A Brief History of the Lusty Lady Theater
Rumor has it that way back before the institution of the Lusty Lady Theater, the space at 1033 Kearny Street was devoted to a swingers club, where relative strangers could meet and share a tryst beneath the glitter-encrusted ceiling. This would not be surprising, since the location at Kearny and Pacific lies in the very heart of the old Barbary Coast, right around the corner from former jazz halls of great and gin joints frequented by pirates. Back in the good old days when you could dock your boat a block away on Montgomery Street or tie your horse outside, the pirates, miners, good time girls and all the other ne’er do wells were enjoying the sins of their choice right here in North Beach, probably in the very same spot. Although the jazz halls are few and far between, and the pirates nowadays are largely relegated to the internet, we at the Lusty Lady consider ourselves in keeping with the proud tradition of providing a debaucherous good time to those in need.
Long about 1976 two business associates from Seattle decided San Francisco was just the licentious sort of town to which to expand their particular trade, that trade being 16mm porno films one could partake of in ones very own private booth. This was quite novel at the time and became very popular, since privacy made real the possibility of masturbation during said films (or even the possibility of more than masturbation, since couples were and still are welcome). It was not until 1983 that the partners decided live entertainment might also be of interest to customers, who might want to enjoy themselves while watching and interacting with live nude girls.
Things went reasonably smoothly for some time until the summer of 1996 when the company’s penchant for hiring intelligent and worldly women began to backfire in the form of a unionization drive. Its a notoriously exploitative game in the adult entertainment world, and it began to be a bit stereotypical, what with the random firings and pay cuts, ambiguous shift policies and other unsavory business. There were even several one-way windows where performers could not see the customer they were dancing for. Subsequently, these windows concealed all sorts of camera and video activity, done without the dancers consent. This would never do! A group of employees approached Service Employees International Union Local 790 and after some negotiations among union officials and the near-unanimous signing of union cards, an election was planned. Not surprisingly, this made management very angry. There were many harsh words and scheming lawyers and propaganda campaigns – even picket lines and a lockout! But in April of 1997 the Lusty Lady employees voted to unionize, 57 to 15. This process formed the Exotic Dancers Union, the only sex-workers organization of its kind, which is still active at the theater today.
Eventually with the success of internet porn and the decline of profits in general, the owners started to feel the end was near. In February of 2003 they regretfully announced that they planned to close the Lusty Lady. We were inconsolable. Surely this could not be the end of all we had accomplished together? The idea arose: Why not purchase the business and run it as a cooperative?
This was not as simple as it might seem. There are state and local laws and liability issues and above all else money, or a lack thereof. We had what felt like interminable meetings every weekend for several months, with the majority of performers, janitors, cashiers, and technicians in attendance. There were seven different committees devoted to buyout negotiations, insurance and licensing, finance and business plans, incorporation, bylaws, media, and operations all taking home a big chunk of homework from these meetings. The most stressful part was that it was hard work done essentially on blind faith, because we had to further the process never knowing if the end result would come to fruition.
The worst part was trying to obtain funding. We never dreamed that being a sex-oriented business would preclude our ability to get money. It was and is the biggest challenge of owning a business, even collectively. The year 2003 wasn’t exactly a banner year for investment capital either, especially in San Francisco, with the internet bust putting for lease signs in windows all over the city. Finally the owners took pity on our struggle and allowed us to buy it directly from them, so now we make payments just like Grandpa made on the farm. Sort of.
Most other aspects fell into place in a reasonable amount of time. We constructed our Bylaws and incorporated with the State of California. We obtained insurance, albeit for a staggering sum. We figured out what the former owners were doing to run the business and created our own Operations Manual, which assigned the various tasks to elected positions and the members at large. Nearly everyone bought into the co-op, and many nice things have been written about us in the various media, which for a sex-oriented business is nothing short of a miracle. We have had the excellent fortune to be assisted by (perhaps even babied and cosseted by) other local co-ops, especially Rainbow Grocery and Good Vibrations.
Some things have taken longer to fall into place, partly because as we progress together, that place keeps changing. On one hand we were lucky to inherit the business from a company who had a 25+ year history of operating it and had refined most of the logistics to where they worked somewhat seamlessly. On the other hand, now that it belongs to us we find ourselves wondering how the various aspects of operating the place reflect our ideals as a group and what we want to accomplish and ultimately whether to keep, change or discard each component. This is where it gets tricky.
Although worker ownership is a rare and ideal situation, it is not without its challenges. Unlike traditional management structure, you have a constant opportunity to impact, change and reinvent your work experience. While this is ultimately fantastic, it also leads to a fair amount of additional work and can be the bone of some very serious contention. When it comes to proposed changes, which ideas are practical? Which have problems of a legal or liability nature? A labor/ union nature? Which ideas would we love to implement but are impractical, infeasible, or (oops!) illegal? If applicable, how will we implement them fairly? Feasibly? How will we make the decision to move forward and be certain the wishes and intentions of the majority of members are represented? What is our backup plan? Ideally, what is our long-term goal?
So it’s not all roses (although you can certainly bring us some if you like). There are decisions to make and votes to count and seemingly endless meetings and discussions to be had. There is always the question of money and how to get more of it if we ever want to… well, anything. And if we want something done (employee manuals, new carpet, a soda machine) we have to do it ourselves. But the beauty of it is, we do. Somehow, the decision gets made and the new idea gets implemented and we get the new carpet. We figure out the problem and we move on to tackle the next one. We fight like siblings and when the smoke clears we realize how lucky we are to be fighting over hopes and dreams and plans for a business that is actually ours. It may not always be that way, because like most small businesses, any rogue wave could badly damage or even sink the ship. But today the Lusty Lady is ours to squabble over, to plan for, to dream about.
We have many different hopes and dreams, depending on who you talk to. Most people hope for wages to return to their former glory. Many hope for capital improvements, or even health insurance. Some of us hope to last another 30 years and some hope we last at least until the end of this one. Some of us even dream of helping other businesses to do what we have done, only maybe a little more smoothly. All of us hope to make the Lusty Lady Theater the most triumphant peep show on Earth. And we hope to see you here soon.