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Porn At Peace

Rick's Web site has been down so much it hasn't delivered on its promises.

On one side of Fairdale Lane, the signs at Rick's Cabaret beckon the breast lovers of Houston, as they always have. As many as a few hundred customers daily may be drawn to the topless dancers of this club. Rick's bills itself as an upscale adult establishment, but it was one of those targeted in a 1997 campaign that tightened the restrictions for sexually oriented businesses. Brighten the lighting inside, and broaden the distance between the semi-naked women and customers, the city decided.

Since that sweeping SOB ordinance was enacted, a new neighbor has arrived right across Fairdale from the cabaret. It has set up shop in a bland corrugated tin building with darkened windows and no indications of life inside. The only clues to activity are an SUV parked outside and a handwritten note (in red marker on yellow notebook paper) that instructs callers to ring the doorbell to the far right.

Though the building is as still as a morgue, its owners boast that this new offshoot of Rick's attracts upward of 70,000 daily visitors. As offended as earlier antiporn activists were to the adult action at Rick's, the new neighbor lets visitors watch totally naked women cavort in hard-core ways that no Houston club could get away with.

"What do you get when you cross one house, 32 well-placed cams and a bunch of horny dancers? DancerDorm, of course!" But Houston, it seems, also gets a strange contradiction with the coming of the city's most visible virtual-reality adult Web site. And nobody's complaining. Not the community activists or even the cops. By all indications, cyberspace has brought peace, as well as pornography, to the populace.


Quietly occupying the former after-hours club Tantra is Rick's Internet production studio -- and its product, www.DancerDorm.com , which was launched in November. While hardly blazing a new trail through cyberspace, the gimmick is somewhat novel for porn sites: Three of Rick's dancers -- Jennifer, Stella and Cassandra -- live in the "dorm," complete with a bar, renovated kitchen, workout area, hot tub, guest room, hidden cameras and several computers.

For a $34.95 monthly membership, viewers can spy on the dancers as they party, shower and pee. Members can chat with them, buy them gifts and access 13 other picture-saturated sites such as "Orgy Shack," "Asian's Abound" (grammatical errors and all) and "love2fuck." The additional sites, on loan from the company managing Rick's sites, provide an eyeful, from blowjobs to vibrator play to group sex.

"100% Live! Our high-quality feeds let you catch every second of the action!" the dorm site boasts. DancerDorm's home page displays two nude women, one tonguing the other's right breast, insinuating lots of fem-to-fem action. Take the dorm "tour," and the next screen shows muff-to-mouth resuscitation and a woman penetrating herself with what looks like a lime Popsicle. The site promises "hot tub parties, naked twister, naked pool tournaments, oil wrestling and more!" "You've seen us at work," it touts. "Now see us at play. All of us. All the time."

Well, maybe not all the time. During two one-week trial memberships by the Press, the server and DormChat were continually down. When the Press pointed this out to Rick's CEO and president Eric Langan over the phone, he tried to and couldn't get the live camera feed on his own computer, either. Langan then shouted to someone else that other Netscape users were having problems.

Langan is 110 percent businessman. When he speaks, his sentences drip with terms such as profit margin, gross sales, cash flow and market support. In the Web, he sees a potential Internet bonanza for Rick's, which in 1995 became the world's first publicly traded topless entertainment business. The profit margin for the average adult Internet site is 38 percent, he explains. The market consists of many small companies, and he wants to acquire a large percentage of those gross sales. While the cash flow from the clubs is great, the future of adult entertainment is on-line, he says.

"It's definitely a market that some of the other public companies are moving into, and we hope to be there first," Langan says. So Rick's hired a consultant to manage the site, built a recurring database of 1,400 members and is now poised to expand membership by renting its content to other Web sites for between $800 and $1,200 a month. Jennifer, Stella and Cassandra's friends at Rick's can earn extra cash by bounding across the street to chat and romp for the cameras. Rick's pays them $15 an hour, plus tips.

As part of the marketing blitz, Webmasters, like cyberpimps, can display the Rick's banner and earn $35 per signup. Rick's even has the hard-core hard sell. When Web surfers try to exit the site, they're blocked by an ambush of pop-up referrals to other explicit Web sites. Urgent messages beg visitors not to leave, promising ten free nudie pictures for those who hang around.

 

Despite those come-ons and comely dancers, Rick's new venture is having trouble getting it up in one important place: the stock market. In a period when many Net-related stocks have skyrocketed, Rick's has been downright flaccid. The company's report for the quarter ending last December reveals a 19 percent decrease in total revenues from the same quarter the previous year. Rick's press release notes that part of the decrease is due to losses from the operation of DancerDorm and related company Web sites.

Langan attributes the losses to start-up costs. "It's evolving all the time," he says of the site. "We've evolved inside, but we haven't evolved on the exterior, like getting the new photo shoots up each week. We had a chat application problem, and that problem outweighed anything else at the time."

The problem was that the company had to write its own chat program to fit its needs, such as allowing users to send audio feeds and tip the dancers. Rick's is hyping the site by offering a contest with the prize of a real-life visit to the dorm. But first, Langan says, he has to figure out how to track users. After all, he doesn't want any guy who just signed up to win the trip, but someone who has been a member for at least three months and is familiar with the dancers.

Judging from the looks of the dorm building itself, that winner may be in for a letdown. DancerDorm doesn't live up to its promotional exclamation points, at least not during an uninvited visit.


Following the wobbly arrow and instructions on the hand-printed sign, an arrival at the dorm rings the doorbell and waits. First, the muffled clinking of keys comes from inside. Then, from one of the three doors in the patiolike entrance area, a big man, the security guard, appears.

Inside, the walls of the main room have been painted over in a starchy white. In the center of the room, the remnants of the primary bar remain, a husk of metal-colored parts. A pitiful couch and a few tables occupy a side room. A sink in another room suggests a nearby toilet. There's no sign of any lascivious mischief, except for a gray photo backdrop.

The large bar isn't functional, no contestants have visited, the dancers haven't duked it out in a tub full of oil, and the cameras aren't really hidden.

Somewhere, through and beyond this maze of rooms, is DancerDorm itself. And from there, a petite brunette emerges, wrapped in a silk robe, barefoot. It is Jennifer, in person.

And no, Jennifer can't answer any questions about the dorm.

She refers all questions to Langan, who says another pay Web site, smutdog.com, is in the works. So much for the upscale image and dress code requirements at Rick's. In a virtual world, the company makes no pretense about what it's selling: smut.

Langan insists that a typical customer wants fashionable entertainment at the club but craves the hard-core in the privacy of his home. "When he goes out in public, he wants to go to a place like Rick's. But when he's at home and no one's looking over his shoulder, he can spend all the time he wants on the Internet."

Asked about the recent absence of action inside DancerDorm, Langan says not to worry, it's all coming soon. The site is still rather new, he offers. Recently he hired a manager to schedule "dorm activities," telling the dancers when they should shower or need to play pool. And hey, the dancers often bask in the hot tub and play strip Twister for the cameras. They like Twister, he says. A lot.


What has arrived, and promises of what's around the corner, aren't enough to addle nearby residents. Civic associations were vocal in their support of the SOB ordinance, but they don't have much to say about DancerDorm. "There's not talk around the neighborhood about it," says Janice Aikman, former president of the Richmond Westheimer Residents' Association. She certainly didn't know about the dorm, and no one else probably does either, she says.

"I think, for most people, as long as it's quiet, they're not particularly concerned," Aikman says. "Tantra was a nightmare because it was after-hours. There was so much going on there, a lot of drinking and drugging. Till five in the morning, you'd hear that stuff."

Besides, DancerDorm is very much a family business. The security guard is Langan's uncle, and the temptress Jennifer turns out to be Langan's own wife. ("But we don't tell people that," she confides.)

 

And yes, Langan says, some of the dancers do actually live there, in exchange for free rent.

If the community is okay with it, law enforcement is okay with it too, so long as there's no prostitution or lewd public behavior, says Captain Roy Chandler of the HPD vice division. "In this country, pornography is what the community standard allows. We're more liberal here, because you can't make a case on a lot of things that you could make a case on somewhere else," Chandler says.

"We normally don't attack pornography here unless it has to deal with animals or children. Otherwise, it's pretty much okay here."

E-mail Melissa Hung at melissa.hung@ houstonpress.com.


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