When historian and podcaster Natalia Petrzela started researching Chippendales, the classic, campy male revue, she found there was a lot more to it than bachelorette parties and bowties.
“The more I looked at Chippendales the more I realized that this is not just a story about the commodification of women’s liberation,” Petrzela says. “It’s also a story about an immigrant with a big American dream. It’s about capitalism and pop culture in the 1980s. It’s about crime, greed and ambition gone awry.”
That immigrant was Indian Somen “Steve” Banerjee, who opened Chippendales on the Westside of Los Angeles more than 40 years ago to the delight of squealing women. The most famous all-male exotic revue is still a global brand and the ultimate girls’ night out. Petrzela talks about its heyday in her new Spotify true crime podcast, Welcome to Your Fantasy. An author and associate professor of history at the New School in New York City, Petrzela is also a certified fitness instructor. Her podcast goes behind the ripped tank tops and into the club’s surprisingly sordid origins, which involve murder, suicides, and a manhunt.
Petrzela’s research revolves around two central figures: Banerjee and Nick De Noia. After moving from Bombay to L.A. in the late-1960s, Banerjee worked as a janitor and owned two gas stations before buying a cocktail lounge on 3739 Overland Avenue in Palms in 1975, calling it Destiney II. Banerjee and his partner Bruce Nahin tried magic shows, dinner theater, female mud wrestling, and other gimmicks to generate business, but none took off. Paul Snider, a club regular and self-proclaimed “Jewish pimp” from Canada, suggested to Banerjee that he stage an all-male strip night. Chippendales opened in 1979. The name, a nod to 18th-century British furniture designer Sir Thomas Chippendale, was meant to evoke “pure class.”
The club was an instant hit. This was during the Golden Age of Porn, when films like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door had become chic. Snider trolled gyms and beaches looking for talent. His wife, a Playboy Playmate of the Year named Dorothy Stratten, came up with the cuffs-and-collar uniform for the dancers. Banerjee cast predominantly white Adonises to entertain women who showed up for birthday and bachelorette parties.
“Banerjee wanted a classy club, and for him, classy meant white,” Petrzela tells Los Angeles. “Although as the show matured, there was often one black dancer at a time. But it’s important to realize how deliberately this was constructed as a white space in a city that is extraordinarily diverse. What Chippendales was creating was a new masculine ideal, which was white, really buff, and clean cut.”
Snider murdered Stratten, then an actress on the rise, and killed himself in 1980, and their deaths became the basis of the Bob Fosse film Star 80. The following year, Banerjee hired De Noia, an Emmy-winning children’s TV producer originally from New Jersey, to produce and choreograph for Chippendales. The club’s well-oiled, Spandex-wearing hunks dressed up as characters: cowboys, cavemen, construction workers, Superman, “the Unknown Flasher” in a trench coat and paper hat. Most popular of them all was Michael Rapp, who performed as “the Perfect Man,” a routine reminiscent of Frankenstein. The show spawned tours, calendars, and workout videos; the men appeared on talk shows; and it even inspired the famous Saturday Night Live sketch where Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley audition as dancers. A second location opened in New York in 1983.
“Part of the attraction was the novelty of men stripping for women,” says Petrzela. “This was something new. You can go out with your friends and be wild and unapologetic about your sexual desires.”
But there had been long-standing tension between De Noia and Banerjee, who resented the choreographer for taking credit for the club’s success. In 1987, he hired a hitman to kill De Noia in New York. Banerjee also tried to burn down competing clubs and have ex-dancers killed. Banerjee was arrested on charges of attempted arson, racketeering, and murder for hire. He hanged himself in an L.A. jail in 1994.
For her podcast, Petrzela includes archival interviews with De Noia and Banerjee, who bragged to the press that 600 women showed up on the club’s opening night. You can hear them in the audio footage screaming “take it off!”—the club’s only rule was “no touching.” Petrzela also interviewed former dancers, customers, employees, investigators, and even a now-94-year-old neighbor who still lives across the street from the original venue, currently a senior care center.
Some argue Chippendales promoted feminism, while others, including Petrzela, say the creators were “primarily interested in making money.”
“The kind of women’s empowerment Chippendales was selling was essentially role reversal,” says Petrzela. “‘Now you can hoot and holler at naked men. Now you can stuff money in their G-strings.’ While there’s a thrill to that, it’s a little bit hollow.”
After De Noia and Banerjee died, the clubs shuttered. New owners bought and revitalized the brand in 2000. (For a time, Lou Pearlman, who managed Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, was a partner. Pearlman went to prison for running a Ponzi scheme and died in 2016).
Now housed in a $10 million-dollar complex in Vegas’ Rio hotel, Chippendales attracts millennials, thanks in part to the success of Magic Mike and The Full Monty, similar shows like Thunder from Down Under, and C-list celebs who occasionally pop up as guest hosts. There’s even a feature film in the works, with I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie and Slumdog Millionaire actor Dev Patel attached.
“People aren’t just watching for sexual titillation,” Petrzela says about the show’s enduring appeal. “They’re going out to have a social experience with their girlfriends. It’s a safe space for women.”
Episode one of Welcome to Your Fantasy, produced by Spotify and Pineapple Street Studios in association with Gimlet, launches Wednesday, February 10.
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