Mr. S.O.B.

Rick's CEO Robert Watters wants to make sexually oriented businesses respectable. So why, in his adopted hometown, does he get no respect?

"I rarely sleep all the way from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. on a weekend night anymore," says Janice Aikman, who lives about a block from the club. "Since Tantra opened we've had people passing around a joint in our driveway at 3 a.m. I've seen a woman crawling on the ground drunk and vomiting with her skirt hiked up .... People drink in their cars and toss out the bottles. People urinate in our yards. We are constantly finding condoms, and one Sunday morning we found a body up against our back gate. We didn't know if he was dead or passed out." The clubgoer wasn't dead, but Aikman still wasn't happy.

In August, Watters spoke to a Council committee meeting armed with two props: one guaranteed to annoy fellow operators of sexually oriented businesses, the other guaranteed to annoy City Council. The first prop was a portable stand on which topless dancers could perform. Watters suggested that the city require it, since it would allow vice officers to tell at a glance whether patrons were within touching distance of dancers; other clubowners have not endorsed it, possibly for the same reason. Watters' second incendiary prop was a legendary three-year-old videotape that allegedly shows vice officers pulling Rick's dancers toward them.

Councilman Jew Don Boney responded with a little speech about maligning the police force, and Watters exchanged bitter words with Councilwoman Helen Huey. "In the first place, I think your attitude is deplorable," he told Huey, losing his temper. He felt he was providing a valuable service to the committee, and he expected Council to appreciate the insight he offered into vice activities. "I would have thought you would have been delighted."

The hearings on strengthening the sexually oriented business ordinance coincided with the uproar over Rick's proposed new location in the 2500 block of the Southwest Freeway. Watters announced the new location this summer, when a lawsuit threatened the club's ownership of its Bering Drive property. The new address, between Kirby and Shepherd, would place Rick's in what might at first seem compatible surroundings: the club would fall between Magic Island and Hooter's.

But opposition rallied quickly. The new location met with objections not only from wealthy homeowners in nearby Southampton, but also from business owners on Upper Kirby, and even activists in West University, which lies at least a mile from the location.

The neighbors voiced concerns about traffic, drunk drivers, their children wondering about the business, their land values, and more sexually oriented businesses following Rick's to the area.

Naturally, representatives of the groups angered by the new Rick's location formed a particularly eloquent and powerful block to lobby City Hall. "Such a move poses an immediate threat to my family," Karen Payne, a Southampton resident, told the committee. "Protect our neighborhood, our children and the quality of our family life."

Watters' timing irked his fellow operators of sexually oriented businesses. "It was bad judgment to create the hullabaloo over the new Rick's location," says Bob Furey, who once managed Rick's and is now associated with the Colorado. And Watters' performance in front of City Council did nothing to repair that rift.

Rick's is high-ceilinged and opulent, a place where pretty young women, always without tattoos, dance topless on stages scattered throughout the main room. These same beauties will dance at a patron's table for $20 cash. (The most comely dancers can take home about $2,000 a week after working anywhere from three to five nights.) The atmosphere is sybaritic, but with the sensibility of a high-class restaurant. The decor includes state-of-the-art sports screens, statues and Windsor chairs.

Though Rick's is hardly family entertainment, it's a far cry from raunchier sexually oriented businesses, including some in Southampton's own back yard. Some months ago, in the same block as the new Rick's site, a Southampton-area doctor waited in the lobby of a "tanning salon." He was amazed when two incensed teenagers entered the establishment and demanded their $60 back; they explained that they expected oral sex but didn't get any. The teens left quickly when a Rambo-like man with several guns strapped to his body came to handle customer complaints.

Stunned but curious, the doctor paid his $40, was handed a bottle of mineral oil and a washcloth, and told to strip and wait in a little room. A young woman came back naked and danced in front of him for 20 minutes. The doctor didn't ask what services would be provided for more money, but he says it was clear that there was more on the menu.

That "tanning salon," which has now left the location, was not the subject of picketing and a lobbying effort by its neighbors. Kathy Easterly, an area resident, says she called the police about it and was told that officers would not remove their clothes to investigate. The matter was left at that.

The people of Southampton seem equally accepting of MidCity Video. Just a block from the new Rick's location, it rents films such as Anal Hellraiser, Sodo Mania III and More Dirty Debutantes. Easterly says people from the neighborhood simply don't rent there.

And across Holcombe street from West University, a neighborhood that has chimed in to oppose the new Rick's, sex magazines fill the lobby of the Gaslight Newsstand. For $5 a man can enter a dark warren of little rooms with black walls and black benches; adult movies play constantly. One arrest this year involved the use of a "glory hole," which allows a man to put his penis through a hole in the wall to have anonymous sex.

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