From the gilded entryway of the Catwalk Club, Frank the manager runs a ship tighter than the ass-less chaps of Gabby, the club’s most popular stripper. Pearls is in the cage with her silver pants and Betty Boop tattoo, and Mike the DJ is sucking down Newports as he crosses Kitty’s name off his list of dancers. It was once an Italian restaurant, then a gay bar; now a cab driver doesn’t recognize the address until we say “the strip club.”
But this rainy Friday night, it’s business as usual for the cast of characters at 325 East St.
In his seven months at the Catwalk, Frank has gained a sort of pragmatism about naked women. He sells $10 tickets out of an archaic cash register to the gentlemen of New Haven — and he’s almost too busy to notice the bodies parading by his desk to check their work schedules.
“There’s no difference between working here and working at a regular night club,” he says. “It just so happens there are lots and lots of naked women here.”
Frank is a ladies man with a toothy grin and a lisp that comes through when he asks you to take off your shirt. He’s a 34-year-old former make-up artist who spent two years at SUNY-Oswego studying to be a shop teacher, but in a well-worn long-sleeve Catwalk Club t-shirt, he looks like he was born to run New Haven’s premier gentleman’s club.
In pulsing succession, the customers start to push their way through the door at two in the morning. Frank takes crumpled dollar bills and stamps the hands of anxious suburban couples and drunken Yale fratboys.
Long having pimped himself out to the customer service industry, Frank works 40-hour weeks in three days and lives in Manhattan. Perpetually distracted by phone calls from his mother, he is a reformed cosmetician living a 15-year-old boy’s wet dream. When in New Haven, he stays with his parents.
Regarding his progression from one body shop to the next he says, “I kind of just eased into it.”
Asked whether he’d ever consider a relationship with one of the club’s dancers, Frank says, “I’m a man. Of course I think about it, but that would be a conflict of interest.”
Where would the adult entertainment industry be without standards and limitations?
“Nowhere,” he says. “There would be far too many hassles.”
When the rush temporarily dies down, Frank brings T-shirts out of the back — maybe to clear his name in the paper or maybe because he has a soft spot for Yalies who have wandered too far down East Street. And to all visitors after they pay their due, he bows his end and directs them inside.
Like a nervous virgin on her wedding night, Gabrielle began her career by answering an ad for dancers from the Catwalk Club. Her eyes are like Audrey Hepburn’s, only with several extra coatings of mascara, and the first time she danced, she says, it was awkward and uncomfortable.
“I fell twice and knocked over four beers,” she said.
Standing at the edge of the horseshoe-shaped bar, Gabby’s high ponytail swings like Jan Brady’s as she talks. It obscures the view of Star Trek, playing on mute with closed captions on a television mounted in the opposite corner of the room, for the man next to her. He passes out on the bar, his Amity Hockey leather jacket bunched over his head.
“Each time is the first time,” says the dancer as she bits the sides of her light-purple nails, “except that I have experience now and can judge the crowd better.”
No stranger to the stage after five years of performing, Gabby is soft-spoken and giggles as she talks, and says she requests to be offstage when the club is busy. The six-foot tall New York State pageant winner makes most of her money doing lap and table dances.
“Stripping is like nothing else,” she says, “because I get to be at the center of people’s universe for 12 minutes. They breathe the same air but from below you, like you’re on a pedestal.”
Wiping glitter from her eyes, Gabby makes her way to the dressing room to reapply vamp-colored lipstick. En route, she passes Melinda, a short, bleach-blond novice of a stripper wearing a red thong and white shoes well after Labor Day. Gabby turns her head with a sigh.
“There’s no amount of back axles or half twists I can do if a guy likes a blond girl,” she says.
Gabby’s outfit is a mix of genres united in the reality that she’s really not wearing much of anything. Her leopard skin bikini is bordered with studded tan leather and hangs more like a necklace than a shirt. The matching tail is hooked to the back of a cowboy belt that she’s using to hold up her color-coordinated chaps.
“They’re real leather,” she said. “I don’t buy cheap crap.”
Men nervously finger the wads of ones in their billfolds when Gabby walks towards the main stage. But, taking a long drag on a Marlboro Light, she is not done talking. Stripping is pervasive, and three years of rouge have colored more than her cheeks.
“These people don’t see me when I wake up in the morning or when I have my period,” she added. “I cover up my pimples here.”
Scratching a freckle on her ear, Gabby says she recently broke up with the love of her life.
“Men want Martha Stewart at home and Jenna Jameson in bed,” she said, regarding her former fiance. It was the longest relationship she’d ever had, and she says he’s the “one that got away.” After five years of dating, he broke her heart.
“It was the American dream, a condo and three cars, but he left,” she said, “because I show my pussy for dollars.”
As he takes short, shallow drags from his rapidly disappearing Newport Menthol cigarette, the Catwalk’s DJ Mike gazes out at the dancers on the stage and nods his head. It’s hard to say whether he looks like shepherd keeping watch over his flock or a wolf looking at 25 nights worth of dinner.
“I f—— love this job,” Mike says as he cracks an enormous grin. “I do this because I love it.”
Sitting atop a rusting bar stool behind a thick pane of tinted glass in the DJ booth, Mike, 31, of Trumbull, says it’s his job to create an atmosphere.
“We [bring in] a lot of f—— people around here,” he says as he shuffles through one of his four compact disc binders. “We’re a high-class establishment. People come here because they expect a cool show and we try to give it to them.”
Mike has been giving it to customers in the industry for much of his adult life.
“People ask me what I do,” he says, disposing of his already exhausted cigarette and drawing another out of the box. “I’m an adult entertainment professional — I don’t do birthdays and I don’t do office parties.”
“Some people like this s—, but there’s a lot of people that don’t,” he continued. “I love it — and that’s why I’m here every night. Of course, if I’m having a bad day, that’s when you’ve got to turn it on. I have to be DJ Mike for the paying customers every day we’re open, regardless of how it feels for me.”
Mike started working at the Catwalk four years ago when one of the club’s owners — and his best friend of seven years — offered him what looked like the ideal job. He pauses as he switches songs and flips on a strobe light.
“The two ladies who own the place are my best friends,” he says. “Female ownership in this industry isn’t real common, so I knew it was a good deal.”
Were the two owners ever dancers themselves?
“No,” Mike insists. “They’re strictly management.”
Despite a crowd of what appeared to be well over 150 people, the Catwalk is not the only club of its kind in the Elm City. New Haven’s other well-visited adult entertainment establishment, Club International, is located just a few blocks away on St. John Street. Club International refused the Yale Daily News’ requests for an on-site interview.
DJ Mike claims it’s part of his job to explain “what sets the Catwalk apart
“We cater to a younger, more hip crowd here,” he says. “We have upbeat music and a big light show. We try to make it a combination strip club, night club and dance club.”
Another reason the Catwalk is able to draw such a crowd is the club’s “bring your own alcohol” policy, Mike says. Because no alcohol is served on the premises, the Catwalk is able to stay open much later than other clubs of its kind — and the management can admit customers who are only 18. The club opens at 4:00 most afternoons Monday through Friday and closes sometime between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m. on Saturday, Mike says, lighting himself another cigarette.
“We’re not your run of the mill strip bar,” he says. “We try to foster a close-knit family atmosphere.”
He pauses as one of the girls enters the DJ booth to ask him if she can “get going” with a customer who has requested a lap dance.
“Sure, go ahead, honey,” he says as the tall blonde bends over to kiss him on the forehead.
On Friday nights, which are easily the busiest at a place like the Catwalk, as many as 25 dancers grace the stage in the course of an evening.
“That many naked girls in one place can be tough,” Mike says.
“Dealing with the girls is the hardest part of my job,” he continues as he picks up another CD. “Most are sweet most of the time, but I’ve got to keep things between me and them oiled up and running smoothly.”
Mike says he has “a close working relationship” with most of the Catwalk’s female employees.
“I try to be friendly, because this is a high-pressure job for everyone,” he says. “I try to be a big brother, a father and a little brother all rolled into one.”
One last fling
For a “set price,” DJ Mike will hook customers up with a good time. “If it’s your birthday, or you’re getting married in a week, and your friends are willing to splurge a little bit, I can give you a fun time at the Catwalk,” Mike said.
Kenny, a cell-phone salesman from Bridgeport, Conn., is lucky enough to have such friends.
Last Friday night, as his friends watched and cheered, the ladies of the Catwalk dragged Kenny onto the stage, tore off his shirt, and did their job.
There was no actual sexual contact between Kenny and the ladies, of course — contact warrants a $50 fine and it will “get you thrown out as fast as you can say “‘T&A,'” Mike said.
But you wouldn’t have known it from the expression on Kenny’s face.
Kenny, who is to be married later this month, was as happy as a schoolboy on his way to the candy shop.
DJ Mike says he keeps the atmosphere light and the other customers amused by tossing out a “few [verbal] jests and jabs” at the lucky man — or woman — up on stage.
“Let’s all call him an asshole,” DJ Mike screams into the microphone as Kenny takes the stage. “He’s 25 years old and he’s still a virgin!”
From his chair on stage, Kenny just smiles and laughs.
“He’s a good sport,” Mike says. A few weeks ago, however, a not-quite-so forgiving man had taken the stage, Mike remembered. “I guess he got a little pissed off with me,” he said. “In the middle of it, he ran down off the stage, made a bee-line for the DJ booth and went straight for my throat. Thank God Rocco was there then.”
Rocco and Whitey
One of four Friday night managers, Rocco looks the part of a consummate bouncer. With his army crewcut and huge upper body, Rocco is an Austrian accent away from Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“He doesn’t talk a whole lot,” his sidekick, Whitey, says. “But he gets the job done.”
Like Frank, Rocco is wearing a long-sleeved white tee-shirt with a red letter “C” on it — standard apparel for the five or six Catwalk employees who need it.
Because the club does not sell alcohol, Rocco says, bouncing at the Catwalk is not as hard as it might be other places.
“We don’t have a lot of problems,” he says. “But every once in a while somebody gets tanked up before they come here. That’s when it gets sticky.”
“I had to drag some guy out last weekend and open the door with his face,” he says quietly as he shuffles his feet against the floor and looks down at the ground. “That doesn’t happen often, but it happens.”
Whitey, 20, commutes from North Haven to work as the club’s “bar back.”
“I basically make sure people pay for their two drink [minimum purchase at the club] and I do whatever Rocco and Frank tell me to do,” he says.
But the Catwalk is still an “ideal” place to work, Whitey explains as he giggles a little bit.
“What’s great about working here? Look around,” he says. “The music is great, I get to bulls— with people and work with nice people. And then of course there’s the scenery. Nothing could be better.”
Outside of the Catwalk Club, the drizzle has slowed like the traffic through the doors, and exiting patrons cast long shadows down the street. Gabby emerges from the service entrance covering her head with a copy of Xtreme, a guide to local adult entertainment. A red Nissan Sentra with a rosary hanging on the rearview mirror idles outside the club, and a New Haven police officer brings Frank a Styrofoam cup of tea from Dunkin Donuts. Frank throws a last nod out the window and turns back to stamping hands.
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