Magic Mike renews interest to stripper stage

Women wait in line to see SavageMania at Planet Rose at the Quarter at Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City.
Women wait in line to see SavageMania at Planet Rose at the Quarter at Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff)
Posted: July 19, 2012

Never mind the scorching heat blanketing Atlantic City on this Saturday night.

The real inferno was inside the Tropicana Casino's Planet Rose.

Strippers were grinding, pumping, and pounding to the pulsating music. Bottles of booze were being guzzled, as dollar bills were stuffed into waistbands. Whistling and whooping, the crowd was on fire.

A bunch of guffawing guys having their way?

Hardly. Just girls gone wild, getting down-and-dirty, and lusting after the men in the SavageMania exotic male dancer show.

Judging from the scene, it's hard to imagine that demand for male stripping has been shrinking during the last decade. While the guys haven't been reduced to living off the bare necessities, in a manner of speaking, the industry has been losing some of its popularity, mostly driven by a shaky economy.

Then along came Magic Mike. Is the movie starring Channing Tatum as a male stripper thrusting renewed interest back to the stage? Many in the business say the film might do them some good, at the same time it inaccurately depicts the industry as rife with drugs and casual sex.

"I had about 25 girls come in the day after the movie opened, wanting to see a real show," said Larry Evans, the manager for the male striptease show on the second floor at Upstairs at Club Risque on Columbus Boulevard in Philadelphia.

A full-time student at West Chester University, Nick Morrell, 22, began strip-dancing three months ago at Upstairs at Club Risque. The extra cash is helping as he pursues his goal of being an occupational therapist one day.

"Girls are coming in and mentioning the movie," Morrell said. "I'm hoping it will help business pick up again."

At SavageMania, Katie Cunningham, 27, was one of five brides-to-be checking out the steely Joey Del Viscio, also known as the Italian construction worker.

"We are just looking to paaarrrtttyyy!" Cunningham yelled, while bottles of champagne were poured for her and her eight friends from Scranton as part of the VIP package.

Stripping down to his tight black boxers, Del Viscio charmed Cunningham, his lips centimeters from her breasts, pulling dollar bills out of her bra with his teeth, while the room erupted in a roar.

And that's as far as it will go. Unlike in Magic Mike, these guys have limits.

"I had a bunch of girls out for a bachelorette party who got really drunk one night. They kept pulling my boxers down," said Del Viscio, whose steady girlfriend has a master's degree in psychology. "After a couple of times of telling them to knock it off, they stopped."

Del Viscio came to stripping by chance after working out at a gym where a male stripper was a member. He suggested that Del Viscio give stripping a try, telling him it was a lot of fun and a way to make quick cash.

"At first I just wanted to bartend at the club, but then I learned how to dance," said Del Viscio, 28, who lives in the Mayfair section of the city and has been stripping for four years.

And just like that, he started fulfilling the rugged-guy fantasy for hundreds of women each weekend.

"On a Saturday night in the summer, I might make $150 in two hours," which isn't exactly a bankroll, but not bad for a guy just doing a little dancing.

By day, Del Viscio actually does work in construction for his family's contracting business. Like most male dancers, he takes care of his body with daily workouts and weightlifting. He is also a personal trainer and a mixed martial arts fighter.

"At one show this past weekend, a girl kept calling me Matthew McConaughey," said Tracy James, who manages SavageMania. McConaughey portrays the strip club's owner in Magic Mike. "She told me she was never into the male stripper thing, but had a change of heart when she saw Magic Mike."

James was studying electrical engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology when a female student submitted his picture to the Mr. New Jersey competition. He made it into the top 25. That opened doors for him in the modeling world, working at Calvin Klein and Dockers in Manhattan. He was 22.

A short time later he began dancing with the Chippendales, one of the more recognized brands in exotic male dancing.

Pulling from his years in the entertainment business, James started SavageMania in 2001 and now has 70 guys in the company. His dancers have performed on America's Got Talent and have been seen on the reality shows Jerseylicious and Mob Wives.

The SoHo resident also manages a troupe that performs in New York City, where dancers make close to $500 a night.

"There's a stereotype in the industry that the guys are gay or have a ton of girls. That's not true. A lot of guys are married and have kids," he said.

James said he hires guys predominantly for their personalities — "You need to engage the audience" — and then he looks for guys who are good-looking and care about a buff physique.

"A lot of guys shave their bodies and do facial scrubs to get that smooth look," said James, 42, who looks a good 10 years younger. "The truth is we can teach almost any guy how to do the dancing."

His male dancers come from all walks of life and cultures. Like Del Viscio, they hold down day jobs such as chiropractors, musicians, and pilots.

A high school teacher in Bucks County, Ken Gardner, 40, has been a dancer for 10 years and dons a cowboy hat for his gig with SavageMania.

"My students didn't know I was a dancer until they saw me on TV," said Gardner, who was part of the quartet of guys who danced on America's Got Talent.

Growing up in a Vietnamese culture, Duong "Bolo" Mguien said his family expected him to go to college and be a doctor or lawyer someday. But by day, Mguien works as a general contractor rehabbing houses in Fishtown.

And when the lights dim, he'd rather thump to blaring music, strip off his green fatigues, and lap dance with stiletto-heeled bachelorettes.

"My mom doesn't approve of what I do, but she knows I'm a guy, and I'm gonna do what I want," said Mguien, 33, who has been dancing since 1999.

At the strip shows, the audiences are primarily female — although gay men occasionally make the rounds, according to a couple of the dancers. (On this particular night, one male reveler was seen fist-pumping as the dancers peeled away their clothes.)

The girls, as the customers are called regardless of age, are mostly in their 20s and early 30s.

But not always.

"I'm her grammy," said Brenda Smith, 66, pointing to her newly turned 21-year-old granddaughter Stefanee Smith. Along with her grandmother, the younger Smith drove from Williamstown, Pa., with her mother and two aunts to celebrate her birthday and see the strippers.

"I didn't really know what to expect when I came here," said Stefanee, seeming a bit boggled at the carryings-on in the room.

Her aunt Heather Mar, 36, hasn't seen Magic Mike yet, but thinks she'd enjoy the film. "I've been to other strip shows in the past."

It's true that a lot of the exotic male dancing shows have seen a decline in attendance in recent years, according to Armand Peri, manager of Hunkamania in Manhattan for 14 years. But he said his shows haven't; in fact, he sells out his 300 seats at most performances. Peri, 46, has 40 dancers in New York City, and he also runs shows in Atlantic City and Chicago.

He said there are some cheesy companies that turn a blind eye to the dancers' recreational drug use, but the real professionals would never put up with that.

"What's seen in Magic Mike is not entirely accurate. If I know a guy is doing drugs, he's out of the show."

There is occasional steroid use, though, said Anthony Catanzaro, 41, a dancer for more than 20 years.

"You might find some guys who want to bulk up more. But that's true of a lot of people in the fitness industry," said Catanzaro, who dances in the Manhattan Hunkamania show.

In any case, Magic Mike has more people talking about the industry, and promoters of male strip shows are hoping the movie will leave them curious enough to research the real thing.

And they might just get their wish.

It seems there's a Magic Mike sequel in the works.

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