A woman's touch

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"I did everything I could to stop it, and her brothers did everything but take out a Mafia contract on Nick," Mickey recounts. "I think Nick was a father figure. He was someone who cared deeply for her, and she was looking for someone to take care of her. She doesn't remember saying this, but he came here, and I spent the whole weekend telling him why the marriage would never work -- you know, she wasn't ready, hadn't finished her education -- but my words were in vain. She said to me, 'Mother, I know you're strong, and I know you can take care of me, but let's face it, you're not a man.'"

The two were married in Monroe, and it was a good, old-fashioned Greek hoedown -- ostentatious enough to horrify all of Monroe, Dawn recalls.

As soon as they were married, she went to work at Olympic Pizza at the lunch buffet; eventually, she would manage the restaurant. But by 1983, the neighborhood surrounding JRV's and Fenders fell into disrepair, thanks largely to the opening of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport years earlier. The neighboring apartments were once filled with flight attendants working out of Love Field, but they migrated closer to the new airport. Once they left, the apartments surrounding Fenders became populated by low-income families, none of whom had much interest in going to an upscale blues bar.

Nick sold off JRV's and was in danger of going bankrupt because of a 20-year-lease he had signed on the building that housed Fenders. He tried everything to keep the club open, turning it into a country-western venue for a while, then a disco.

"Nothing worked," Nick says. "And I had a big lease, you know what I mean? So I came home one night and said, I'm going to open up a topless club. And my wife and my ex-partner were pissed off about it, but in order to survive, I had to do something. I didn't want to lose the pizza place. And I liked [the topless business] because it paid the bills. I didn't have a problem with it. Business is business."

But Dawn did have a problem with it at first. She threatened Nick with divorce and demanded he get out of the business. It embarrassed her, infuriated her. He spent weeks convincing her it was necessary to open Caligula XXI in the old Fenders space to keep Olympic Pizza alive. Deep down, she knew he was right: They were close to losing everything he had built over the past six years.

And by then, it was too late to do anything about it anyway. Nick opened Caligula without his wife's approval.

"You have to understand the Greek way," Dawn says, sitting a few feet from her husband in the couple's back yard. Theirs is a relatively modern two-story home deep in Highland Park -- all glass and 90-degree angles, built around a swimming pool and concrete deck that take up much of the back yard. Dawn has never cared for the house. Nick, of course, doesn't understand why she complains about it.

"It's taken 17 years for me to tell Nick, 'You have to talk to me before we buy this or buy that,'" Dawn continues. "I have a right to have some say in it. I think he's finally starting to realize I'm a person worthy of respect. He needs to be a co-parent with the kids as well as a partner in the business."

"What you mean?" he asks, sounding like a proud man who's being scolded. "I've been away from my house? I've been away from my kids?"

"No," she says. "You've gotten a whole lot better. It used to be you thought it was all my responsibility."

"Well, the woman's more responsible for the family anyway," he says, as though it should be obvious. "That's the Greek way."

"Yeah, whatever," she says, smiling slightly. "It's different across the Mediterranean."

Theirs is a relationship built as much on competition as it is on love. He has his club; she has hers. From this point on, never the twain shall meet.

For a long time, Dawn Rizos did not tell her mother the kind of business she and Nick owned. She didn't want to worry her mother, didn't want to make her ashamed, although Nick and Dawn were adamant about keeping Caligula XXI a respectable topless joint. The first time Mickey stepped into the club, she was shocked. She told her daughter the women dancing there would be pretty if they kept their clothes on.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky