Wednesday, January 30, 2008

When topless hit the Fan


When the doorway into show business suddenly opened for me I entered gladly. At the time I had a job selling janitorial supplies that I wanted to quit. So, upon getting an offer from a friend, Fred Awad, to work at the restaurant he operated, the sales job was history. My coming aboard as a bartender/manager was part of a plan we had cooked up to convert what was then a blue collar neighborhood restaurant/dive into the area’s most edgy club.

The restaurant belonged to my friend’s parents, who wanted to retire. They had recently turned it over to their sons, Fred and Howard. The brothers promptly changed the name of place at Allison and West Broad St. to the Bearded Brothers.” Growing beards was easy, but the brothers couldn’t agree on how to run the business, so the younger brother, Howard, left to pursue the quest of opening a bar of his own.

Fred and I were convinced the burgeoning baby boomer bar crowd in the Fan District needed a place to enjoy cold beer, hot food, live music, a psychedelic light show and the spectacle of go-go girls dancing topless. At this time, late-1969, topless dancing was going on in other states, even in Roanoke, but it had yet to come to Richmond.

And, speaking of booming babies, Fred’s wife was eight months pregnant; my wife was seven months along.

With the help of a few other friends it took us a couple of weeks, or so, to paint the interior flat black, build the stage for the band, the dancers and install a light show. We also painted the front window panes that faced Broad Street in Dayglo colors and put in black lights.

Believe it or not, although everything we did was as derivative and trendy in San Francisco as could be, in Richmond, all that stuff played as ahead of the curve. I don’t know about Fred‘s thinking, but my ideas were coming mostly from clubs I’d seen in Georgetown, movies and magazines.

The rock ‘n’ roll bands went over well and brought in a fresh crowd right away. A group calling itself Natural Wildlife quickly became a regular attraction. Then it came time to hire the go-go dancers.

A few young women came in asking about the dancing job. There were auditions, which were rather surreal, as I recall. We settled on two. One of them had experience, the other didn’t. But only the girl new to the exhibitionism trade could be there for our first night, which we advertised in the local newspaper. I did the art, it featured a pen-and-ink rendered silhouette of a female dancer and a Bearded Bros. logo I had designed.

By 8 p.m. the place was packed, wall-to-wall. We were selling beer like never before. Presto! Fred and I had become successful nightlife promoters overnight.

The only problem was that our featured dancer with her brand new costume, which included tasseled pasties to cover her nipples, was scary late. She hadn’t called, either.

As the crowd clamored for the dancing aspect of the show to get underway, Fred and I tried to think of any women we might be able to talk into filling in. We didn’t get far with that concept. Obviously, our wives wouldn’t do.

As I opened a handful of bottled beers, a woman wearing shades waved to get my attention. She was chewing gum. The joint was so noisy I could barely hear her. Setting her suitcase down, she pointed to the small ad we had run in the entertainment section of that day’s newspaper.

“Could you use another dancer?” she asked.

Trying to hide my glee, I called Fred over. He offered her a fast $50 to alternate sets with the other girl as the band played. She told us she had noticed the ad in a discarded newspaper on the counter of the Greyhound bus station’s coffee shop. That night’s experience gave me new faith in the power of advertising.

The Greyhound Girl even had her costume with her. She got her money in advance. Fred suggested that since the other dancer was running late, she could go on as soon as she could get ready.

Well, it all went over like gangbusters. Up on stage, with the lights and music, she danced like the pro she actually was — she had been working along the same lines in Baltimore and actually appeared to be a trained modern dancer. Natural Wildlife never sounded better. The beer taps stayed open.

After the dancer’s first set was over, she put on a robe and found me behind the bar serving beer. She laughed, “There ain’t no other girl, is there?”

I paused to shrug and returned her smile, “I don’t know where she is.”

“I’ll need a hundred bucks to go back up there,” she said firmly.

The money was put in her hand without hesitation.

Hey, she knew she had rescued the night. Yes, a hundred and fifty was a lot of money, then, but there was no use in quibbling. After her performance she left, we never saw her again. Other women were hired, pronto. The show went on but we were never as busy as that first night again.

Hanging out after work was the best perk of the job, which didn’t always pay as much as I needed to make. Sometimes musicians and friends stayed around late, jamming, playing pinball games and partying. The most notable of the musicians was Bruce Springsteen, whose band Steelmill often played in Richmond then. He was a quiet guy who didn’t stand out as much then as he would later.

For a few months the Bearded Brothers scene was quite lively, then it began to dissipate. Other clubs opened up offering live music, some of which were closer to VCU. The restaurant began to drift back toward being what it had been before it was painted black.

In the spring I had to look for a real job again. Fred soon went into another line of work, too. About a year later Howard Awad opened up Hababas on the 900 block of W. Grace St., where he had a lot of fun making large money (1971-84) serving cold beer and playing canned music on his popular bar’s monster sized stereo.

Topless dancing soon morphed into a rather hybrid form of show biz aimed at an entirely different type of crowd. Now the only souvenirs I have from my wild times at the Bearded Brothers are a few ordinary black and white photographs like the one of the front windows above. Yes, it paid to advertise.

– words and circa 1970 photo by F.T. Rea


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always enjoy these anecdotes on the Fan's (and in this case, nearby environs') recent history.

Candy said...

Did you ever enjoy any "perks" with the dancers? Heh.

F.T. Rea said...


One of my chores was to decorate the dancers with Dayglo paint. They'd have vines curling around their arms and legs, stars and stripes, etc.

But as it went on, it seemed most of the customers didn't care much about the artsy aspects of topless dancing, such as they were.

As we eventually learned, the hippie audience for live music and the crowd that topless dancing brought in turned out to be two different things.