monday night, you can hear the click of heels walking a block away, and even make out snippets of conversation. If you''re driving, chances are good that you''ll easily find a parking spot on Del Monte your first time around the block, that you''ll be able to sit wherever you like in one of the street''s three movie houses, or that you''ll score a great table in a popular restaurant without having to wait in line-that is if the kitchen hasn''t already closed. While Friday and Saturday nights bring out revelers who spill onto the sidewalk from boisterous bars, cruise the street on foot or motorcycle, and pack theaters and coffeehouses, Alvarado is swathed in stillness on Monday night. But just a few steps above the tranquillity, a hedonistic Monterey ritual is about to take place. Every week, a bawdy, anomalously wild, dare-I-say erotic event occurs at Club Octane when the men of California Harddware take the stage for the male burlesque show.
Nearly a year ago, when Taylor Wolfsen bought the club (then called McGarrett''s) he decided to carry on the long-running show.
"It''s a bit of a change from what''s happening in Monterey," he says, "and it seems to be something people have fun at."
I''m skeptical. Do women really have fun by giving over their hard-earned dollar (which took as long to earn as their male counterparts'' $1.35) to scantily clad men? I''m unconvinced. Wolfsen insists the show is very popular and says, "it''s just been a fun, good energy."
The construction leading to the nightclub''s official reopening (scheduled for mid-August) hasn''t deterred regulars or newcomers from showing up, dollar bills (and twenties) in hand, to cheer on the popular performers who, for the time being, entertain in a smaller area near the upstairs bar. The space may be cramped, but the show goes on; it goes like this:
I"DO WE HAVE ANY VIRGINS?" asks a tall man in an oversized shirt and black jeans, whose short glossy black hair is slicked back and shining under the spotlight. Bill Delaney has hopped up onto the portable stage, and is scanning the crowd as he strokes the microphone cord, whisking it away from his feet as he paces back and forth. He explains that he is referring to first-timers of the show. A few women giggle, while some point out their friends by waving their arms or yelling out, "She is! It''s her birthday!"
"So, what do you want, ladies?" Delaney inquires. A few women call out, "naked men!" but the 40 or so women in attendance are still pretty quiet at this point, shuffling in their seats, leaning across cabaret-style tables to whisper in their girlfriends'' ears. One woman says, "To not be fondled!" Delaney repeats her request, a little taken aback, and says, "Okay," raising an eyebrow, "we won''t fondle you," and continues his warm-up act, skillfully milking abundant sexual allusions and mild double-entendres while instructing the crowd on the protocol of the evening. "Rule one," he says, "is to have a good time. And rule two is that there are no more rules." Women cheer. "The louder you scream. the more the dancers take off. You know how to scream and yell. Just like when you''re having sex."
Delaney then holds up a shiny piece of black fabric and snaps his wrist, unfurling a pair of spandex shorts. He explains that Monterey law requires that no women approach or touch the men until they have put the shorts on over their "g-strings, t-backs, whatever you want to call them." A detailed explanation on how to step up to the stage and show monetary appreciation follows.
I look at my watch and find I''m mildly irritated that the warm-up for this hour-long show is going to take close to 30 minutes. Am I, who was dragging my feet up the steps moments ago, now worried I''m getting cheated out of valuable booty-watching time?
It''s no secret that the warm-up act is designed to give women time to ingest some liquid courage. "You need to drink for two reasons," says Delaney. "One, the club needs to make money. And two, the more you drink the better we look." The women hoot and holler in agreement.
The uncomfortable-yet-giddy snickers, along with the rosy faces buried in hands when Delaney speaks directly to audience members, make me realize that this extended foreplay is, in fact, needed. The women''s behavior implies they do want to see a man take off his clothes but they need some coaxing. They seem simultaneously attracted and repelled, a cringe-inducing throw-back to a more innocent time when boys would be boys, when having to work hard to sweet-talk a swell gal into letting him cop a feel on the way home from the soda shop was just part of a man''s work, and the notion of "no means no" was far from inception.
Delaney is successful in bonding with the spectators, convincing them they are ready. By the time the show gets underway, women are conversing uninhibitedly with him, screaming out enthusiastically as they play off his suggestive dialogue.
The audience is comprised of women ranging in ages from 21 to their mid-50s. Most are in groups of three or more. Before the show, a few men loiter at the back of the room. But the instant a male stripper appears, all but one of them (who is with a female date) disappear.
When the first performer, Antonio, is introduced, a hush washes over the crowd. Giggles turn to whispers. Clinking glasses give way to the rustle of pants and skirts against chairs and barstools. Then, a bold beat-"You Got the Power"-has shoulders pulsing left and right and Antonio, dressed in a yellow firefighter costume, struts in from the back of the room and circles an unsuspecting party of four, then stops in front of one woman and dances, squatting rhythmically and standing up again as the crowd cheers. He hops up on the stage and removes his pants, keeping on the yellow jacket that covers the bottom half of his body. His back to the crowd, Antonio pulls up the jacket a little and alternately slaps and wildly shakes his butt. He then pulls the jacket up a little further to expose a white g-string. After removing the jacket and tossing it aside, Antonio turns around, revealing a muscular chest. As he sways back and forth, he lightly slaps his slightly swinging "package" a couple of times.
Another of the California Harddware men tosses him the regulation shorts, which he slips on while Delaney and other dancers wander into the crowd, gently taking women by the hand and encouraging them to go up to the stage with their dollar bills. This is a "practice round," the audience is told. Some women open the shorts and drop in a dollar while the dancer rubs his hands in their hair and down their back. One woman holds a dollar bill in her mouth. Antonio takes it in his mouth. After Antonio has left the stage, Delaney returns to ask, "Now that wasn''t so bad, was it?" He resumes his stand-up act to the audibly "devirginized" audience as he walks between the tables, lingering at each one, asking women what they are celebrating.
Then Christopher appears in a ''40s-style brown suit and hat that shades his face as he saunters up to the stage. Christopher''s routine is received with unbridled whistles and shrieks. If the last performance was a practice, this is the playoff. The women form long lines to insert dollar bills into Christopher''s shorts. The woman who requested not to be fondled deposits her dollar swiftly, covers her eyes, shivers, and runs back to her barstool.
When the women have dispersed and are back in their seats, the DJ and another dancer talk about the California Harddware Web site and dancers'' availability "for all your party needs." The DJ suggests a Tupperware party being spiced up. I wonder if Christopher''s mother sells Tupperware and if she knows what her son does for a living. I wonder if any of the dancers are married and whether they have children.
--Joann Salsedo, a devoted regular
I LOOK AROUND, AND I SEE WOMEN LAUGHING AND TALKING UNINHIBITEDLY ABOUT THE DANCE NUMBERS. I don''t detect even a hint of mockery and I am impressed, and also a little ashamed of my own smirky attitude. After watching the first two strippers, I admit that I am touched by their vulnerability. Each seemed a little nervous at first, but won the crowd over quickly, and I can''t help but think that it wasn''t just Delaney''s cajoling and the consumption of alcohol that did it. I think the women, myself included, are struck by the sheer courage these guys exhibit in getting up on stage before a crowd. Their occasionally less-than-slick, slightly awkward moves tug at our heartstrings as we empathize with their emotional, as well as physical, state of undress.
Or maybe I''m just grasping at straws for some plausible reason why these women like this show.
Another dancer, Jeffrey, asks the women if they are ready to see a "real man, a gentle man" dance, and he introduces "Playgirl centerfold, Officer Wild Bill," who turns out to be none other than fun-loving emcee Delaney, emerging in a white naval officer''s uniform. Delaney paces rigidly while the ''80s easy-listening mega-hit "Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong" is piped through the sound system. Delaney then ceremoniously holds out his white-gloved hand to audience member Maria-Paola Flores, who joins him in a slow dance. The women''s enthusiasm reaches a new level when Delaney removes his hat and puts it on Flores--some stand, lean forward, reach out, scream, clap and whistle all at once. He kneels down in front of her, kisses her hand, and hugs her.
And then Mr. Nice metamorphoses into Mr. Naughty. Delaney hops on the stage while a pumping hip-hop beat sends him jumping around, grabbing his crotch and removing his blazer and ribbed white tank top. The music abruptly turns slow again as Christina Aguilera croons, "Though the years/ through the tears / I turn to you" and Delaney, topless, still wearing the white gloves which, without the shirt, briefly evoke an image of Mickey Mouse, licks both of his index fingers and circles them around his nipples while gazing out into the audience and flaring his nostrils rhythmically. He then makes his pectoral muscles jump up and down. Now with his pants off, Delaney pulls the waistband of his glow-in-the-dark, lime green velour thong away from his pelvis. He looks down and nods slowly while women squeal.
Delaney stuns the audience with his delightfully depraved finale. He catches a balled up towel, unrolls it and removes a curvaceous spray bottle of baby oil. Then he dramatically lifts the bottle high in the air and sprays droplets onto his bare chest, rubbing oil on his chest and arms, blowing kisses, shaking his finger no-no, then nodding yes, yes. His act has taken a shockingly sensual turn and women seem momentarily astonished. Jaws drop. This is just Bill, the guy we first met at the opening of the show, the guy who helped us feel safe and comfortable, the guy who was wearing baggy clothes and looking down at us sheepishly as he made dirty jokes. Before our eyes, our buddy has transformed into a steamy sex object. It''s a little unsettling, kind of like French-kissing your best friend''s little brother.
Bill Delaney of California Harddware prepares for his grand entrance.
But Delaney quickly has the crowed wrapped around his (ahem) finger as he continues his slow routine while looking soulfully into the audience, his blue eyes sparkling in the spotlights. He ends by lowering himself to the ground and doing fast quasi pushups. He then kneels and stands up quickly, crossing himself religiously as the music stops suddenly and the women scream louder than they have all night.
TONIGHT, FLORES, WHO IS CELEBRATING HER 31ST BIRTHDAY, BROUGHT HER FRIEND, Monica Lorraine Vieira, to see the show for the first time. Vieira says she was uncomfortable the first time Flores invited her a while back, but finally decided to take her up on the invitation.
"I''ve been dating someone, and it''s nearly our one-year anniversary, and it felt wrong. I mean, I felt like it might be sort of like cheating in a way." But she says she talked it over with her boyfriend and "he told me to have a good time." Her eyes light up as she holds out a little yellow card with a seductive headshot of Delaney on the front and says, "Bill gave me his T-shirt and a card." And did she enjoy the show? "Very much," she gushes, then leans in and says. "I''m really excited. I was devirginized."
Delaney says his most rewarding moments occur "when we get someone that hasn''t ever been to a show and they have the best time in their life." He tries to bridge the gap between pervasive stereotypes and first-hand experience, he says. "If you can get women in the door and make them comfortable they''ll usually realize that ''whew, alright, that wasn''t so bad.'' It''s very sad, but, as a culture we automatically label an unknown thing as bad until we see it."
I ask him why he thinks the women require so much convincing and he says, "a half-naked man can be intimidating." I want to laugh at the idea but it occurs to me that, from what I have witnessed at the club, the women do seem to be the more intimidated of the parties involved.
"We don''t want to embarrass anyone, we want the ladies to have fun," Delaney says.
His dedication to his art is endearing, and regardless of my opinion about whether women, in general, like this type of entertainment, I can''t argue that Delaney has tapped into what these particular women want.
The youthful 42-year old started dancing at McGarrett''s nearly 16 years ago. Since then, he has developed his craft and his business--he owns California Harddware--to adapt to a changing clientele and culture. While the show attracted a much larger, wilder crowd when Fort Ord was still populated by enlisted women and soldiers'' wives, it has survived cyclical down periods, partly due to his understanding that "women want entertainment, drama, fun. I feed off that energy." As Delaney, who also produces female dance shows through his U.S. Playmates business, tells me the history of male reviews in the country going back to the Chippendales dancers of the ''70s, his anecdotes smack of sincerity. "Women are looking for more than what men look for when they go to a show," he says. "Men don''t care if it''s a pink bikini or a blue bikini. They just want it to come off. But women want more because women are much classier than men. Let''s face it; men are pigs. As male strippers, we have to rise to the occasion," he says without a hint of irony, "while female dancers have to go down a level."
During Club Octane''s remodel, three men have been performing on the smaller stage each week. When the larger room opens next Monday night, the review will feature four strippers per show. The performers, all of whom are from the Bay Area, receive a base salary, but work mostly for tips, which can range anywhere from a few bucks on a bad night to upwards of $200. Delaney says, "there''s really no way of telling. I can walk into a room full of women and walk out with $20. Or there can be only 15 women who want to have a good time and I''ll make a lot more. It''s all up to them." He says the average Monterey take is $40 to $50.
Joann Salsedo, a devoted regular, says, "you know what''s great? Finally the guy''s an object. I call this stress de-briefing!" The 911 interpreter is celebrating her 26th birthday with her five girlfriends, including one who doesn''t want to be quoted because her husband doesn''t know she''s here. Salsedo started attending shows a few years ago when she had Mondays and Tuesdays off. This was the only "happening thing" in town. She says what keeps her coming back is "the illusion. A girl comes here for the romance, not the sex. We can get that from anyone."
She says that what makes Delaney stand out among the dancers is that "he understands and is willing to give us what we want."
All of the performers and several audience members I spoke with commented on what an empowering experience this is for women. Weren''t any of the women bothered by the concept that this supposed power was bestowed upon them by a man who spent half an hour giving them the okay to claim it? As I tried in vain to find someone who saw my point of view, I realized that I was the only one with a hang-up. And, while this show may not be my bag, I have definitely returned from it a changed woman. I am absolutely charmed by Delaney''s honest commitment to his craft, which makes it impossible for me to dismiss the event as merely cheesy. And I realize that it doesn''t matter whether or not I am puzzled by the show''s popularity. The fact is, it is popular and some women do find a man dancing around in and out of a costume sexy.
Most importantly, I believe that Delaney and his men are tuned in to a feminine consciousness; they have paid close attention to what their female fans want and they have responded in a way that shows they really listen. And that in itself is sexy.