By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Its nightclub and adjacent management offices affect an air of aloof respectability, complete with valet parking and handcarved Spanish doors.
Inside, a brass chandelier dominates the foyer. An ornate staircase ascends from Italian tile floors to the exclusive members-only area upstairs. Exquisite abstract paintings of nudes adorn the walls.
Past the entryway, svelte young women saunter about an expansive room that resembles more a plush study than a bar. A few writhe in feigned sexual arousal on a trio of stages, naked except for tiny underwear called T-backs. Others, dressed in scant, easily doffed evening dresses, walk the floor and visit tables, flirting and teasing their male guests, who respond with a mixture of schoolboy cockiness and flustered desire.
This is Cabaret Royale, the upscale club touted as the finest, cleverest, cleanest topless bar in the world.
For a few hours--and about $100 for the full experience--you can be James Bond, and one of the scores of accommodating young women around you can be your Pussy Galore.
A widescreen video does, in fact, cut to film clips of a dashing Roger Moore combating sinister men, commandeering speedboats, and lounging with voluptuous women, while Paul McCartney sings "Live and Let Die" in the background.
The illusion, masterfully designed by Cabaret Royale owner Salah Izzedin and his family, is complete. Cabaret Royale, which boasts a roster of 400 topless dancers and $1,500 annual memberships, is exactly what Izzedin has promised it would be: an elegant playground for well-to-do men, a fantasyland for the traveling executive, the country's premier purveyor of taunting, untouchable female flesh.
Izzedin has compared his nightclub to the famous Parisian cabarets of the 1930s. "This is the first club ever where dancers bring their parents to watch," he told the Dallas Observer in 1992.
Cabaret Royale, he said then, was destined to be big--bigger than any of its competitors in Dallas. Bigger, in fact, than Playboy.
"Ten to 15 years from now," Izzedin said, "We'll have clubs in every major city. We'll be putting out our own videos. Cable shows. A magazine. A clothing line."
The company has already worked with Playboy on several joint projects, including a video, "The Girls of Cabaret Royale," that hit number 18 on Billboard's video retail sales chart. And the club recently released a solo production, "Calendar Girls of Cozumel."
And that's just the beginning.
With the business acumen of his highly educated family backing him up--sister Leila Izzedin is executive vice-president of finance, and cousin Joe Najjar is vice-president of operations--Izzedin continues to build an international, bared-breast entertainment network. The Izzedin family now runs a Cabaret Royale club at the site of famous Studio 54 in New York City, and an equally ostentatious franchise, Club Royale, in Mexico City's trendy Zona Rosa district.
At the same time, Salah Izzedin scouts out additional international sites, his expansion plans fueled by fresh capital from private investors. Next year, the company hopes to offer its stock to the public for the first time. Indeed, the company's future prospects seem as irrepressible as sex itself.
Yet the glittering illusion that is so much a part of the club's image hides an untidy reality today. And Salah Izzedin, who as little as two years ago courted the press, doesn't reply to requests for interviews. His chief minions insist he's out of reach--traveling from city to city, country to country.
Back at home, Cabaret Royale's flagship Dallas operation is embroiled in a nasty brew of legal and financial troubles--capped, in May, by its officers' decision to file for bankruptcy on behalf of two of the many corporations Izzedin had created to manage Cabaret Royale's affairs.
The U.S. Bankruptcy Court, in turn, has appointed a trustee, who will investigate--among other matters--whether Izzedin filed bankruptcy for the two companies merely to avoid paying $11 million in back wages sought by the U.S. Department of Labor for Cabaret Royale's "contract" dancers, who the federal agency considers employees.
If the Labor Department wins its case, the Internal Revenue Service will take its turn, seeking hundreds of thousands more in unpaid payroll taxes.
Then there's the spate of individual lawsuits against Cabaret Royale. One former employee, Ann Marie "Ami" Lindsey, sued the club for discrimination after managers told her she was too old to dance topless. The $2.5 million suit, filed in 1989, is still pending; the bankruptcy filings have stalled it temporarily.
Several others have sued Cabaret Royale for lesser alleged evils. It seems that everyone wants a piece of Salah Izzedin.
Neither Salah nor Leila Izzedin responded to requests for interviews, preferring that two senior Cabaret Royale officers, attorney Tim Millard and public relations director Dianne "Birdie" Bird, field questions from the press.
Millard, the club's $240,000-a-year director, dismisses Cabaret Royale's problems as typical trials of a growing firm. "Any company that moves from the local market to a national one goes through a period like this," he says. "It's not unusual at all."
The coming year could prove pivotal for Izzedin and the Cabaret Royale name. The 47-year-old, Lebanese-American businessman is as close as he's ever been to realizing his dream: creating a soft-porn empire that surpasses Playboy and Penthouse, the industry's pioneers--and gaining respectability.