As the after-work party winds down, I say my good nights and head for the front door of the Yacht Club of Bethesda, a dimly lit suburban Maryland watering hole. As I near my objective, a 50ish woman clad in a sharp-looking business suit glides off her bar stool and squarely into my path.
“Hello,” she says locking on my eyes. “Who are you?”
“What brings you here, Randall?”
I tell her about the party, a professional get-together for people involved with the radio business.
“Would you like to have a drink?”
I explain that I’m running late and attempt to step around her to the right. But I’m too slow, and she jumps into my escape path.
“Are you sure?” she persists.
I tell her that someone is waiting for me and that I really, really must go.
As I maneuver to the left, I’m met shadowlike by the woman, who’s intent on having the last word.
“Well, OK,” she says with a hint of a pout. “If you come in again, look for me.”
I don’t come in again for a long time. Nothing in life prepared me for the experience of being hit on by a woman my mother’s age. But weep not for my would-be partner: There are plenty of kids her own age to play with at the Yacht Club.
In the four-and-a-half years since the club opened in the basement of the Bethesda Holiday Inn, it has become the favored haunt of Washington’s older singles: the area’s ever-growing cadre of 35-plus divorcées, never-marrieds, widows, and widowers. In any given week, roughly 2,000 people invade its cramped faux art deco confines to do a little drinking, dancing, and mingling. In many ways, the Yacht Club is no different from the innumerable local bars catering to young singles. It’s a crowded, loud, dark, smoky place that radiates a sexual heat generated by the friction of endless interaction between hopeful, horny individuals. And like any singles club—or church social or Parents Without Partners meeting, for that matter—the Yacht Club evokes complex emotions among its more self-aware patrons.
“Some nights you can go in there and get incredibly depressed by seeing all these middle-age people with nothing better to do,” says a patron in his mid-50s who frequents the Yacht Club and doesn’t want people to know it. “Seeing 50-year-old people trying to pick each other up—it’s so sleazy.”
But there’s one key difference between the Yacht Club and younger-skewing nightspots. With careful nurturing from owner/MC Tommy Curtis, the club has earned a reputation as the singles bar to visit when you don’t want to be single much longer: a lair where potential husbands and wives lurk in significant numbers. You wanna dance, drink, watch people, score? There are plenty of places to go. But if you are a white suburban professional of a certain age who is ready to get on with the hard business of finding or replacing a lifemate, sooner or later you make an appearance at the Yacht Club.
Presiding over this landlocked Love Boat is veteran D.C. nightclub owner Curtis, a diminutive 47-year-old who has been pimping for his generation for the past 25 years. Since the late ’60s, Curtis—the ultimate opportunist of love—has slavishly tracked his demographic cohorts’ ever-changing social norms and sexual mores. When swingin’ single was hip, Tommy gave Washington its first self-proclaimed pickup joint and dispensed advice to help guys “get laid.” When disco was king, he helped open the city’s first straight discotheque; when the bar scene was white-hot, he owned a piece of some of the city’s wildest watering holes. And now that safe sex—and steady relationships—are said to be back in style, this unctuous, squeaky-voiced, hyperkinetic, publicity-crazy, weak-palmed confirmed bachelor is once again the man to see: a matchmaker in elevator shoes and thinning but ambitiously coiffed gray hair.
“Tommy’s in the happiness business,” says PR man Charlie Brotman, a longtime friend. “Twenty-five years ago, when the kids were looking for one-night stands, Tommy was there to help. Now that they’ve grown up, gotten tired of just bopping each other and want somebody to spend their life with, he’s there again. He just wants everybody to be happy.”
But Tommy Curtis also wants—and needs—something else that the Yacht Club provides: attention.
“Awwww, freak out!”
The Yacht Club is just waking up on this warm Saturday evening in early fall. Chic’s 1978 disco hit pulses out of the DJ’s booth and across the empty dance floor, ricocheting unimpeded off the matte gray walls, brushed steel railings, and Erté prints of the small (4,000 square foot) club. A smattering of customers have planted themselves in strategic locations. The women perch in clusters of two and three at the tables, each of which sports a little pink lamp. The men—many of them in suits, most of them alone—are either hunched self-consciously around the long rectangular bar that fills the left side of the club, or slouched stone-faced against the wall located closest to the bar and farthest from the dance floor. A thirtysomething woman in a bright red sheath wanders, drink in hand, toward the back seating area. She’s followed closely by a Dr. Ruth lookalike in another red number, this one with puffed sleeves that lend it a suspicious resemblance to a high-school prom dress. It’s a dating phenomenon nearly unique to the Yacht Club habitat: the mother-daughter hunting pair.
Suddenly, Curtis glides in from the front entrance with a trio of women who could be anywhere from a hard-life 35 to a fresh and rested 45. As he ushers them to stools at the front corner of the bar—a much sought-after locale that gives them a first look at newcomers while showcasing their own charms—Tommy is plowing some serious snow.
“I’ve got some great seats for you here. I want you right up front tonight,” he tells the women.
“Did you get your hair cut?” he inquires of the pack’s apparent leader. “What did you do with it? I really like it this way.”
When the woman, clad in a black sequined jacket, dismisses him as a shameless flatterer, Curtis feigns hurt. “You think I don’t notice these things?”
Oh, he notices, all right. The women of Curtis’ generation couldn’t ask for a more ardent champion. The elfin club owner is their biggest booster, touting his female clientele—whom he refers to as “ladies” or “lovely ladies”—as confident, successful individuals who can hold their own professionally with any man and who typically look 10 years younger than they actually are.
“I’ve always loved older women,” says Curtis. “When I was a boy, I loved my mother’s friends. When I was younger, I dated older women; now I’m lucky, those women are my age.”
It frustrates him to no end, he sighs, that guys in their 30s and 40s don’t appreciate these lovely ladies as much as he does. He feels the pain of the 42-year-old woman who finds herself competing in bars against a pack of lithe twentysomethings in stretch minis cut up to here and down to there.
“Men have always told me they like younger women because they are good-looking and enthusiastic,” says Curtis, shaking his head. “But if they come here, they see that there are a lot of older women who are good-looking and enthusiastic.”
His club aims to boost the odds for those women. Everything about the place—from Curtis’ elaborate concern for his customers’ happiness to the jacket-and-tie dress code to the oldies and disco-intensive music, to his relentless promotion of the club as a place to meet your next spouse—is designed not only to appeal to lovely ladies of a certain age, but also to ward off those damnable young babes whose siren song is so irresistible to older men.
“Maybe I’m like [Phil] Donahue,” muses Curtis. “Maybe I pander to women 35 to 54. Everything I do is geared to make them comfortable. I give them a lot of compliments—tell them when they’re looking good. I get upset if two out of 202 women don’t have a good time.”
And Tommy’s definition of a good time is pretty rigorous. “If they don’t meet somebody, I don’t think they’ve had a good time.”
While Tommy’s affection for older women seems genuine enough, there’s more than a bit of self-interest involved in his assiduous courting. The Yacht Club, like every nightspot, is designed to lure big-spending men. And as any bartender who’s ever given a bored-looking woman a free drink to keep her on her stool can tell you, you gotta take care of that bait. By relentlessly sucking up to the ladies, Tommy is really trying to suck in the men.
“You get this many women in one place,” Curtis himself observes, “and the men will come—they will come.”
The Yacht Club concept occurred to Tommy Curtis in early 1988, after he had squired a lovely lady friend to a Saturday night dinner at Bethesda’s Tragara Ristoranté. The meal was delightful and the evening was going swimmingly—until Tommy and his date set out in search of somewhere to party. They got in his El Dorado and drove from place to place, finding nothing but frustration along Wisconsin Avenue. Every bar they stopped at—Malarkey’s, EJ Bradley’s, the lobby bar in the Bethesda Hyatt—was either too casual, too loud, or just too young.
“There wasn’t a place where somebody over 35 could go to have a drink, do a little dancing, maybe hold a lady in his arms,” Curtis says. “Older people don’t want to go to a place and sit next to a 22-year-old who was getting sick in the men’s room” a few minutes earlier.
Sniffing opportunity, Curtis huddled with his partners—Frank Polar, who handles the business side of the club, and a Bethesda real estate investor whom Curtis refuses to identify. Together, they drew up a plan.
The Yacht Club opened in April 1989 in the Holiday Inn space, which over the years has been home to several failed ventures including a nonalcoholic nightclub for teen-agers. The place is neither club (there is no cover, much less a membership roster) nor yacht club (there’s no nautical decor, and the Potomac is miles away); however, it was hoped that the name would lend an image of upscale exclusivity. Of course, a shopworn hotel that caters to National Institutes of Health visitors may not seem like the ideal site for a glitzy nightspot, but Curtis says that operating out of the Holiday Inn dramatically lowers his overhead costs. The hotel supplies him with food service, handles liquor orders, and provides other support in exchange for an undisclosed percentage of the club’s revenues. As for any possible image problem, Curtis says he has succeeded in separating his bar’s identity from the hotel’s. It helps, he points out, that the club entrance is located around the block from the Holiday Inn’s front door. Hotel management confirms that Curtis’ efforts to distance the club from its host have been successful; relatively few hotel guests visit the place.
“We’re a destination bar,” says Curtis.
Curtis won’t talk finances, except to say that he and the developer are 50-50 partners in the management company that owns the Yacht Club.
But knowledgeable observers figure the business must be a cash cow.
“I’ve got to think he’s doing well,” says veteran D.C. club owner Mike O’Harro. “It’s been packed every time I’ve been in there.”
Curtis returns to the bar with an attractive, 40ish Asian woman, whom he seats next to a beefy white man who looks to be pushing 55.
“Congressman, I have someone I want you to meet,” Tommy says. “This is her first cruise on the Love Boat.”
“He’s not a congressman,” Curtis confides conspiratorially. “I give the men titles—congressman, admiral, judge—when I introduce them.”
It’s an icebreaker, Curtis explains, that forces the man to talk about what he really does for a living. And God knows, with some of these guys you need more icebreakers than the Coast Guard. One of the biggest obstacles to his relentless pandering is the timidity of these men; Tommy finds himself constantly reminding a reluctant Romeo that the woman at the bar is not going to dust him like that cheerleader did back in 1974—or like his ex-wife did last year. No indeed, this woman is a mature and confident individual who sees beyond a man’s visage to such things as his personality and professional success. And while she may not want to date you, neither will she publicly humiliate you. After all, if she’s so much better off than you, what’s she doing sitting alone here in a singles bar?
Occasionally, if that lecture doesn’t work, Curtis will take matters into his own hands. “If they won’t do anything,” he says with a shrug, “I send a drink over to the woman and say it’s from the guy.”
After all, Tommy just wants everybody to be happy. So he spends a good part of every evening introducing his customers to one another. It’s a service they seem to appreciate and one he clearly enjoys. Going to the Yacht Club and not having Tommy introduce you to someone is like going to Cafe Lautrec and not seeing the guy tap dance on the bar. As a result, the various fawning media reports that the club has inspired (mostly through Curtis’ tireless self-promotion) invariably mention marriages the club has spawned. Reporters marvel at Tommy’s matchmaking acumen, but Curtis admits that he’s usually acting on little more than a hunch when he drags a man or a woman halfway across the bar to meet someone that he himself met just moments before.
“A psychic once told me that I’m not psychic, but I have a strong ability to learn from life experiences,” he avows. “I’ve learned a lot about human nature from all the stories I’ve heard about people’s relationships.”
Curtis’ reputation could also be an example of the old truism that even a blind hog roots up an acorn now and then. Anybody who makes a hundred introductions a night, as Curtis does, is bound to be responsible for a few successes over five years.
And success is in the air tonight. So, of course, is love. The Yacht Club has reached its 299-person capacity, as it usually does on weekend nights. While his clientele likes to gripe about the club’s cramped quarters and tiny 10-by-30-foot dance floor, Tommy believes that the crowding enhances socializing, allows things to reach a critical mass more quickly, and gives the place a bit more cachet. “If we expanded,” Curtis says, “people would drive by and say, “There’s no line, it must be dead.’ ”
Besides, he adds, the small dance floor better allows his leaden-footed male customers to fake it by swaying in place.
Sure, the atmosphere is a boon. But so’s the location: The club’s Bethesda location makes it central to most of the D.C. area’s more affluent communities—far Northwest, Montgomery County, and Fairfax County. Unlike Georgetown or Adams Morgan, Bethesda offers free and plentiful parking, no traffic snarls, and relatively crime-free streets. And, of course, it’s teeming with members of the age group Tommy’s after; by settling in the suburbs, he’s tracked their geographic demographic as well as that of their age and musical tastes.
And there’s simply no place that caters to this crowd the way Curtis does. The closest thing he has to a direct competitor is the River Club in Georgetown, which attracts a somewhat older, more moneyed clientele than most city nightspots.
“You’ll see people in [the Yacht Club] who used to be married [to each other] or used to go out together and just broke up,” says one regular Yachtsman. The ex-companions aren’t usually happy about partying in proximity, the regular observes, “but where else are they going to go?”
According to Curtis, when would-be Yacht Club competitors decide to open a nightclub, they typically focus on younger demographics. “When three lawyers get together and decide to invest in a bar, they always think about a place that is filled with the younger end of the Letterman audience. They’re not interested in the 35-to-54 crowd. And that’s just fine with me.”
Curtis touts the club as tailor-made for people 35-plus; however, there’s some disparity between the hype and the truth here. On this evening—as on most—the Yacht Club crowd looks more like the upper end of Jay Leno’s audience: silver heads, gray beards, soft bellies, sagging physiques. Curtis doesn’t dispute that the average age is probably around 48. Tonight’s crowd includes a handful of guests who appear to be well into their 60s, and a few men and women who seem to be in their early 30s.
The overwhelmingly white group is seasoned with perhaps 10 black men and women; a trio of sharply dressed young Hispanic men, who have “diplomats’ kids” written all over them; a few Asians; and a smattering of Middle Easterners and Indians.
Outside on Woodmont Avenue, a short line has formed. Curtis is working the waiting crowd with a pitch you won’t hear from the doorman at the Sign of the Whale.
“Folks, I want to tell you we have a smooth cruise going tonight and I’m going to get you all in,” he shouts. “Now, I want you to look to your left and to your right, gentlemen. You’re looking at Washington’s best and brightest ladies. We’ve had 54 marriages and engagements at the Yacht Club, and two of them met in line.”
The men and women in line shift on their feet and smile nervously. Nobody likes having their thoughts read.
Yacht Club patrons offer a variety of reasons for coming to the bar: It’s a nice place to meet new friends of both sexes; it’s fun to watch the people; the staff is nice.
“The women all say they came to dance, and the men say they were just in the neighborhood,” says Curtis.
But—after guiding this generation’s social life for two decades—Curtis knows what’s going on. Sure, they may want to just dance tonight, and maybe they’ll indulge in the occasional one-night stand or weekend fling. But in the back of their fortysomething minds, a new life issue is brewing. They’re starting to wonder: “Am I going to grow old alone?” That’s the question that really keeps them coming back to the Yacht Club of Bethesda.
As one 55-year-old club regular puts it: “Do people come here just to get laid? Sure. But at our age, the one-night stand is a “been there, done that, got the T-shirt.’ ”
That’s why Curtis continues to talk up the marriages and engagements. He promotes them in ads and PR material, announces new pairings over the loudspeaker (to thunderous cheers), and gives the royal treatment to patrons who get engaged or married to someone they met at the club.
“I haven’t lived a particularly religious life,” says Tommy, “but I feel like I’ve done some good deeds with all these marriages, and I hope St. Peter will take that into consideration.”
Of course, whatever Curtis knows about the virtues of marriage is all hearsay. Despite the huge gold band he sometimes wears on the third finger of his left hand, Curtis has never taken that long walk down the aisle. In fact, he’s found it hard to maintain any sort of lasting relationship with a lovely lady. Over the past 20 years, he’s lived with three women—the longest liaison lasted five years, the shortest two years. He currently dwells alone and claims to be seeing an unnamed woman he’s dated “on and off” for 11 years.
What’s the deal? Why can’t the matchmaker find his match?
“I’ve never met anybody who could put up with me on a daily basis,” says Curtis with a dismissive wave.
When this response is greeted with silence, Curtis tries again.
“I guess I’m old-fashioned. I believe when you marry it should be for good.”
Still sensing incredulity, Tommy adopts a sincere expression and gazes at his shadowy domain. The truth, he confides, is that he’s a heartbreaker by nature—a hard dog to keep on the porch.
“Like most entrepreneurs, I’m mercurial, always on to the next thing, the next project,” he says, eyes glistening behind his steel-rimmed aviator glasses. “You have to be loyal to one woman to build a love interest, and I’ve never been loyal—I’ve played around even when I was involved.”
See, the thing is, God help him, he just loves the ladies—all of ’em. He’s built his life around them.
“I’m in praise of women,” he says dreamily. “Everything I’ve ever done has been surrounded by wonderful women.”
Thomas Franklin Curtis, scion of a well-to-do New York City ad exec, arrived in Washington in 1966, set on attending law school at American University. It didn’t take long for him to begin pursuing his one true interest: partying with lovely ladies. Within hours of hitting town, Curtis was on the prowl. But he found his new hunting grounds somewhat anemic.
Fortunately, Curtis had some training that came in handy. As an undergrad at Yale, he had organized singles parties and hustled school rings by assuring freshmen that the jewelry would help them score with Vassar women. Drawing on this valuable experience, he set about making his own fun in the nation’s capital.
In late 1966, according to Curtis and a newspaper account from the time, young women in Washington began receiving an intriguing invitation. It seemed that a mysterious disinherited English nobleman and multimillionaire, rumored in some circles to be the bastard son of Howard Hughes and known only as “Wayne,” had settled in town and was looking to build a social circle. Would the beautiful lady accept Wayne’s invitation to a party at Tom Foolery on Pennsylvania Avenue? The invite was most often delivered to a gaggle of women as they sat in a club or bar; the messenger was a nattily attired young man who usually described himself as the reclusive Wayne’s “press secretary.”
Of course, there was no Wayne, and the “press secretary” was none other than Tommy Curtis in full chick-scoring mode. “I figured there was no reason for women to come to a party I was throwing, so I made up a millionaire,” says Curtis slyly.
Whether women bought that line is unclear. But Tommy had identified a need. His “Wayne’s Luv” parties were an instant hit, drawing shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of single men and women.
The following year, looking to capitalize on the success of those half-dozen ad hoc affairs, Curtis bagged law school, drew $20,000 from one of his trust funds, and in August 1967 opened his first club, Wayne’s Luv, at 21st and K Streets NW. While locals have certainly been “meetin’ and greetin’ ” at bars since the heyday of Rhodes Tavern, Wayne’s Luv was among the first drinking establishments deliberately designed to attract singles and facilitate their, ahem, interaction. A few weeks after Wayne’s Luv opened, Mike O’Harro debuted his first place, Gentlemen II. Thus did Washington enter the embarrassing Age of the Singles Bar.
At Wayne’s Luv, the tone was set at the door; men and women who arrived in tandem were required to separate and enter 30 seconds apart. Inside the sparsely decorated club could be found Top 40 music and the same huge crowds of handsome young professionals who had thronged to the Luv parties.
“In a singles bar, the people are the decorations,” opines Tommy. “And at Wayne’s Luv, there were certainly more people than decorations.”
To facilitate the single mingle, Curtis mounted a successful legal challenge to the District’s law against stand-up drinking. To ease customers’ hoped-for segue from vertical encounter to horizontal intimacy, the bar included a few cozy corner booths, known as “Luv nests.”
In January 1968, Shelby Coffey III, now editor of the Los Angeles Times, penned a thumb-sucking (not to mention sexist) piece for the Washington Post‘s Sunday magazine, exploring the sociological meaning of Wayne’s Luv. “[F]or a young woman to walk into Wayne’s Luv is both an admission and an assertion,” Coffey declared. “She is admitting to anyone who cares to notice that she has not been found attractive enough to have a date that night; and she is asserting that she is realistic enough not to worry with the mundane games of dating propriety that encumbered an earlier set of singles.
“For a young man Luv is, in conception, an ideally sophisticated pickup joint. He can pick and choose among the girls, talk all night if none budge his fancy, and pay for no drinks but his own.”
In 1969, Curtis, 24, decided to run for a seat on the D.C. School Board, a then-powerful position in the District’s hobbled, federally-controlled political structure. Curtis mounted an aggressive campaign backed by $10,000 of his own money and staffed, he told the newspapers, by female volunteers from Wayne’s Luv. Despite criticism from the Post and opponents, saying that he was “a little boy” who offered more sizzle than steak, Curtis nearly took the race, losing by just two votes to Charles Cassell on a court-ordered recount.
“If I’d have been married,” Curtis joked to the Post after his defeat, “it would have been a tie. I’d have had a wife and brother-in-law to vote for me.”
Curtis cheerfully exited the political scene as quickly as he had entered, and turned his energy back to Wayne’s Luv. But two years later, in 1972, he closed the place, citing an excess of competition from the slew of singles clubs that had sprung up along L Street and in Georgetown. In the ’70s and ’80s, Curtis held ownership interests in a number of popular bars, including Club Zanzibar, P.T. Barnum’s, Annie Oakley’s, Graffiti, and Numbers. For most of those years, however, Curtis was occupied with other pursuits.
In late 1972, in a bid to connect with socially active young adults, album-rock WMAL-FM hired Curtis as midday host. Each weekday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tommy mixed Rolling Stones and Elton John with dating tips and insights on the club scene. At night, he cruised the bars and lived the singles life he touted on-air. It was on this show, Tommy swears, that he personally coined the phrases “meetin’ and greetin’,” “sippin’ and dippin’,” and the now politically outré “cruisin’ and boozin’.”
The radio show helped cement Curtis’ reputation as a home-grown Hugh Hefner. When Frank Rich, now of the New York Times, penned a 1972 article on the singles scene for Washingtonian, he came to Tommy for tips on scoring. Among Curtis’ pearls: “If a guy really wants to get laid that evening, he should lay off the ones who come in with their two friends. They always leave with their friends. He has a better shot with a girl over 25 who comes in alone or with just one friend.”
In 1975, a Washington Star-News reporter tagged along as Tommy made his nightly rounds of local hot spots, attracting crowds of “giggling girls” at every stop.
“Is Tom Curtis really the Pied Piper of Washington’s under-30 crowd?” the reporter mused in his lead sentence. “The leader of his generation?” (Later, Curtis would become a regular figure of fun in that paper’s famous gossip column, “The Ear,” which referred to him as “teeny tiny Tommy Curtis.”)
According to Brotman, Tommy still cherishes and nurtures the playboy persona he developed in the ’70s. Lovely ladies remain a central ingredient: “Tommy wouldn’t be caught dead with an unattractive woman because he has this image to maintain,” says Brotman, adding “Whenever I go into his club, Tommy always gets on the microphone and announces me as “Charlie Brotman, the greatest PR man in the world.’ He wants to make you a celebrity because you’re his friend and hey, he’s Tommy Curtis, and Tommy Curtis only hangs around with celebrities.”
In 1977, WMAL dropped its rock format in favor of Top 40, and Curtis was fired. But his relatively brief career left him permanently enamored of the microphone: While he hasn’t had a steady on-air broadcast gig since the late ’70s, he has become the Norman Ornstein of dating advice. He’s an occasional guest on several local radio stations, including WMAL and WWRC-FM, and does a semi-regular social-tips segment for Baltimore’s WBAL-TV. He’s also written a few articles on dating for the Post‘s Style Plus section. To maximize his exposure, Curtis often buys small space-ads in the Post promoting upcoming media appearances; he also runs a low-budget television commercial in which he touts his customer base as the “money demographic.” He’s currently trying to convince any one of several local radio stations that are targeted to women—WASH-FM, WRQX-FM, and WLTT-FM among them—to let him do a show from the Yacht Club. Meanwhile, the rambling answering-machine message that greets callers to the Yacht Club includes a rundown of all recent media reports complete with thank-yous to the reporters. The club’s bathrooms are equipped with literature racks stocked with reprints of articles mentioning Curtis or the Yacht Club.
“Tommy’s probably really apprehensive about what people are saying about him for this article,” says Brotman. “But whether it’s good or bad, he’ll love the ink.”
He even tried Hollywood. In the late ’70s, with both his broadcasting and nightclub work on ice, Tommy traded on family connections—his grandfather and great uncle, Jack and Harry Cohn, founded Columbia Pictures—and set out for California to try his hand at moviemaking. During his six years in Tinseltown, Curtis helped produce a trio of middling B-movies: The Seduction, starring Morgan Fairchild; Hell Night, featuring Linda Blair; and Dreamscape, with Dennis Quaid. (The latter was bankrolled by Washington-area construction mogul Stanley Zupnik, who has since moved on to more prestigious projects, including Glengarry Glen Ross.)
But while Hollywood seemed a natural fit for Curtis, he was never really happy there, outshone as he was by the crowd of genuine celebs. “I was always somebody else’s relative in Hollywood,” Curtis says. “I came back to Washington because I could always get a better table here.”
Wayne Mangan is laying his rap on a woman seated at the front corner of the bar. He leans toward her, throws his arm around her waist, and says something in her ear. They laugh uproariously. This is at least the third woman he’s worked this evening.
Mangan, a 55-year-old Resolution Trust Corp. auctioneer from San Francisco who lives in the Holiday Inn while on assignment in Washington, is one of the Yacht Club’s many familiar faces. At least three times a week, he rides the elevator down to his little in-house piece of heaven.
Sporting a long gray ponytail, a white cowboy hat, and eyeglasses from the George Clinton P-Funk collection, the divorced Mangan claims to have cut a swath through “probably 100” bars in the D.C. area since hitting town earlier this year. But he keeps coming back to the Yacht Club because the hunting is good—and because Tommy and his crew make him feel welcome.
“I’ve been in thousands of bars around the country and you just don’t find what you have here,” says Mangan. “They honestly give a shit that you’re here. They remember your name and they remember your drink.
“I really think Tommy thinks of us as his children—he wants to take care of us.”
According to bartender Fred Hoeffler, roughly 60 percent of the weekend-night crowd consists of regulars—people who hit the place at least once a week. Within that group are a handful of super-regulars, folks whose entire social life seems to revolve around the club. Take Donni and Dietrich: She’s a 45-year-old, divorced sales rep; he’s a senior financial manager for the federal government. They met at the club 18 months ago and recently became engaged. Nevertheless, they continue to frequent Tommy’s realm. In addition to the one night a week they spend there as a couple, Dietrich often visits the club with a group of friends, married and single.
Do her fiance’s solo forays bother Donni?
“I’m adjusted to it to a point,” she says uncomfortably. “We have a level of trust, he knows I don’t have to be the only woman he dances with. But there is a limit.”
As the late innings begin, the hitters start taking their cuts. Tables and bar stools fill up with couples. A group of 40ish women from the Baltimore area—first-timers ostensibly celebrating a friend’s birthday—finally get up the nerve to call over a younger man and flirt with him.
“She has something she wants to say to you,” says one woman, pointing to her companion.
“No, I don’t!” shrieks the friend. “I thought he was someone else!”
A few feet away, a middle-age Indian man fruitlessly implores a coltish redhead to dance with him.
“Please, you are very beautiful,” he says. “Just one dance. Just one?”
Over near the DJ’s booth, Red Sheath is deep in conversation with a guy she’s been dancing with. There’s no sign of Mom.
(Imagine the ladies’ room conversation: “Motherrr, I’ll be all right! He’s a very nice guy. You take the car, I’ll pick it up tomorrow.”)
Meanwhile, a distinguished-looking white man in his 60s holds forth at a table with three considerably younger black women, who appear entranced by whatever he’s saying.
Nearby, David, a 32-year-old, shaggy-maned fireplace salesman from Springfield (“The women here all think I’m 24”), continues his all-night siege of an exceedingly uninterested coat-check girl.
At the front door, Tommy introduces a 50ish man who is currently living with a woman he met at the Yacht Club. And where is his lovely lady this Saturday evening?
“Hey, don’t get me wrong,” says the puffy-faced, pot-bellied gallant, scoping out the terrain. “Nobody’s got a better relationship—but she’s out of town tonight.”
Despite the hormonally supercharged atmosphere, female patrons say they feel the club is safe—as far as singles bars go. There is a sense of control about the Yacht Club, even when things are at their frenzied peak. Fights, boisterous drunkenness, and general rowdiness don’t happen.
“You don’t have a lot of sloppy drunks here,” says Sue Cohen. “It’s the kind of place you wouldn’t mind taking your mother to show her what you do when you play.”
Cohen knows: She’s brought her mom to the club before.
Says Mangan: “Some people pooh-pooh the place, saying, “Oh, people just go there to get laid.’ But [those critics] are in here all the time because they know they aren’t going to meet a serial killer or some bubble-gum-cracking bimbette. You meet quality people here.”
Of course, like every singles bar, the Yacht Club attracts its share of losers, snakes, and cads. Most—but not all—are men.
“I don’t like to use the word “meat market,’ but there are some very aggressive people there,” says one patron. “If you’re inhibited or don’t know how to handle yourself, it can be uncomfortable.”
Fortunately, Tommy and his staff areadept at extricating lovely ladies from unpleasant situations. All a pinned-down babe need do is make pleading eye contact and Tommy or one of his bartenders will deliver a velvet air-strike on the offending guy, often steering him off to a new prospect.
“You gotta take care of your people,” says bartender Hoeffler.
The regulars also provide a safety net—keeping an eye out for one another and providing a crowd of friendly faces into which a harried member can flee.
With enormous relish Tommy seizes the DJ’s microphone for what he always describes as his favorite part of the evening: the moment when Tommy takes the stage. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he intones. “Allow me to introduce the bronze-medal-winning “Electric Slide’ team, featuring the Baltimore Babes! Ramon the Movie Star! Reno the Cowboy! Roger the Dodger! And…Marion the Librarian!”
As Marcia Griffith’s song begins to pulse, the dance floor fills to sweaty capacity. By the second verse, the crowd, anchored by several veteran sliders, is moving laughingly through the steps. At the center of this imprecision drill team looms a tall young man who slams a tambourine right on cue.
“It’s electric!” Thwack-chink!
Tommy babbles away on the microphone, pointing out the fine performance of the dancers, touting the latest Yacht Club-inspired romance, and announcing the arrival of regulars. Curtis claims that this shtick is designed to shine the spotlight on guests—you know, make them feel special. But the person who really gets off is, of course, Tommy.
See, Curtis is a shameless exhibitionist—an attention junkie with a nearly insatiable habit. Some people fill that craving by becoming actors. Or stand-up comics. Or politicians. Or political consultants. Or journalists. Tommy’s milieu is the Yacht Club and the set it attracts. Everything he does—greeting new arrivals, working the people in line, making introductions, rapping on the microphone—is part of a nightly act starring Tommy “Look at Me!” Curtis.
And while it may not be the biggest stage in the world, this one offers him complete control and a guarantee of no competition. Unlike Hollywood, politics, or radio, the Yacht Club is Curtis’ own personal sandbox. “He likes being the bandleader and not a member of the band,” says O’Harro. “The [Yacht Club] is his show and I think that gives him great pleasure.”
That may be partly why Curtis has never expanded his domain: While he’s had discussions about opening Yacht Clubs in other cities, friends say that Tommy feels he is the Yacht Club, that the concept won’t work without his presence.
“I don’t think he feels anybody can run a club as well as he can,” says Brotman. “He just has to be there.”
Besides, in another city, he wouldn’t be Tommy Curtis. He’d be just another nightclub owner. It would be Hollywood all over again. And that would be intolerable.
As Donna Summer coos the opening words to “Last Dance,” Curtis returns to the microphone to guide the evening in for a romantic landing.
“Hold them close, gentlemen,” he says softly, surveying the herd of slowly swaying couples. “You’re dancing with Washington’s best and brightest.”
And after a pause: “I feel a lot of love in here tonight….”
Even as the song swirls up into its throbbing disco beat, many of the dancers continue to clutch their partners. Meanwhile, a steady stream of folks, including a goodly number of pairs, are moving for the door.
And just where are those couples headed? To the kind of lasting relationships Tommy prides himself on launching? Maybe.
“Everybody has their own definition of a good time,” Curtis says, acknowledging that not every Yacht Club coupling results in a lasting, or even passing, relationship. But when his customers find someone they are seriously interested in, Curtis observes, they tend to make long-term commitments quickly.
These are seasoned veterans, after all; experienced Yachtsmen and Yachtswomen who understand that great relationships must be crafted—and that there’s no such thing as the perfect significant other. “There’s a lot less looking around at other people, less wondering “is this my knight in shining armor?,’ ” he says. “The chances are pretty good that they will give each other a chance.”
(Whether those unions last is another question. Curtis insists he doesn’t keep track of divorces, but admits that at least two pairs of married Yacht Clubbers have split.)
And what of those folks who leave without a lovely lady or gentleman in tow? Well, they have Tommy’s personal assurance of great possibilities in the future. They have hope.
“I tell people, “Don’t expect to meet the perfect person the first time you come in,’ ” says Curtis. “But if they don’t meet somebody, I want them to come back and try again.”
And Tommy promises he’ll be there for them—no matter how long it takes.
“Twenty years from now,” he says, “I’ll be throwing singles parties in the senior citizens center.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Susan Pardys.