"Seeing is believing." That's the motto emblazoned on the red satin matchbooks soon to be souvenirs of the Dangle's last days. On this final Saturday evening the burlesque business on the Square bumps one last time and grinds to a close. The glassy eye of the city is focused on the door when it opens at 8 -- News 3, Source 27 -- sucking it in for the Sunday news as the crowd pushes past the threshold to the promised delights beyond.
Waiting patrons joke nervously under the bright lights, some turning up their collars or cheating away from the cameras. "Hi, Mom!" calls one. "Will this play in Peoria?" asks another. Slowly the patrons move in, leaving the TV crews lingering reluctantly outside.
Inside is a parody of a turn-of-the-century burlesque spot, dimly lit with red lamps. Pictures of old striptease queens adorn the wall at the right. The bar that runs the length of the left wall is divided by a small stage that thrusts forward in the middle, backed by mirrors and a rail. The bar segment in back doubles as a stage entrance. Quarters are cramped and the bartenders are behemoths. The audience is mostly males in their twenties and thirties, with a number of older men. A few women are here, most with male escorts. A man who might be someone's grandfather sits in his buttoned-up sweater smoking a pipe.
Then the black lights are shining, and without introduction the show begins: a dance to a song called "Lets Talk Dirty to the Animals." The dancer mouths the words and removes layers of costume as she acts out lyrics and adds touches of erotic humor.
The first set is scarcely under way when white lights blaze suddenly across the stage. One of the TV crews has managed to sneak in and wants to shoot some footage before too much becomes visible. "Is it going to be on the news?" asks the startled dancer. Her flesh looks white and pasty under the lights, destroying any shred of magic the camera might have hoped to record. After a brief interval the lights shut down only to come on a few minutes later. "Either leave those damn things on or off!" she snaps. They stay off.
The second dancer comes on in a filmy red costume. At one point she wraps a gleaming red band around her wrists as though to bind them, drawing catcalls from the back.
"Every time I hear your name---I feel like a burning flame…"
"Abracadabra, I want to reach out and grab ya!"
Words of nervous bravado emanate from the gallery: "What's she doing, Mom?" "Can I take her home?" The silence is eerier than the sound. At times the audience is perfectly still, as though in a trance. The expressions on their faces are almost reverent. When a number ends the applause seems to erupt out of nowhere.
Soon the sets become a blur, and all the numbers seem the same. Costumes drop and capes whirl. G-strings and sequined things fall to the floor, revealing what is often bleak and sometimes beautiful. When it doesn't work you get this dumb feeling, like someone is pushing buttons and nothing is happening. When it does work, it's like the legend of Tantalus: Tantalus offends the gods, so they punish him by sinking him up to his chin in a lake he can't drink from, while over his head branches bearing exquisite fruit are drawn away each time he reaches for them. Compared to the kind of pornography you can find almost anywhere these days, it seems like a lingering vestige of an innocent past.
A dancer called Amber is nonplussed as she comes offstage. "Where are my clothes?" she asks. The bartender doesn't know but the patrons are sympathetic and more than willing to help her look. Finally she substitutes a yellow Dangle T-shirt for the missing clothes and wears it onstage for the start of her next number: "I know what boys like, I know what guys want…."
Where will she go when the Dangle closes? She'll dance at Visions, she says, and in January she's going to dance in Fort Lauderdale and New Orleans.
One of the Reichenberger brothers, easily identified by his shock of white-blond hair, comes over and talks to the bartender. "We'll go till quarter of 1," he says. As an owner he seems happy, relaxed and glad to get it over with. "We feel pretty good about it," he says. "We've been in business for 21 years and we're going out a winner."
One o'clock approaches, and the composition of the crowd changes as people drop in to catch the final acts. The patrons are euphoric, and dancer Daylene does a version of "Tootsie's Girl" filled with humor and style. The clapping is like thunder. Peter Wright has dropped in from the Fess Hotel. "It's a piece of history," he says. "The end of an era."
Then it's out into the cold to beat the bar rush home. Several women are standing on a corner of East Main. One of them calls out to me through the crisp December air: "Hey, mister, do you want to dance?"