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?

Again, the Gaslight is not the focus of the neighborhood uproar, picketing and speeches at Houston City Hall. "I think what happens is that people do not know what goes on in these places," says Harris County District Attorney John B. Holmes Jr. "At first I had no idea what went on in a 'tanning salon.' If you get people like a prosecutor who doesn't know about it, what do you think a housewife or oil company executive will know?"

Club owners have complained to City Council that the vice squad spends too much time and money policing the upscale topless clubs while ignoring the bottom-feeding sexually oriented businesses. Watters and other club owners claim that vice officers spend thousands buying drinks and table dances to arrest a few dozen women, who mostly either get off scot-free or receive deferred adjudication. (Vice officers say the arrests cost only $59 each.)

According to recent City Council discussions, police officers have a hard time making arrests at the various modeling studios, tanning salons and massage parlors that require patrons to remove their clothes. HPD Chief Sam Nuchia says that the present state law basically requires an officer to engage in prostitution to make a case. "What it would require in behavior is sometimes more reprehensible in itself than what you are regulating," says Nuchia.

The obvious irony is that more obvious, more acceptable places such as Rick's become targets not just for the neighbors, but for the vice department.

Watters notes that his fractious relationship with the police is only natural. He believes that vice officers demonize the owners of topless clubs in order to define themselves as heroes: "In other words, they're the good guys, and we're the bad guys." When a sexually oriented business operates not only within the law, but in a classy way, Watters says, vice officers grow uncomfortable: "If we stand up looking like good guys, what does that make them?"

Certainly Nuchia does not see Watters as one of the good guys. "They are pimps and panderers, and they know it," the chief recently said about owners of sexually oriented businesses. Asked if he thinks Watters in particular knows he's a pimp and panderer, Nuchia said yes. But at the end of the same interview, the chief said, "Strike that," noting that he doesn't need any more lawsuits.

"When I lived in Southampton," says Watters, "one of the curious things was that I saw most of my neighbors in Rick's when I first started getting involved with Rick's. I still occasionally see some of them. And these are all, as far as I could see, good family people. Stable homes. Businessmen." Watters, who now lives with his family in Montrose, suspects that "one or two" opponents of his new location are wives angry that their husbands would have even better access.

Despite neighborhood opposition, Watters is proceeding firmly with his plans to move and expand. "I know that we push some buttons. We are taking something that has existed in time immemorial in society, and we are bringing it out in the open. We are saying there are limits to it, that you can come in here and be sexually stimulated by the appearance of a young girl, that you have a drink and have some conversation with her, and it can stop there."

He is scheduled to open a new two-tiered Rick's on Bourbon Street in New Orleans around December. To attract couples, part of the club will feature a floor show like those seen in Paris cabarets -- a show with dancing girls, magicians and comedians.

He is also in the final stages of acquiring a club in downtown Minneapolis, and plans to transform it into a Rick's modeled after the one in Houston. His next target is the Las Vegas strip, where he thinks the floor shows could use a little work. Compared to the approach Rick's will take in New Orleans, he says Vegas' "sex is more 'Broadway,' more disguised and diluted."

During the last six months, as Watters has traveled the United States, expanding his company, he has considered moving to a friendlier city, leaving behind the one that made him rich, but that also refuses to embrace him. "The level of hypocrisy in Houston concerning these issues is just staggering," he says angrily. "I go to New Orleans, and they give me an honorary citizen certificate. I come back home to Houston, and the police chief calls me a pimp and a panderer.

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