“Be happy. Be well.” Those are a couple of the last lines of the 1979 movie “Norma Rae” and they were delivered by a union organizer to the title character after they work together to unionize a textile factory in the south. If somehow you are not familiar, “Norma Rae” is based on the true story of a factory worker who risked everything to fight for a decent life for herself, her family and her co-workers by becoming a union organizer. I love that movie and those lines. So much so that if you have ever heard me announce a roller derby bout, you’ll hear them as my sign-off.
I have some experience with unions. I have worked in the non-profit sector almost my entire career including a year at the ACLU of Southern California. I am pro-labor, I am pro-union. So when I heard about the dancers of the Star Garden nightclub in North Hollywood going on strike and their efforts to unionize, I wanted to go picket with them. Unfortunately, I never found time for that opportunity but I followed their progress on their Instagram account (StripperStrikeNoHo) and knew they had officially voted to unionize. They still gotta certify the election and have a long way to go to make this a reality, but they also have to survive and have been having fundraisers to take care of themselves.
“YULETIDE UNION – A Holiday Spectacular with the Star Garden Dancers!” was one such fundraising event for Stripper Strike NoHo. All the tips were going to be collected and evenly distributed, like some actual communism. Being that it was the night before my husband’s birthday, I decided to go for ‘wife of the year’ by buying a couple tickets and surprising him. I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t tell him anything. I just had Tom Waits’ “Pasties and a G-string” humming in my head as I hit the purchase button and knew you simply can’t go wrong with that.
We arrived at the ‘secret location’ and headed up the stairs to all the action. We took a moment to check-in and drop off a bag of warm clothes as they were collecting donations for a nonprofit organization called “The Sidewalk Project” that works directly on the street with the houseless community. (More on that later.) As we grabbed a beverage and found a place to stand it felt a bit unnatural to have a pole in the middle of the room. The floor wasn’t sticky, there were no lingering smells of body oil and overindulgence or other things you might learn to expect from a strip club. But it wasn’t long until I was reminded about a strip club I had mentioned in a previous rambling I posted on The L.A. Beat – there was a visibly pregnant dancer. And not just visibly pregnant, like really pregnant, like the odds are good her child will be a Sagittarius pregnant.
Now we had missed the first stripper, but we knew there was a Christmas theme and it seemed the pregnant dancer was supposed to be Mother Mary. (Feel free to read that twice, it ain’t gonna change.) She moved around erotically and ended nearly in the splits on the ground with her floor length braids falling beside her. She smiled radiantly and after the cheers died down, she said: “This is what happens when you don’t have a union and you have to work through your pregnancy.” It was like the gauntlet had been thrown down and we were ready to accept the challenge. She wasn’t going into labor, she was going into labor organizing.
What unfolded throughout the night was so incredible that it would have been impossible to have scripted because the only thing scripted that it sounded like was an SNL Stefon bit. First off you couldn’t help but be mesmerized by Reagan who was the beautiful and spunky master of ceremonies, educator of labor rights, and a mighty fine dancer. Or as one guy screamed out, “The most wholesome stripper in town!” By her side was Velveeta who was funny and charming and apparently hadn’t been on the pole recently which led to a remarkable interpretation of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” stripper-style. Let’s just say all the Who’s in Whoville were not there just to make hearts grow three-sizes that night.
Reagan clarified that while the event was Christmas themed, that it was in the nondenominational sense. And with a “Hail Santa” we knew all bets were off. So I guess this is a good time to talk about the Krampus stripper. Can I say WOW! She had the horns, she had the whip, she had a split tongue. She owned that room as she moved about it and at one point bit into a blood capsule that streamed down her face. Just incredible. All the dancers were. They were so different but yet they had the same spirit. They were talented, they were professionals, and they deserve to be treated fairly by their employers.
I could ramble on about how great each of them was but I would rather just encourage you to see them perform at their next fundraiser. Because like Norma Rae, they deserve fair compensation and protection under the law for their own health and safety as well as the health and safety of their families and co-workers. Ya. Read it twice, it ain’t gonna change. I’ll admit that I was a bit judgy of the stripper with the Juggalo tattoo, but I took a moment to talk to her and she instantly won me over. And that’s how the night went from the door to a picture with Santa all the way to the North Pole Dancers, every interaction with the people there was something special. I saw the pregnant dancer later in the bathroom and told her she was great, she responded: “Thank you, Sweetheart” and I got so happy because I remembered that every time a stripper calls someone sweetheart – an angel gets its wings!
Although one of the best conversations I had was with Soma Snakeoil, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of ‘The Sidewalk Project.” When I asked her how she got involved with the organization I did not expect her to say it was from her own experience as a long-term former PWUD, being unhoused, and many years of sex work, including survival sex. “The Sidewalk Project” has a mobile unit and a street team to provide direct services to reduce harm and to empower marginalized people and they do this rather creatively. Their efforts include reducing the stigma of being unhoused and by believing in the strength and resilience of the human heart and the power of kindness. I started in the non-profit sector in Los Angeles in the mid-90s and have met countless Founders and Executive Directors, I will never forget meeting Soma.
Okay, I have to admit a bit of my joy of the night was also from winning a raffle prize because everyone likes to win something and I got my own Stripper Union t-shirt! I bought some other merch and was tipping the best I could because I want these people to be successful. And if they are then they could bring about some meaningful change because labor movements are essentially life or death important. All labor. The night before I was volunteering at a fundraiser for an amazing voting rights organization and I was the one in a short Santa dress helping with the raffle. But I was holding the raffle ticket jar as Will Ferrell drew the ticket and the event was for voter rights. While the events may have seemed different, they were both working to help people who have been oppressed by systemic inequality in order to give them a voice to fight for their rights.
On my husband’s birthday the next night, we went to go see GayC/DC at The Whisky. (If you haven’t seen them, trust me you are missing out.) As guitarist Steve McKnight was shredding above me wearing a school girl mini skirt unlike anyone else can and as a giant inflated penis was being tossed around the crowd, I turned to my friend and said, “It’s only Tuesday and yet this isn’t the oddest thing I’ve seen this week.” Granted between the Mother Mary and Krampus strippers of the Star Garden Dancers’ fundraiser for Stripper Strike NoHo – the event could be classified as odd. But there was such a beautiful spirit of community about it and that made it truly special.
The last dance of the night was a group lap dance for people who had birthdays. (No, my husband decided to stand that one out.) And one of the last lines of the night was one of my favorites and it was delivered by Reagan, a dancer AND a union organizer, that I’ll use that as my sign-off here: “Happy Birthday everyone… and Jesus.”