In 1964 a young model named Toni Lee Shelly walked out onto a Chicago beach wearing a topless bathing suit, got herself arrested, and started a chain of events that led to my working as an announcer in a topless go-go theatre. There’s a stolen motorcycle in the story too but it doesn’t show up for a while.
I was 22, footloose and fancy-free, back in Chicago after a little trouble in California and trying to figure out what came next. My life was a mixture of legal things I knew how to do and a few other things I knew how to do too.
One afternoon I got a call from a friend saying I should go down to the Plaza Art Theater and talk to the manager, a guy named Paul Burkhardt.
The Plaza had opened with high hopes of bringing “art” movies to Chicago. This in a time when audiences were denied anything but the most saccharine Hollywood fare by a censorship board composed of “five widows of deserving politicians”…(I’m not making this up…).
Burkhardt explained to me that the Plaza had recently started showing Toni Lee dancing in that now-famous topless bathing suit, featuring her between the art films, and the audience had grown considerably. But lately, the crowds had been tapering off and so he was adding fresh blood, strippers brought in from California to dance topless.
What he needed was a PA system to announce the girls and I knew how to put one together. He gave me some money and I went off to buy the parts. I came back the next day, put it all together, and did a “Test, one two three”. Then Paul said something that changed my life. “Hey, would you mind doing me a favor? Make the announcement and pull the curtains for the first show, will ya…?”
I spent the rest of that year living a twenty-two-year-old boy’s dream life. I pulled the curtains, made the announcements, and spent my time with the strippers, making out between shows, getting high, riding my motorcycle, and getting paid to do it.
Eventually, though things got complicated. There was this cashier, Jan and she didn’t leave town after two weeks like the other girls. We moved in together and lived in a little loft on a little side street that’s now a memory. We had a nice domestic life with all the butter and popcorn and candy we could want courtesy of the Plaza stockroom and sometimes my friends would show up in the street below and call out “Can Andy come out and play”, and I did.
The year went by and it came to New Year’s Eve. Jan and I partied and went to bed and then it was six in the morning and there was someone pounding on the door below. I went down groggy, opened the door and a guy pointed a gun between my eyes and said “I’m gonna kill you motherfucker, where’s my bike” There were two of them and they pushed me inside. For the next fifteen minutes, I pled for my life, “No I don’t have your bike, Jesus Christ, what are you talking about. Why me? What the fuck, come in and look around, there’s nothing here. Who told you it was me? This is bullshit. I didn’t do it, man, I swear I didn’t do it.
It took a while but I slowly convinced them I was telling the truth. I was obviously scared and it was clear that if I knew anything I’d have given it up for a pass. Finally with threats that if I heard anything I’d better let them know they left. Six-thirty in the morning, sober and shaken I sat there pondering my narrow escape.
At seven I called my best friend Bobby to tell him what had happened. “You’re not going to believe this! Fuckin Ding came to my house this morning, stuck a gun in my face, and threatened to blow me away. He thought I stole his bike. He was so pissed I really thought he was going to pull the trigger. I finally convinced him I didn’t know shit and he left.”
And then Bobby says “We stole it last night… I was going to call you this morning and tell you to come over…”