An Akron strip club had Northeast Ohio's youngest documented
stripper for a brief time last month. Akron police say an enterprising
14-year-old spent at least one Friday night dancing at the Play House,
a seedy bar on the outskirts of town. She and another underage dancer
— age 17 — were among four entertainers taken into custody
when the club was raided by a multi-jurisdictional law-enforcement
group that pooled the efforts of the Akron Police Department and the
U.S. Marshals Northern Ohio Violent Fugitive Task Force. It was the
club's second major raid in a just over a month.
The teens were charged with committing illegal acts in a sexually
oriented business, which the club didn't have a license to be. As for
the 14-year-old, the only good news was lack of worse news: She was
only dancing topless and apparently hadn't been employed at the club
for long. And unlike the three other dancers arrested there that night
— and the 12 nabbed in a similar raid a month earlier — she
wasn't observed giving lap dances. The other girls, according to police
reports, "were all in a state of nudity or semi-nudity and ground their
buttocks and crotch on patrons as they danced for them. In addition,
some of them rubbed their exposed breasts on patrons [sic] faces while
Akron Police spokesman Lt. Rick Edwards doesn't recall another case
involving a girl so young being arrested for dancing topless. Since
she's a minor, the authorities can't release her name, but Edwards says
she was — make no mistake — a minor.
"If you look at the 14-year-old, it's quite obvious she was not an
adult," says Edwards. "Our job is to protect our children from people
The raids were part of Operation Spring Cleaning, a partnership
between the City of Akron and law enforcement to make some
quality-of-life crackdowns — as Edwards said, to "try to make the
quality of neighborhoods better."
The Play House didn't used to be this kind of place. It used to be
worse. Across Route 224 from the Lockheed Martin plant, the club is in
the Springfield/Ellet neighborhood, a part of town known for mullets
and trucks. The building looks like a trailer compared to the nearby
Platinum Horse gentleman's club.
The club was "formaly [sic] named Rumors," according to its MySpace
page. Rumors did fine business while the plants were in full swing. In
recent years, it had taken a downturn. It had a reputation as a scary
bar where you could score coke, meth and young girls — the kind
of place where the N-word flies freely.
Things have changed. The parking lot is still filled with trucks.
Inside, the crowd is mixed, though skewed white. You'll find some
low-rent businessmen, but more twenty and thirtysomething guys with
ballcaps on, turned to the back or front (but not, as proscribed by a
sign at the door, sideways). Gang colors are also prohibited.
Internally, sideways caps and gang colors have been the subject of much
debate. As is typical with integration, blending the new crowd and old
crowd hasn't been seamless.
The club is cleaner than Rumors was. It's a little rectangle of a
place, with two pool tables and a small stage with one brass pole.
Dancers with names like Tiana, Tara, Maddison and Teagon work the room,
shaking what they've got to the sounds of Velvet Revolver, Outkast,
T-Pain and ZZ Top — "Pearl Necklace," no less. Not too dark but
not too light, it has spinning disco lights and faux-neon Budweiser
Whether they're strutting in black stiletto high heels or poured
into a straining green corset, the girls tend to run thin or thick.
Most have tattoos, but whether they're mid-thigh, forearm or lower
back, they never seem to be part of a strategic plan.
The week of the bust, the club was doing business as usual. For $5 a
song, the girls would give you a dance in the bar area. Dances in the
VIP room, said bright letters written on the bar mirror, were $20. Mere
days after the raid, if you kept the cash coming, the dancers would
perch on you, breath on your neck, untuck your shirt and ride you like
a hobby horse, rubbing your back so loud people seated nearby could
hear the friction. And that's just what went on at the bar. Behind a
black curtain, in the VIP room, a stripper was perched on a client's
crotch, gyrating in a professional lap dance that looked better than
most of the action you got in high school.
The VIP section was the cause of much controversy at the club. Some
employees saw it a source of new revenue: Guys with money to blow would
rather splurge privately than in the middle of the bar. And once
they're on a leather couch, they're less likely to stop spending. Of
course, once a club is full of topless girls who'll take care of
business in your lap, other things can follow — heightened
expectations, bad behavior, fights. But the Play House was a business,
money was coming in and management decided the VIP section would
"The VIP is what's getting us in trouble," says one seething
employee, pissed that her bosses have put her livelihood in danger.
"The people in the VIP, we don't need them here."
The VIP section attracted what an employee calls a "thug" crowd.
Some employees felt the bar was headed in bad direction, though it
doesn't have a bad track record: The Akron Police report 17 calls since
October 2007, most of them for alarms or minor traffic incidents, only
two for check-in patrols, one wagon call, two fights, one verbal, one
with no injuries. Discussing the recent troubles sends the staff into
"We run a clean establishment," insists an employee,
practically frothing. "Clean" is relative. The raids netted minor drug
charges: three possessions of marijuana (one found in a dancer's purse
by a canine search) and 2.5 doses of ecstasy. In terms of strip club
lifestyles, it's certainly nothing to brag about.
The partying was heading in a bad direction. The parking lot
stayed full until long after the 2 a.m. closing time. The bar hasn't
been cited for serving booze after hours, but that kind of activity
still looks bad.
The rank-and-file employees say that the underage girl's presence
was the result of bad apples, not a bad barrel. The Play House is the
kind of place where the staff becomes a family, bonded by their
less-than-ideal circumstances. One dancer in her early 20s has two
kids. One 10 years older has four to support. When a bartender, regular
customers and dancers cluster at the bar and toss back a round of shots
with the salute "to the Play House!," it's loud, and they mean it. No
14-year-old should be in a nudie bar, but there are worse ones to be
But now, from Fox 8 News to the Howard Stern Show, the bar is
known as the Place That Hired a 14-Year-Old. And, as it should be, its
reputation is shot. Between a rough crowd and the bad publicity, says
an employee, "This bar is ruined."
It's the kind of case that brings up the bile in cops' guts, but
makes them feel better about being on the job. It feeds the kind of
hysteria that led to Senate Bill 16, passed in 2007. Created by
petition by Cincinnati's self-appointed morals watchdog group, Citizens
for Community Values (which threatened to work to defeat legislators
who opposed it), it's one of the country's toughest legal restrictions
on such bars, prohibiting dancers from being within six feet of patrons
and stopping clubs from hosting any kind of fun activity from midnight
to 6 a.m.
After the raid, Play House owner Robert T. Mitchell and manager
Christopher Wier were both charged with illegal use of a minor in a
nudity-related performance and child endangering. Both are Class 2
felonies, subject to prison sentences. Technically, murder may be a
worse charge. But once you're in prison, even the murderers look down
on child-related cases, especially ones with a sexual component —
and at that point, inmates' justice is often harsher than anything the
court has to offer.
The presence of a 14-year-old dancer, everyone agrees, is an anomaly
that verges on unique. The Play House isn't a bottom-of-the-barrel
joint, though it's definitely not what you'd classify as a "gentleman's
club" — the kind of place where you can get a decent martini,
bring your girlfriend and see a show that may qualify as "cabaret."
"Most clubs are smart enough not to do it, because, let's be honest,
you go to jail for that" says Frank Maenza, manager/owner of Thee
Diamond Men's Clubs chain, a 23-year food-and-clubs veteran, 15 of them
in the gents-bar sector. "So it's one of those rare situations where
the owner, as much of a sleaze bag as he is, usually checks IDs. There
are clubs out there ... There's always the factor of a fake ID.
But let's be honest: 14 to 16, I think you see a difference in the way
The case is still working its way through the system, so it's not
clear how the 14-year-old got the job. Club management didn't return
Summit County Children Services Executive Director John Saros
couldn't go into detail about the 14-year-old's situation, so he talked
in generalities. He's never seen a case like it. From agency's
research, says Saros, the girl's parents were divorced and she spent
time in the custody of both parents. That could have created some
wiggle room for her activities to escape their notice. Her presence in
the club, he says, was not a nightmare scenario of the young girl being
seduced or held captive in the club.
"My sense is that neither parent knew that she was at this club
stripping," says Saros. "She was telling her parents she was going out
with her friends."
She was taken into custody for less than 24 hours. After initial
reluctance, says Edwards, she began cooperating and was returned to
family. Her mother is working with the Children Services investigation.
The social agency is deploying its services, including counseling.
They'll monitor the girl for at least three months. Saros says if she
wasn't led astray, then adults certainly facilitated her actions once
she was off the righteous path. Awful as the situation is, the kid has
displayed a certain amount of moxie, to put it mildly. He'd like to see
her direct her energy in a positive direction.
"She's obviously someone who's got some wherewithal within her,"
says Saros. "If we can redirect it, she'll be fine."