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Say this for the nightclub located in the shadow of Nationals Park: You’ll pay a lot less to see guys grab their crotches here than anywhere in Major League Baseball. The doors open for free to anyone repeating the password of the night, which is regularly posted on the club’s website. “I want to see naked men,” earned this reporter free entry to the 1824 Half St. SW establishment one recent evening.
The venue is split into two distinct enterprises. On the lower level is Ziegfeld’s, where performers in drag host weekend cabarets. Upstairs is Secrets, where nude male dancers gyrate on the bar and atop raised platforms throughout the club, wearing only socks and shoes.
Sometimes baseball fans straggle into Secrets without realizing, a door man explains. They usually leave fairly quickly.
The venue was once part of a thriving gay nightlife scene in what was then a distant corner of the city where club owners could do their business blissfully free of the usual quarrels with neighbors who might protest booze and debauchery. “For a good part of this decade, there wasn’t much else in that [area],” says local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner David Sobelsohn. “There wasn’t a whole lot of concern about the clubs.”
That changed in 2005, when the city invoked eminent domain to make way for the shiny new baseball stadium that was supposed to make the Anacostia waterfront safe for out-of-town visitors. In came ballpark outlets for Ben’s Chili Bowl and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Out went Glorious Health and Amusements—“The Glory Hole,” to regulars at the three-decade old arcade and theater—as well as establishments with names like Heat, the Nexus Gold Club, Wet and The Edge.
In 2007, the D.C. Council passed legislation intended to help the displaced clubs relocate, but it didn’t really work out that way. “There were so many restrictions. It didn’t do any good to keep these clubs from getting killed off,” says Rick Rosenthal of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance.
Only Ziegfeld’s & Secrets managed to re-emerge nearby, in a spot just a few blocks away across South Capitol Street. “I never thought it would reopen,” says longtime DJ Steve Henderson. “They tried and tried and tried. They were promised a building almost immediately and it just never happened. It was a nightmare.”
But the lack of competition wasn’t the only change owner Allen Carroll noticed after re-launching the club in February 2009. District authorities are suddenly a lot more persnickety about rules and regulations there. In the nearly 40 years that Ziegfeld’s & Secrets operated before baseball, the club was never once cited for alcohol violations, according to the proprietors and to officials from the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. Yet in the short time since baseball’s arrival and the club’s relocation, it has been repeatedly cited for violations.
In June, after its latest run-in with regulators—Ziegfeld’s & Secrets was shuttered for five days for liquor-law no-nos. Management used the club’s website to label the action a travesty. “PUNISHMENT—NOT. INJUSTICE—YES,” the site read.
The trouble dates back to the club’s re-opening weekend in February 2009, when police informed ABRA regulators that the club appeared to be allowing patrons to consume alcoholic beverages after approved hours. An investigator arriving on the scene at 2:13 a.m. that Monday spotted at least two patrons drinking beer, ABRA records show. Moments later, while the investigator was speaking to management about the after-hours consumption, a fight reportedly broke out between two female patrons; one of whom was placed in a headlock “causing her to strike her head on a nearby wall,” according to an ABRA report.
An officer from the Metropolitan Police Department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, which was on hand during the club’s opening weekend, told the liquor agent that club employees “did everything they were supposed to do” to handle the brawl, the report notes, though he added that the venue “would benefit greatly” from additional security.
The night before, at around 1:20 a.m., officers had responded to another assault at the club, where a patron was reportedly punched in the face after his assailant recognized him as “the person who had bullied him in elementary school,” ABRA records show. The assailant “appeared to be a ‘lunatic’–possibly drunk or on some kind of drugs,” the victim told police. Again, cops praised the staff for doing “a good job” in handling the situation, the report notes.
Less than a month later, on March 6, authorities were again called to the scene after a patron allegedly assaulted one of the nude dancers, identified in documents as Arthur “AJ” King. “A male patron tried twice to grab Mr. King’s penis as Mr. King was dancing nude on an elevated box,” according to ABRA documents, which note the club’s “no touching” policy. “During the first attempt, the patron managed to touch Mr. King’s penis. During both attempts, Mr. King swatted the patron’s hand away.” He also “instructed the patron that he could not touch his [Mr. King’s] penis.”
When bartender Matthew Banford noticed the commotion, he rushed to aid King. He escorted the patron to a cab, but the patron pushed the bartender twice in the chest. Then he was arrested. Although there are normally three to five security guards present in the establishment, King told ABRA that he didn’t see any security on the night in question.
The club’s regulatory troubles were exacerbated by an ABRA investigation in December, in which two investigators “observed five to six nude male performers, standing on individual pedestals, each performing a sexual act on themselves (masturbation),” in apparent violation of D.C. Code, according to an agency report, which includes a grainy photo of one performer touching himself. Patrons were also observed “rubbing and massaging the performers about the body (not the genital area) and the performers did the same to the patrons,” the report notes.
In May, the club agreed to settle its violations by serving a 20-day suspension of its liquor license—15 days stayed, provided the club receives no further violations over the next year—and paying a $4,000 fine.
The punitive closure didn’t sit well with some members of the gay community.
“This comes down to another case of blue-nosed busy bodies, using the government to try to impose their delicate sensibilities on the rest of the population,” says the GLAA’s Rosenthal, who thinks it’s unfair that “when any altercation breaks out, it’s automatically blamed on the establishment, even if the establishment summons the authorities, even if they make it clear that they don’t tolerate it and make every effort to remedy it.”
In a statement posted on the club’s website, proprietor Carroll, who declined to be interviewed for this story, concurred: “We’ve served our gay community for over 40 years without infractions with the ABC Board. We were forced out of business for three years due to the city invoking eminent domain to take possession of our former home to make way for the construction of the Washington Nationals Stadium.
“After our three-year fight to reopen, which included a difficult search for a new building, we have been subjected to the utmost scrutiny from the ABC Board.”
At a hearing in May, ABC Board Chairman Charles Brodsky told Carroll that his business wasn’t being singled out for enforcement; it was simply a matter of law and order.
“We support businesses all up and down the social economy food chain of way, shape and form. Yours is no different,” Brodsky stated. “But at the end of the day, the ABC [license], it’s a privilege. You have to operate in good conduct to keep it.”