It was 11:30 on a Tuesday night and the bar at Jumbo’s Clown Room was packed. I was instantly moved by the spirit of Ramona, a tall black stripper in a tutu with pink wings attached to her back, gliding across the stage to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in ratty toe shoes. Mesmerized, I sat at the stage, put my soda water down on the clown-covered counter top and tossed my crumpled dollars to Ramona while she performed the six minute and sixteen second song entirely on point.
Jumbo’s is not your average titty bar. Jumbo Jack, an ex-circus clown with a dream, wanted a bar on Hollywood Boulevard with dancing girls. He purchased the property and hired his daughter, Karen to run the place. Jumbo’s recently celebrated their 40th anniversary, which featured a trapeze outside where Devi and Valentina–both strippers at Jumbo’s–performed aerial arts using tissue and hoops in the parking lot.
There’s never a cover charge for customers and Karen doesn’t extract any fees from the girls to work there, which is unheard of. Inside Jumbo’s, the walls are decorated with velvet paintings of clowns. Instead of pool tables, or plasma TV’s showing football games, the centerpiece at Jumbo’s is the stage. Jumbo’s strippers are that hybrid of carnie and nymph and they use the pole to defy gravity. Jumbo’s is more circus than strip club, promising performances as strange as they are spectacular.
I came to see a dancer named Blue because I interviewed her along with British filmmaker Lucy Ball, who’s been filming Blue as part of her “documentary film portraits” project. According to Lucy, she’s been filming women whose sexuality is tied to their spirituality and she found these women at Jumbo’s Clown Room. I’m skeptical of sex workers who elevate the art of allure into a shamanistic quest. I’m a pragmatist who believes that we are adult entertainers who sell lap dances. I couldn’t understand why Jumbo’s girls were so ambitious about their stage shows, but worked the room in sweats or robes. Were they delusional dancers hoping to be discovered? According to Blue, the dancers’ income is made primarily on stage. I had to find out what Jumbo’s girls were doing there, so I whittled away my rent money in the interest of research.
On stage, Blue floated effortlessly like an aerodynamic mermaid in black tassels. Just as writer David Foster Wallace believed that “great athletes are profundity in motion,” I believe a great stripper is like watching an angel suspended in air. Using the pole as an apparatus to wrap her limbs around like ribbon, Blue was an athletic Artemis in motion. I ran out of bills faster than a black jack game at Harrah’s and thought, maybe this is holy, the feeling of watching a dancer so masterful at her art that it’s enrapturing. There’s no hard data supporting Lucy Ball’s theory, but there are ancient traditions linking the spirit with erotica. There’s the Kama Sutra. There’s Samsara. In Hollywood, there’s Jumbo’s Clown Room.
Interview 1 of 2: Filmmaker Lucy Ball
The Rumpus: Lucy, I’ve got to know. What are you up to with this project? Are you just another voyeur?
Lucy Ball: Probably. I grew up British and studying theatre and dance choreography in London. In my family and culture, we never discussed sexuality, masturbation or anything sexual. I met girls who worked at Jumbo’s while here for a dance workshop one summer and they were so free on stage. They were being sexual in a way that was so different and soulful. I returned to London and had a child at 23 and got a job dubbing porn. I had been very shy but I enjoyed it and it was good money. With that work, I realized that I wanted to grow spiritually. Discover the union with God and humanity. I wanted to keep changing and evolving.
Rumpus: Whoa. So, what’s the connection between God and Sex? Do men lose god when they come?
Ball: Some people think when men ejaculate they lose their vitality. There’s a reason monks are celibate. I’m interested in converting sexuality to spirituality and I found dancers who are doing that at Jumbo’s. My goal is to open my heart.
Rumpus: What does that mean exactly? Open your heart?
Ball: Being vulnerable and expressive oneself. I’m learning about myself sexually. I’m interested in how this work affects the human soul. The reality is that there are choices a person makes and there are consequences. I think that these strippers are saying something with their bodies about empowerment. They’re athletic like modern goddesses.
Rumpus: Another way to see it is they’re exploiting their sexuality for money. I’m confused. If strippers aren’t selling dances than what are they doing at Jumbo’s?
Ball: At Jumbo’s, they want to be seen. That’s how they came to work at Jumbo’s. It’s not a topless club. They make most of their money performing on stage.
Rumpus: What would you say is the spiritual consequence of stripping or the downside?
Ball: My concern would be that it’s addictive to be an object of desire.
Rumpus: So do the girls think they will be discovered at Jumbo’s performing on stage?
Ball: They are discovering themselves. They’re innocent. They’re sexy. They’re artists. It was the 40th anniversary party yesterday and a lot of the girls had elaborate costume changes and several acts to do. They were very intense about it. The only competition there is for stage time, not for money. It’s about the performance.
Rumpus: Do you think maybe you and these strippers are romanticizing the sex industry? I mean, it’s a job, like selling fishing poles or real estate.
Ball: I hope not. I don’t want to. I want to document these women and inspire change by showing how our strength is in our vulnerability and that our sexuality makes us more expressive.
Rumpus: Tell me about the dancer Blue and your documentary film portraits?
Ball: I’m taking a documentary film course in London and hope to complete a documentary that would show inspiring encounters with dancers at Jumbo’s Clown Room. My hope is to inspire change by telling an honest story about the layers of sexuality and spirituality with strippers. Blue is an incredible woman.
Interview 2 of 2: Blue
Rumpus: Tell me about dancing at Jumbo’s. When did you start dancing there and what is it like? Should I retire there?
Blue: I started dancing in 1998 because I was in a rock band and needed time for rehearsal. I sang and played bass, guitar and keyboards. I walked into Jumbo’s with my then boyfriend. I have a background in dance. Back then the pole was a pipe, not a stripper pole at all. We finally got a real pole two years ago. The pole junkies now come to town. It’s become all the rage for women. Jumbo Jack’s daughter, Karen has been the boss for over 4 years and she’s the actual owner now. She’s been a mother to me. My own mother died of colon cancer in 1994. Karen has a soft spot for troubled girls and she’s doing the best she can. She’s never been a dancer. She’s an Aquarius but not the kind of Aquarian that I am. I think she’s looking out for the women there. The thing about Jumbo’s is, we’re on a schedule there. We put in a schedule request by 6pm on Friday and then you get your schedule on Monday. There’s “no touching” at Jumbo’s but we sit on laps and it’s small and open so we get away with stuff like giving an actual lap dance but we are being loosely watched by the bartender or bouncer. We have control over the dances. We can’t show any nudity. The rules have changed over the years. We went from topless, to pasties, to no nudity, to wearing two thongs, or bottoms that covered our whole butts etc. A few years ago undercover cops threatened to shut the place down. Some girls walk around in their sweats because they can. When you saw me I was in my sexy robe. That was fancy for me.
Rumpus: Where did you get the name “Blue”?
Blue: My dad wrote a song for me on the piano called “My girl, baby blue.” It’s my favorite color. My eyes are blue. I had a boyfriend started calling me Blue. Krishna is blue.
Rumpus: I saw your stage show and you blew me away. What do you dance to usually?
Blue: I dance to Portishead, Massive Attack, Radiohead, The Stones, The Beatles, Judas Priest; songs that transport so I can feel sexy and dreamy on the pole.
Rumpus: How is Jumbo’s different from any other strip club you’ve worked at? Tell me about your most unusual encounter with a client at Jumbo’s.
Blue: The spark of Jumbo’s is the dancers. Many of us just want to put on a great show. We have a woman, Valentina, who was raised in the circus who does trapeze and fan dancing. There’s magic in the dressing room at Jumbos. There’s a sisterhood. The dressing room is super small–the size of a small bathroom in a one-bedroom apartment. There’s a bench and shelving for our stuff. If you are out of control or a negative person, you’re going to get squeezed out of there like a pimple. The sisterhood and loyalty is strong and sweet. We are sisters and real friends. We do not allow any drama or negative competitive bullshit. No matter how I feel when I go to work, no matter how bad my mood it, the girls always make me laugh and feel great. I talk to my sisters and they’re happy to have me. The biggest thing is that at other clubs, it doesn’t matter what you do on stage. The girls at Jumbo’s dance and we know we’re not making much money, but we feel appreciated. I’ve seen a lot of wild things through the years, but my most unusual encounter was a foot fetish customer who wanted me to spit on his face. I had my shoe near his crotch and when I wiggled my shoe in his crotch, he actually got off. I was surprised.
Rumpus: Explain how you are supporting yourself at Jumbo’s. I mean, do you only make money on stage? Has the bad economy affected your job?
Blue: Before the economy crashed, I averaged about $260 and that was pretty much what everyone made. Now we walk with around $100 but that’s the low end of the deal. I have shifts where I walk with double that or triple. It’s hit or miss sometimes but we are still making more money than the average waitress and our shifts are never more than 5 hours. You don’t have to do pole tricks to do well. There’s a girl who does no pole who’s the slickest dancer there who’s 40 and dances salsa and makes a decent wage. She may take home a hundred bucks or so but she’s there because she knows that’s a place where she’s appreciated for being a dancer. Another girl is an aerialist who does a lot of gigs who pays her rent. The thing is, I make eye contact but I’m not a hustler. I work with girls who are very professional. We have a lawyer, a real estate agent and a model. I’m a bench warmer. I get anti social. I like talking to people but I don’t have a lot of patience for it. The recession crowd is a lot of silverlake people and industry people who are like 3rd tier assistants who come in dressed to the nines but they’re really rude. They’re on their phones. On the weekends it sucks. I make $5 on stage to a packed house and it can be like pulling teeth all night. But, I am grateful that I have a job and I don’t have to think or worry about my job. Maybe that’s holding me back.
Rumpus: Lucy Ball claims there is something spiritual going on with the strippers at Jumbo’s. What do you think?
Blue: Lucy really gets it about the girls at Jumbo’s. I just don’t think I realized what I really had here until I worked at other clubs around town. There’s something sacred about sexuality and movement. Sensuality and movement is the basis of sex. Giving the gift of allure. GFE and porn is a different job. There’s nothing wrong or less; they are just different jobs. I feel a spiritual connection when I’m dancing and I love working with women. There’s something sweet about providing a service where I can set boundaries that don’t drain me.
Rumpus: Lucy Ball is concerned about consequences and strippers’ souls. What do you think about how your career at Jumbo’s may affect your future and your soul?
Blue: Jumbos has been the best job I’ve ever had. I was an assistant to a CEO for Castle Rock Entertainment for over three years and I was ready to slit my wrists. I felt like that corporate gig was literally sucking the soul right out of me. I longed to go back to the stage a free and single woman to really get on with the opportunity to express myself on the pole. Most of the girls at Jumbo’s aren’t concerned how dancing there will affect their future. It’s a dive bar with entertainment. Listen. We can always change what we do. I know I can’t dance forever. There’s a limit to it but I will teach pole dancing as long as I can. I would like to end my tour of duty at Jumbo’s. I don’t feel like I can quit yet but I do have a lot of skills that I can take with me anywhere. I can’t grow old at Jumbo’s but I can grow very old being a horse trainer. Horses have always been my first love way before the pole. My soul belongs with horses and dancers for now.
Rumpus: What are some setbacks of working at Jumbo’s? Do you want to quit? What will you do next with your skills and hobbies?
Blue: I can make enough money to feed myself and pay my bills but being injured and not having any savings and making my money by being physical is a wakeup call. I don’t have health insurance. But, I never want to stop dancing. I’m also a horse trainer and just got a mentor. I want the country life and a garden and horses. Nutrition is a passion of mine. I live on an organic raw diet and have a close relationship to certain people at a farmer’s market. I even drive to Venice with a dancer friend at Jumbo’s to get my own raw milk. Until I move to the farm, the art of allure mixed with aerial arts is something I always want to do.