The Lusty Lady's last night, and a eulogy

The Lusties march down Columbus street, blocking traffic, in a New Orleans jazz inspired memorial for the Lusty Lady.
Photo by Lauren Smiley

Here’s a toast to you, Lusty Lady. You were daring, you were seductive, you glittered. Your halls were dingy, but your women were badass, punky, and purple-haired. You were consummately San Francisco. 

Since 1976 the Lusties, as the workers there are called, have stripped and danced, and along the way managed to do something historic: they ran a union led, co-operatively owned strip club for ten years (The Guardian has covered the Lusty’s closure before, here). Labor Day was the peep show palace’s eviction date, the latest San Franciscan victim of rising rents and changing tastes in a city becoming less weird by the minute.

But Sunday night’s Lusty Lady memorial march was a testament to the bawdy. 

Or to the body, take your pick. 

Marchers and revelers clad in bustiers and lingerie of every color clicked their heels from Broadway up Grant street, tracing the Barbary Coast of old. Some were in nothing but stilettos.

Perhaps drawn by the seductive strippers, or perhaps enticed by the sounds of the pink-clad brass band, people lining the sidewalks joined in for the decidedly not-somber memorial. There were at least 200 revelers at the peak of the fun, dancing, stripping, and with one unabashedly naked woman jumping onto a nearby car. 

And no, not just a parked car. The driver got out, furious, and ushered her off, wiping down his smudged hood. Her breasts bounced as she trotted off. It was that kind of party. 

Some of the tourists sitting in the pre-packaged Italian neighborhood were non-plussed, others were goggle eyed and slack jawed. As little children walked arm in arm by women (and men) in nipple tassels and tattoos, most were smiling.  

Carrying pink parasols they marched back down Columbus and obstructed traffic as they danced on like a New Orleans jazz funeral, eventually settling by Vesuvio’s in Jack Kerouac alley. As the brass band played, some spoke of what made the Lusty Lady so special.

“Its very empowering,” said Megan Croley, a North Beach resident..

“It means naked ladies, but also sexual freedom,” said Mike West, a Bay Area native who has highschool friends that eventually joined the Lusties.

“It was a place where you could see bodies and representations more healthy for society,” said Maren Abromowitz, a worker-owner from Rainbow Grocery, a supporter of the Lusty Lady. 

All of that was a part of what made The Lusty Lady unique, a Barbary Coast 2.0. if you will. The city’s red light district draws its roots from the Gold Rush, where “there arose a unique and criminal district that for almost seventy years was the scene of more viciousness and depravity, but which at the same time possessed more glamour, than any other area of vice and iniquity on the American continent,” Herbert Asbury wrote in his book, “The Barbary Coast.” 

And the Lusty Lady certainly brought the glamour. But for Prince$$, dancer, spokesperson and union shop steward at the Lusty, it elevated the strip of Broadway that too often can be a degrading workplace for women, she said. 

She didn’t outline the facts, but many others have: strippers in other establishments are often paid as independent contractors, which means no benefits. And critics in many outlets have said they’re pressured into sex acts to make profit beyond the stage, and on the whole are treated without dignity or respect. 

But the Lusties co-owned their business, were paid hourly wages and overtime, and were a part of the Service Employees International Union.

Prince$$ likened the work at other strip clubs to indentured servitude. 

“We fought for the right to be treated like human beings,” she said. “The thing about that is all the strippers are fierce, they’re all fabulous, they all deserve the same love and respect we get. The thing is when they don’t get it they don’t have the power to demand it.”

“We demanded it, and we got it,” she said. 

Listen to an audio interview with Prince$$ above.

As the procession ended outside the Lusty Lady, the marchers carried in a pink coffin, bejeweled and sparkling. Men and women alike lined up to the booths inside for their last peep-shows as the Lusties gyrated and stripped on the platform for the last time.

There, under the dim red light, a woman with a large bosom and an even larger voice bellowed, “In the time you’re standing in line for the peepshow, you could have titties in your face, now! While you’re standing in the hallway I can find you the woman of your dreams!”

One man meekly raised his hand, and went behind the beads. In the fullest tradition of the Barbary Coast, of this I’m sure: the Lusties showed him a damned good time.