Partners for Pay

Young women taxi-dance for dollars, at the price of innocence lost

A number of women enter the club room with small cowgirl hats, Wal-Mart-bought blouses, and an aroma of inexpensive perfume, so as not to intimidate potential dance partners. Diana, Jess and Maria wear trendy Gap-type clothes and shoes with thick soles.

Though Maria and Jess have badly dyed yellow hair and excessive layers of makeup and are slightly chubby, they still chuckle at the appearances of other women. "Some of these people need to learn how to dress," says Maria.

Like a grand old patrone of earlier eras in South Texas, the man carefully overseeing the operations of the Fiesta and La Luna is owner John D. Austin.

According to Austin, he receives none of the money exchanged for dances. His take instead comes from the streaming lines of men handing over $5 cover charges and reaching in their wallets to buy drinks for themselves and the women. At this place, soft drinks, often ordered by the women, are $4 each, twice as much as the beer.

"Business is great, as you can tell," Austin boasts while his employees count stacks of $20 bills in his back office. "We are the longest-running club in Houston."

The operator is obviously proud of his past, too -- quickly advising a reporter and, later, an editor, that he is a retired Houston police officer.

However, the Houston Police Department has no record of a man by his name ever working there. Instead, Houston city personnel files reflect that Austin went to work in October 1969 as a rabies control officer. He did transfer a year later to become a patrolman for the Houston parks department, and was terminated in 1982 -- before the park police became a part of HPD.

His departure was hardly cordial. The city fired Austin when he was charged with third-degree felony theft. Prosecutors initially alleged that Austin stole over $5,000 by claiming overtime pay for working security at Miller Outdoor Theatre, when he was actually working at El Tipo -- the forerunner of La Luna.

Austin, though, was found guilty only of a misdemeanor, and the 14th Court of Appeals overturned that conviction and ordered an acquittal in the case in 1985. Austin maintained his innocence and told reporters that the ordeal destroyed his marriage.

Courthouse records show that Austin, 55, returned to the altar to marry a 22-year-old woman in 1989. He told a reporter in a 1993 interview that he met his bride at his club. That four-year marriage ended in divorce.

A paternity suit indicates he fathered the child of a 25-year-old woman in 1994. In a suit last year to gain managing custody of his child, Austin alleged the mother suddenly took the child to Wichita, Kansas, where she worked 16 hours a day in a "sweatshop" making aluminum cans. Apparently, the problems were resolved, because the suit was dismissed after no one appeared at the court hearing.

Documents obtained through the secretary of state and the Harris County Appraisal District show that La Luna is owned by Austin & Associates and Fiesta Ballroom is owned by Sancho's Inc. ("Sancho" refers in Spanish to a man involved in an affair with a married woman.) The registered agent and president of both companies is Austin.

Listed under a variety of different addresses on official records, Austin says he is also an owner of apartment complexes and a private security company. None of his businesses, he says, are involved in any "illegal activity."

"My places are family places," he says.
As to the minors seen inside his club and the community complaints about underaged drinking, Austin laughs and says, "That is a lie. We check everyone's ID."

Those under the legal drinking age have their hands stamped with an "M," he said. "Everyone here [drinking] is of age," he adds. However, on recent visits to the club, I saw females who were of high school age with no marks on their hands and with alcoholic beverages.

Austin said that any young teenagers must have been accompanied by a parent or guardian, and that no law was therefore violated. He said Hispanics often take their young with them to such clubs. That explanation, though, was not consistent with the sight of groups of young women entering without an adult.

Austin has long maintained that the women dance for fun, not profit. He says that now, more couples are making their way through the front doors.

In a 1993 news interview, Austin told of banning anybody -- male or female -- who engaged in prostitution.

He has a team of bouncers watching over his clientele. Dancers are instructed to inform this security squad about nonpaying customers so that those men can be thrown out. Ejections, though, are hardly limited to such patrons, or even rowdy customers.

On a recent night, his bouncers took a Houston Press reporter, who had been asking customers about the club, to a back room for what was called "questioning." The club owner had not responded to several calls seeking an interview.

(In a later call to the Press, Austin maintained that the reporter had been acting suspicious and "harassing" customers. Austin blamed the community criticism of his clubs on unnamed "competitors" trying to stir up opposition to his businesses.)

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