Nobody has paid the cost to be the boss more than Alan Markovitz.
Markovitz's ascent into becoming a self-made strip club tycoon has encountered impediments that would have left most men dead, literally. He's been shot on two separate occasions. In one ill-fated encounter, he was shot in the face; the other, in the chest. He had a Mob contract put on his head, and once lost $1 million to a shady business partner. He has been sued, harassed and once had a furious ex-girlfriend drive her Pontiac Fiero through the front door of a club, trying to use him as its new hood ornament.
On his left, his Eight Mile businesses in the '80s were the subject of seemingly monthly police raids; on his right, religious leaders trying to shut him down in the name of morality. And yet, he stiff-armed his way through it all, in a rise to the top of the topless dance industry that could be described only as meteoric.
"The difference between a successful adult club and an unsuccessful one is that one is chaos and the other is controlled chaos," Markovitz says. "You have to be number one now, because it's a long drop from number one to number two. Number two is a long way down."
He presently owns the Penthouse Club on Eight Mile, a sprawling, showy den of topless dance and unrivaled hospitality. Its exterior is lit up like Vegas. His fleshy empire also includes The Flight Club in Inkster, in addition to strip clubs in Florida and Philadelphia. At 50 years old, he has no designs on pumping the brakes.
"I always tell people, 'as long as I love what I'm doing, I will do a first-class job,'" he says. "The day I don't, I'll turn it over to someone else and they can send me a check in Florida."
Markovitz's book, Topless Prophet, The True Story of America's Most Successful Gentleman's Club Entrepreneur, was published October 2009 and chronicles the story of his life, from his Auschwitz-surviving father, to his early inroad in the industry, to being shot by a dancer he had just fired. It's a fascinating tale of drive, determination, learning on the fly and sustaining a vision of business success. Markovitz told Real Detroit Weekly that Hollywood is also calling. The book has been sold to a Hollywood producer who is in the process of writing a script and working on casting. An episodic cable series — not a reality program; Markovitz has turned down two such proposals —on HBO or Starz is in the embryonic stage.
Randy Greenberg is a Los Angeles-based producer and President/CEO of the Greenberg Group, an entertainment consultant group. He purchased the option on the book and is presently crafting the script with the intent of getting it green-lighted.
"I bought Topless Prophet from Amazon and was completely mesmerized and fascinated with his life," Greenberg says.
"I told Alan that I thought his life would make a great pay cable or cable TV series — where he was the straight guy, the moral compass, the father figure – among all of the craziness, both literally and figuratively, that is the topless entertainment business. The project is still in the early stages of development but suffice to say, that if this series does get picked up, there is plenty of events from Alan's life to fuel the creative of the series for many years to come."
Foot in the door
Markovitz's path started in the very early '80s in Oak Park. A self-described "greaseball" who once was kicked out of school for riding his motorcycle down the hallway, Markovitz turned 18 when that was Michigan's then-legal drinking age. He liked the nightlife. It also helped that one of his neighbors, Sol Milan, at that time owned La Chambre, a topless club at Telegraph and I-96.
Markovitz, just out of high school, got a job bartending at the club. Once on the inside, his interest in owning and operating one grew exponentially. He was hooked.
"I loved going to those places and I always wanted to own one," he says. "I said to Sol, 'I would really love to get in this business. If I can find a location, would you be interested in going in on it? That's how the Booby Trap started.
"I found a place that had fallen into disrepair, we picked the place up and it just rocked."
When Markovitz's finances dwindled, to keep his share of the club, he sold everything he had, including his prized Triumph motorcycle. His father, a used appliance repairman, reluctantly loaned to his son the rest of the money.
Markovitz would usher in a new approach to operating strip clubs. They would no longer be dank and dive-y. He spent the money to have nice wood and brass appointments, new tile and a spiffy look. The place would be clean, comfortable and secure. In short, business took off, and over the years, Markovitz would open, in order: BT's in Dearborn, a BT's in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Tycoons, Trumpps and All-Star (all on Eight Mile); and the Avenue Diner on Woodward.
He would later open The Flight Club in Inkster, 10,000 square feet of topless swank with 300 dancers. And in 2007, he would build his crown jewel, The Penthouse Club — after buying the naming rights from the bankrupt magazine — on Eight Mile. He opened another Penthouse Club in Philadelphia in 2009 and is presently working on a deal to open another club in Hallandale Beach, Fla.
While ushering in a commitment to heightened style to strip clubs, Markovitz, almost by accident, saw the advent of the lap dance unfurl inside of the Booby Trap. Disappointed that his favorite dancer had to end her shift, a long-time regular (his nickname was Pac Man) persuaded her to dance on the tiny table in front of him, amid cocktail glasses and napkins.
Before long, dancers were moving from the stage and into the laps of customers.
Markovitz also improved the quality of a club's menu. He stressed quality ingredients, top cuts of beef and brought in experienced chefs to work the kitchen. All of it — from the dancers' curves to top-shelf liquor to improved interior design — Markovitz says, is designed with the customer in mind.
Strip clubs provide a decidedly specific type of escapism for visitors. Yes, it's part voyeurism and erotica. It's hard not to be when you're two feet away from a pair of D cups on a 23-year-old blond who has no skin pores. For Markovitz, his calling card in this industry is part of a subtler nuance.
"The business we are in, we have great food and a great environment, but you have to have good-looking girls who are personable," he says. "The bottom line? You get a guy who works in an office building, he has his cubicle and he's making a good living. Maybe he has a couple of kids at home. He's among a hundred guys at his company. He's just a number there.
"He comes here a couple days of week, has a couple of drinks and it's like 'Hey John, how's it going?' A girl comes by, we know what he drinks; here's a Grey Goose. The manager comes up and says hello. He's appreciated. We feel he's more than just a customer. We provide a fantasy, yes, but we want to provide to him that we feel he is important. Guy has a rough day; he comes to the Penthouse, has a couple of drinks and chills out. It's stress management. I need to get some doctors to write prescriptions for this!"
Looking down the barrel
When Markovitz was 26 and running The Booby Trap, he discovered one night that a dancer was performing oral favors on a customer in a back room. She was fired on the spot. Hours later, at closing time, she returned and began creating a ruckus in the parking lot. When Markovitz stepped outside, she shot him twice in his chest. One .38-caliber bullet tore through his liver; the other collapsed a lung. He recovered and was back running the club in a matter of months.
In 1997 inside of the Flight Club, a couple of off-duty Inkster cops had become drunk and unruly. Bouncers escorted them outside, where guns were drawn and the carrying-on continued. Again, stepping outside to check on the bouncers who were breaking everything up, Markovitz was shot again, this time by a .40-caliber Glock, and this time in the head. This recovery wasn't so swift. It took a year before his face was even close to being put back together, thanks to more than a half-dozen surgeries, plastic and otherwise.
A lot of people — if they're even lucky to be alive — never come back from something like that. The emotional tar pit one finds themselves in is as troubling as the physical trauma. Markovitz says he had to dig deep.
"When you're down and you have 10 doctors over you and tubes sticking out, it's a nightmare," he says. "At first, you want to survive and stay alive. The challenges come mentally when you start feeling better. I should just say that I appreciate the fact that I survived this, but then you get mad and bitter. The challenge is to keep it in check. I'm not maimed, or disfigured.
"What carries me through the day is that, through both shootings, I had a feeling that I was unlucky, yet lucky that I came out alive. Others have been paralyzed, but I'm rocking. Mentally, you're kind of fucked up for a while, but I looked at it as more of a challenge. The man upstairs, I would think, says 'I got certain guys down here I want to challenge. I know they're strong enough to make it.'"
Amid his accomplishments in the industry, and the adversity and setbacks he has encountered, Markovitz can say he's done something not a lot of people can say: He's sipped Hennessey with former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.
Markovitz said the two had a good relationship, and that he had little problems with police during Young's administration.
"He once told me, 'as long as you don't bring these bars downtown, I'm not going to run you out. Hey, we know these guys in town for conventions aren't here for the ballet,'" says Markovitz of his conversations with Hizzoner. "He was blunt and to the point. We had no problems."
Since then, Markovitz says he has made it a point to sit down with each mayor, including Dennis Archer ("he would say one thing and do another") and Kwame Kilpatrick.
"The city suffered under Kwame," Markovitz says of the former mayor, who is currently serving a five-year prison term. Laughing, Markovitz says, "He was obviously busy with a lot of other stuff."
While maintaining relationships with city leaders, he's also had the morality police trying to shut him down. People are quick to call strip clubs seedy and immoral. Area religious leaders and those interested in rights of women have made it clear that they think his is a business of exploitation. Markovitz says people can think whatever the hell they want.
"If you close 40 titty bars, you put 7,500 to 10,000 people out of work," he says. "What about the beer distributors, the meat guys? I don't get it. If you close every adult club, are the security bars going to come off the doors and windows on the homes in the neighborhoods?"
And then there are political games topless dance operators have to play with those in power. It seems that the language in strip club ordinances change from one municipality to the next. And while Markovitz doesn't speak of former city officials accused of shaking down business owners to get permits pulled or to encourage necessary yes-votes from elected officials, he has seen the same processes contradicted time and again.
"In Detroit it took me two years and a court order to get a liquor license transferred," he says. "We opened a Penthouse in Philadelphia. It took 30 days to get a transfer and we got a letter from the city welcoming us. There was no harassment and no problems with enforcement. I don't get it." | RDW