Bare Assets

When three members of Pantera opened a golf-themed adult nightclub in Dallas, they knew why it would be a hit: Their dancers take it all off.

May 2000By Comments

Five years ago Vinnie Paul began looking into his dream business: He wanted to build a rock and roll-themed golf course in Dallas. Paul thought that music and golf were a natural fit. As the drummer for Pantera, a successful metal band based in Dallas, he had played in plenty of celebrity golf tournaments and knew that musicians like the Eagles’ Glenn Frey, Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, and Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil seem to spend as much time on the links as they do in the studio. But Paul’s desire to create a Hard Rock Cafe-style country club had a unique twist. “The idea was to have a strip club at the nineteenth hole,” he says. “It would be this clubhouse where all the guys who were married could go without their wives ever knowing.”

The 36-year-old Paul quickly discovered that the cost of building a golf course from scratch was prohibitive (not to mention that the wives would eventually catch on), but he has managed to turn one part of his dream into a multimillion-dollar reality. Four years ago he opened the Clubhouse, an adult nightclub a few blocks off Northwest Highway that has walls lined with lithographs of famous golfers and golf courses, a logo featuring a nude female golfer, and dancers’ platforms that resemble putting greens. Even with close to seventy topless clubs in the Metroplex, the Clubhouse has become one of Dallas’ most successful adult-oriented businesses. Celebrity ownership is a large part of that success; it translates into a wide range of celebrity visitors. Major touring artists like Marilyn Manson, Kiss, Metallica, and Black Sabbath have all dropped by, and regulars reportedly include members of the Dallas Cowboys and the Dallas Stars, pro golfers, and NASCAR drivers. “We’ve got more rock stars, athletes, and movie stars than anywhere else,” Paul says. “It’s all part of the mystique. You never know who you’re going to run into.” But there’s another part of the mystique that has been instrumental to the club’s success, and it’s one that definitely turns heads. The Clubhouse is one of the few clubs in Dallas County where the dancers perform fully nude.

Pantera is very much a product of the eighties hard rock scene, a movement in which the studios the bands recorded in and the clubs they played were often chosen for their proximity to topless clubs. Three of Pantera's albums have sold more than one million copies each, and after Paul and his bandmates bought the obligatory cars and homes, they began looking elsewhere for places to put their money. Paul says that he first looked into investing in a restaurant or a music venue but that his discussions with the owners of strip clubs he visited while on the road led to the conclusion that opening an adult nightclub made better financial sense. "In a good economy or a bad economy, people are interested in women," Paul says. "Sex seems to be a stable business."

Paul may be the catalyst for the Clubhouse and its most vocal spokesperson, but he isn't alone in this venture. Two of his partners are bandmates Rex Rocker and Dimebag Darrell (Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo opted not to participate and instead opened a haunted house in New Orleans). Another partner, Dallas nightclub veteran Jeff Murtha, was playing golf with Paul when the drummer first dreamed up the golf-topless club crossover. Not long after that, Murtha collected $1 million from the three musicians and a group of investors and began scouting locations. He eventually settled on a spot in a warehouse district just off Northwest Highway and Interstate 35. So that the club would cause as little uproar as possible, his lawyers advised him to stay off Northwest Highway's main drag and to keep his signage free of words like "topless" or "cabaret." "I believe we haven't made the lawyers rich and we've never had any community or police issues because we don't shove it down people's throats," says the 43-year-old Murtha, who learned the club business while working for the company that owns TGI Friday's. "We're just far enough off the beaten path that nobody comes here by mistake."

The Clubhouse may be out of the way, but its patrons aren't having a hard time finding it. Murtha and Paul say it returned their investment within a year. More important, they made it back one $20 cover at a time. The golf theme and the celebrity ownership may help set the Clubhouse apart from its competitors, but its dancers are the driving force behind its financial success. Because fully nude clubs are prohibited by the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission from owning a liquor or a beer license, they must counter the loss of alcohol revenues by charging a steep cover. Murtha says the Clubhouse's decision to go fully nude wasn't difficult; it would not only make the club stand out but also eliminate both licensing hassles and liability. Since the Clubhouse's staff doesn't provide alcohol, the club's liability is minimized in regard to overserving, which limits the insurance it needs to cover those liabilities.

Murtha admits, however, that this choice precludes an upscale adult nightclub's best customer: the big spender. Patrons of the Clubhouse can't splurge on $300 bottles of champagne or buy rounds for dancers, friends, and strangers. The financial rewards of owning a liquor license can be huge: Topless bars traditionally top the state comptroller's monthly list of the highest-grossing businesses, with popular spots like Dallas' Cabaret Royale and Baby Dolls each grossing alcohol sales of between $500,000 and $1 million a month. "Club owners have to decide from the outset whether to go nude and cut their hassles by eighty percent or put up with headaches and chase the big alcohol money," says Don Waitt, the publisher of Exotic Dancer, a trade magazine for the adult nightclub industry. "Most owners opt for the liquor and the money."

Murtha believes the Clubhouse's success in paying off its original $1 million investment is proof that adult nightclubs can thrive without liquor sales. On average, patrons of adult nightclubs spend between $20 and $25 an evening (not including what they tip the dancers). From that, topless bars must deduct 14 percent for mixed-beverage taxes and up to 25 percent for the cost of the alcohol itself. The Clubhouse pays only a basic sales tax (just over 8 percent in Dallas) on the cover it collects and the setups it sells. "The downside is that if we have a night where only one hundred people come in, we're dead," he says. "If a topless club has only one hundred people but twenty are drinking champagne, they're gonna do much better. Our whole business has to be built around ideas that bring people through the door."

In other words, Murtha and Paul realized they'd have to market the Clubhouse aggressively and emphasize the value in the BYOB policy to make their approach work. Clearly, being an all-nude club is an important step. For starters, it allows the club to stay open past two in the morning, while its competitors cannot sell anymore alcohol and most close after last call. In effect, from two to four each weekend the Clubhouse is one of the few adult nightclubs open in Dallas (though during that time its patrons are prohibited from drinking as well). Better yet, the BYOB policy means Murtha and Paul can offer some of the town's most affordable bachelor parties and cater to a wider audience that may not have hundreds of dollars to spend. "During the holiday season, where all the other clubs suffer because guys are saving money for presents, we don't drop off," says Murtha. "Most guys can still afford a twenty-dollar cover and their own six-pack. But then again, when the tax refunds come, we go down a bit while they blow their newfound money at the other bars."

Though the Clubhouse lacks the traditional VIP area, the owners consider it to be an upscale club that attracts more than its fair share of celebrities. Paul and Murtha refuse to name names, but they don't deny that the celebrity ownership and the chance to run into Paul's rock star friends haven't hurt business. In fact, many of the Clubhouse's highest-grossing nights follow big concerts at Reunion Arena or the Starplex. "A lot of times we have eight or nine tour buses in the parking lot," Murtha says. Add that Paul wrote and produced the theme music for the Dallas Stars (and earned attention for an incident at Paul's house in which it is rumored that a group of dancers and Stars somehow dented the Stanley Cup, a story the Dallas Stars deny), and the Clubhouse has also become a well-known post-hockey game hangout. "Whether just the fact that Pantera owns the Clubhouse makes people turn left or right on Northwest Highway, we can't know," Waitt says. "But when there are so many other clubs in your market, it's imperative you put people in the seats. The fact that Dallasites seems to think they can run into celebrities and athletes certainly can't hurt."

The celebrity factor may naturally spread by word of mouth, but many of the Clubhouse's other efforts are far more direct. Although it's not uncommon for strip clubs to market themselves to business travelers and conventioneers, the Clubhouse has taken that one step further by advertising in convention programs. One annual campaign, geared toward the National Association of Home Builders, features topless Clubhouse dancers and reads "We're Not Home Wreckers, We're Home Builders." "We can't advertise with the Baptists, but when their convention hits town, we can count on a great week," Murtha says.

Not surprisingly, some of the Clubhouse's biggest nights have been Pantera-related. Paul has been instrumental in lining up record release parties for the band's albums (the latest party was held March 18 for the band's Reinventing the Steel). Paul also takes credit for dreaming up Gothic Night, which features bondage skits and live piercing, and Ladies Night, which allows women in free and features two dancers on the main stage at one time. It's the Clubhouse's effort to reach beyond a strictly male clientele with what Murtha calls a "night for couples and lesbians." "A lot of women are naturally curious about what goes on in here, and we try to make it inviting for them to come by for the theme nights," Murtha says. "Rather than fight with all the other clubs for a piece of a twelve-inch pie, we'd rather turn it into an eighteen-inch pie and cater to a larger market."

For all the Clubhouse's promotions and special events, few have raised more competitors' eyebrows than the club's Wednesday and Sunday specials, $10 table dances. According to A. J. Crowell, the publisher of Sundown Texxxas, a weekly statewide guide to adult nightclubs, other clubs in Dallas have reluctantly followed suit since the Clubhouse introduced the low-price dances four years ago. Though it may bring more people through the door, it's a promotion that risks alienating the club's single most important asset, the dancers. "When we started it, people thought we were crazy. They thought we'd never be able to get girls to dance for half of what they'd make somewhere else, even just two nights a week," Murtha says. "But in practice we have more people coming through and the girls stay busy. It's win-win."

And speaking of the dancers, how does the Clubhouse get up to 75 women a night to bare all in the first place, particularly when most competitors expect them to work only topless? It comes down to money. "Because nobody is spending cash on dinner and drinks, they've got more for the girls," Crowell says. Murtha says an average Clubhouse dancer can make as much as $800 a night. In turn, several of the club's dancers admit they actually don't have to work as hard for the money as they might at a topless bar. Because of the full nudity, the club has a no-touch policy, and because there are no alcohol sales, dancers aren't expected to hustle high rollers into buying drinks. In addition, the Clubhouse has taken a proactive approach to finding and keeping dancers by providing tanning beds, choreographers, a flexible-schedule policy, and both smoking and nonsmoking dressing rooms. "Murtha has been smart to realize that you're only as good as the girls you have, and he's better at keeping them than most clubs," Crowell says. "There's very low turnover."

But while the raves in Crowell's publication and the Clubhouse's receipts seem to point toward an unqualified success, Murtha says he's well aware that not everyone appreciates the business venture. Lately, adult nightclubs in both Dallas and Houston have been on the defensive, and fully nude nightclubs are perhaps more likely than topless clubs to invite problems with the community and the police. Dallas police in riot gear raided four topless clubs on Northwest Highway earlier this year, and in Houston an ordinance mandates that dancers apply for licenses and wear I.D.'s, usually an anklet, while working. In March the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that local ordinances can require that dancers wear pasties and G-strings, which could limit adult nightclubs' freedom-of-expression protections. "Nationwide, clubs are under constant attack," says Waitt. "Politicians know that an attack on the local strip joint is front-page news. At the same time, public acceptance really seems to have risen over the last five years. Because of movies like Showgirls and Striptease and the talk shows that feature strippers, what used to be taboo really isn't all that taboo anymore. And in this case, a lack of mystique has actually been good for business."

Murtha won't say exactly how much the Clubhouse's mystique, or lack of it, has translated into, but he says each partner takes home a healthy return on his money. As for Paul, he's ready to expand. He'd like to take the Clubhouse concept nationwide and test a new string of theme bars (a Schoolhouse, for example, and a Firehouse, complete with poles and hoses). He's also exploring plans to open a driving range across from the Clubhouse. His dream of constructing a full-fledged golf course may still be a bit out of reach, but Paul says he couldn't be happier. "I'm getting to live out my fantasies," he says. "It's a great combination of harmless fun and a real business. To me, anything that makes money and doesn't break the law is a respectable business. And where else in the country are you virtually guaranteed to see rock stars and naked women almost every night? Only in Texas."

Andy Langer wrote about Stubb's Legendary Kitchen in the April 2000 issue of Texas Monthly.

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