Friday, October 30, 2009

It Paid to Advertise


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. As I wanted to be a writer and eventually make films, working in a beer joint seemed like a step in that direction.

So, the sales job was cast off when a friend, Fred Awad, offered me work at the restaurant he was operating. My coming aboard as a bartender/manager was part of a larger plan we had cooked up to convert what was then a typical Fan District blue collar neighborhood restaurant/dive into the area’s most happening 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. from Moroconi's to the Bearded Brothers.

Growing beards was easy, but the Awad boys couldn’t agree on how to run the business, so the younger brother, Howard, left to pursue the quest of opening a place 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 edgy 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 seven months pregnant; my wife was six months along.

With the help of a few friends it took us a couple of weeks, or so, to paint the interior flat black, build the stage and light show apparatus for the bands and dancers. 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 current as could be in other towns, 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 in Georgetown, movies and magazines.

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

A few young women came in asking about the dancing job. Eventually, we settled on two. One of them had some 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 ad art; it featured a pen-and-ink rendered silhouette of a female dancer and a Bearded Brothers 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 (ABC Board regulation?), was scary late. She hadn’t called, either.

With the crowd clamoring 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.

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, in a thick Brooklyn accent, she asked, “Could you use another dancer?”

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 that night 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.

It became my duty to paint the dancers with Dayglo paint. They'd have vines curling around their arms and legs, stars and stripes on their torsos, etc. But after a few weeks of that, it seemed most of the customers didn't care much about the artsy aspects of topless dancing, such as they were. They preferred bare skin. So, the body painting stopped.

Although painting the dancers was a pleasant enough task, hanging out after work was the best perk of the job, which wasn't always paying as much as I needed to make. Frequently friends/musicians stayed around late, jamming, playing pinball games and smoking pot.

The most notable of the musicians who passed through was Bruce Springsteen, whose band Steel Mill 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. Gradually, the restaurant began to drift back toward being what it had been before it had been painted black.

In the spring I had to look for a real job again. Fred left, too, and his mother took the place back over. 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.

The topless go-go girl thing soon morphed into a form of entertainment aimed at an entirely different type of crowd. Truth be told, I've never had much interest in the places that feature topless dancing since the time of the Bearded Brothers.

A year later I got a job at WRNL, a radio station then owned by Richmond Newspapers. Once again I learned it paid to advertise. The only souvenirs I have from my first stint in show biz are a few black and white photographs not unlike the one of the front windows above.

– Words and photo (1970) by F.T. Rea

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