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Hot times at the Honeysuckle

In the ’70s you could have seen the same sort of thing on any episode of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour

"I’m sure it was as offensive as it sounds, but in the ‘70s you could have seen the same sort of thing on any episode of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour." - Image by Jay Allen Sanford
"I’m sure it was as offensive as it sounds, but in the ‘70s you could have seen the same sort of thing on any episode of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour."

Okay, I’ll tell you about how I almost went to jail dressed as Tonto the Indian. But fair warnings: it’s the most 1970s tale you’re likely to hear this week, and it’s definitely NSFW (for anyone still with a workplace) — that is, for mature readers only. I’ve already graced these pages with the story of how my refusal to cut my hair in the late ’70s made it difficult to find work in San Diego. But I did (briefly) have one job where my hair was considered a feature instead of a bug, thanks to an ad in the Reader looking for “nightclub entertainers” at a brand new place set to open in Lemon Grove called the Honeysuckle Club.

Now I have a theater background, and at the time, I was already auditioning for local productions at the Marquee Public Theater in Little Italy and elsewhere. I had just auditioned for Rocky Horror, and maybe I thought the Honeysuckle was planning to get into dinner theater. Except the ad said I could make a thousand dollars a week. So whether or not I care to admit it, I probably had a fair idea of what I was getting into when I took the bus all the way from Ocean Beach to Lemon Grove. I was tired of eating nothing but thawed grunion and needed a paycheck.

Interior construction was still underway, but it was obvious that the place was a dance club, sort of a quarter-scale version of the Saturday Night Fever set, complete with disco ball and a raised jigsaw-lit dance floor. The owner was a gorgeous brunette woman in her early thirties, and she enthusiastically described her ambition to build a local Chippendales-style male dance troupe. I had nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, and wanted anything but grunion for my next meal, so I enthusiastically listened.

She was very convincing, but I’m still not quite sure how she talked me into it. Maybe ‘cause she was gorgeous and wanted to see me with no clothes on?

Two ads seeking male and female Honeysuckle dancers in a June 1979 issue of the Reader - multiple ads appeared each week for several issues, each one worded differently, sometimes referring to "burlesque" and other times "strippers" and "exotic dancers." The only way to tell all the ads were for the same place was to note the phone number.

Before she ever got me up on the stage dancing, she had created this Indian character for me — based on my hair. I told her I had a fringed deerskin shirt at home, and she had me bring it in the next day so she could cut it up and sew this costume. She fitted me right there in the nightclub while other guys were auditioning, and then she started teaching me a bunch of dance moves to songs we picked out together, including some Alan Parsons (a portion of “The Raven”), Elton John (“Indian Sunset”), and of course, “Cherokee People.”

I’m sure it was as offensive as it sounds, but in the ’70s you could have seen the same sort of thing on any episode of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. Heck, my loincloth had more fabric than some of Cher’s entire outfits.

Of course, they didn’t go Full Monty on network TV. Neither did we — at least, not at first. It was unclear if Lemon Grove would allow nudity, so we rehearsed by stripping down to just our skimpy jockstraps, which were really more strap than jock. In my (somewhat underwhelming) case, all that stood between me and my (still speculative) audience was a thin layer of (incredibly comfortable, but not overstuffed) deerskin.

The woman who owned the Honeysuckle ended up with around a half dozen male dancers; we all rehearsed just about daily at the nightclub for the first two weeks. I remember one guy was a sheik/genie — he and I made friends and even got another job together later. And there was a cop, a Viking, a surgeon, a rock star, and James Bond, who was by far the best (okay, only) dancer among us. While they were finishing the stage construction, we started going out to the owners’ home to rehearse, out in Fletcher Hills. That’s where things gets so NSFW that I can’t really share that much with you here.

See, the lady who owned the Honeysuckle was half of a swinger couple that held notorious parties that blatantly advertised in local papers and recruited patrons at area porn shops and strip clubs. Their home was outfitted much like the nightclub, with a full bar, stage lighting in multiple rooms, and a bunch of other stuff that you’d have peruse back issues of Hustler or Screw to fully picture. It was weird enough to see those accoutrements while rehearsing our dance show. It got crazy when she invited us to one of her parties to see it all in action. I’ve entertained friends with tales of that evening for 40 years now.

All this time, they were paying us a stipend, which to me was a life raft. It was also bus fare for my trips to the club and the house in Fletcher Hills. To sweeten the deal, the owner also frequently fed us, buying pizzas or bags of Mexican food during rehearsals. All the guys got along well, and we had a good time learning so many fun (if racially and occupationally insensitive) dance moves. Also, we were all hooking up with various oversexed individuals we were meeting, often under flashing disco lights and in number combinations nowhere near limited to one-on-one. What wasn’t to love?

But we’d still never performed before an audience. Well, we had done short bits at that swinger party — I’ve always imagined that’s what it was like for Bette Midler when she played bathhouses — but we’d never done the whole show, every act, for a paying crowd. Would anybody even come? I was too new to San Diego in 1979 to know that a male strip revue staged for a female audience was a big honking deal.

As it turned out, the opening three nights were all sold out the week before. Not that it was a big club — I’d say, maybe 150 people — but those opening night nerves were really starting to set in. We ran through the whole show the night before at the club — a full un-dress rehearsal, as it were — with all the music and lighting cues. Of course I’m biased, but it seemed, and still seems, like we put on a helluva show.

There was, however, one thing about the dress rehearsal that I wasn’t sure I’d mention, but it was so weird that I’ll toss it out there. During dress rehearsal, we did have a small audience, mostly the girlfriends of the dancers and (mostly female) associates of the club. The ladies were great, cheering us on, waving dollar bills, and in general trying to act like they were really a hundred or more libidinous ladies, to give us a slight taste of what to expect. The lady owner was among them, as always, our biggest and most enthusiastic cheerleader. (She’d created us, after all!)

And then she ordered us to take our jockstraps off. I don’t recall any of us hesitating, though we did all look at each other funny. She’d seen us all naked at her parties, after all, some of us up close. But what was weird was how all of our girlfriends were there too. In my case, she was actually an ex-girlfriend from rural New England who decided to come visit me in California. I still remember her mouth hanging open when all six guys whipped ‘em out. I was never clear on exactly why she wanted to come see me, but she sure looked happy that she had! I still wonder what the owner was really thinking (not to mention what my ex must have told the folks back home).

By way of a somewhat hurried explanation, the owner said she just wanted to make sure we wouldn’t get stage fright with aggressive patrons, and she wanted us to be prepared to go fully nude, in case the local ordinances proved favorable. It was still a huge mystery as to what we could get away with; there was no liquor license and the burlesque permits of the era were still ambiguous about nudity when it came to differentiating male dancers from females. But certainly, the less clothing, the more money.

Opening night was on a Thursday. I had trouble sleeping Wednesday, but I finally got some zs. Lots of zzs. So many zzzs, I woke up too late for the last bus out of OB. I tried calling the nightclub to see if someone could come pick me up, but of course everyone was crazy busy. I was frantic, dropping every dime I had into the pay phone on Newport, calling anybody I knew who might have a car. Maybe some part of me didn’t really want to be on that stage, I don’t know, but at the time I would have sworn that I really wanted to get to Lemon Grove. We’d worked hard. And I was out of frozen grunion.

When I realized there was no way I was going to make opening night, I called the club. Or I tried to. The line was busy. An hour later, it was still busy. An hour later, the same. I eventually gave up. The next morning, the line was still busy. So I called my friend the sheik. “Dude, the cops showed up, they watched us do the finale with all five of us, and then they handcuffed us and took us to jail for ‘promoting obscenity!’”

All the guys were booked wearing their costumes, but sheiks, doctors, spies, rock stars and even Vikings tend to wear more clothes than Indians. All five spent the night in a downtown holding cell, a place where my skimpy costume would surely have proven problematic at best.

I never went back to the Honeysuckle Club, and neither did the sheik, who told me no charges were ever filed against the dancers. Perhaps it was just typical civic harassment, a warning for the new club that Big Brother had its eyes on them. We both took a job selling music cassettes at a La Mesa call center. I don’t even remember calling the club or the owner after I heard about the bust. I’m not sure what happened to the other dancers, but the club soon started booking female strippers instead, and was briefly very successful. Like, big ads in the local paper successful. The place kept a lot of people employed for awhile, and paid a lot of local bills. I think they may have even gotten a liquor license, but then the club mysteriously burned down. Rumors circulated that the neighborhood had simply had enough wild shenanigans. The remains of the burnt building littered the empty lot for years. It was as if the earth had been salted, and nothing commercial could grow there anymore.

Some twenty years later, a porn star I was dating took a job as a hostess at what turned out to be the onetime Honeysuckle owners' private swing club in North County. I accompanied my girlfriend up there several times, and I’m pretty sure I saw several of the same things – and people – that I had seen at that 1979 swinger’s pad in Fletcher Hills. Even the communal hot tub looked the same. It was the first 8-track flashback I ever had that made me want to treat the disorder with disinfectant.

Oh, and I did once visit the burnt remains of the Honeysuckle Club, many years after the abandoned lot had devolved into urban debris. I kicked around the burned lumber, trying to avoid stepping on nails, and spotted one of the flickering-flame chaser light bulbs that used to ring the stage, perfectly intact and just sitting there amidst the ashes. I took it home, pulled out a string of old fashioned porch lights, plugged in the bulb, and the little orange tongue started flickering its faux flame once again, the last warm ember of what was once somebody’s dream.

Or nightmare, ‘pending which side of the spotlights you were on back in 1979.

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"I’m sure it was as offensive as it sounds, but in the ‘70s you could have seen the same sort of thing on any episode of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour." - Image by Jay Allen Sanford
"I’m sure it was as offensive as it sounds, but in the ‘70s you could have seen the same sort of thing on any episode of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour."

Okay, I’ll tell you about how I almost went to jail dressed as Tonto the Indian. But fair warnings: it’s the most 1970s tale you’re likely to hear this week, and it’s definitely NSFW (for anyone still with a workplace) — that is, for mature readers only. I’ve already graced these pages with the story of how my refusal to cut my hair in the late ’70s made it difficult to find work in San Diego. But I did (briefly) have one job where my hair was considered a feature instead of a bug, thanks to an ad in the Reader looking for “nightclub entertainers” at a brand new place set to open in Lemon Grove called the Honeysuckle Club.

Now I have a theater background, and at the time, I was already auditioning for local productions at the Marquee Public Theater in Little Italy and elsewhere. I had just auditioned for Rocky Horror, and maybe I thought the Honeysuckle was planning to get into dinner theater. Except the ad said I could make a thousand dollars a week. So whether or not I care to admit it, I probably had a fair idea of what I was getting into when I took the bus all the way from Ocean Beach to Lemon Grove. I was tired of eating nothing but thawed grunion and needed a paycheck.

Interior construction was still underway, but it was obvious that the place was a dance club, sort of a quarter-scale version of the Saturday Night Fever set, complete with disco ball and a raised jigsaw-lit dance floor. The owner was a gorgeous brunette woman in her early thirties, and she enthusiastically described her ambition to build a local Chippendales-style male dance troupe. I had nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, and wanted anything but grunion for my next meal, so I enthusiastically listened.

She was very convincing, but I’m still not quite sure how she talked me into it. Maybe ‘cause she was gorgeous and wanted to see me with no clothes on?

Two ads seeking male and female Honeysuckle dancers in a June 1979 issue of the Reader - multiple ads appeared each week for several issues, each one worded differently, sometimes referring to "burlesque" and other times "strippers" and "exotic dancers." The only way to tell all the ads were for the same place was to note the phone number.

Before she ever got me up on the stage dancing, she had created this Indian character for me — based on my hair. I told her I had a fringed deerskin shirt at home, and she had me bring it in the next day so she could cut it up and sew this costume. She fitted me right there in the nightclub while other guys were auditioning, and then she started teaching me a bunch of dance moves to songs we picked out together, including some Alan Parsons (a portion of “The Raven”), Elton John (“Indian Sunset”), and of course, “Cherokee People.”

I’m sure it was as offensive as it sounds, but in the ’70s you could have seen the same sort of thing on any episode of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. Heck, my loincloth had more fabric than some of Cher’s entire outfits.

Of course, they didn’t go Full Monty on network TV. Neither did we — at least, not at first. It was unclear if Lemon Grove would allow nudity, so we rehearsed by stripping down to just our skimpy jockstraps, which were really more strap than jock. In my (somewhat underwhelming) case, all that stood between me and my (still speculative) audience was a thin layer of (incredibly comfortable, but not overstuffed) deerskin.

The woman who owned the Honeysuckle ended up with around a half dozen male dancers; we all rehearsed just about daily at the nightclub for the first two weeks. I remember one guy was a sheik/genie — he and I made friends and even got another job together later. And there was a cop, a Viking, a surgeon, a rock star, and James Bond, who was by far the best (okay, only) dancer among us. While they were finishing the stage construction, we started going out to the owners’ home to rehearse, out in Fletcher Hills. That’s where things gets so NSFW that I can’t really share that much with you here.

See, the lady who owned the Honeysuckle was half of a swinger couple that held notorious parties that blatantly advertised in local papers and recruited patrons at area porn shops and strip clubs. Their home was outfitted much like the nightclub, with a full bar, stage lighting in multiple rooms, and a bunch of other stuff that you’d have peruse back issues of Hustler or Screw to fully picture. It was weird enough to see those accoutrements while rehearsing our dance show. It got crazy when she invited us to one of her parties to see it all in action. I’ve entertained friends with tales of that evening for 40 years now.

All this time, they were paying us a stipend, which to me was a life raft. It was also bus fare for my trips to the club and the house in Fletcher Hills. To sweeten the deal, the owner also frequently fed us, buying pizzas or bags of Mexican food during rehearsals. All the guys got along well, and we had a good time learning so many fun (if racially and occupationally insensitive) dance moves. Also, we were all hooking up with various oversexed individuals we were meeting, often under flashing disco lights and in number combinations nowhere near limited to one-on-one. What wasn’t to love?

But we’d still never performed before an audience. Well, we had done short bits at that swinger party — I’ve always imagined that’s what it was like for Bette Midler when she played bathhouses — but we’d never done the whole show, every act, for a paying crowd. Would anybody even come? I was too new to San Diego in 1979 to know that a male strip revue staged for a female audience was a big honking deal.

As it turned out, the opening three nights were all sold out the week before. Not that it was a big club — I’d say, maybe 150 people — but those opening night nerves were really starting to set in. We ran through the whole show the night before at the club — a full un-dress rehearsal, as it were — with all the music and lighting cues. Of course I’m biased, but it seemed, and still seems, like we put on a helluva show.

There was, however, one thing about the dress rehearsal that I wasn’t sure I’d mention, but it was so weird that I’ll toss it out there. During dress rehearsal, we did have a small audience, mostly the girlfriends of the dancers and (mostly female) associates of the club. The ladies were great, cheering us on, waving dollar bills, and in general trying to act like they were really a hundred or more libidinous ladies, to give us a slight taste of what to expect. The lady owner was among them, as always, our biggest and most enthusiastic cheerleader. (She’d created us, after all!)

And then she ordered us to take our jockstraps off. I don’t recall any of us hesitating, though we did all look at each other funny. She’d seen us all naked at her parties, after all, some of us up close. But what was weird was how all of our girlfriends were there too. In my case, she was actually an ex-girlfriend from rural New England who decided to come visit me in California. I still remember her mouth hanging open when all six guys whipped ‘em out. I was never clear on exactly why she wanted to come see me, but she sure looked happy that she had! I still wonder what the owner was really thinking (not to mention what my ex must have told the folks back home).

By way of a somewhat hurried explanation, the owner said she just wanted to make sure we wouldn’t get stage fright with aggressive patrons, and she wanted us to be prepared to go fully nude, in case the local ordinances proved favorable. It was still a huge mystery as to what we could get away with; there was no liquor license and the burlesque permits of the era were still ambiguous about nudity when it came to differentiating male dancers from females. But certainly, the less clothing, the more money.

Opening night was on a Thursday. I had trouble sleeping Wednesday, but I finally got some zs. Lots of zzs. So many zzzs, I woke up too late for the last bus out of OB. I tried calling the nightclub to see if someone could come pick me up, but of course everyone was crazy busy. I was frantic, dropping every dime I had into the pay phone on Newport, calling anybody I knew who might have a car. Maybe some part of me didn’t really want to be on that stage, I don’t know, but at the time I would have sworn that I really wanted to get to Lemon Grove. We’d worked hard. And I was out of frozen grunion.

When I realized there was no way I was going to make opening night, I called the club. Or I tried to. The line was busy. An hour later, it was still busy. An hour later, the same. I eventually gave up. The next morning, the line was still busy. So I called my friend the sheik. “Dude, the cops showed up, they watched us do the finale with all five of us, and then they handcuffed us and took us to jail for ‘promoting obscenity!’”

All the guys were booked wearing their costumes, but sheiks, doctors, spies, rock stars and even Vikings tend to wear more clothes than Indians. All five spent the night in a downtown holding cell, a place where my skimpy costume would surely have proven problematic at best.

I never went back to the Honeysuckle Club, and neither did the sheik, who told me no charges were ever filed against the dancers. Perhaps it was just typical civic harassment, a warning for the new club that Big Brother had its eyes on them. We both took a job selling music cassettes at a La Mesa call center. I don’t even remember calling the club or the owner after I heard about the bust. I’m not sure what happened to the other dancers, but the club soon started booking female strippers instead, and was briefly very successful. Like, big ads in the local paper successful. The place kept a lot of people employed for awhile, and paid a lot of local bills. I think they may have even gotten a liquor license, but then the club mysteriously burned down. Rumors circulated that the neighborhood had simply had enough wild shenanigans. The remains of the burnt building littered the empty lot for years. It was as if the earth had been salted, and nothing commercial could grow there anymore.

Some twenty years later, a porn star I was dating took a job as a hostess at what turned out to be the onetime Honeysuckle owners' private swing club in North County. I accompanied my girlfriend up there several times, and I’m pretty sure I saw several of the same things – and people – that I had seen at that 1979 swinger’s pad in Fletcher Hills. Even the communal hot tub looked the same. It was the first 8-track flashback I ever had that made me want to treat the disorder with disinfectant.

Oh, and I did once visit the burnt remains of the Honeysuckle Club, many years after the abandoned lot had devolved into urban debris. I kicked around the burned lumber, trying to avoid stepping on nails, and spotted one of the flickering-flame chaser light bulbs that used to ring the stage, perfectly intact and just sitting there amidst the ashes. I took it home, pulled out a string of old fashioned porch lights, plugged in the bulb, and the little orange tongue started flickering its faux flame once again, the last warm ember of what was once somebody’s dream.

Or nightmare, ‘pending which side of the spotlights you were on back in 1979.

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