Creative Economy

Three dynamic women have redefined the local strip joint

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Three dynamic women have redefined the local strip joint

Photo by Richard Lovrich

You could almost miss DiCarlo’s Gentlemen’s Club if you didn’t already know it was there. The forest green sign on Central Avenue in Albany could be advertising an cozy Italian restaurant or a flower shop. The striped umbrella awning over the front door only adds to the innocence of it all. It is classically average. At night, the windows begin to glow a mysterious red to purple hue, inviting you inside to explore. The club is small, but open, sleek and impeccably clean. A place where time could slip away unnoticed. The delicate lighting casts the room in a sultry shadow, glinting off the polished black of the bar and stage and refracting light from the glass of the neatly displayed liquor bottles and glittering crystal chandeliers. In all aspects of a stereotypical strip club, DiCarlo’s just doesn’t fit. There’s a refinement here, but then an edge that seems to drift just out of sight and mind. It’s in the people.  

About 20 years after opening the club, its beloved owner Sal DiCarlo passed away in November 2012. The building lay vacant for almost two years. No one quite knew what to do with it.

“We were worried they were gonna turn it into a Hibachi or something,” Shy Abbasi said. And that could’ve been a very plausible outcome. According to local law, strip clubs currently in operation are grandfathered in. Once closed, it cannot be reopened as a strip club.

Abbasi moved to buy the business with partner Tess Collins so that they could protect the legacy of the DiCarlo’s, and the business has flourished despite remodeling and changes in clientele.  

“If we didn’t do something, [Sal’s work] would all be in vain, we would have lost the only strip club that was classy in the area,” Collins said.

“I love seeing the people who were here like fifteen . . . seventeen years ago,” Abassi adds. In the early 2000s, she was a DC Doll (an official DiCarlo’s dancer) alongside the club’s general manager Brandy Karczewski and today they keep a steady business, including long-time regulars—the oldest at 91 years old. Despite the cosmetic upheaval and presentation changes, the guys have come back for the Dolls.  

When they finally got a hold of their old abode, they tore the place apart, changing the entire layout of the club. The carpeting was ripped out and replaced to complement the club’s freshly painted crimson walls. The stage was relighted and redesigned to add on a glass paneled wall for a V.I.P. viewing area to its right, complete with plush, ebony leather couches and a table for champagne bottle service. The general seating space, originally made to look more like a restaurant, was reconfigured with glossy, smaller tables—one reserved for personal shows—complete with a pole in the middle of the tabletop, like a mini-stage. They included interactive elements like a photo station for parties, where groups can take pictures with a mannequin cut from the waist-down dressed in lingerie. “I think I’ve seen just about every sex position I can think of [posed] on that mannequin,” Karczewski comments. In the back corner is a claw vending machine for patrons to try their hand at winning specialty prizes such as dildos, fake handcuffs or rogue DVDs. What once was a wrap around bar has been reworked to about half it’s size, as well as kitchen and bathroom remodeling that was desperately necessary.  

In the first decade the club had few amenities due to its 2,500 sq. foot space. The bathrooms had a grand total of two toilets: one for the number of male patrons and workers and one for the 60 dancers on staff at any time and any female customers. There was no separate dressing room for dancers to change between sets and the bathroom was the only place with a mirror aside from the stage.  

“There would be like 15 of us in this one stall friggin’ thing trying to change in a bathroom until the kitchen closed at eight and then we used the kitchen,” Karczewski said. “And it was weird for the female customers because they would go to the bathroom and there’s a bunch of naked strippers,” Abbasi added.  

In 2001, DiCarlo decided to put on an addition to accommodate the dancers. What was once a one-stall bathroom became a larger restroom with a combined dressing room.  

“We got upgraded . . . and we were psyched because it was better than nothing,” Abbasi says. They soon came to realize problems remained—just with a bit more space. The combined dressing room meant that female customers using the restroom were still walking in on changing strippers, and now the dancers were dealing with drunken customers curiously rummaging through their costumes.  

“When we came in, that was the big thing,” Abbasi said with her hands spread wide. “Separate bathroom and separate dressing room.” Unfortunately—as time often is—the nearly 15-year gap in remodeling meant that the building codes had completely changed. The one stall of the women’s bathroom had to be enlarged to be handicap accessible, so while the dancers now have their own space “backstage” the one toilet remains.

The kitchen, which was once the hotspot of a fully-functioning restaurant, has been cut back as well. Since reopening, patrons simply weren’t as interested in eating full meals while they enjoyed the show. In the time that management were still performers, high-paying patrons like state workers would visit for hours at a time, or take a half day at 1 PM to hang out for a lunch and a lap dance. “Shy and I were here when the kitchen was booming and girls used to fight for the lunch shift.” Karcewski said. She accounts part of the problem to economics and social stigma. “Nowadays people barely get a half hour for lunch. . . . Back then, people could take a lunch break and put it on their business credit card that they had a burger, because they did… they just had it here.”  

Now, the menu has been cut down mostly to appetizers and drinks, leaving room to knock out one wall of the kitchen (left intact with all of its appliances for posterity) and build in half a dozen private dance areas, individually decorated in unique styles and themes.

One of the longest members, Karczewski has been at DiCarlo’s since 1999 and has managed the club since 2008. With 17 years under her belt, she has played a major part in helping Abbasi and Collins make the club look unique and elegant.

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Above the bar, plaster breasts line the ceiling, each one uniquely decorated in bright pops of color, animal prints, lace, graphic print, one is painted in brilliant watercolor. They are molds of each DC Doll, and each dancer brought their own home to decorate in a reflection of their onstage persona. “That one’s mine,” Karczewski says, grinning and pointing up at a molding lined with black lace and tiny silver metal studs. She is responsible for the particular decorations all over the club.

“I find inspiration everywhere and I’m crafty. . . . I’m like an X-rated Martha Stewart,” she explains.  

There is a clear mannequin theme, celebrating the exposed female form. For the holiday season, a mannequin in red lingerie by the stage sports a “dress” that is actually a decorated Christmas tree and by the seating area, long crossed legs stick out from the wall, with a tinseled wreath daintily hung by its toes. (The credit for the well endowed chest of the mannequin behind the bar fitted with beer taps however, goes to Collins.)  

As a dancer, she had the opportunity to “feature” traveling a circuit of clubs as Brandilyn Banks, and in her five years of experience traveling, she was paying attention. She soon made connections with the Exotic Dancer (ED) publication, which runs “the only national convention and awards show for the adult nightclub industry”gaining DiCarlo’s national attention. Since 2011, it has been nominated for Small Club of the Year four times. “They give us a lot of recognition,” she says. “We’re just a small club in upstate New York.”

On top of the club’s aesthetic, it’s easy to understand why. Each year, Karczewski visit the conventions to learn how to better run the business. When visiting these conventions, she picks up the ideas of multi-million dollar clubs and chains and gauges what will work for the small-scale club. While there’s no room in DiCarlo’s for grand projects like skyboxes, they have the main elements of a successful gentleman’s club: a main floor, private dances and a V.I.P. area. Management has even organized in-house competitions to keep things interesting. Last Saturday, DiCarlo’s held the Best Buns competition. The prize? A molding, of course—of the highest-scoring dancer’s ass to decorate to their liking and place in its new home by the main entrance.   

The DC Dolls have ruled the club business in the Capital Region for decades. “The downtown scene and the nightlife area was hoppin’ back then, so DiCarlo’s was like the staple on a Friday and Saturday night. At like eight or nine at night, this place was packed, you couldn’t move,” says Karczewski.  

“You couldn’t get in here,” Abbasi adds, shaking her head. “Anything that was happening at the Knick also, [Now called the Times Union Center] whoever was performing would be here… DiCarlo’s was the place to go for the before and after party. We would see the same groups of people twice in a night.”

While they have many busy nights, the overall hangout scene at DiCarlo’s has diminished and management credits that to a change in clientele. It seems that potential patrons are more inclined to sneer at the adult entertainment industry now than ever before—at least in public. In the age of Instagram models, Tinder, Grindr, internet porn, fetish sites, etc. people have sex at their fingertips. The internet provides an instant gratification they can’t get in person.  

“A lot of the guys want a fantasy online because they don’t want people to see them,” Collins says. In public, they can be seen participating in the taboo.

According to Abbasi and Karczewski, there is also a provocative superiority complex in recent years that they have never witnessed before.  

“They’re willing to do it out there on social media and be like [Instagram famous] but they won’t be a stripper. They’ll call a stripper a whore. ‘She’s a slut,’ they’ll come in here and talk shit about the strippers. It’s just very different. I mean let’s be honest, you could probably go to a regular bar downtown and a 23-year-old guy could get a girl to like show boobs to him for nothing.” Karczerwski says, Abbasi longtime dancer-turned-bartender Sabrina nodding in commiseration.  

“There was no other competition when we used to dance here, there was no Facebook. There was no IPhones. There was nothing else. It was us and then… porn.”

“Now they wanna come in here and [only] give a girl a dollar,” Abbasi says. It is as if the sex-permeated social media has desensitized their clientele. The stigma against stripping has seemed to deepen, affecting the dancer’s’ ability to make a living and killing off local competition. Management remembers dozens of business in competition with DiCarlo’s that have dwindled down to only five in the Capital Region such as Double Vision in Clifton Park and Shenanigans in Schenectady.  

Their younger crowds come later in the night and their expectations are high.

“When I used to work here, they called you on stage when your shift started… so every girl had to wear a gown to the floor and you had to wear that [for] your first two sets on stage when you first started—you would have this classy dress on— it would set the tone for people walking in here that it’s a classy place. Other clubs, they don’t do that, you’re in your thong and bra and there’s really nothing to it,” Abbasi explains.  

At DiCarlo’s, the owners and management promote the art of stripping that keeps their loyal patrons packing the floor for their favorite dancers.

Since their early days the DC Dolls would put on what Abbasi refers to as “high energy, crowd participation” performances that consisted of magic shows, skits, and theme sets such as “Phantom of the Opera.” You can imagine it when you see the stage, lights glimmer all the way up the pole and the mirror covering the entire back wall makes the area double its size. Luxurious theatre-style red curtains are tied back at each side, ready for its star. At one time, DiCarlo’s boasted being home to one of the top 15 feature shows in the world. But today’s audience has become impatient for the main attraction. They no longer want a show, sometimes complaining to the bartender about “still not seeing any tits” after a few performances, when they’ve paid their $10 cover. As a result, the dancers strip earlier or start out in lingerie in their acts after seeing a significant dip in their tips.  

“We used to come out in a full gown, do a lap dance, remove stuff. Now guys get pissed if a girl’s covered up,” Karczewski says, adding that anyone can walk into a club and strip for money, but the DC Dolls have the experience and the reputation to put on a great performance.

The management is extremely supportive of their girls exploring their style and techniques, perfecting their art. Throughout the majority of the interview with The Alt, the two owners and general manager would cock their heads to admire an ongoing act. “Oh, check her out,” Collins gushed. “She is very talented.”  

A DC Doll was splayed out gracefully on an aerial hoop—the new stage addition attached to the ceiling in the remodeling. She flowed through her moves to the tune of the sultry Lana del Rey’s “West Coast,” spinning around languidly, extending a leg with the form of an accomplished ballerina and wrapping it around the hoop, clad only in lace panties and metallic stilettos.  

Collins, Abbasi, Karczewski and Sabrina whooped, cheered and clapped. They are the performers’ biggest fans and insist upon maintaining a “Down for DiCarlo’s” level of support for one another. “It used to really mean something to be a DC Doll,” Karczewski says. She and other original dancers look to keep it that way, encouraging any up-and-comers to bring innovative moves or creative act ideas that allow them to progress.

“The gentleman’s club business now is more of a novelty business,” she adds. “People have to almost have a reason to come here, like a bachelor party or a birthday party or… its not like it was back then where DiCarlo’s was just the cool place to go.”

This is where Collins comes in. The well-known businesswoman notorious for resurrecting businesses such as McGeary’s to become a landmark of the downtown bar scene. “Tess is a huge force in this area. Everything that she touches turns to gold,” Karczewski says. Despite the fear that the industry may be declining, the management team is business-savvy and has the customer loyalty to boot.

For instance, they have certainly figured out how to take advantage of the surrounding area. With a Hilton less than a 10-minute drive away, the DiCarlo’s website advertises free admission to guests with a room key. Collins also believe the Albany Convention Center, which the Times Union reports will open March 22, 2017, will bring in a huge amount of business that has been missing since the club lost its major lunch crowd.

There is a building swell of statistics that support female management such as DiCarlo’s. According to the National Women’s Business Council 2012 Survey of Business Owners, there has been a 22.1% increase, generating over $100 billion women-owned businesses in New York State since 2007. Women ownership in the male-oriented adult entertainment business is almost unheard of, and the DiCarlo’s women are holding it down.

They are self-sustaining in the design, management and marketing of their business. While Collins is not as involved as she used to be, her significant local reputation, business experience and understanding of liquor license and building code law helped the team bring DiCarlo’s back to life. Abbasi uses her dancing experience to inspire newcomers to love their craft, recalling how she and other original Dolls used to stay hours after closing, just playing with new techniques. Karczewski handles general management and graphic design marketing from the menus to advertising. The women inspire a comradery in the girls, and there is a strength in their leadership that they learned from the club’s late owner.  

“For us, this isn’t new. Sal always had [women in management], For us dancers, there was something really cool about having Laura [their manager], we’re still friends with her. She recently came to visit, she was so proud you know, that one of her former DC Dolls was now the owner and another—she’s the GM. Girls from the past 20 years came to see her from all over. There’s something special about it and I don’t know how to explain it,” management says. “Sal always made his girls feel like they had a say in how stuff happened, to the point where it probably pissed off management,” Karczewski continues, explaining how she continues the tradition in her own managing style. “It gets them involved and makes us like a family.” They want their girls to be successful, on and off stage. They encourage some to continue a career with the business in management while they understand it is a temporary job for others.  

This business is unlike any other…We really kept the spirit of Sal alive, and the reputation of DiCarlo’s alive.”

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