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 they danced."
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 like this."
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 signs.
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 stay.
"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 conniptions.
"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 in.
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 she looks."
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 Scene's calls.
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."