Sex Scenes: When Strip Clubs Were The Heart of Times Square
Artist Jane Dickson's new book captures the Times Square of the 1970s and '80s, before gentrification (and Disneyfication) took it over.
Photo by Jane Dickson.
In “Jane Dickson in Times Square,” published this year by Anthology Editions, the artist’s rarely seen “peepshow paintings” come to life: dark canvases glow neon with the signage of porn theaters, cheap hotels, parking lots, liquor stores, and strip clubs. For the first time, her photographic research is displayed alongside her work.
Dickson moved to Times Square in the late 70’s, taking a job programming one of the area’s first animated light boards. In her off time she would make the neighborhood a centerpiece of her work, always carrying a small camera for inspiration, a practice she would carry on until the early 90s when she left:
“I thought, I can’t leave without addressing the heart of Times Square, which is the strip clubs. A lot of these places are gone, and I guess with computers it isn’t the same… you don’t have to leave your house to see a naked woman.”
Taken 10 years apart, first in 1981 and then in 1991, the photos portray clubs that have been wiped out in the gentrification of Manhattan: The Melody Burlesk (later renamed The Harmony), Showland and Peepland. Gone are these smaller cabarets and peep shows, while the few mega “gentleman’s clubs” remain. Jane Dickson’s paintings capture these two eras: the glimmer before the 80’s raids and the last breath before the mass shuttering of the 90’s.
When the Melody Burlesk opened in 1973, it was something of a holdover between the old style of cabaret and the modern lapdance clubs to come. The change was driven by innovation like the Melody booking 70’s porn actresses alongside burlesque stars and B-movie queens (Russ Meyer star Raven De La Croix would headline twice a year.)
It’s a history that’s also archived on the website The Rialto Report, dedicated to interviewing porn performers of the 70’s “golden era”, as well as club workers and owners. It’s here that one of the managers of the Melody, Dominique (first name only,) tells us how the club started the tradition of the lapdance: ”I’d gone to the Broadway musical show ‘Cats’ where the performers got off the stage and would sit in your lap and act like a cat. So I said, ‘I don’t think it’s illegal. I think if they can do it, we could do it.’” The club’s lawyer decided he could defend it, advising “go ahead, let them off stage.”
Advertised on the billboard as “Mardis Gras” because “in New Orleans everybody’s circulating, the performers are right in with the viewers, it’s one big party,” the Melody’s lapdance system allowed the performers to make more cash in tips. The club was also able to hire more strippers, since aside from the featured dancers, they were now paid soley in tips. Unfortunately, Dominique also began the now ubiquitous practice of docking the dancers for being late, making them pay a fee—something that plagues clubs to this day along with high stage fees and racist hiring practices (in 2018, dancers have to pay hefty fees to work and it has been a hot button topic in strippers’ struggle to unionize).
The Melody quickly (and infamously) took Mardis Gras further by advertising “box lunch”, which Screw writer and sensationalizing chronicler of Times Square, Josh Alan Friedman recounted: “I vividly remember when (the porn performer) Seka first headlined at the Melody Burlesk. She drew in a crowd. The line went right down the stairs out to the street. Seka sat spread-eagled onstage, and men would line up to give her a lick for one dollar.”
By 1983, Mayor Ed Koch had promised $1.6 billion for redevelopment to rid Times Square of its reputation as an area “plagued by prostitution, drug peddling and decay,” as the Washington Post put it. “By August 1983, police sweeps of Times Square targeting theft, drug sales and prostitution tripled arrests for the area. In all,17,000 sex workers were arrested in New York City that year. The 1985 city budget promised to spend $50 million over two years to hire 1,000 more officer,” writes David Helps of the University of Toronto in his paper New York is Dying”: Policing Outdoor Sex Workers in the Era of AIDS and Urban Renewal, 1981-88”
By the 90’s The Melody/Harmony and clubs like it were facing constant raids and court battles as Mayor Giuliani zoned them out of existence, proclaiming the club a “corrosive institution.” In 1998, when the Melody/Harmony (among many others) finally shuttered, The New York Times estimated that 3,500 dancers lost their jobs. One dancer told the paper, 'I don't have that Barbie doll look, and I'm afraid of rejection,'' and about looking into other work: ''What am I going to write on a job application, that I was a lap dancer for the last four years?” The poor were displaced while administrators made their wealthy friends richer and the middle class more sheltered.
Writer (and ex-dancer) Lily Burana, in a show of stunt journalism, wrote a feature for New York Magazine that saw her dropping in to work a rotation of the remaining strip clubs in 1997, one year before the Melody/Harmony would close, and described the place as a total dive—she recounted a customer eating his lunch while seated at the tip rail, finding a pipe behind a sofa—but noted it was good for making money, and that the place truly had a diversity of dancers, in age, ethnicity, size, etc.
But there was also “shock journalism”, like that of Josh Alan Friedman, who described sex workers of 70’s and 80’s in sensationalized, racialized, transphobic and fatphobic terms that contributed to an ongoing marginalization. The grittiness of such journalistic stories often obscured the fact that the women in Time Square were also having real lives, where they laughed, joked, dated, and enjoyed a degree of sexual freedom that was still rare in the rest of the country. The coolness might be what outsiders remember, but certainly there was fun, there was the grind, there was tenderness and heartbreak, unfolding in the clubs, dark and pulsing with accent lighting, no matter if packed or empty, no matter the time of day.