Last edited: December 20, 2004

‘Why Here?’

Providence Journal, April 21, 2002

By W. Zachary Malinowski, Journal Staff Writer

Two miles south of downtown, away from Waterplace Park, Providence Place mall and the upscale restaurants, lies another world that has become a destination for tourists.

Chartered buses pull up to the curb outside the gaudy pink building on Allens Avenue with the flashing police light on the roof. Hundreds of cars pack the lots and side streets. Next door, dozens of pedestrians, almost all men, venture into a windowless brick warehouse.

The visitors, many from Massachusetts and Connecticut, are in pursuit of a common goal: sex.

Welcome to the underbelly of the Providence Renaissance.

In recent years, the sex industry has exploded in the city, and a dreary industrial strip along Allens Avenue has become the most densely concentrated red-light district in New England.

Sex clubs have sprung up across the state capital: strip clubs, gay bathhouses, an under-21 strip club, a private swinger’s club, massage parlors and sex video stores. There’s also a studio on Allens Avenue that satisifies customers’ appetite for bondage and other fetishes, including foot worship.

The sex industry represents another form of economic development. It pays millions in taxes, creates hundreds of jobs and attracts thousands of out-of-town spenders.

The city’s biggest gay bathhouse, the Megaplex, is owned by the man who, until recently, was Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr.’s liaison to the gay community. The club has 15,000 members and charges $60 for annual dues; $40 for a six-month membership and $10 for an 18-hour pass.

In February, the Megaplex’s owner, Fitzgerald Himmelsbach, was forced to resign his city post after publicity about a possible syphilis outbreak at his club, underscoring the gray area in which such clubs exist.

The sex industry in Providence is nothing new, but the pace of its recent expansion has been startling.

A decade ago, there were four strip clubs and a gay bathhouse in the city.

Today, there are 13 strip or sex clubs that are operating, or will soon be opening. Five of them are found in a tight cluster on Allens Avenue beneath the Route 95 overpass.

"Why here?" said Luis A. Aponte, a Providence City Councilor, representing the 10th Ward that includes Allens Avenue. "It seems odd. I don’t see that type of concentration anywhere else in New England."

FOR YEARS, the city had its low-end strip joints that were little more than brothels.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, there were two major strip clubs, the Gemini Hotel and Civic View Inn. Both downtown clubs were constantly under the eye of law enforcement. Strippers were regularly arrested on prostitution charges. Shootings, assaults and thefts were commonplace.

In 1974, Providence Police Chief Walter A. McQueeney asked the city’s license bureau to shut down both clubs, saying they were "wholesale prostitution" operations.

Prostitutes come "from all over the country because they have been told Providence is a place to make a buck," said McQueeney.

Around that time, the state police investigated allegations that officers from McQueeney’s police force got free liquor and sex from prostitutes at the two clubs.

A third, smaller strip club, the Peppermint Lounge, on Broadway, a hangout for mob figures, also had its share of shootings, fights and robberies.

All three clubs are gone today. The Gemini Hotel, near the site of the new Providence Police Station, was razed a few years ago. The Peppermint Lounge has been replaced by a parking lot; and the Civic View Inn is now home to The Sportsman’s Inn, a strip club on Fountain Street.

A lesser known club, Club Providence, at 257 Weybosset St., near the Providence Performing Arts Center, is still in business after 24 years. In 1979, the Providence police raided the private gay bathhouse for men, creating a firestorm of controversy that resulted in a court battle and a consent decree that barred the police from entering the club without a court warrant.

THE FOXY LADY changed the world of Providence strip clubs.

It opened in 1979 in downtown Providence, at the corner of Empire and Washington Streets, grew quickly, and moved to a former social club on Douglas Avenue. A few years later, it underwent a wholesale expansion and began marketing itself as the strip club with fit strippers, good food and a clean, safe environment.

Today, it’s the biggest, and arguably the best known, strip club in New England.

"We are a legend," said Tom Tsoumas, the club’s managing owner. "We really and truly are."

Tsoumas’s wife, Patricia, co-owns the club with James DeRentiis of Florida. Tsoumas takes umbrage when the Foxy Lady is lumped together with the other sex clubs in Providence.

Tsoumas is proud of his club, and its evolution into a business that employs about 300 people—not including 180 strippers—and brings in up to $4 million a year. He referred to his strippers as "professionals" who know how to make their customers feel important.

The strippers, unless they are star attractions, make all their money through tips. In fact, they pay the club for the privilege to disrobe in front of ogling men: $25 for a night shift; $15 for a day shift.

They quickly cover their expenses. A stripper working the night shift makes up to $700 a night—more on weekends, less on day shifts.

The club draws about 3,000 people a week. On a recent afternoon, Tsoumas led two reporters through a maze of darkened lounge areas. On the main dance floor, women slowly undressed on an elevated runway. Hulking security guards in tuxedos strolled through the club.

As he led the two reporters on a tour, Tsoumas pointed out the little touches that sets his club apart: refrigerated glass cabinets with $800 bottles of champagne; a large standup humidor with imported cigars; a free buffet lunch that featured chicken marsala and salad bar.

The Gold Room downstairs featured austere wood-paneled walls and comfortable padded benches. But, it had something missing from most boardrooms: an enclosed glass shower replete with a set of handcuffs.

"Many times [pro baseball player] Mo Vaughn will come here and relax with friends," said Tsoumas, adding that about 20 members of baseball’s Hall of Fame have visited his club.

It’s not unusual for someone to drop $2,000 to $3,000 in a few hours, he said.

CLEARLY, THE FOXY LADY brings in big money. This week, Mike Keeler, the club’s general manager, will pay Jenna Jameson, a California porn star, $28,000 for 90 minutes of work over three days. She will go through her 10-minute show nine times.

Keeler said the cover charge will be $30 to $50 for night performances; and $20 to $30 for matinee shows. He said the club pays her $28,000 for her 90 minutes of work; she collects another $40,000 in tips.

The Foxy Lady is all about temptation, Tsoumas says. There’s a no-contact policy that bars the customers from touching the strippers.

"It’s more aligned to an art form as opposed to something lewd and lascivious," Tsoumas said. "Come visit some of the others and then come over and see us. There is a clear dichotomy over how other people do it and how we do it."

One Friday night, 50 chartered buses from throughout New England pulled up to the club and dropped off hundreds of customers.

Tsoumas credited Mayor Cianci for transforming the state capital into an international city that has become a tourist destination. According to campaign finance reports, Tsoumas contributed $5,000 to Cianci’s campaign between 1994 and 2000.

"I think he’s the best mayor in the country," said Tsoumas. "I think he’s fabulous. I admire the man greatly."

THE FOXY LADY is generous when it comes to charitable causes. Tsoumas says the club has made contributions to the Providence police and fire departments, Smith Hill Community Center and once hosted a fundraiser for a boy suffering from leukemia.

The Foxy Lady also has attracted unwanted publicity.

In January 1993, a state police raid at the club led to the arrest of 26 people for participating in a multimillion-dollar gambling operation. Among those charged were Gaythorne "Poochie" Angell Jr.; two of his sons, and two ranking members of the Mafia.

The state police said that Poochie Angell and the two mobsters directed the gambling operation.

Tsoumas said the publicity surrounding the raid led to a 20-percent drop in business. He added that there was no evidence that the club was involved in the gambling operation, other than being a meeting place for some of those arrested.

Poochie Angell is described by the authorities as a bookmaker with close ties to the Patriarca crime family.

"He’s made countless appearances on the organized crime landscape in Providence," said Capt. Michael P. Iarossi, commander of the state police detective unit.

Tsoumas calls Angell "my best friend in the world," and a paid consultant for the Foxy Lady.

"I don’t believe he is associated with organized crime," Tsoumas said. "Personally, he is one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever met."

FEDERAL COURTS across the country have ruled in favor of strip clubs and sex stores, saying that businesses have constitutional rights to open in certain areas zoned for adult entertainment.

In 1991, after years of study, city officials in Providence rezoned the capital and enacted an amendment that addressed adult entertainment for the first time. The amendment allowed strip clubs in four zones: heavy industrial, industrial, heavy commercial and downtown mill districts.

The amendment also called for the clubs to be more than 200 feet from a residential zone. The existing clubs—the Foxy Lady, Sportsman’s Inn, Satin Doll and Club Fantasies—remained unaffected because they had opened long before the amendment was adopted.

Two years later, Cheaters, a strip club inside the large pink building at 245 Allens Ave., became the first sex club to open in the Allens Avenue industrial zone.

In 1994, the City Council amended the zoning ordinance again in an attempt to further restrict adult entertainment. That time, the council eliminated the heavy commercial and downtown mill districts. Now, sex clubs would only be permitted in industrial districts that were greater than 200 feet from a residential zone.

Nonetheless, the new zoning left several large areas in the city open for adult entertainment. They are: a long swath that runs from the intersection of Eddy Street and Allens Avenue almost two miles to the Cranston line; a strip that runs west on Harris Avenue toward Olneyville; and an area on the city’s north side that includes parts of lower Charles Street.

In 1999, the City Council amended the ordinance again, thinking that the city would, for all practical purposes, put an end to the future development of sex clubs. The amendment, citing the "adverse impact of adult entertainment on the citizens," said that any new business featuring adult entertainment uses must be at least 2,000 feet from a similar type of business. Further, it ordered the new adult entertainment businesses to be at least 500 feet from a residence, church, school, park, recreation area, library or open space.

The zoning changes have shrunk the available land in the city for adult entertainment from 21 percent of all land in the city to just less than 3 percent.

BUT THE ZONING restrictions did not slow the opening of sex clubs. Instead, they have had the opposite effect, with much of the growth in the industrial strip along Allens Avenue.

Mayor Cianci cringed in a recent interview when he saw a full-page advertisement in a gay publication announcing a soon-to-be opened strip club in Providence. The announcement reads in part, "Is Providence’s Renaissance Ready for a 6000 Sq Ft Gay Dance Club?"

"Who doesn’t capitalize on the Renaissance?" Cianci said. "That’s not what I had in mind, but it happens."

Cianci said that the city is not to blame for the expansion of the sex industry. He pulled out a two-page document prepared by the Law Department showing that, since he returned to office in 1991, the city has sued sex clubs 16 times.

The lawsuits led to the closings of Club Cabana and Cherry’s.

The problem, he said, is that state and federal courts regularly rule in favor of the clubs, citing their First Amendment rights to free speech.

"I don’t want that . . . in my city," Cianci said. "We have fought this on every single occurrence. It’s frustrating as hell."

In July 1999, Alex Bogossian of Cumberland applied for an adult entertainment license and sought to have a liquor license transferred to a new gay strip club, "Brief Encounters: Saints and Sinners," at 257 Allens Ave.

Members of the City Council and Board of Licenses rejected the applications, citing morality not zoning.

Councilor Balbina Young referred to the proposed club as "garbage," "trash," and "as contrary to Christian values."

Board member Margaret DeFelice was more direct with Bogossian.

"Start selling some religious goods or something," she said. "That’s what you ought to be doing. You ought to be ashamed of yourself."

Bogossian appealed the ruling in federal court. In February, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux, saying the board violated the First Amendment, overturned the Board of Licenses decision and ordered the city to grant Bogossian the licenses.

THERE HAVE BEEN other recent challenges.

In 1999, the city denied an application from the owners of the Cadillac Lounge to open video booths with x-rated movies in an adult bookstore outside the strip club.

The city, in denying the application, cited the 1999 amendment that called for new adult entertainment businesses to be at least 2,000 feet apart.

The club owners sued the city in federal court. That case is pending.

Cianci believes the clubs have flourished here for the same reasons others have come to the city—fine restaurants, new hotels, quality universities, a liberal environment and a booming arts community.

Providence also is located where Route 95 and Route 195 meet, one of most-traveled thoroughfares in New England.

"The roads all lead here and we’ve made it an attractive city to so many people," Cianci said.

THE BIGGEST cluster of sex clubs on Allens Avenue is less than a half-mile from the intersection of Routes 95 and 195.

Cheaters, the strip club inside the pink building at 245 Allens Ave., arrived first. In 1996, Studio 253 opened for business at 253 Allens Ave. It runs advertisements in The Providence Journal looking for lingerie models.

But a review of its Web site shows that the studio offers much more.

"Studio 253 has been the best kept secret in Providence, RI for over six years, offering the very finest in private lingerie modeling sessions, bondage, discipline and roleplaying . . . giving you the opportunity to explore your fetish or fantasy," the Web site reads. "These sessions are personally tailored to suit the submissive’s ideas of severity and the whims of the Mistress."

Next door is Adult Video News, an X-rated video and book shop at 255 Allens Ave.

Across a narrow road, Bay Street, two other sex establishments are at 257 Allens Ave. The address is a sprawling brick warehouse that houses two sex clubs: the Megaplex, the gay bathhouse where Massachusetts state health officials say four men may have contracted syphilis last year; and Club Flicxxx, an under-21 strip club and x-rated adult emporium.

A poster outside Club Flicxxx says the club features "nude table and couch dancing" on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Last month, Studio 253 moved from 253 to 257 Allens Ave.

The Megaplex is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A third club, Brief Encounters: Saints and Sinners, is expected to open this spring. Work crews are busy renovating the building.

Bogossian, through his lawyer, declined to be interviewed. Dennis D’Ambra, who runs Club Flicxxx, did not respond to an interview request.

A half-mile south is Amazing Express, a porn video and sex toy store, at 15 Thurbers Ave.

And, less than two miles north of the cluster, close to the Cranston line, another strip club, Teasers, has been given tentative approval to open at 63 Baker St. in the Washington Park neighborhood.

According to city property records, the buildings that house Teasers, Cheaters and Studio 253 are controlled by corporations that have listed H. Charles Tapalian as president or sole member.

Tapalian, a University of Rhode Island graduate and developer, is a big booster of the school’s athletic programs. He also has criminal convictions.

Court records show that, in 1978, he pleaded guilty to two counts of receiving stolen goods over $500. In 1982, he pleaded guilty to nine charges including attempted larceny, giving false documents to a public official and conspiracy for fraudulently obtaining more than $63,000 in Medicaid money.

Tapalian, who could not be reached for comment, also has contributed $3,500 to the Cianci political coffers in recent years, campaign records show.

The building at 257 Allens Ave. that houses the Megaplex, Club Flicxxx and soon, Brief Encounters: Saints and Sinners, is owned by Spur Track Properties, a limited partnership that does not list any officers. All communications are directed to H. Charles Tapalian and a post office box in Providence..

His son, David C. Tapalian, is named as the partnership’s registered agent.

Sgt. Peter Costello, of the police licensing bureau, called the red light district on Allens Avenue a "family business" run by the Tapalian clan.

In the coming years, there could be a major battle brewing between Cianci and the sex clubs on Allens Avenue. Cianci, providing he survives his criminal trial this spring, has plans to redevelop the waterfront across from the clubs on Allens Avenue.

He said the city will move to level the clubs through "eminent domain," meaning the city is granted the right to take over the properties in the name of development.

IN JANUARY, the Johnston police, acting on complaints, raided an X-rated video store and arrested seven men who were accused of engaging in sex. A few days later, one of the suspects killed himself.

Town officials came under fire from the gay community for conducting the raid and releasing the names and occupations to the media. The Providence Journal and other news outlets were accused of sensationalizing the arrests.

The police and town officials defended the arrests saying they were legitimate because the sexual activity was a health issue that occurred in a public place.

The Providence police know that similar conduct takes place in their city, but they choose not to conduct investigations like those in Johnston.

Lt. Steve Casbarro, who leads the Providence police vice unit, said that the department has focused more on street prostitution and massage parlors. In the past two years, the police have raided about two dozen massage parlors and arrested Asian women on prostitution charges.

The authorities have shut down many of the parlors, saying that they are a public nuisance.

Most of those investigations are prompted by neighborhood complaints.

Last month, the Providence police arrested Scott Cordischi, a popular sports talk show host on 790 The Score, in the city’s West End on charges that he picked up a prostitute. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of soliciting a prostitute; his case was filed for a year—meaning the charge will be erased from his record if he stays out of trouble.

LAST YEAR, the Providence police made 298 prostitution-related arrests.

The police say it is not a crime to have sex—as long as it’s between two consenting adults, no one is paying for it, and the activity does not take place in public.

Casbarro said the police receive few complaints about criminal activity at sex clubs in the city. The biggest problem, they said, is drunken rowdiness in the parking lots.

City officials took a look at the Megaplex after news outlets reported the possible syphilis outbreak. But, after further investigation and consulting the attorney general’s office, they felt there was little they could do.

The club does not have a liquor license, so the police cannot enter the building without a warrant. It has passed building and fire department inspections.

At one time, the police could have arrested club members who engaged in sodomy, but the General Assembly repealed that law in 1998. City officials believe that the repeal of that law led to the birth of the Megaplex.

Last fall, the state Health Department met with club owners and they agreed to adopt a series of safety measures including providing free condoms and prohibiting "lights out nights," where the lights are dimmed and members engage in sex with partners that they grab in the dark.

Casbarro acknowledged that it’s difficult to know whether criminal activity such as prostitution or drug use takes place in the gay clubs because it is difficult to get an undercover officer willing to investigate.

Furthermore, he said that the officer who walks into a bathhouse must engage in sex or the other patrons will become suspicious. Casbarro also said he believes the patrons don’t pay for sex.

ON THE OTHER side of the city, the Black Key Club has opened for business at [address deleted at Club owner's request], an industrial area near the corner of Pleasant Valley Parkway and Valley Streets, according to the Providence police.

Co-owner of the club, ["Scratch" full name deleted at Scratch's request], speaks openly about his club. It serves couples, gays, bisexuals and anyone else over 21 who is willing to go through a screening process and pay up to $500 in annual dues.

[Scratch], who lives near Boston and is the club’s registered agent, bought the Black Key Club franchise about a year ago and kept it going in Providence. He said it’s the only chapter in the world and it has 600 members from across New England and as far away as Australia and California.

The club, which [Scratch] says "attracts an upscale clientele," has four to six events each month. Members must make reservations and pay separate fees for each event—$100 for single men, $75 for couples and $25 for single women.

Among the recent events were "Couples Only," "Insatiable Night" and a "Slave Auction."

"Want to impress that really special someone," said an advertisement for the auction on its Web site. "Buy them. The Slave Auction starts at 10 p.m. sharp, so get there early for the best selection!"

[Scratch], who would like to open a half-dozen chapters around the country, said he has a waiting list of about 300 single men. The club promotes safe sex and has an ample supply of batteries for sex toys.

[Scratch] also said that married people looking to cheat on their spouses are not welcome. He said that the club doesn’t need its membership records subpoenaed in a divorce case.

The Black Key Club is nothing like the other sex clubs, he said.

"It’s a good day for a strip club when a drunken bachelor party shows up," [Scratch] said. "That never happens in my club."

Why is Providence a good city in which to run such a business?

"It’s a city going through a Renaissance," [Scratch] said. "It’s an intellectually exciting city and a tolerant environment."

[Home] [News] [Rhode Island]