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Male revues approaching middle age, but they aren't throwing in the thong just yet

SPRING HILL

On a Friday night sheeted in rain, 400 women gathered. Birthday girls in sashes, moms in capri pants, grandmothers with cotton puff hair and lips curled as if they had a secret.

They bought $3 soft pretzels from the "Men-U," plus carafes of pink wine, and settled at banquet tables inside the Palace Grand ballroom. Some hadn't been to a male revue in a decade, or ever. Some were getting married, or divorced. Others were sent by husbands in hopes they'd come home in special moods.

The men of Florida Hardbodies sauntered through the ballroom in tuxedos. It was a demure start, teeming with anticipation.

"Ladies," said Anthony Labrada, "this evening we'll make your fantasies come true. You will enter the pleasure zone."

Women's tastes have changed over the past 30 years, and male revues are creeping toward middle age. They have grown up and settled in the suburbs, but they're not ready to retire yet.

Hoochie Coochie Man by Eric Clapton played. The men rolled their hips in a syrupy circle. They unsnapped a suspender.

Hollywood's version of male stripping is glossy and cool. It has a minister with chiseled abs. Channing Tatum.

He worked as a stripper in Tampa in the 1990s. His stripper name was Chan Crawford. He looked like a member of a boy band — that is, until he took off his clothes and writhed around in nothing but socks and a yellow thong.

Now he's a star. A movie that draws from his stripper past comes out Friday. Director Steven Soderbergh filmed some of Magic Mike here, setting it in a fictional club called Xquisite on Dale Mabry Highway. Tatum plays a stripper so flush he wads his cash with rubber bands. It's set in the present, suggesting that any night of the week you can find men dressed like firefighters hosing down your city's lusty women.

Maybe it used to be like that. But male revues are as timeworn as a Members Only jacket. By the time Tatum started stripping, the art form had already started to decline. He usually made $150 a night, he said.

"Guys who did this back in the '80s and '90s, it was more of a career ethic, probably," said Tatum. "It was a bigger thing then. I only did this for about eight months of my life, I think. It was fun, it was crazy, but I never intended to do it forever."

As entertainment options opened up for women — drink specials, ladies nights — male revues cooled off in the city. So the strippers headed to the country, to the suburbs, to bars and ballrooms and wedding venues nestled between strip malls and car dealerships.

"It was around 2008," said Labrada. "It just all started going down and down. It's about 40 percent of what it used to be. There were companies making real good money. I've heard stories from the guys back in the late '80s and early '90s. They would do a club in Tampa on a Monday night and literally 2 miles down the road they would do another the next night."

Labrada started stripping 12 years ago. He's 32, the same age as Channing Tatum. He now owns Florida Hardbodies, an Orlando company that employs about 20 guys who travel Florida stripping mostly at private parties, performing in male revues when they can.

There is something enduring about his job, he said.

"People that look at it from the outside don't really realize what we accomplish," said Labrada. "We're entertainers. I'd put us in the same category as, for instance, a clown or a singing telegram. We're there to help them have a good time, but give them something to remember. Anytime they have strippers, they remember it 100 years from now."

• • •

For $5, the ladies of Spring Hill were invited to go up and get a personal performance from men with stage names like Victor Love and Zsolt, who wore molded-cup underwear, cowboy boots and cop suits.

For a moment, it was very still. How could they? They were teachers. Mothers. Someone might see.

Then, as if they all stopped caring at once, dozens came. They streamed to the front with crumpled fives in their hands plus extra for tipping, fingers cupped over lips in nervous giggles. There were handcuffs and jokes about cavity checks. The men danced and thrusted, using a kind of stripper ESP to read who could be picked up, spanked, teased a little harder.

Labrada has seen his share of scuffles between dancers and angry husbands. He doesn't usually employ guys as young as Channing Tatum was back then. They don't know their limits. It's about pushing the titillation and pulling back, not getting punched.

"What else do people do on a Friday night in Spring Hill?" Labrada asked. "I bet they're home playing poker or watching a reality television show. But you girls are here!"

A cowboy named Tommy Cole worked the crowd. "Where are all my sexy older ladies?"

Lucille Pelletier waved her hands. She is 75. It was her first male revue. "It's enlightening," she said.

Her son died four years ago. His wife had been stressed and sad ever since. Lucille suggested they go to the male revue. "I love her like my daughter," she said. "And I'd do anything for her. She needs this."

• • •

When men watch women strip, there's a mystery, a sense of creeping compunction. It's sexual, serious.

Women are different. Perhaps for the same reason science hasn't given us female Viagra, male stripping is not so effortless.

"Girls don't look at us and say, 'Oh, their bodies, I have to go see this,' " said Labrada. "It's not like when guys see a girl. We know that we have to put on a show and be charming and theatrical."

No male revue knows it better than Chippendales. The concept debuted in 1979 with hunks named after sturdy furniture. To see a male revered, teased and objectified was fresh and exhilarating for women. Chippendales became so legendary, they earned a Saturday Night Live skit with Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley.

Male stripping followed in Tampa Bay. In 1989, three male dancers were arrested in Clearwater for "obscene behavior" at a ladies night. In 1997, a club on Dale Mabry had a weekly male revue with models who looked like Fabio. If you were in Ybor City on Friday nights, you could see men grinding at Bourbon Street. Tatum stripped around Tampa with a company called Male Encounter before he got work modeling and dancing in a Ricky Martin video.

But even back then, booking a male revue could be a gamble. Tampa nude club impresario Joe Redner tried to open male clubs twice in 20 years, he said, including one called Mr. Buns. It never caught on.

"I was interested in something for seven days a week," Redner said. "They'd do a male revue at a place and someone else would try it and it'd be gone. It was one day."

Chippendales revamped its show in 2001, moving from New York to Las Vegas.

"We have to keep it going, keep it current, keep it moving, keep it professional," said Chippendales spokesman Michael Caprio. "Without that, it can easily fall into the cheese factor."

The show abandoned bikini thongs for boot-cut jeans. It was choreographed like an MTV video. Tipping was out. Celebrity hosts were in.

As much as the brand distinguishes itself from the "strip and tip" operations in small towns and Magic Mike, management is pretty pleased about the movie.

"I think this movie is not only going to bring it back to the forefront and make girls go, 'That is so much fun,' " Caprio said. "It's going to make a lot of spinoffs."

• • •

Labrada burst onstage dressed like a nerd in high-water pants and a bow tie. He popped his hips to I'm Too Sexy.

Some women went up for the third and fourth time. Labrada stripped down to a tiny blue thong. The other strippers worked the audience, dancing on tables. At one point, there were no men onstage, only women tossing their hair and shuffling their sensible sandals where the men used to be. The sex factor had almost disappeared.

All five strippers offered to pose for group photos after the show, for $10. Women reached hungrily into their wallets, laughing.

Florida Hardbodies as a company earned about $100 profit that night. Ten years ago, it would have made $1,000. Each dancer took home $350 in tips, which doesn't last long when you're traveling across the state. They had more shows to do, in DeBary, Jacksonville, Lake Worth.

They hoped in three months they would be welcomed back to strip again in Spring Hill.

Times movie critic Steve Persall contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8857.

Male revues approaching middle age, but they aren't throwing in the thong just yet 06/20/12 [Last modified: Monday, July 2, 2012 6:23pm]

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