City Paper is not for tourists
Last spring, Ronald and Deloris Dickson discovered their idea of heaven. The husband and wife had been scouting a new home for their Southeast nude dancing club, Club 55, which was demolished in the spring to make room for the new baseball stadium and related development.
The spot they settled on is at 2122 24th Place NE in Fort Lincoln. “This place I’ve found now, it’s like something you dream about,” Deloris, 74, says. It’s approximately 10,000 square feet, recently renovated, and reminds her of the film Moulin Rouge, or perhaps the Taj Mahal, she says. By the time they’d found the spot, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham had introduced legislation to help the displaced clubs relocate to properties with slightly different zoning than the original sites. But unlike some of the other strip clubs looking to move, the property the Dicksons want to move to is zoned CM2—exactly the same as the original Club 55—so they didn’t need Graham’s bill.
There’s a problem, though. By the time the Dicksons spotted the property, Ron Hunt, owner of Nexus Gold Club and Edge/Wet, had already begun applying to transfer one of his two liquor licenses to 2127 Queen’s Chapel Road NE. He began filing his application last August, he testified before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board July 11, and it’s close to the space the Dicksons want. Very close. According to a measurement by the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), the two properties are only 19 feet apart at their nearest point. Existing law prohibits two nude dancing clubs from being fewer than 600 feet apart.
And finding a place the club owners can call home could only get tougher once Graham’s bill —the “One Time Relocation of Licensees Displaced by the Ballpark and Skyland Development Project Amendment Act of 2007” —passed by D.C. Council July 10, becomes law. The legislation generally limits to two the number of displaced clubs permitted to relocate per ward, and Hunt has already applied to locate his other club, Edge/Wet, at 2046 West Virginia Ave. NE. If both of Hunt’s applications are approved, Ward 5 could reach its stripper saturation point.
Still, the Dicksons are hopeful. When Hunt learned just how hostile the Ward 5 community was to the clubs, he sent a Jan. 10 letter to the alcohol administration withdrawing his liquor license application for the property on Queen’s Chapel Road. Soon after, he sought to reactivate it. Now the board is weighing which of the two clubs was first in line for the coveted spot. The club owners are scrambling to clarify the chronology of their applications, and they’re asking for a different determination of the distance between them. After all, Hunt says, it’s the distance from one club’s front door to another—“three blocks,” as he put it—that really matters, not the tight space between the back of the properties. “In reality, you’re going from one entrance to another entrance,” he reasoned with the board July 11.
“We in the nude dancing establishment, we’re very concerned about where we’re going to go,” says Andrea Bagwell, an attorney for the Dicksons. “We don’t want to be pitted against one another.”
“If we’re looking at who put the application first, I win,” Hunt testified, adding that it’s not fair to squeeze the Dicksons out. “I’m not trying to get ahead of Ron [Dickson]. He’s not trying to get ahead of me.”
At first blush, the Dicksons and Hunt are unlikely allies. Hunt is known for impassioned orations before the Ward 5 community about how his club has benefited its neighbors. Deloris Dickson, on the other hand, speaks softly, with a slight Southern lilt. She wears her blond hair teased into a neat bouffant, her fingers and toes carefully painted. She took an unusual path to strip-club ownership. In the 1950s, she was a housewife raising five children in suburban Virginia. When her husband, Ernest Byrd, a civil engineer, bought a restaurant on 15th Street NW, she served as its manager. Every night around dinnertime, he would send her home. “See about the kids,” she remembers him saying. “Make sure they eat.”
But it wasn’t just the kids he was worried about. Unknown to his wife, Byrd was employing nude dancers at the restaurant. “Then they were going nude, and I didn’t know that,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’” He answered that he didn’t think she’d like it. “Why?” she responded. “This place is packed.”
Byrd went on to open a dozen establishments across the city, most featuring nude dancing. They divorced, but she continued working as a manager at one of them, the Fireplace, in Dupont Circle. It was there that she met Ronald Dickson. Ronald went to the club almost every day for lunch, he says, and began writing Deloris little notes. “I would say, ‘When?’ She would say, ‘Never.’” He left roses and perfume on the bar. “Estée Lauder. I’ll never forget that,” he says. They married in 1973.
In 1988, Byrd got sick and asked his ex-wife if she wanted to take over his one remaining strip club, Clancy’s on Good Hope Road in Southeast. She conferred with Ronald, who was working at a dealership in Hyattsville at the time, and he eagerly agreed. In 1991, they moved Clancy’s to Alabama Avenue SE, and in 1994, they opened Club 55, with an occupancy of 150, at 55 K St. SE. “It worked out beautifully,” Deloris says.
On a given night, they employed 10 to 20 dancers. In 1996, they unveiled the Miss Black Nude Beauty Pageant, inspired by the Miss America pageant. It included formalwear, talent, bathing-suit, and lingerie competitions, as well as a grand finale in which participants shed their clothes and strutted the stage. HBO, Playboy, and BET all filmed specials at the club, she says, and people began recognizing the couple at malls. “We had our five minutes of fame,” says Ronald.
But the business came with its own set of challenges. In 2005, according to an ABRA case report, an off-duty police officer was robbed and assaulted by a patron in the men’s bathroom. In 2004, Deloris and her dancers held a benefit to raise money for the National Breast Cancer Coalition, only to be rejected by the organization. (They gave the money to Children’s National Medical Center instead.) Dancers caught sneaking alcohol into the club received a stern response from Deloris. “She instilled into her kids the same morals she instilled into her employees,” Ronald says of his wife, who is a grandmother of seven and a great grandmother to three.
The Dicksons closed Club 55 last September and poured their energies into securing another club. They know that even if the distance issue doesn’t block their efforts, they still face an uphill battle when it comes to transferring a liquor license. Before a license is granted, the community can protest—and protest they will, says advisory neighborhood commission chair William Shelton. “The citizens…are really concerned about the clubs coming, period….Quality to the neighborhood, that’s what they’re concerned about,” he says.
Hunt counters that his club could improve the neighborhood. He points to laudatory letters from former Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose and Diane Groomes, commander of the Metropolitan Police Department’s 1st District, where Nexus used to be located. He calls his establishment a “gentleman’s club” that caters to “upper echelon people.”
And for their part, the Dicksons say they want to give back to the community. “I offered to set up a program where we would sponsor some of them [the children] to go to camp,” Ronald says, but so far, his olive branch has been rebuffed. “They’re not interested in what we’re about in the community,” he says.
Deloris says she still doesn’t understand the stigma attached to exotic dancing. “People put ’em down for what they do….People don’t understand.” Says Ronald, “There’s no difference working in an office. A guy’s going to look at a girl anyway [he] can.”
The alcohol board will reconsider the clubs’ applications later this month.