Yanks for the Memories
A Look Back at Baltimore’s Now-Defunct Gay Strip Club Atlantis
The 37-year-old former male stripper was reacting to 9-month-old news that Maryland’s only gay nudie bar had closed shop after nearly a quarter-century of rubbing shoulders (and other body parts) with Baltimore’s downtown complex of jails, prisons, and other detention facilities.
“I’m heartbroken,” he says a few days later, when reached by phone at the Los Angeles telecommunications company where he works as a corporate trainer. “Do you know, I actually turned 21 on top of that bar in a G-string?”
In 1988, C.J.—he doesn’t want his full name revealed—was a 19-year-old “twinkie” studying theater at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “A twinkie is a boy,” he explains. “A ‘chicken,’ if you will. I looked like I was 16.” It was a look not unpopular with Atlantis’ patrons. So, like many of the club’s dancers, C.J. made the transition from customer to dancer while riding a wave of liquid courage.
After one night of underage drinking at the club, C.J. offered himself up for an audition. “I got up there and wore my green G-string and danced for half an hour. There I was, this blond twinkie chicken,” he says, trailing off with a sigh. “I’m not that fit anymore.”
For the next two years, C.J. subsidized his studies by strutting around the rectangular bar as many as four nights a week, pulling in, he says, about $100 per shift in tips lovingly tucked into his G-string by devoted customers.
“We all had our regulars,” C.J. says. “They were middle-aged to older men. They were there to tip the boys and maybe get some cock on the side.”
Not that C.J. trafficked in that trade, mind you. The only trick he turned, he insists, is hanging from the metal bar that ran the length of the wooden one. “You could actually use that to lean in and stick your crotch right in their faces.”
Now there’s an image that will be familiar to viewers of John Waters’ 1998 film, Pecker, which brought the alleged Atlantis custom of “tea-bagging” to a theater near you. Filmed on location at the club (renamed the “Fudge Palace” in the movie), Waters had a stripper character slam his tighty-whities right into a drooling old queen’s face as all the other old queens yell, “Tea-bag him! Tea-bag him!”
The ancient Baltimorean art of tea-bagging may be more a product of Waters’ imagination than a bona fide cultural artifact, though Pecker—which Waters says was inspired by Atlantis—did have a life-imitates-art effect. “For a while after the movie came, it was tea-bagging central over there,” Waters says like a proud father. But, he concedes, fashion is a cruel mistress: “And then tea-bagging was over and it was helicoptering.” He pauses. “Tea-bagging was just over.”
For his part, C.J. has never heard of tea-bagging, and when he gets to an explanation of “helicoptering”—an act that employs the penis as a sort of propeller—you can almost hear him blush over the phone.
“Oh, we weren’t allowed to do any of that,” he says, remembering the bar scene as less rowdy than Waters’ version. “I do pre-come like a faucet,” he adds. “So my G-string was always wet, but that was pretty much it.”
Of course, in C.J.’s era, the all-nude requirement for helicoptering was forbidden. It wasn’t until 1999 that a Baltimore judge decreed that complete nudity was legal, making thonged boys but a fond memory. “That you can dance in Baltimore with a hard-on,” Waters says by phone from New York, “that’s [former mayor Kurt] Schmoke’s legacy.”
(Actually, Schmoke had nothing to do with the decision to allow full nudity at adult establishments that opened before 1993; it was Judge Richard Rombro who made the ruling his final act before retiring from the Circuit Court.)
Strictly speaking, erections were still beyond the legal pale, though that didn’t stop some enterprising Atlantis dancers, hustling for a fatter tip, from kneading their man-dough into a “Hollywood loaf,” which is apparently what Waters calls a “thick softy.”
With nothing but socks to hold their tips, customers and dancers at post-underwear Atlantis alike had to come up with creative ways to transact.
“I saw someone roll up a dollar bill
and put it in someone’s ass,” Waters remembers.
“Even when they had the g-string you were still supposed to put [the dollars] in their socks. You were never supposed to touch them,” says Alexander St. John, the Baltimore OUTLoud gossip columnist (though he prefers “society editor”) and official heckler at Sunday amateur nights at Atlantis. “But I remember one time we had a contest where you stuck a dollar bill in an empty bottle and saw the various ways they could pick it up.” St. John adds. “All, of course, when Auggie had his head turned, which was hard, because he watched that bar like a hawk.”
Auggie is Auggie Dorsett, the longtime general manager of the place. Now a mild-mannered 61-year-old bartender at the Drinkery, Dorsett smiles when he hears himself described by former Atlantis patrons as the “mean principal” of the club. “Well, you have to remember, I’m in a different position now,” he says, wiping down the back room of the Mount Vernon corner bar in preparation for a Friday night karaoke party. “At the Atlantis I was the hammer. I was the police.”
Dorsett first visited Club Atlantis on its opening-night bash in the fall of 1980, after hearing that John Rock, owner of Washington’s Chesapeake House—which Baltimore OUTloud reported was the first male strip club in the nation—was opening a similar establishment in Baltimore. An actor, Dorsett was running the Bolton Hill Dinner Theater at the time, but when it folded in 1981 he began bartending Monday nights at the new Atlantis. Within two years, he was general manager of both Atlantis and the Chesapeake House. The Chesapeake House closed in 1992.
More than anyone else, Dorsett is credited by former patrons with creating the friendly gay clubhouse feel that characterized Atlantis.
“It looked like a cross between a club basement and an American Legion hall,” St. John says. “It had dead animals on the wall, and dark paneling. There was this big huge old safe from some old-time Western bank. It looked like a bunch of old vets should have been sitting around drinking draft beers.”
Dominating the interior space was a large rectangular bar, atop which the dancers made their rounds in half-hour shifts. There was also a small stage at the front, for special events like naked Twister. In the back were a couple of pool tables and poker machines.
“The thing that was so great about it is that it was just trashy,” says Joe Berg, the marketing director at Grand Central, a gay club in Mount Vernon. “It was like Cheers, but you look up and there was a cock. I would always put a napkin over my martini to keep the short and curlys from falling in.”
Atlantis’ proximity to institutions of criminal justice added to the ambiance. And sharing a parking lot with Central Booking helped with the recruitment of strippers in a traditionally high-turnover industry.
“What would happen is somebody would get out of jail and not have any money to get to their baby’s momma in Owings Mills, and they were cute, so they would go into the Atlantis,” Berg says. “Sometimes you’d get this real jail trash in brown socks up there.”
Naturally, this appealed to Waters’ aesthetic sensibilities. “Oh, you had nude burglars, nude drug dealers,” he says. “It was really exciting.”
That many of the dancers in a gay bar were straight was also part of the appeal. Dorsett describes the Atlantis “look” as “all-American boy.” “We wouldn’t allow facial hair,” he says. “No piercings. Tattoos were fine to a point, unless they were covered from head to toe. A broad spectrum of musclemen, youngish-looking boy types, swimmer types, just a little bit of everything.”
Over time, the look of the dancers became less wholesome. “They got a lot more younger-looking and skinnier and harder-looking, I think,” St. John says. “They looked more hustlerlike as years went on.”
Waters describes the Atlantis look as “Eastern Avenue,” referring to the heterosexual trade that has long exchanged blow jobs for drug money on that thoroughfare. “To me they always looked a little like criminals,” he says.
Berg says that by the end of the club’s run the quality of the dancers had deteriorated. “Some people like that skuzzy drug-addicted prostitute thing,” he says. “I didn’t like it. You can’t hold a conversation with the guy, plus his dick’s so tiny it’s practically an innie.”
The Eastern Avenue influence was what made Atlantis so peculiarly Baltimore, says one long-running customer, a figure prominent in local media and political circles, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I think trader boys and white trash is so uniquely Baltimore,” he says, “that you can have a club where for the most part straight men with wives and girlfriends and more babies than you can shake at stick at found their way to a club where some of the most influential, funny, and wealthy men in the city, many of whom were married as well, met at this incredible crossroads.
“If you want to talk ‘Balmer, hon’ [culture], that phenomenon of straight boys catering to gay men is very much a part of Baltimore’s underculture,” he continues. “And the Atlantis dancers, most of whom, if not all, were straight, knew so well how to play to gay men. You knew they were lying right to your face, but after a few cocktails, you didn’t care.”
Dorsett prefers that Atlantis be remembered for its charitable events, such as the annual fundraiser for a pediatric AIDS foundation. His most cherished memory is Christmastime at the club. “We would decorate like crazy,” he says, smiling. “It would take two weeks to decorate the place. It looked like a drag queen exploded.”
The shuttering of the club has left “a big whole in the heart of our city,” Waters says. Dorsett says Atlantis regulars still convene at the comparatively sedate Drinkery to reminisce with him about the good old days, and St. John has begun hosting Sunday night wet-underwear contests at Grand Central for those who miss Atlantis’ amateur nights. “But the Atlantis is irreplaceable,” St. John says.
It will be replaced, new co-owner Andrew Alley says, with a Scores-brand “upscale gentleman’s club,” tentatively scheduled for a September opening.
“Another titty bar?” Waters says. “That’s terrible. I don’t have anything against titty bars, but the Atlantis,” he sighs, “no other city had a bar like that.”
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812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201