A woman's touch

Page 5 of 8

"My mother was horrified," Dawn says.

At first, Dawn was determined to make Olympic Pizza successful enough that she and Nick could close down Caligula. They began opening more locations -- one on Northwest Highway, across from Caligula, and another in Plano. But the Northwest Highway location has never been profitable, she says, and the pizza parlor in Plano didn't last long.

So it was topless biz or bust: Caligula made too much money to close it. It became necessary for Dawn to accept the inexorable truth: There was money to be made in the skin biz. Dawn asked Nick only one thing: to change the name of the club. She had seen the 1980 Bob Guccione-directed film named for the Roman emperor and was appalled by its graphic orgies and incest. But Nick told her no. There was a club in Houston called Caligula -- also run by a Greek man, who had failed to trademark the name -- and Nick was hoping to trade on some established name reputation.

Still, no matter how much peace Dawn had made with the family's new business, she always told strangers she and Nick were in the pizza business. But over time, it became necessary to own up to the reality -- especially when various local topless bars began running afoul of City Hall.

In 1986, the Dallas City Council began regulating sexually oriented businesses, determining that topless clubs could not be located within 1,000 feet of homes, schools, churches, hospitals, historic areas, or other sexually oriented businesses. Caligula and some other clubs that existed before the regulations went into effect didn't comply with the city's ordinance; it's some 800 feet away from apartment complexes. A protracted legal battle kept the city at bay for years. But in 1992, the city began cracking down on clubs, sending in undercover officers who reported various offenses, real and imagined. Some clubs had their licenses revoked; Caligula's was suspended for 15 days.

Then, five years later, the council passed a tougher version of the ordinance in an effort to shut down a good chunk of the topless clubs, especially those on Northwest Highway.

That means that each year, Dawn and Nick must appear before a city-created board to renew their license. Since Nick's English is often unintelligible, it fell to Dawn to act as Caligula's spokeswoman. She had to endure the committee's jeers, being called a pornographer and worse. She knew what they were thinking, that she was nothing more than a pretty face behind which Nick was hiding. Surely, they hinted, she was nothing more than a dancer herself, sent to woo the committee into granting Caligula its license.

Still, she could handle the abuse from the city. What she couldn't deal with were the taunts and sneers aimed at her children -- the kids at school wondering whether their mom used to be a dancer, or hinting that the Rizos household was a den of iniquity. When he was in junior high, an older kid asked Stratis, who is now 14, if his mother was a hooker. He laughed it off -- though when Dawn hears this news, for the first time, she is not so amused.

"It was some high-schooler," says Stratis. "I said, 'No, and it's none of your business, either.'" He turns to his mother, who sits across from him in the family's den. "I mean, he asked if you were ever a dancer. I'm like, 'Hell, no, man.'"

"He didn't ask if I was a hooker, did he?" Dawn wonders, aghast at the revelation.

"No, Mom," Stratis says, covering his tracks. He, like his 16-year-old sister, Joanne and 10-year-old brother, Max, seems wise beyond his years -- slightly hardened, no doubt, by having to deal with the tiny jabs, the whispered rumors. "I'm sorry, Mom. I'm sorry, sorry, sorry." He smiles, as if to alleviate her fears.

It was especially difficult when the couple first moved to Highland Park in 1995; surely, the locals figured, nothing says "There goes the neighborhood" like having a couple of topless-bar owners living next door.

"I had this best friend -- like, I loved this girl -- and I was always at her house," says Joanne. "They always invited me over, and my mom in return didn't want to seem like I was inviting myself over, so she asked the girl over to our house. Her mom called my mom and said that she didn't want her little girl coming over here, because she thought it was an unfit environment for her.

"But she did say she was praying for us and all this other stuff, and I was hurt. That was like a really big reality check for me, because before then I was always accepted. I never felt different, but in Highland Park, I started thinking twice about my parents. It was like, What are they doing that's so horrible?

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky