Topless a-go-go: It paid to advertise

When the doorway into show business suddenly opened for me I entered gladly. At the time I had a job selling janitorial supplies that I wanted to quit. So, upon getting an offer from a friend, Fred Awad, to work at the restaurant he operated, the sales job was history. My coming aboard as a […]


When the doorway into show business suddenly opened for me I entered gladly. At the time I had a job selling janitorial supplies that I wanted to quit. So, upon getting an offer from a friend, Fred Awad, to work at the restaurant he operated, the sales job was history. My coming aboard as a bartender/manager was part of a plan we had cooked up to convert what was then a blue collar neighborhood restaurant/dive into the area’s most edgy club.

The restaurant belonged to my friend’s parents, who wanted to retire. They had recently turned it over to their sons, Fred and Howard. The brothers promptly changed the name of place at Allison and West Broad St. to the Bearded Brothers.” Growing beards was easy, but the brothers couldn’t agree on how to run the business, so the younger brother, Howard, left to pursue the quest of opening a bar of his own.

Fred and I were convinced the burgeoning baby boomer bar crowd in the Fan District needed a place to enjoy cold beer, hot food, live music, a psychedelic light show and the spectacle of go-go girls dancing topless. At this time, late-1969, topless dancing was going on in Roanoke, and in other states, but it had yet to come to Richmond.

And, speaking of booming babies, Fred’s wife was eight months pregnant; my wife was seven months along.

With the help of a few other friends it took us a couple of weeks, or so, to paint the interior flat black, build the stage for the band and dancers and install a light show. We also painted the front window panes that faced Broad St. in Dayglo colors and put in black lights.

Believe it or not, although everything we did was as derivative and trendy as could be, in Richmond, all that stuff played as ahead of the curve. I don’t know about Fred‘s thinking, but my ideas were coming mostly from clubs I’d seen in Georgetown, movies and magazines.

The rock ‘n’ roll bands went over well and brought in a fresh crowd right away. A group calling itself Natural Wildlife quickly became a regular attraction. Then it came time to hire the go-go dancers.

A few young women came in asking about the dancing job. There were auditions, which were rather surreal, as I recall. We settled on two, one of them had experience and the other didn’t. But only the girl new to the business could be there for our first night, which we advertised in the local newspaper. I did the art, it featured a silhouette of a female dancer and a Bearded Bros. logo I had designed.

By 8 p.m. the place was packed, wall-to-wall. We were selling beer like never before. One little ad announcing Topless Dancing, a few handbills and presto! Fred and I had become successful nightlife promoters overnight.

The only problem was that the dancer with her brand new costume, including tasseled pasties to cover her nipples, was late. She hadn’t called, either. The opening night crowd was clamoring for the dancing part of the show to start. Fred and I tried to think of women we might be able to talk into filling in, but we didn’t get far with that. Obviously, our wives wouldn’t do.

As I opened a handful of bottled beers, a woman in the crowd waved to get my attention. She was chewing gum and wearing shades. The joint was so noisy I could barely hear her. Setting her suitcase down, he pointed to the small ad we had in the entertainment section of the newspaper she held.

“Could you use another dancer?” she asked.

Trying to hide my glee, I agreed to pay her $50 to alternate sets with the other girl as the band played. She told me she had noticed the ad in a discarded newspaper on the counter of the Greyhound bus station’s coffee shop. That night’s experience gave me new faith in the power of advertising.

She even had her costume with her. I paid her in advance and suggested that since other dancer was late, she could on as soon as she could get ready.

Well, it all went over like gangbusters. Up on stage, with the lights and music, she danced like the pro she actually was — she said she had been working along the same lines in Baltimore. Natural Wildlife never sounded better. The beer taps stayed open.

After the dancer’s first set was over she put on a robe and found me behind the bar serving beer. She laughed and said, “There ain’t no other girl, is there?”

I paused to shrug, “I don’t know where she is.”

“I’ll need a hundred bucks to go back up there,” she said firmly.

The money was put in her hand without hesitation. She had rescued the night and she knew it. There was no use in quibbling. After her performance she left and we never saw her again. Other women were hired and the show went on, but we were never as busy as that first night again.

Hanging out after work was the best perk of the job there, which didn’t always pay as much as I needed to make. Sometimes musicians and other friends stayed around late, jamming, playing pinball and partying. The most notable was Bruce Springsteen, whose band Steelmill often played in Richmond then. He was a quiet kid who didn’t stand out as much then as he would later.

For a few months the Bearded Brothers scene was quite lively, then it began to dissipate. Other clubs opened up offering live music which were closer to VCU. The restaurant began to go back to being what it had been before it was painted flat black.

In the spring I had to look for a real job again. Fred went into another line of work, too. About a year later Howard opened up Hababas on the 900 block of W. Grace St., where he made a bunch of money (1971-84) serving beer and playing canned music on the bar’s monster sized stereo.

Topless dancing soon morphed into a hybrid form of show biz aimed at an entirely different type of crowd. The only souvenirs I have from my wild times at the Bearded Brothers are a few photographs like the one of the front windows above. Yes, it paid to advertise.

– words and photo (1970) by F.T. Rea

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