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7/13/2006

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REQUIEM FOR A STRIP CLUB
End of the line for Central Florida's most controversial booty palace. Or is it?
Gregg Matthews

 

Michael Pinter Jr. emerges, beaming, from a white stretch limousine, August 1994 Penthouse Pet Alex Taylor at his side. Pinter works his way down the line of guests massed outside Club Juana, the Casselberry strip club that has been his family’s business for 43 years. The crowd winds around the building; this is the final night of a run that’s seen everything from culture wars to bottomless waitresses, the birth of mud wrestling to a world-famous production of Shakespeare in the nude, and everyone wants in.

Camera flashes erupt into a sea of sparks. One of Pinter’s bar managers works the front door, a mirrored portal that swings open to reveal 350 or so people already jammed inside the club. The smoke, sweat and perfume billowing out stings both the eye and the septum.

It’s hotter inside the club than outside. The air pulses with bass, phero-mones and a sense of urgency. Tonight, June 17, Club Juana is a debauch of sweat-soaked bras, panties, garters, folded currency, beer bottles, glittering lips and abandon.

Finally, Pinter and Taylor make their entry by squeezing themselves through the door. The ring of patrons around the bar is five deep. There is no room to sit or stand, so guests dance on their toes to catch flickers of the stage, where a dancer named Star slithers around from brass pole to brass pole. She tries to catch one of the poles and swing around it, but her sweaty hands allow no sure grip. She locks her leg around the pole, lowers her torso and hikes her ass high in the air; holding herself steady to the pole with her right hand and leg; with her left hand she slaps down hard on her left butt cheek. Sweat from her ass splashes men holding firm to the edge of the pink vinyl stage. A besotted patron raises his sweat-christened glasses high in the air like a trophy, yelling “Woot-woo! Woot-woo!”

Welcome to Charlie’s

In the 1930s, Charlie Cook built Charlie’s Bar at the corner of U.S. 17-92 and State Road 436. Cook sold the dirt-floored bar to Mary and Michael Pinter Sr. in 1963. Shortly thereafter, Mary renamed the bar “Club Juana”; famously, no one in the family remembers why.

Club Juana thrived in the early 1960s, hosting luminaries like Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis. Then the Sanford Naval Air Station closed in 1968 and the stream of thirsty sailors dried up.

Michael Pinter Sr. was faced with the task of keeping his family’s business afloat. He tried cardboard cutouts of nude women slithering along the club’s walls on mechanized tracks. It had the desired effect; he noted the mesmerizing effect the female form had on his male customers.

Meanwhile, Michael Jr. was moving up in the family business. He started as a parking lot attendant, became a bartender and eventually took over as manager. Michael Jr. inherited his father’s knack for inventing ways to get customers through the door

“Business was slow,” says Michael Jr., now 61. “I couldn’t afford a professional road girl, so I hired a female impersonator.” Then, in 1968, he hit on a big idea: topless waitresses. Club Juana became one of the first topless bars in Central Florida.

In 1969, Michael Pinter Sr. drowned in a boating accident, leaving Michael Jr. in charge at age 25. Since the topless thing worked, he reasoned, why not have the waitresses go bottomless too? That decision marked the beginning of a long, adversarial relationship with the city and Seminole County.

In 1974 Pinter hired an exotic dancer named Fanne Foxe (aka the “Argentine Firecracker”; real name, Annabelle Battistella) as the club’s featured dancer. Foxe was infamous at the time for getting caught in a compromising position with Arkansas congressman Wilbur D. Mills, a powerful member of the House Ways and Means Committee. When police in Washington, D.C., pulled over Mills’ car, Foxe jumped out and ran into the Tidal Basin to hide, creating a national scandal. Mills’ career as a politician ended soon after.

Pinter knew a business tie-in when he saw one and signed Foxe in 1974 to dance for 12 days. Midway through the first week of her engagement, she was arrested for going bottomless.

In 1975, Pinter, ever the entrepreneur, brought the sport of mud wrestling to Casselberry. He got the idea from reading a book on nightclub life in 1930s Germany. A Jan. 30, 1976, article from the Wall Street Journal titled “Dirty sport thrives in Casselberry, Fla.” showcases a bout between “Spanish Fly” and “the Casselberry Kid,” both of whom were women.

Without a doubt, Pinter’s best work came in the form of a play purpose-built to both circumvent and mock anti-nudity laws established by Seminole County and Casselberry in the mid-’90s, with a lot of outside help from the Christian Coalition. It was a production so deft that even the judge who heard the resulting court case had to concede that it was, indeed, art.

The bard in the buff

Like many great — and many not-so-great — works of art, Les Femmes Fatale was born of political protest.

At the request of Michael Jr. and his attorney, Steve Mason, Orlando playwright Morris Sullivan wrote a 40-minute patchwork of vignettes, the connecting theme of which being that all the female characters happened to be exotic dancers acting out their fantasies, dreams and recollections onstage. And of course, exotic dancers would tend to act out their fantasies sans clothing.

The most famous vignette in the 1999 production was “Macbeth in the Buff,” a poignant little piece that is still featured from time to time on HBO’s Best of Real Sex series.

Three dancers took the stage after memorizing Sullivan’s script; they got naked and they got arrested for being nude in the presence of alcohol sales. Two of the actresses, Christy McKee and Margaret K. Morgan, fought the charge with assistance from Pinter and Mason. Seminole County Judge John Sloop upheld the anti-nudity ordinance, fining the dancers $100 and Pinter $500.

Pinter and the dancers appealed the county court’s decision. Circuit Court Judge O.H. Eaton Jr. presided over the case, and he gave Casselberry a nasty tongue-lashing, saying city officials could have “saved a lot of money” if researchers had just read some Chaucer before they proclaimed that nude dancing caused crime. “It was the funniest piece of court literature I have ever read,” recalls Mason.

Eaton noted that while people may argue about the quality of Club Juana’s performance, it was nonetheless a political parody. “Americans have been free to jab or poke fun at their government ever since King George was ousted from our shores and they must continue to be free to do so, even at Club Juana,” Eaton wrote. Pinter and the dancers were cleared of the fines, but the judge would not grant an injunction against the ordinance. A mixed victory for Club Juana, surely, but a victory nevertheless.

All business

Ultimately, it took the Florida Department of Transportation to do what the city of Casselberry and the Christian Coalition couldn’t: shutter Club Juana. The DOT bought the property for $3.4 million to raise U.S. 17-92 as a bridge over State Road 436 in an effort to ease traffic congestion.

Though $3.4 million may seem like a lot of cash to most, Michael Jr. is not entirely satisfied with the money. “They gave me a fair price for the property, but they don’t address damages from loss of business.”

Pinter typically wears silk shirts unbuttoned three from the top, revealing an 18-karat gold chain necklace and a patch of chest hair. His right cheek is scarred from a motorcycle wreck at age 14, and his left cheek is scarred from a knife attack in 2002. Nonetheless, even at 61, he could pass for a jet-setter in his 40s, with his dark-brown hair slicked back into a ponytail, gold flickering in a triad from wrists to neck, impeccably pressed slacks and shined shoes.

Pinter’s office is a mix of sex, violence and … community service. In the midst of five exquisitely framed and mounted pistols, Bowie knives and a Tommy gun are sexy pop art paintings. Below the paintings are several awards from an organization that works to prevent child abuse and a handful of softball trophies from charity events. The office is the headquarters for Pinter Enterprises, which consists of Club Juana and Post Time Lounge inCasselberry.He owns two more bars in Florida: Woody’s in Islamorada and the Stock Exchange in Daytona.

The consensus among Pinter’s employees and family is that he is a conservative businessman. Some, like the club’s DJ Ronnie Baker, think he’s just cheap. Baker put in 15 years at Club Juana and believes he’s entitled to a severance package when the place closes. “How I’m doing in life ain’t got shit to do with the 15 fuckin’ years I put into this place,” he says. “Fifteen years and 31 years [the amount of time another employee, Maggie Jennings, has been at Club Juana] deserve some sort of severance pay.”

Asked about it, Pinter quells the query: “No! No severance! They were all given four weeks’ notice to find other jobs.” he says. “Maggie will continue managing at Post Time and pick up a couple nights behind the bar. Ronnie’s about to get a record deal, so he’ll be gone. But in the meantime he’ll pick up a couple nights DJ’ing and doing karaoke at Post Time.”

A dancer who only gave the name Robin happens to agree with the boss. She’s put in eight years on stage and doesn’t expect any special treatment when she leaves.

“Any of us could have walked out that front door at any time,” says Robin. “He doesn’t play favorites; he treats everyone the same. He’s never asked anyone to do any illegal shit, like other clubs around here. Matter of fact, after 20 years, I’m getting out of the business because no one out there runs a place like Mike did.”

Pinter’s staff paints a picture of a parsimoniously puissant boss, but what’s overlooked is how much money he’s given to charity over the years. He may be the type of guy who asks, “Is that with the discount?” when picking up a roll of film from the store, but he also has an 8-inch stack of paperwork from the various organizations to which he donates money: the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the Children’s Rights Association, the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch, the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Children’s Leukemia Foundation, local hospices, a pug rescue charity and the YMCA, to name a few.

Last call

By 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning, the mood inside Club Juana is morose; just a handful of songs left and the whole thing is done. The temperature pushes 100 degrees.

Pinter takes the stage and unrolls a script he has written to help him remember all the people to thank before the doors close forever. “Well, what can I say? 1963 until 2006 and the local politicians said I would never last! You know what? Fuck the politicians! Fuck ’em! They tried shutting me down for 30 years, and it wasn’t them that got me; it was the Department of Transportation!”

The crowd’s laughter drowns out his amplified amusement.

“But seriously, folks, it’s all due to people like you. … We will miss you greatly. Before I get off the stage and allow this special party to continue, I would like to take a moment to thank some very special people.”

He points over to Jennings, his “right hand” for the past 31 years. He points behind him at the DJ booth and addresses 15-year Club Juana veteran Baker. The crowd at the bar seems to thin out a bit as people try to find seats or standing room to listen to the owner speak.

Pinter concludes his speech by thanking his family and laments the fact that his granddaughter couldn’t be there “due to local ordinances and being only 2 years old.” The crowd erupts in laughter. “But you never came to Club Juana for words, so let me close by again saying thank you.” And with that he hands the microphone back to the DJ.

The final dance of the night belongs to Alex Taylor, the Penthouse Pet who accompanied Pinter in the door hours ago. She takes the stage to a thumping rendition of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” The golden-ruffled curtain rises and Taylor explodes onto the stage wearing a cowgirl outfit. She twirls wildly between the two brass poles as the crowd clamors to the stage to give her money. She does a couple of spins and a pole crawl before fingering the buttons on her outfit, then unleashing her 34DDs.

During the next song, “Cowboy” by Kid Rock, Taylor steps into a kiddie pool and pours water down her chin and chest. The water pours from her jutting nipple and forms a separate waterfall. A closer look reveals a complete lack of legally required latex; her nipples stand as erect as pencil erasers nestled in a field of 100-grit sandpaper. She pirouettes in a groove on the heel-worn catwalk, and for a brief, slow-motion moment, she is freedom incarnate.

Eventually, the music dies out and Alex kisses her hands, waves at the audience and yells, “Thank you! Thank you so much!” The golden curtain drops, and that’s that.

Taylor heads backstage to the dressing room, where the dancers are clearing out their lockers and stuffing suitcases with lingerie and other tools of the trade. Taylor signs the door to the feature dancers’ green room with a black marker: “To Club Juana: Thank you for all the wonderful memories! You were always my favorite! You will be missed! — Alex Taylor, Penthouse Pet and Vivid Girl 06/17/06. I am officially retired!”

Back on the floor, Cpl. P. Gilbert of the Seminole County Sheriff’s Department is doing a last walk-through of the club. It turns out he came to praise Club Juana, not bury it.

“We’re here because this is the last time we GET to do a walk-through,” Gilbert says.

“Wa … wa … wait a minute,” says a nearby patron in earshot. “Did you just say, ‘get to do a walk-through,’ like you’re sad about it?”

“Yeah … last time,” says Gilbert. “You know, regardless of the controversy surrounding this establishment, the owner ran a clean shop.”

Pinter is out front shaking hands, giving hugs and keeping his emotions in check; his eyes well up, but he staves off the tears. His white shirt is soaked with sweat; his blazer has moist patches where his sweat bled through the material.

“I’ve had a great career here and I got to meet a lot of great people,” he says. “I have no regrets whatsoever, but I feel sad that I’m leaving my home. The battle’s not over; I will return home.”

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