It's Friday night, and I'm at the Angelika with my best gal pal to see Joe Manganiello's new documentary, La Bare, about Dallas' premier (and only) male strip club. Afterward, with my friend acting as my ticket -- only men accompanied by women can enter La Bare -- we plan to check out the movie's subject. I have no idea what to expect, but neither did Manganiello when he set out to make his movie.
"I think everyone on the planet has this misconception about the industry," Manganiello said by phone last week. "I think you walk into it, not expecting anything, or expecting very little, and what you wind up getting is really, really, great guys who train like professional athletes ... They're businessmen, family men. They're single dads. They're just these great, great guys."
It's the local premiere and when we arrive at the theater, it's a party. The audience appears to be mostly club regulars, performers, friends and family. "I wanna thank you all for showing a little love for our movie," Nick Adams, La Bare's resident DJ and a former dancer, tells the crowd as we climb over our row-mates to our seats.
It's a heartfelt moment. Then the music starts. "Who wants to see some naked men?!" Adams asks. Dancers storm the theater. Strippers bound over empty seats into ladies' laps. One woman fans herself with a promotional La Bare calender as a bronze skinned god exposes his six-pack abs and gyrates his hips inches from her face. And just as quickly as it started, the music shuts off, and we fidget in our seats excited for the film.
The dancers Manganiello's film have bodies that would make blind nuns weep, though the critic who reviewed the movie for the Observer complained that "few prove truly magnetic or interesting when fully dressed and talking about themselves."
But they did seem awfully nice, and that's the point.
"You know some of the shows I've seen about Vegas, with men working in the club industry, they're really unlikable, like incredibly unlikeable, and not very masculine," Manganiello said. "I wanted real men, I wanted real life and I wanted real women and I didn't want people that wanted to be actors."
We're willing to take the bait. As the credits roll, my friend and I take off to this palace of muscular showmanship filled with regular guys who just happen to look like Greek gods. We were expecting aerial silks and fog, tear away trousers and dry humping, good old American fun that any hot blooded woman could sit back and enjoy with a drink and a handful of singles.
We walk through a black curtain that separates the atrium from the main room. On the other side is a pit of women and anywhere from three to five stripped-down dancers on the outer stages, dancing proud as peacocks on raised platforms. Further back is the main stage, where elaborately choreographed feats of gymnastic debauchery are seen, only slightly obscured by those lucky enough to make it to the front row.
As luck would have it, Randy "Master Blaster" Ricks is on stage when we arrive. Ricks has worked at La Bare ever since he stumbled into the club on amateur night in 1979. In the past 35 years he has become the legend in residence for everyone who's danced onstage or served a drink at La Bare.
Manganiello heard about Ricks through a mutual acquaintance, which spurred the making of his documentary. "He's well into his 50s, he lives with his mom who is his roommate and dietitian and ran their strippergram company," Manganiello says. "To me that's a story right there."
Watching Ricks on stage is like walking into an avant garde film. He twirls and moves around stage as "God Blessed Texas" by Little Texas shakes the walls. He's wearing tear-away blue jeans, a denim vest and a cowboy hat. Two other dancers in matching outfits hand out posters and copies of Playgirl (featuring Ricks in all his splendor) to a writhing sea of frenzied women.
I am one of only two men in the area not currently at work. Men are restricted to the back of the club, away from the main and side stages, which are strictly reserved for women. This adds a level of surrealism to the experience, especially when I ask where the men's room is located.
The waiter points at a door marked "Employees Only." I feel a little unsure as I approach, not knowing what lies on the other side of that door. As I walk in, I instantly recognize the dressing room from the movie. Not two hours before, I was watching these guys talk about their lives on the big screen, and now I was heading to use an open air urinal, three feet away from their main sink.
Underwear clad guys pump themselves up for the stage, while others adjust their costumes and hair. I was peeing while dancers compliment my hair (which I recently died bright blue) and ask if they had seen me at the movie earlier.
This awkward encounter really drove the point home. These were regular guys who didn't mind that I am peeing by their sink. It's just another day in the office for them.