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Exotic Dancing in Rural Western Maine

March 14, 2010 - CARRABASSETT VALLEY -- As the last families at the Carrabassett Inn & Grill finish their fried haddock and prime rib, two men in leather jackets haul away the empty tables.

They roll in portable platforms and install dancing poles, strobe lights and a disco ball. One of the men drapes black fabric over the windows.

It takes only 30 minutes to transform the family restaurant into a strip club.

A crowd of men, mostly snowmobilers, pours inside as the pounding dance music signals the start of the show. Unlike in clubs in some Maine cities, though, the dancers here are naked. The men are allowed to touch 95 percent of the women's bodies, the bouncer announces before the show starts.

Just 14 miles up Route 27 in a hotel in Eustis, a similar crowd is watching topless women perform lap dances. The same scene is playing out in taverns in Rangeley and Greenville Junction.

In the mountains of western Maine, sex is a business model that works.

"I call it my economic stimulus package," says Jeff Jacques, owner of the Carrabassett Inn & Grill. "I had to do something to keep my doors open."

There are not many ways to make a living up here, so communities put up with the shows as long as it's not apparent to the public what's going on inside the establishments. Except for one or two nights a week, the businesses operate as ordinary hotels and taverns.

Advertising is limited to the Internet. In Greenville Junction, posters are put up on snowmobile trails.

The shows begin in September with the bear season, followed by moose season, deer season, the ski and snowmobile season and then fishing season.

The business thrives because there's a market.

The patrons -- most of whom hail from cities and suburbs to the south -- are spending the weekends with their buddies and have left their wives and girlfriends at home. The lack of regulations and the region's live-and-let-live ethos also play a role.

Communities in other parts of the state, including Portland and its suburbs, use zoning rules to regulate adult businesses. In Portland, for example, physical contact is prohibited and dancers must cover their genitals.

Nude dancing is not tolerated everywhere in rural Maine. Residents of Solon in Somerset County last week adopted an ordinance that removes the profit motive by banning the operators of erotic dance shows from selling alcohol.

In response to the opening a year ago of the Grand View Coffee Shop in Vassalboro, several towns in central Maine have recently adopted similar ordinances.

The coffee shop, which featured topless waitresses, burned to the ground last June in a late-night fire that investigators say was intentionally set. The fire occurred just hours after the owner presented a proposal to town officials to make the topless coffee shop more like a strip club.

Carrabassett Valley, Eustis and Rangeley don't have ordinances regulating sex-oriented businesses. Greenville Junction is in an unorganized territory. In all those places, state law allows full nudity as well as physical contact.

The communities are also more tolerant.

In the mountains of western Maine, churches have less influence than in other parts of the state, and residents here are generally reluctant to interfere in other people's lives, explains Pam Morse, pastor of the Sugarloaf Area Christian Ministry, the only church in Carrabassett Valley.

People who move to the region value their privacy, she says. "Most people come up this way to be left alone."

On Main Street in Stratton, the main village of Eustis, the Stratton Plaza Hotel has hosted erotic dance shows since the mid-1990s.

Shortly after the shows began, an attempt was made to establish a sex-oriented business ordinance, but it was voted down at town meeting.

Today, the town's assistant fire chief and a fire lieutenant work as the bouncer and doorman.

The owner, Jeff Brickley, says money from the shows has helped him restore the hotel, which is one of the oldest and largest buildings in town. He says the shows are accepted by the community.

"Most people up here are pretty forgiving," he says.

Alicia Fortenbacker, co-owner of the Stratton Diner, says many customers who attend the shows come to her place for breakfast the following morning.

"It helps everybody. It brings people to town," she says.

Tammy Beach, an unemployed waitress, says she never goes to the show. But it's a matter of personal choice.

"Nobody forces anybody to go in," she says.

Down the highway in Carrabassett Valley, attitudes are the same. Several owners over the years have struggled to make a success of the Carrabassett Inn, which was formerly known as the Carrabassett Valley Yacht Club. Located six miles from Sugarloaf, the 12-room hotel is too far away for the high-end, apres-ski night life.

Jeff and Mary Jacques bought the business six years ago. It faced closure once the recession hit, Jeff Jacques says. Now, he says, it's thriving.

Besides the influx of cash from alcohol sales during the shows on Friday nights, he says, his food business during the rest of the week has doubled because of the attention the shows have given his business.

Many residents say they want to see the business succeed. The locals don't come for the show. They come for food and make sure they leave before 9:30 p.m. on Fridays.

Because the dancing shows have rescued the place, residents can have access to a modestly priced restaurant, says Jan Kremin of Carrabassett Valley.

Last fall, Kremin held her husband's 70th birthday party at the restaurant.

"We want them to do well," she says of Jeff and Mary Jacques. "We want to have a place to go."

Jeff Jacques brought in dancers during the depths of the recession in the fall of 2008. He told town officials at the time that he would do the shows only until the economy picks up. The selectmen said they didn't want to take a moral stance on nudity, but they also told Jacques they didn't want to see any flashing signs outside the business.

He held to his end of the bargain. His only advertisement is the letter-board sign out front that says, "FRIDAY WELCOME PARTY DANCERS USA 9 P.M."

His customers know what that means. PartyDancersUSA is the name of the Augusta-based business that provides the dancers, bouncers and equipment for a $450 fee. Jacques makes his money selling drinks.

PartyDancersUSA also provides shows for Woody's Bar & Grill in Greenville Junction and the Club House Restaurant & Lounge in Rangeley.

Under the name PartyDance Fitness, the company plans this spring to offer pole-dancing lessons in a studio now under construction in an Augusta strip mall. The owner of the company, "Sonny," won't give his real name, explaining that everyone in his company uses a stage name.

There are no public records of the business in Carrabassett Valley or Augusta. It is not incorporated, and there is no record with the Maine State Liquor Commission.

To prevent any problems, two bouncers accompany the dancers at all times, and they drive them out of town as soon as the show is over at 1 a.m.

Police Chief Scott Nichols says he hasn't received any complaints about unlawful behavior at the Carrabassett Inn and has never visited it.

"I'm not wasting officers' time doing checks on the place," he says.

PartyDancersUSA is one of two dance companies in the state competing for this business. The other, Bodies In Motion, has shows at the Stratton Plaza Hotel.

The women at Bodies In Motion don't use poles. And unlike the dancers in the other show, they are not naked. They wear short skirts and G-strings. The hotel's owner, Brickley, said he puts on a "classier" show than the one down the road.

PartyDancers, which runs a louder, raunchier and more energetic all-nude show, appears to be gaining in market share. PartyDancers last year replaced Bodies In Motion at Woody's Bar & Grill in Greenville Junction, and it is now taking customers away from the Stratton Plaza Hotel.

The dancers for both companies come from Maine. They make their money from tips.

Hank Belanger, owner of Bodies In Motion, said his dancers used to earn up to $700 a night. But business is down. Since the economic downturn, customers have less money to spend. Dancers now earn from $100 to $300 a night, he said.

The show at the Stratton Plaza Hotel ends after midnight. In the back room, the man who operated the sound system counts the cash that was collected at the door. Customers pay $10 admission.

One by one, the women enter the back room. After more than three hours of dancing, they look tired. They undress and put on their street clothes.

Deidra Donnell, 27, of Lewiston, a single mother of an 8-year-old daughter, says her parents are proud of her because the money she earns allows her to be independent and support her daughter. She says her dancing is a form of art.

Jessica Hall, 22, of Lewiston, says she's trying to save enough money to run her own hair salon, and that it's hard to find any work now. She says the stigma of being a dancer makes it difficult to have relationships, because men leave when they find out. She says her work is unpredictable.

"It can be anything from exciting to degrading," she says.

The dancers face some opposition in the community.

Florence Caldwell, a member of the Calvary Bible Church, a small church in Stratton, was part of an effort in the 1990s to shut down the dance shows at the hotel. She says the nudity is tearing down the morals of young people in Eustis.

Her congregation, she says, is outnumbered and has given up on politics. Rather, the church is employing other means. Members are now praying for the hotel's owner to bring in a different form of entertainment.

When informed that the dancers at the Stratton Plaza Hotel are now facing tough competition from a high-energy show in the Carrabassett Inn, she smiles.

"Maybe our prayers are starting to work," she says.

by Tom Bell, March 14, 2010, Portland Press Herald

Lakes: Flagstaff Lake
Regions: Rangeley