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Valrico bikini bar not the hotbed of trouble predicted

In June 2005, protesters picket the proposed opening of Showgirls. Their prophecy of crime and disaster if the men’s club arrived has not proved true, the Sheriff’s Office says.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times (2005)

In June 2005, protesters picket the proposed opening of Showgirls. Their prophecy of crime and disaster if the men’s club arrived has not proved true, the Sheriff’s Office says.

VALRICO — Pickles is having a tough night.

Riella sprained her ankle, and now she's hobbling around in her bikini and platform heels. Not sexy. Bad for business. Pickles tells her to go home.

Then some guy shows up asking for Sabrina. "That's my kid's father," she explains.

"He can call you in the daytime," Pickles tell her.

Pickles sighs, lights up another cigarette. The night is just beginning.

Pickles — real name Michael Ciaramella — is the manager at Showgirls on State Road 60 in Valrico, the only adult-oriented club in the Brandon area, and he knows what people think.

They take a look at the mirrors, the pole, the glow-in-the-dark carpeting, and they assume that managing a bikini bar is a big party every night.

"They don't understand what goes into it," he says.

They don't understand what hard work it is keeping a place like this titillating enough to draw clients but clean enough to keep out of trouble with the cops.

It's a delicate balance.

When Showgirls opened in 2006, local pastors and community members protested. They foretold disaster. Crime rates would rocket, they said. The bar would be a magnet for lowlifes, troublemakers and hoodlums.

So far they've been wrong, said Cpl. Luther Core of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office vice squad.

The department hasn't had any complaints recently about Showgirls, he said, and the bar isn't a trouble spot.

Eyes wide open

Activists who always opposed Showgirls claim credit for the restraint.

"There hasn't been a rise in crime because both the Sheriff's Department and the business itself have been very aware of the fact that the eyes of the community are upon them," said Terry Kemple, a Brandon resident and past president of the Christian Coalition of Florida.

Still, that's not to say the authorities don't keep an eye on Showgirls.

"Just the nature of the business — you have women and men operating in a sexually compromising situation, the dancing, the alcohol — there's a lot of temptation there," Core said.

Pickles says he has been in the bar business for more than 20 years, managing sports bars, strip clubs and everything in between.

It's good business to keep your nose clean, he says.

In his closet-sized office, Pickles watches over 32 video cameras.

"You've got to keep an eye on the girls; you've got to keep an eye on the guests," he says. "You've got to keep an eye on everything that happens."

These are the rules: If there's alcohol, there's no nudity. There's no touching between dancers and patrons, not even in the VIP booths in the back. No drugs.

A sheet of paper taped behind the bar lists how many drinks each girl can have before she gets cut off. Pickles' word is law.

Dancers aren't employed by the club; they're independent contractors. There's no house charge for them to dance, but they have to share profits with the bartender and the DJ and give the house a share of their take from private dances in the VIP room.

When a new dancer comes in, Pickles tells her how it is.

"First of all, you are a lady and an entertainer," he says. "You have to be treated like a lady and act like a lady."

At the end of their shifts, Pickles has someone walk them to their cars. Safety first, he says.

Tending the whole shebang

Pickles isn't the only one watching over the club. Behind the bar, Gary Mack builds cocktails. Most of the staffers and customers think he's just the bartender.

He's really the owner, but he likes to keep it on the Q.T. He says it helps him keep the bar running smoothly if he can keep tabs on things incognito.

Mack bought the business from the original owner, Jamie Rand, mostly as an investment, he said. The property, fronting State Road 60, across from Home Depot, is sure to be worth a lot if he times it right.

Meanwhile, he said, the bar is breaking even.

Tonight, a weeknight, there's only a handful of customers. A dancer barges into Pickles' office and complains that he has scheduled too many dancers for too slow a night.

Pickles sends her back on the floor. She calls him a name, fondly.

"You know you love me," he calls after her.

He never socializes with the dancers. Doesn't go out drinking with them.

He works from 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. When he gets off work, he goes home to his apartment.

He doesn't have a lot of furniture. In the fridge, there's only bottled water.

Work is his life, he says.

What does he do for fun?

Pickles has to think about it. Finally he says that on his days off he goes fishing.

Just him in a boat on the water. No thumping music. No complaining dancers.

Peaceful, he says.

Then he goes back to work.

Times staff writer Andrew Meacham contributed to this report.

Valrico bikini bar not the hotbed of trouble predicted 06/05/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 11, 2008 4:19pm]

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