By Lynn Arditi
Published December 13, 2009
By Lynn Arditi
Journal Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE – Just off a highway overpass, the Cadillac Lounge’s pink neon lights still beckon.
But inside, the landscape has changed.
Bouncers patrol dimly lit alcoves where topless women socialize with customers. The curtains that offered a measure of privacy in the “VIP rooms” are gone. And signs posted throughout the Charles Street club read: “Prostitution is illegal.”
These days, the club’s longtime manager and property owner, Richard V. Shappy, is on the defensive.
“Our clubs are not brothels. Our clubs are gentlemen’s clubs,” the 64-year-old Shappy said from behind his cluttered desk in a building next door to the club. “It’s good, clean, adult fun.”
For nearly 30 years, Rhode Island was the only place in the country, other than certain counties in Nevada, where there was no law against indoor prostitution. Then, in October, the General Assembly passed legislation to close the so-called loophole.
Now, soliciting for sex – wherever it occurs – is a crime. And landlords who “knowingly” allow prostitution on their property face fines and imprisonment.
Since Governor Carcieri signed the measure into law Nov. 3, some club managers say women whom they suspected of prostitution were either fired or didn’t return to work. Those who stayed had to sign a statement warning them against violating the new law.
Revenues at adult entertainment clubs already had been declining along with the economy. Sales tax revenues fell to $11.1 million last year, from $12.1 million in 2004, according to the state tax office. Even The Foxy Lady, the state’s oldest and best known strip club, has seen its business decline to about $4 million a year, down from as high as $5 million during the late 1990s, said the club’s manager, Richard Angell.
Club managers aren’t the only ones feeling anxious. Since indoor prostitution was outlawed, customer traffic – already down 25 percent to 30 percent since the economy tanked – has slipped further. Business fell another 7 percent after the new law took effect, said H. Charles Tapalian, the property owner for two strip clubs – Cheaters and Club Balloons – on Allens Avenue.
“People are terrified to walk in,” Tapalian said. “They’re afraid somebody’s outside taking pictures. They’re afraid that a girl working in there is an undercover police officer.”
(State police announced Friday the first arrests under the new prostitution law – six women and eight men caught in two undercover stings at hotels in Providence, Warwick and the Johnston area.)
Cheaters last month made its second round of layoffs since the recession began, and reduced the hours of some of its bartenders, waitresses and security staff.
The Sportsman’s Inn, a bar and rooming house on Fountain Street, is up for sale. It went on the market this fall, as the General Assembly was preparing to act on the prostitution law. William A. Gosz, the lawyer who represented The Sportsman’s Inn before the city licensing board recently, declined to answer questions about the sale.
Tapalian, a Florida-based real estate developer, said he didn’t watch the debate at the State House on Rhode Island’s prostitution bill. But he recalls someone telling him that a state lawmaker said legislators didn’t want to hurt the adult entertainment business in Rhode Island. The statement puzzled him.
“It’s like saying there’s a great white swimming 100 yards off Scarborough Beach, who wants to go swimming?” he said. “That’s what they’ve done.”
BY DAY, the Cadillac Lounge is barely noticeable, inside a former lumber and building supply store on Charles Street, down the road from a Home Depot. But at night, its sign lights up and a ribbon of pink neon glows from the highway.
One recent Saturday night at the club, women wearing bikini tops and G-strings took turns strutting onto a blue-lit stage shaped like a runway. They performed for a front-row audience of two. Customers showed their appreciation by tucking dollar bills in the performers’ garter straps or tossing them at their feet.
When they weren’t on stage, the scantily dressed women chatted and scoped out the men like girls at a high school dance. These “entertainers”- 44 in all that night – far out-numbered their male customers.
The strippers aren’t the only ones who hustle for tips. Waitresses offered refills when glasses were still half-full. Shot girls sold mixed drinks in test tubes for $10 each, or $20 with “a dance.”
Upstairs, a bouncer patrolled the dimly lit area outside booths where $35 buys a nude lap dance. A big, red-lettered sign at the cash register read: “Solicitation of any entertainer for sex is not allowed in this club.”
Initially, Shappy said, some of the club’s staff overreacted to the new law. Bouncers hovered over the performers. The lights in the club were turned way up. The bouncers have backed off, and they’ve turned down the lights. “These clubs are not supposed to be like a library,” he said.
The Cadillac’s “VIP rooms” still have couches and red lights but no curtains. Managers removed the curtains after the new law went into effect.
Shappy said he’s fired 10 strippers who “fit the profile” of prostitutes since the new prostitution law was enacted. The criteria isn’t anything he could spell out exactly. “Profiling is a sensitive issue,” he said. A few of the “girls” were hired back, he said, after they “really convinced us they had no intention of being involved in any illegal activity.”
By law, landlords who “knowingly” allow prostitution on their property face criminal charges, which, for first offenses, could mean fines of $2,000 to $5,000, and one to five years in prison. Multiple offenders would face fines of $5,000 to $10,000, and 3 to 10 years in prison.
Shappy said he has 89 employees – waitresses, bartenders, managers – on the payroll for The Cadillac Lounge and the Satin Doll, another club on Aborn Street. He also employs another 150 to 200 women as “independent contractors.” Any woman who wants to perform at either of his clubs is now required to sign a statement that reads: “Prostitution is illegal in Rhode Island and will NOT be tolerated in this club. If any entertainer is seen engaged in any form of prostitution on these premises she will be fired immediately…”
Nothing on the form, however, mentions anything about whether a prostitution conviction is an impediment to employment. Shappy shrugged. “We don’t ask them.”
ON A RECENT Saturday night, an earnest-looking 20-something with a milky complexion and minimal makeup lingered near the tables at the Cadillac Lounge. She wore a bikini bathing suit top and a G-string, fishnets and the dancer’s standard clear plastic platforms with spike heels. It was her second night working at the club, she said. The first night, she was so nervous that when she got up to “dance” her legs trembled.
A college student from Connecticut, she’d picked a Rhode Island club where some friends worked to avoid running into one of her professors. She’d driven to Rhode Island after Thanksgiving dinner with her family. Her plan was to work only during school breaks.
“A good night is $300,” she said. “I’d be happy tonight if I make $200.”
Shortly before 11 p.m. a voice called out her stage name over the P.A. system. “Kimberly … All nude!”
The football game between Notre Dame and Stanford played on two TV screens above the dance floor.
After two dances, another woman came on stage to replace her. Kimberly picked up the loose bills on the floor that the customers had tossed.
Off stage, the straps of her bikini top dangling, she counted out her tips: 12 single dollar bills. She smiled.
“Not bad, right?”
With staff reports by Steve Peoples
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The Providence Journal / Frieda Squires
Richard V. Shappy, owner of the Cadillac Lounge, 361 Charles St., Providence, is surrounded by signs at the club’s entrance, posted after the law changed.
Providence Journal / Frieda Squires
The Sportsman Inn, 122 Fountain St., Providence, is owned by the DeLuca family. It is up for sale.