Ever since Sherman’s visit, Atlanta has been dusting itself off, cleaning itself up, tearing down the old and replacing it with the shiny new, purging itself of reminders of the past and trying to forget.
One bastion of the old south – and by old, I mean unrepentant, real, gritty and raw – has resisted attempts at modernity, stared down the ravages of time, hung proudly to their heritage and survived fires of moral indignation that were hotter than that crazed Yankee arsonist’s cigar.
The Clermont Lounge, Atlanta’s oldest continually operating strip club, has withstood the burning fires of moral outrage and become an icon of sin in a city with more than it’s share of like-wise establishments.
No small feat when the dancers at the Clermont, unlike other clubs whose impersonal gyrators resemble airbrushed facsimiles, include grandmothers and womanly archetypes more suited to the secretarial pool than the stripper’s pole.
Like a beloved but somewhat unstable family member, the city has, if not celebrated, in some ways cherished this long lived dance hall, where high heel shoes, and nothing else, accessorize dancers collecting dollars from a regular crowd of patrons.
Take away the naked ladies and this rustic venue seems more Cheers than Cheetah. More than one preacher has come to the big city, anonymously sat at the bar and returned to their small towns to preach of depravity with a little more personal knowledge than when they left.
Bankers, lawyers and doctors, mingle with down and out semi-vagrants in an atmosphere where authenticity trumps slickness and a jukebox acts as the DJ. An Atlanta college boy’s rite of passage and a groom’s final night of bachelorhood are incomplete without darkening this door.
There are legends in Atlanta. When the coin is flipped and comes up heads we honor the heroes of the civil rights era, the planners and builders of a new south, the artists and stars but when it lands on tails we have Blondie, who recites poetry then crushes empty beer cans between her breasts and GI Jane, not the Demi Moore version, but the camouflage thong girl whose daughter went into the family business.
Housed in the basement of the Clermont Hotel, a ramshackle flophouse that in its heyday was rumored to be the southern bungalow of Al Capone, the lounge is a dark, moody, unapologetic joint with a sense of danger and nostalgia.
As I write this, the hotel is for sale and the fate of the lounge is once again in peril. There will be no historic preservationists protesting for its salvation, but the city will be a little less colorful, and real, if it closes.
We need reminders of the clash of good and evil and perhaps, in its own unique way, the Clermont Lounge has lasted because it is good. Women are not discarded because they no longer fit our predominate culture’s notion of beauty, they stay because they have found a home.
So Cheers to you Clermont Lounge. You may not make it in the Chamber of Commerce, but defiantly, you are a chamber of commerce.
Photos from Top: Velvet; Blondie with her dog, Prince; the Clermont dressing room.
If you would like to learn more about the Clermont Lounge and the women who danced there, check out Marilyn Suriani (Futterman’s) documentary masterpiece, “Dancing Naked in the Material World.” I took these photographs while Marilyn was working on her book.