Content Warning: The following program contains adult content, violence, strong language and the mention of suicide. Listener discretion is advised.
Natalia Petrzela: Do you remember when you got the news?
Candace Mayeron: Do I remember when I got the news? Do you remember where you were when Kennedy was shot? Do you remember where you were at 9/11? Yes, I remember exactly the moment of getting the news.
Natalia: In the spring of 1987 Candace Mayeron was on the road with a group of 26 male strippers. Well technically, exotic dancers—the Chippendales dancers.
Candace Mayeron: I mean I actually got paid to do this job.
Natalia: On the night of April 7, they were in the middle of a three-week run in downtown Indianapolis, playing at a club called Don't Ask.
Candace Mayeron: And we were performing every night to sold-out crowds.
Natalia: Were the kinds of women that went to Chippendales, like, your ...
Candace Mayeron: Everybody went to Chippendales. When you say what kind? Old, young, shy, not shy. Everybody went to Chippendales.
Natalia: If you're even vaguely aware of '80s pop culture, you know about Chippendales. The most famous all-male exotic dance show in the world. There were clubs in New York and LA. National and world tours, calendars and t-shirts and coffee mugs available at every self-respecting mall in America. Chippendales dancers made cameos in sitcoms. And they showed up all the time on daytime TV—in their cuffs and bow-tie collars and shiny spandex pants.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joan Rivers: Will you please welcome pecs on parade, the Chippendale dancers!]
Candace Mayeron: I got to be part of an iconic cultural phenomenon. I loved the whole thing.
Natalia: Back in the spring of '87, it was Candace's job to shepherd these guys all over the country. She'd get them to the clubs on time, keep them out of trouble as much as she could. She'd also make sure the mullets were groomed and their tans were glowing.
Candace Mayeron: I got us everything for free in exchange for tickets. I got our tanning, I got their grooming. I got everything.
Natalia: Is that tanning booth tan or that's spray tan?
Candace Mayeron: Honey, we were in the tanning booths every single solitary day.
Natalia: Did you ever feel like you were a den mother kind of?
Candace Mayeron: Hell, no. I wasn't that much older than they.
Natalia: Did they ever want to date you? Or you want to date them or no? If you don't mind my asking. I can't not ask.
Candace Mayeron: I'm always shocked when I'm asked that question.
Candace Mayeron: I'm always just shocked. I'm on tour for eight years with a bunch of good looking men. I'm their age. I'm a pretty girl. You answer the question for yourself.
Natalia: Before she got into the male exotic dance biz, Candace had worked as a lawyer and then an investment banker. She also dominated the greater-LA backgammon circuit. Still does.
Candace Mayeron: I am today internationally ranked as a backgammon player. I'm very, very good.
Natalia: And then one night her life takes an unexpected turn. She ends up at male strip club—Chippendales. That's where she met this guy, Nick de Noia.
Candace Mayeron: Nick was a fast-talking, smart New Yorker. And Nick had a tremendously impressive background. He did put Chippendales on the map.
Natalia: Nick was the creative force behind Chippendales. He was a former choreographer and kids' TV producer who'd found success directing male exotic dance shows. Nick ran the show in New York, and he was also in charge of the tours. And Candace thought Nick was a genius.
Candace Mayeron: And he was getting the accolades of a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer. I thought of him as a mentor and a very close friend. He was a pretty amazing guy.
Natalia: So on that evening of April 7, Candace, who by now is part of the Chippendales' inner circle, is there with the guys in Indianapolis, getting ready for the night's show.
Candace Mayeron: It was about an hour, hour and a half before the show that night. The girls were already lined up.
Natalia: And Candace gets a call from one of her colleagues back in New York.
Candace Mayeron: She said, "Nick's been shot." I said, "Nick who?" I mean, you don't start that sentence that way. I said, "What are you talking about? Nick who?" She said, "Nick. Nick de Noia's been shot. And he's dead." I can't let it show, but I am affected stronger than anything else in my life. But I know Nick, there's not a chance in hell I'm gonna cancel the show.
Candace Mayeron: So, none of my dancers had any idea what had happened. We do the show, and I'm having a really hard time keeping it together emotionally.
Natalia: There's this big number that comes near the end of the Chippendales show. It's called "The Perfect Man." And there's a moment in it when the dancer who plays "The Perfect Man" emerges onstage, and the women in the audience go wild.
Candace Mayeron: Girls scream so loudly that it will shake the rafters and rattle the windows.
Natalia: When that moment arrives, Candace is standing alone at the back of the club.
Candace Mayeron: And I finally—I just let it go, and I screamed and screamed, and I howled like a wounded animal at the top of my lungs. Nobody heard me. Nobody could hear me at all.
Natalia: I'm Natalia Petrzela. I'm a historian of American politics and culture. A few years ago, I wrote a book about California in the 1970s, and now I write a lot about gender and sexuality. I'm also a certified group fitness instructor. And for over a decade, I'd be at the gym by 7:00 am, kicking people's butts in cardio class.
Natalia: So the history of Chippendales checks a lot of boxes for me. If you drew a Venn diagram of my life, there might be an extremely fit dude in spandex right in the middle. But until recently, I actually didn't know much about them. Yeah sure, I knew about the calendars. I remember sneaking peeks at them in Spencer's Gifts when I was a middle schooler hanging out at the mall. I knew about the cuffs and collars, and the over-the-top dance numbers. I also knew they were the inspiration for that famous SNL skit with Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Chris Farley: You were great out there, man. It's gonna be you.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Patrick Swayze: Oh, what are you talking about Barney? You got it and you know it.]
Natalia: And for movies like The Full Monty and Magic Mike.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Matthew McConaughey: But I think I see a lot of lawbreakers up in this house tonight.]
Natalia: That was pretty much it. In my mind, they were just an '80s punchline, right there next to Rick Astley and parachute pants. And then a couple of years ago, I and the rest of the producers on this show started looking into the Chippendales story a little more closely. And I'm here to tell you that it is freaking wild.
Hodari Subabu: We actually had an orgy room where they kept the costumes.
Ray Colon: I mean, just a tad of cyanide is gonna kill you.
Scott Layne: Everything was a scam. It was about making money.
Richard Barsh: It was fun. A lot of fun.
Natalia: This is Welcome to Your Fantasy, the story of how a seedy male strip club turned into a global phenomenon.
Natalia: Why was this a kind of hot case?
Bruce Nahin: It's Chippendales, babe. We're still talking about it 40 years later.
Natalia: And also, yeah, it's the story of a murder, and a manhunt that went on for years. And a brand that kept getting bigger and more famous despite—or because of the dark things going on behind the scenes every step of the way.
Natalia: Did you think, "What is this going to do to our brand?"
Bruce Nahin: No.
Natalia: Did it have any impact?
Bruce Nahin: No.
Natalia: Why not?
Bruce Nahin: It's Chippendales. It survives everything.
Natalia: [laughs] Like cockroaches.
Bruce Nahin: Yeah.
Natalia: Episode One: A Disneyland for Adults.
Natalia: The story of Chippendales is largely the story of two men. One is Nick de Noia—who you just heard about, the director and producer who was shot and killed on April 7, 1987. But this episode is about the other guy, the guy who founded Chippendales—Steve Banerjee, who left India and landed in America in the late 1960s and set out to make a name for himself.
Anirvan Chaterjee: Steve Banerjee's story is just weird. It looks a lot like, in some ways, this, like, immigrant business hustle success story, but it's got this, like, weird twist.
Eric Gilbert: Chippendales, which was like this kind of white guy, Adonis, buff dude look, mostly white women going and was mostly white guys' entertainment. So when I was introduced to him, I had no idea that he was like this short, East Indian man.
Anirvan Chaterjee: Wait, Chippendales is one of ours? Who is this person? Why have I not heard about him before? I mean, his name is very, like, incredibly, distinctively Hindu Bengali. It's a really kind of common name.
Natalia: What do you think drove Steve Banerjee? Money? Fame?
Bruce Nahin: Money. Money.
Bruce Nahin: Not fame. Steve was embarrassed about his looks and his stutter.
Eric Gilbert: He became hooked on the cash, you know? I mean, he was basically a cash whore. All these ideas he had of becoming the next Playboy.
William Hunt: The way I picture him is as a sort of roundish guy, big round face, pudgy round body, in a really slick silk Italian suit and fancy shoes with his hair slicked back.
Natalia: Back in 1965, 15 years before he's rocking silk suits and driving a Benz, Somen Banerjee—soon to be Steve—leaves Bombay for the West. He spends some time in Canada, and eventually arrives in LA. He works for a while as a janitor, and then borrows some cash from a friend to buy two Mobil gas stations. He's just in time for the oil crisis of 1973, which would see gas prices double and then triple. It basically sucks for anybody except the guy running the gas station. And that guy is Steve Banerjee.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Banerjee: We did fairly well during that gas shortage thing.]
Natalia: That's Steve Banerjee telling a reporter the story of his life as a businessman.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Banerjee: I didn't know nothing about cars, and I never had my hands dirty before. It's kind of tough, you know? One morning, I was pumping gas and this girl—you know, I think I stayed up all night. I was smoking a cigarette on the side. She called me, "What the hell are you doing smoking a cigarette?"]
Natalia: "What are you doing smoking a cigarette while you're pumping gas? You're gonna blow the place up!”
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Banerjee: I said forget about this. I'll get out of it. I just wasn't brought up to do that, I guess. But, you know, it was all right.]
Natalia: It's not actually a real interview, meaning it wasn't ever intended to air. The reporter was hired to help Banerjee become a little less self-conscious speaking in front of a camera and on mic.
Eric Gilbert: He was a very humble person who didn't—he felt very uncomfortable with any attention to himself, or thinking of himself as a big shot.
Natalia: Eric Gilbert worked closely with Banerjee for eight years. He was Chippendales' Creative Director and Steve's right-hand man. He produced that mock interview. Banerjee didn't want to do it.
Eric Gilbert: He felt really uncomfortable with you putting him on a pedestal. Like I said, he felt more comfortable standing out there in the parking lot, smoking cigarettes with the hired help.
Natalia: Like pretty much every person I spoke with, Eric described Banerjee as awkward, ill at ease in public. And yet, despite all those insecurities, Eric also said he was a ruthless businessman. And the early days of Chippendales were all Steve.
Eric Gilbert: The club was singularly controlled, 100 percent by Steve Banerjee. And his way of running this business was very much to segment these aspects of it from people so that he'd have more control over the business and over these people. Banerjee would never talk about the whole business with one person. Everybody that worked at Chippendales worked directly under him. So he was this massive hub of a bicycle wheel where all these spokes, all you had to do was just get close to another spoke and you'd know exactly what's coming out of him.
Natalia: He's a guy who, even after he became successful, walked around with a big chip on his shoulder.
Eric Gilbert: He had this ability to empathize with just one person, and that's the gas station guy that gassed up your car. That was it. That was just the only person I ever saw him have any feeling for. And it's really interesting. I mean, everybody else, it was like "Fuck them" is what he would say. You know, "Fuck you, fuck him."
[ARCHIVE CLIP, reporter: You ever drive by a gas station late at night, and wonder as you're driving by, if there's a blossoming young Steve Banerjee pumping gas at that station?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Banerjee: I always tip when I go to the gas station. I tip five bucks for the guy to pump my gas. And I never pump gas. If I run out of gas, I'll run out of gas. As a matter of fact, my wife knows. She will pump the gas, but I won't pump the gas.]
Natalia: In 1975, Banerjee took the profits from his gas stations and leased a cocktail lounge called The Round Robin. It was harder to believe in his gas station days, but Banerjee would always say that one of his heroes was Hugh Hefner. And this was his first Hefner move.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Banerjee: The guy was going broke.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, reporter: He was going broke.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Banerjee: Because he didn't know what to do. And I knew that it was '75, and I knew the disco business was coming on strong in New York, but it hasn't hit the West coast yet.]
Natalia: Banerjee takes the place off this guy's hands for $75,000, and immediately changes its name from The Round Robin to Destiny II. In case you're wondering, there was never a Destiny I. The mid-'70s is a good time to get into the entertainment business in LA. In Hollywood, the old guard's being replaced by a new generation of auteurs and method actors.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Godfather: It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Chinatown: She's my sister and my daughter! Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown.]
Natalia: It's also the golden age of pornography. X-rated films in theaters nationwide.
[NEWS CLIP: The movie Debbie Does Dallas supposedly traces the adventures of some high school-age women who aspire to move to Texas.]
Natalia: The San Fernando Valley is the world capital of hardcore porn.
[NEWS CLIP: Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones, both directed by the same man, Gerry Damiano.]
Natalia: By the time Banerjee leases his nightclub, there's a kind of mainstream embrace of pornography going on.
[NEWS CLIP: It would seem that pornography is here to stay.]
Natalia: The New York Times critic Richard Blumenthal coins the phrase "porno chic" to describe the way porn's being taken seriously by people in the film world, and it becomes the catchphrase for a whole social scene, too. Movie stars and music execs, fashion models, porn industry bigwigs, they all party together in the newly-built glass boxes up in the Hollywood Hills. Or the Playboy mansion, where Hugh Hefner was a kind of silk-robe-wearing porno-chic cartoon come to life.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Hugh Hefner: Welcome to Hef's place! This is the Playboy Mansion West in Los Angeles, an incredibly well-built house.]
Natalia: The whole scene is fueled by money and cocaine and sex. Lots and lots of sex. And that's the world where Steve Banerjee thinks he can make his fortune. Destiny II is gonna be his ticket. He just has to get it on the map.
Bruce Nahin: This wasn't a high-end nightclub. This was a dive bar in an industrial section of West Los Angeles.
Natalia: That's Bruce Nahin. In 1977, Bruce has just graduated from Loyola law school in LA. He needs a place to study for the bar exam, and rather than find the library, he goes to this bar a few blocks away, along a strip of auto body shops and discount furniture stores.
Bruce Nahin: I studied for the bar at a bar, bought a bar and passed the bar, you know?
Natalia: I get it. [laughs]
Bruce Nahin: I'd give the janitor a couple bucks for Cokes and coffee, and sit in the couches as he was cleaning up.
Natalia: What did it smell like in there?
Bruce Nahin: Pungent. Beer is the one that smells the worst in carpet.
Natalia: Banerjee tries all sorts of things to get the club off the ground. There are free disco lessons on weeknights, a dance contest every Monday. On Thursdays, there's backgammon. It was a thing then. Backgammon clubs all over LA catered to the rich and famous. Hugh Hefner even owned one in West Hollywood, a place called Pips.
Natalia: What was Steve's ambition? What did he want with this club?
Bruce Nahin: Just a successful backgammon club where he can compete with Hugh Hefner.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, reporter: Do you see any similarities between yourself and Hugh Hefner?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Banerjee: Maybe. Yeah, he's a pretty intelligent man. I've spoken to him. You know, he knows the style. He's very articulate and he has lot of things. But the only thing is maybe he loves to party a lot.]
Natalia: Bruce gets along with Steve, and he likes hanging out in Destiny II. One afternoon, when he's there studying ...
Bruce Nahin: Steve came in and we were just talking, and we just talked. I think I missed the bar review that night. Then he said to me, "I've got to get rid of somebody," who was his partner. And I said, "Well, I might be interested in buying in." So we bought out the individual's shares, and I was involved in the discotheque business.
Natalia: Destiny II, though, just doesn't catch on. Over the next couple of years, Bruce and Steve try a bunch of gimmicks to generate buzz around the place.
Bruce Nahin: We'd try anything. We had dinner theater, we had magic shows, anything to fill the space. The mud wrestling thing.
Natalia: Women's mud wrestling.
Bruce Nahin: Filthy thing. It was Monday night, but it would take all of Tuesday to clean the club. It was filthy. Very primal, I guess.
Natalia: Primal, but not lucrative. And so their next move is simply to re-brand.
Bruce Nahin: Clubs would change their name every year or two, because it would freshen the whole thing. It's like rebooting your computer.
Natalia: They land on Chippendales. No, not the Disney chipmunks. The 18th-century British furniture designer Sir Thomas Chippendale. To Steve and Bruce, the name suggests pure class. But the fancy new name doesn't do the trick, either. And by 1979, Banerjee's out of ideas and almost out of cash. When a strange guy walks in the door.
Bruce Nahin: Weird duck.
Natalia: Describe him, please.
Bruce Nahin: Animated. Crazy. Wouldn't stop talking. Obnoxious. Not one of my favorites.
Natalia: Paul Snider. A small, muscular man with a thin mustache. He wears an ankle-length fur coat, a jewel-encrusted Star of David hangs from his neck. Up in Vancouver, where he's from, Snider's known as the Jewish pimp. He arrives in LA with his girlfriend, a 19-year-old named Dorothy Stratten. She's a bunny at the Playboy mansion. And Snider's looking to make it as a club promoter.
Bruce Nahin: Paul had gone to Canada someplace and saw some sort of gay male revue that was striptease, and he came and he told us about it.
Natalia: Snider convinces Banerjee that the club should host its own male strip show, but not a gay revue. At Chippendales, the men will strip for women. Banerjee goes for it. What's he got to lose? They agree that Snider will emcee the show and they'll split the profits. They take out radio ads and put up fliers all over West LA, in nail salons and ladies' restrooms, and anywhere women hang out. Now all they need is men. Snider trolls the gyms and beaches looking for any guy willing to take his clothes off on Wednesday nights for some tips. He finds a handful, and in early 1979, Chippendales premieres its new show.
[NEWS CLIP: What used to be the prime pastime for dirty old men, is now attracting hundreds of women. It's the male exotic dancer, and the perfect excuse for a night out with the girls.]
Natalia: Banerjee tells the LA Weekly that 600 women showed up on that first night.
[NEWS CLIP: Are you excited about the idea of men taking their clothes off?]
[NEWS CLIP: Excited? Oh! And how! I think it's great. I might just kick my husband out.]
Natalia: After that first night, the crowds never let up. Dorothy's often there with her fellow Playboy playmates, sitting next to Banerjee, watching Paul emcee the show. And Banerjee loved having her at the club. A lot of people even say Dorothy was responsible for the signature Chippendales look—that she'd convinced Hefner to let them use the same white shirt collar, cuffs, and black bowtie that the Bunnies wore.
Eric Gilbert: So they would hang out at the club Chippendales because Playboy was this direct line. The mansion, the Hugh Hefner mansion was like, you could draw a direct line on a map down to the club.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Banerjee: We just do a thing that the Playboy club has. We reversed the thing for the women. Instead of waitresses, we have waiters that dress like Bunnies, and they serve drinks and we have hosts to light the cigarette for the ladies. And the people that tend bar, they also dress like Bunnies. And they're all kind of like very good-looking guys that will be very attractive for our female clientele.]
Natalia: There's one hitch in all the newfound success: Paul Snider is a terrible emcee. No sense of humor. Zero charisma. And the more attention Chippendales gets, the more Snider becomes a problem. They need someone who's got the right energy onstage, who's funny and charming and can get the women all worked up.
Richard Barsh: And I know how to work an audience and have fun with it without trying to be the star of the show.
Natalia: That's Richard Barsh. He was a local radio DJ at the time, trying to make it as a character actor.
Richard Barsh: I was the average Joe. Although I look back at old pictures of me with hair and all that, I went, "Oh, I wasn't that bad looking!" [laughs]
Natalia: In February 1979, Barsh gets a call from a friend who happens to be Chippendales' marketing guy, asking if he can get over to the club that night.
Richard Barsh: And I said, "Yeah." And he says, "Well, you got two hours. Do you have a tuxedo?" And I said, "Yes, I do." And I said, "But what is the show? What am I emceeing?" He says, "Well, let me tell you about it when you get here."
Richard Barsh: I drove down there and had no idea. Walked in the door. Tons—the place was packed with women. And he says, "Okay, this is gonna be a strip contest with men stripping for women." And I went, "Oh, my."
Natalia: Turns out, this was a really big night for Chippendales. It wasn't just a regular show. A crew from NBC had shown up at the club to film an episode of their hit series Real People.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Real People: This is Chippendales, a nightclub exclusively for women. The only men allowed in the club are the waiters, bartenders and the male dancers.]
Natalia: The show's executive producer pulls Barsh aside and tells him ...
Richard Barsh: I need the women screaming and excited, and it's gonna end up on our show in a month or so.
Natalia: Barsh goes out on the small dance floor where he's surrounded by hundreds of women in stadium seating.
Richard Barsh: The women were above, which was psychologically a great place to be. The dance floor was down below, but it had glass mirrors so you could see the women as well as the dancers. And a lot of the show was women reacting to women reacting to the show. So I came out there and I came out with some rules ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Barsh: There's only one basic rule, and that rule is: No touching!]
Richard Barsh: And they would scream, "No! No!" And it's all, "Come on, come on." You know, "You can't be doing that. We've got to keep this legal." And then I came up with this idea and I said, "There are three magic words we're gonna use tonight to let the dancers know what we want them to do. Do you know what those three magic words are?" And the crowd screamed in unison, "Take it off!"
[ARCHIVE CLIP, audience: Take it off!]
Richard Barsh: And I was shocked. After the show was over, Steve Banerjee came up to me, he said, "I need you to emcee this show every Wednesday. Will you do that?” And I said, "Sure."
Natalia: Just like that, Richard Barsh is the new emcee. And Paul Snider—the guy who gave Banerjee the idea for the male strip show in the first place—is out.
Natalia: How did you terminate that contract with him, though? Because you guys took it much further.
Bruce Nahin: We stole it. Or we ran with it, or whatever you want to call it.
Natalia: Snider's such a footnote in Chippendales history that he almost doesn't bear mentioning. Except in my mind, he's a kind of cautionary tale, an early red flag. A symbol of the sordidness that was baked into Chippendales' DNA from the very beginning. And also this idea that, no matter what happened, whatever weird and dark shit emerged from this place, Chippendales would just move on. Like in August of 1980, after Dorothy Stratten is named Playmate of the Year, Paul Snider murders her and kills himself.
Natalia: Everyone I talked to about the murder said some version of the same thing: How wild it was that this guy who brought Steve the idea ends up committing this murder that, like, Walter Cronkite is talking about on the nightly news.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Walter Cronkite: A beautiful young woman, living what was described as a "Hollywood fairy tale." But fairy tales don't always have happy endings. Sometimes they turn ugly and violent.]
Natalia: I asked Richard Barsh how he remembers Banerjee's reaction to this news.
Richard Barsh: It was a day that the police came down to the club. And I was there and Steve was there, and this is early before the show actually started on a Wednesday. And they came into the club and they started asking questions. They asked where Steve was and they asked me, "Do you know anything about this?" I said, "Well, I know Dorothy, and I knew Paul Snider." But I said, "But I haven't seen them for months, so I don't know the situation." And they went to talk to Steve, and I heard Steve say he knew nothing about it. He didn't know them. And that was it. The police walked out.
Natalia: Did you say anything to Steve after that? What was your conversation like?
Richard Barsh: I just said to Steve, "You know who he is." And he goes, "I'm not talking to anybody about anything." And that was it. But that was Steve. Steve didn't want to get involved with anything. He didn't want to be part of anything that would cause him any headaches.
Natalia: We'll be right back.
Natalia: I'm a historian, so obviously I had to go back and visit the site of the original Chippendales.
Natalia: That's the original building. That is definitely the original building.
Natalia: It's pretty quiet. 3739 Overland Avenue is now a senior care center called Sunny Days. The day we visited, we stood outside for a while and listened to someone playing piano through the window. It was a little hard to imagine that 40 years ago, it was more like this.
Bruce Nahin: Weird stuff was happening in parking lots. And the neighbors were complaining because they'd find condoms on their lawn.
Natalia: Bruce Nahin again. Some of those neighbors would put up signs saying things like, "Go to hell with Chippendales."
[ARCHIVE CLIP, neighbor: We've had people having sex relations on the lawn. They use it for a public bathroom. And we resent these things.]
Naomi Seratoff: Oh, God. Chippendales.
Natalia: This is Naomi Seratoff. She lives right across the street from the original club. She's 94 and still hustling as an actress. Right inside her front door, there's a table piled high with headshots and resumes spilling off onto the floor.
Naomi Seratoff: I moved in this neighborhood, in this apartment, in September of 1972. And I've been here ever since. It was noisy, and they were slamming their doors and talking loudly, you know, with no sensitivity to the fact that people are sleeping in this neighborhood. Someone was going by and they were kind of shouting. It's two or three in the morning. I said. "Will you please be quiet? People are trying to sleep." The guy said to me, "What's the matter? Aren't you being fucked?"
Natalia: What? Don't talk to Naomi like that! Anyway, eventually the scene at Chippendales was so out of hand, it's making the nightly news.
[NEWS CLIP: Steve Banerjee, who owns a West Los Angeles disco called Chippendales, instituted male dance contests for women patrons on Wednesday nights. It quickly caught the attention of ladies, the press and the LAPD.]
Natalia: There was one notorious night in March of 1979. It starts out like every Wednesday. Richard Barsh puts on his tux, straps on a pair of roller skates and picks up his microphone.
Richard Barsh: And I say, "Good evening and welcome to world famous Chippendales! And it's about time we had a show just for women, right?" The place was packed. It actually held about 150 people. There were over 250, maybe 300 people in it.
Natalia: Guys come out on stage one after another in cheesy costumes. First is Cowboy Dan, then Superman, then The Barbarian.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Barsh: Do you wanna see more? [audience screams]]
Natalia: The next guy comes out in a trenchcoat with a brown paper bag over his head. They call him The Unknown Stripper.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Barsh: Should he take the bag off? [audience screams]]
Natalia: This Wednesday, like every Wednesday, it's the same guys, same costumes. same routines. But to Barsh's surprise, someone new joins him on stage.
Richard Barsh: We were only halfway through the show. Everybody's excited and the women are screaming, and I'm talking on the mic and a policeman walks out on stage and grabs the microphone and says, "Okay, this is illegal. We're gonna have to take these guys in. Please stay where you're seated."
Natalia: This isn't an act. It's a real cop.
Richard Barsh: The officer who grabbed the mic from me was angry and he was gonna make a scene, and he was gonna—"I'm in control here, not you." Girls are screaming and things are going crazy. And all of a sudden, I'm taken off stage and I go look, and they're not arresting me, but they start taking out all the dancers from the back room and they're putting them in handcuffs. And they're loading them into a police bus, a bus big enough to hold maybe a hundred people. And they're taking all these dancers in handcuffs and putting them in. And I went, "What's going on?" And they said "You're exposing." And I said, "What are we exposing?" And they said "The buttocks." And I said, "Well, where does the butt begin or end?"
Natalia: The big philosophical questions. [laughs]
Richard Barsh: Yeah. [laughs]
Natalia: You'd think this would be bad news for the club. But Banerjee couldn't get enough of it. In fact, he was behind a lot of the complaints himself.
Richard Barsh: I didn't know this at the time. They called all the TV stations and all the news media to tell them that Chippendales was gonna be busted, the police were gonna be there. Then they called the police and said, "Hey, they're getting naked there at the club."
Natalia: For a bunch of guys who couldn't get their club off the ground for years, it was a pretty savvy PR move.
[NEWS CLIP: Now you've been raided twice in the last week or so. Tell us about this art form that has been going on here that's gotten you into so much trouble. Just what goes on here on Wednesday nights?
Natalia: This is Banerjee on KTLA News. He's got a mop of black hair, bell-bottom jeans and a black turtleneck under a double-breasted blazer. His brows are knitted together, and he's staring straight at the reporter. At the mention of trouble, though, he breaks into a big grin. And the reporter presses him. "Is this illegal?"
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Banerjee: Not at all. And you can speak to any number of ladies that were here, and they all shout, "Take it off, take it off." And we just tell them, "No, this is it. That's all we can do."]
Richard Barsh: We hit every television station, every newspaper, everything.
[NEWS CLIP: They've raided the place twice. So until the courts decide the matter, Steve plans to keep playing to standing room crowds of LA women on Wednesday and Friday nights.]
Richard Barsh: Now everybody knows about us. Now there's a line around the club on Wednesdays, and we were doing it Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and it was packed. Now we are famous.
Natalia: By late '79, the place is filled with models and actresses and Playboy Bunnies, the kind of clientele Banerjee always dreamed of. When Hef wants to come by, he's one of the only men allowed to watch the show with the rest of the women. But women are flocking in from the suburbs, too.
[NEWS CLIP: What kind of a clientele do you cater to? Who comes here to watch the dancing?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve Banerjee: It's middle to upper-middle class ladies. Mostly working women. We have psychologists, doctors, secretaries, people from all walks of life.]
Natalia: Women of all ages from all walks of life, doing what they'd never been given license to do before. Did these guys really believe they created Chippendales to help move forward women's equality? Or was it like, they started a male strip show because this Canadian pimp convinced them to, and then at some point someone said, "Hey, this is liberating for women to have men performing for them." And suddenly, all the dudes running Chippendales were like, "Yeah! That's what we're all about: Women's lib."
Natalia: I will say, whatever the truth was back then, they totally believe it now. When I ask Bruce Nahin about this, he talked about the early days like they were arm-in-arm with Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug.
Bruce Nahin: Oh, it was. It was empowering. I think Chippendales had a lot to do with the sexual revolution. And now their daughters are able to run for President of the United States and go in spaceships and fly fighter jets. And I'm not so sure Chippendales didn't have a lot to do with it.
Bruce Nahin: Maybe I'm delusional myself, but I think it was all part of that second wave of feminism that opened up women's equality.
Natalia: Right after he said that, Bruce pointed at my producer Christine and said Chippendales was the reason she could wear pants. Bruce may have been ushering in feminism's second wave, but Banerjee saw it for the marketing opportunity it was. He starts talking up Chippendales as a force for liberation whenever he's given the chance, and goes so far as to let the women's rights attorney Gloria Allred use the club for a Mother's Day fundraiser. "I'm a very generous person," he tells the LA Times. "And I am sympathetic with the cause."
Natalia: I asked Richard Barsh, the emcee—who, by the way, is an actual card-carrying member of the National Organization for Women—about all of this.
Natalia: Do you think, because you describe yourself as being really part of women's lib, was Steve Banerjee part of that too?
Richard Barsh: Absolutely not. [laughs] Steve just was really concerned about the money.
Natalia: Okay, we're back. And we're gonna jump forward a year, to 1981. Chippendales is a local hotspot. And a good-looking, shy, 21-year-old college student named Dan Peterson is there on a weekend night, waiting to get inside. The way Chippendales worked back then was that first there was the strip show, which was strictly ladies only. And then around 10:00 pm, it would become a regular nightclub, and guys were allowed in.
Dan Peterson: So I'm standing in line and this little guy comes over, and he taps me on the shoulder and he says the owner wants to talk to you, and he asked me if I'd come this way. I thought we were in trouble, first thing, okay? Damn, we drove all the way from Santa Barbara, now we're not gonna be able to go in.
Dan Peterson: And then he walked me over to Steve. And I see this guy leaning against a Mercedes. Steve always wore, like, a nice suit. So I remember he had, like, a silver Mercedes, I think it was. And he always wore, like, a silver-ish type of shiny, little-bit-of-shine suit. You know, suit and pants, really nice, dressed nice, clean cut. I was not. He was. And I went and talked to him, and he shook my hand, and Steve was smiling and that was it.
Natalia: Just like that, Dan is employed as a host at Chippendales, based purely on his looks. I should say, objectively speaking, young Dan is pretty easy on the eyes. He showed us some pictures when we visited him at his home in Thousand Oaks, just north of LA.
Dan Peterson: Probably the reason I got picked is because Tom Selleck was big. And I looked like Selleck. I had a mustache. I didn't look like Selleck, but I had the dark hair, I had a mustache. Selleck was huge on Magnum PI.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Barsh: How many girls watch Magnum PI? Our next gentleman, this guy is one of the guys that stands in for Tom Selleck. This is Dan!]
Natalia: Dan grew up in this quiet, Christian home, the only adopted child of an older Swedish couple. But Chippendales opens up his world.
Dan Peterson: I had never had lobster until I went with Steve, going places. I'd never had—there were so many things I had never done.
Natalia: The first time I talked with Dan on the phone, he told me that at the beginning, he felt totally out of place at the club.
Dan Peterson: When I came in, the first thing they did was put me in these girls' spandex pants. And I'm looking at this girl that's dressing me, sewing them and sizing them, saying, "Guys don't wear these." And she was saying, "Yeah, all the guys wear these and they don't wear a shirt, and blah, blah, blah." And I didn't know any of that.
Dan Peterson: Back in the day, the club was extremely small. You had to squeeze through everybody everywhere, so—and wearing spandex pants again, for me was the weirdest thing in the world. When you walked through and bumped into people, you just slid right through. It was like you were wearing grease.
Natalia: Dan wasn't a dancer. He didn't get on stage and strip. His job was basically to walk around the club and make sure every woman he interacted with felt special.
Natalia: Did you ever get, like, formal instruction?
Dan Peterson: There was no instruction. You honestly could do whatever you wanted to make sure the women were happy. Then, I was single. I hate to say it, but it was great. You learned what to say, what not to say. "Hi, how are you? Where are you from? You know, what's gonna happen, and what do you do?" And you learn everything about them. And then as the night progresses, some of these women, they get to the point where you got to carry them out. They can't sit on their chairs, you know? And they grab and they grope and they'd do it hard.
Natalia: So how'd you handle that? Can you think of one night where a woman was really out of line, and ...
Dan Peterson: Oh, there were lots. They were out of line every night.
Natalia: Dan always felt like an outsider at the club. But there was one other person there that he also recognized as a bit of a loner: Steve Banerjee.
Dan Peterson: He didn't talk to a lot of people. He stuttered. He stood in the corner in the shadows. He would never stand under a light. There were two or three places, and he'd be there in the corner in his suit, just watching and smiling.
Natalia: Of all the people who worked with Banerjee, Dan was one of his closest confidantes.
Natalia: What do you think he was smiling at?
Dan Peterson: The success. I mean, he did not expect that. I know he didn't expect it.
Natalia: The way Dan tells it, it's like Banerjee was fully aware of the absurdity. That of all the possibilities, male stripping was the thing that made him rich. But once it took off, there was no limit to what Banerjee imagined Chippendales might become.
Dan Peterson: Steve made all his own decisions. Think about you getting thrown into a multi- multi-million-dollar business and you want to expand and you don't know anything about these things. So he did do a lot of things on the fly without a whole lot of research. His research was, "If I'm gonna do playing cards, I bring them into the club, show 10 women." If they love it, then he does it.
Natalia: Steve and Dan had a little routine. Every night after the show ended, they'd go to a diner down the block from the club. They'd sit in their booth, and for hours Steve would lay out his plans for the future.
Dan Peterson: We almost always just talked about the club. I can't—I'm trying to think if we talked about—I don't think we ever talked about personal life. Once or twice talked about India. I didn't really know that much on a personal side, but we talked about everything to do with business. I was a business major, so I told him I was extremely conservative. You know, I never risked much, and he was always telling me, "You have to risk."
Dan Peterson: He wanted to bring it from stripping to something more, I don't want to say legit, but to something more mainstream. You know, he wanted to do clothing lines, he wanted to do colognes. He wanted to do the rock and roll band. He wanted to do products. He wants to do the Disneyland thing ...
Natalia: The Disneyland thing. This brings us to Steve Banerjee's other big hero: there was Hugh Hefner—and there was Walt Disney.
Dan Peterson: Have you ever been to Disneyland out here?
Natalia: Of course. Anaheim, yup.
Dan Peterson: Disneyland had a thing about the future. You would sit in a chair and the middle would turn.
Natalia: The Carousel of Progress. It's this animatronic attraction, where you sit on a platform that rotates around a circular stage. This song plays as you move along, watching centuries of technological progress pass before your eyes: The advent of electricity. Refrigeration. Televisions. Car phones.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing: "There's a great big beautiful tomorrow, and tomorrow's just a dream away.]
Natalia: Banerjee imagined that Chippendales would have its own Carousel of Progress at Disneyland. His idea was that human evolution would be represented by Chippendales dancers.
Dan Peterson: Oh my gosh, he drew up pictures for me and I drew up for him, and we talked about how we would do it in stone age. The guys, you know, like a caveman with rocks and fire. And then going to the next one and then going to the next one.
Natalia: I always thought Banerjee was being metaphorical when he said he wanted it to be like Disneyland, but you're telling me he actually imagined the show in Disneyland?
Dan Peterson: Yeah, he definitely wanted to do that. That was his—one of his dreams.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, singing: "Man has a dream and that's the start. He follows his dream with mind and heart. And when it becomes a reality, it's a dream come true ..."]
Natalia: I know, it's easy to laugh at the Disney thing. I mean, Banerjee even told a reporter from the LA Times that if Walt Disney were alive, he could quote "Talk him into being a partner. Maybe a silent partner." But Steve was tapping into something when he said he wanted to create a "Disneyland for adults." For him, his partners, the dancers, the women who flocked to the show, everyone had a fantasy. And this kind of skeevy club, believe it or not, allowed them all to act it out in real life. But for Chippendales to really take off, Steve needed one more dreamer in the mix: Nick de Noia.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick de Noia: What I call it is our equal opportunity fantasy factory. You've never seen anything until you see a room full of female inhibitions go down the tubes all at once.]
Natalia: Nick would become Steve's business partner and Chippendales' creative force. He wouldn't give Steve Banerjee a ride at Disneyland, but he'd help him get pretty much everything else he wanted. And that was the problem. If you ask any of the 66 people we interviewed for this show, who was really responsible for Chippendales' success? Some will say Steve. Others will say Nick. Some will say neither—it was me. There are grudges that last to this day. Revisionist histories. Revenge fantasies. And then there are the very real plots that were carried out.
Mike Geddes: A lot of thoughts run through detectives' heads, you know, when you see a scene. It almost looked like a hit.
Natalia: We'll get to all of that in time. For the moment though, close your eyes. Conjure those oiled-up, muscular dudes in g-strings, their luxuriant manes of hair. The money and the freedom and the sex without consequences. Allow yourself to go deeper into the fantasy. Before long, it's gonna get all too real.
Natalia: This season on Welcome to Your Fantasy ...
Natalia: Do you remember when you first saw kind of tension between them?
Candace Mayeron: I don't know that there ever was not tension between them, quite frankly.
Eric Gilbert: We're not talking about Cats on Broadway here.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Phil Donahue guest: Thirty years I've been married, I had to go with him to watch the women strip. Now I'm making him take me to watch the men strip.]
Scott Marlowe: She followed me into the staircase and she said to me, "I'll give you $100 for every inch of cocaine I could snort off your cock."
Don Gibson: He proceeded to pull out a notebook and it had my name, my address, my telephone number. And it had a log, a daily log, of purported activities that I was conducting.
Natalia: Oh, my God!
Clarke Wilson: Well yeah, arson is the modern way to refinance.
Graham Gooch: We've got this—you've got a problem. There's a hitman coming to kill some male dancers.
Natalia: How did you react?
Graham Gooch: Yeah, it's not the sort of call you get every day, really.
Natalia: Welcome to Your Fantasy is a production of Pineapple Street Studios, in association with Gimlet. It's hosted by me, Natalia Petrzela. Our senior producer is Eleanor Kagan, our producer is Christine Driscoll, and our associate producer is Erin Kelly. Nicole Hemmer and Neil J. Young are consulting producers.
Natalia: Our editors are Joel Lovell and Maddy Sprung-Keyser. It was mixed by Hannis Brown, and fact-checked by Ben Phelan. Special thanks to Jenelle Pifer, Jonathan Menjivar, Eric Mennel, and Henry Molofsky.
Natalia: This show features original music by Daoud Anthony. And thanks to our music supervisor Jasmine Flott. The executive producers of Pineapple Street are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. From Gimlet, our executive producer is Lydia Polgreen and our editor is Collin Campbell.
Natalia: Archival footage courtesy of UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Natalia: We've got a Spotify playlist with tons of music from the original show, so you can recreate the club experience for yourself in the comfort of your own home. You can find the link in the show notes.
Natalia: For photos of the club in its earliest days, some truly iconic outfits, and clips of Steve Banerjee himself, check out our Instagram account @ChippendalesRevealed. That's the handle: @ChippendalesRevealed.
Natalia: Did you ever go to Chippendales? We want to hear about it. Leave us a short voicemail—30 seconds to a minute, tops—at (323) 475-9424, and we might play it on a future episode. That's (323) 475-9424.
Natalia: This is a Spotify original podcast.