The Lusty Lady, a "panoram," or peepshow, was a remnant of Seattle's bawdy past, an overly lipsticked cousin in a gentrifying family. The pawn shops, tattoo parlors, and strip clubs that were once its associates on 1st Avenue were replaced by luxury condos, trendy restaurants, and upscale boutiques. The Seattle Art Museum took up most of the block directly across the street. A Four Seasons hotel and "private residences" complex, where $2.25 million bought a one-bedroom condo, sprouted next door. Some of its tony new neighbors expressed a certain fondness for "The Lusty," or at least for its iconic pink and black marquee, which entertained passers-by with irreverent puns and double entendres for years. "I get a kick out of it," said former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, one of the developers of the Four Seasons (Schell interview). The Lusty Lady survived several efforts by civic authorities -- including Schell -- to shut it down, but eventually fell victim to a changing economy. The owners said their profits had been stripped away by the recession and the proliferation of free titillation on the internet. What Schell once described as a "uniquely Seattle" institution went out of business in June 2010.
The Lusty Lady, at 1315 1st Avenue, was in the heart of what used to be Seattle's vice district, an area once known as "Flesh Avenue." One writer described the neighborhood as "Seattle's combination of Skid Road and Combat Zone" (Schaefer, The Seattle Times). Its most prominent tenants were topless clubs, adult bookstores, and theaters showing sexually explicit films. Prostitution and drug deals were commonplace. It was a place, it was said, “where they think ambiance is something that takes you from the bar to the hospital” (Seattle Weekly).
The tone of the neighborhood began to change in the early 1980s, with the renovation of the Pike Place Market and the construction of several nearby hotel, office, and condo buildings. Schell, a real estate developer before and after his single term as Seattle’s mayor in the late 1990s, played a key role in the redevelopment effort, as president of the Cornerstone Columbia Development Company. The company poured about $100 million into construction projects in the area. Among them was the Watermark Tower at 1st and Spring. Schell was living there with his family in 1985 when the city issued a permit for what became the Lusty Lady.
In January 1985, the operator of the X-rated Apple Theater, on Capitol Hill, obtained a permit from the Department of Construction and Land Use (DCLU) to convert the Sultan Cinema on 1st Avenue into an “adult amusement arcade.” The plans called for the Sultan (which, like the Apple, was a porn theater) to expand into a vacant tavern next door, doubling the available space. In addition to a dozen or so booths for watching 16 millimeter peepshow films, the arcade would feature a stage where nude dancers could be viewed through booths with coin-operated windows.
Schell and other downtown property owners were appalled by the plans. In a letter appealing to then-Mayor Charles Royer to revoke the permit, they argued that 1st Avenue was becoming a residential neighborhood, in which case city ordinances would prohibit adult-oriented businesses. “It is incongruous and illogical to ignore the impact of sex shops and pornography on the pedestrian,'' they wrote. In a separate letter, Glen Amster, lawyer for Harbor Properties, developer of the adjacent Harbor Steps condominium project, argued that the permit violated the state's Environmental Protection Act. Wes Durland, a minister and director of the 1st Avenue Service Center, also protested. “They want to put in a live girlie stage,“ he said. “If they get in there, you’ll never get them out” (Schaefer, The Seattle Times).
There Goes the Neighborhood
Royer was sympathetic. “I don't want this stuff downtown,'' he said. “In an area where we’re trying to encourage housing, pornography is way out of place.'' He asked the DCLU staff to review the permit but conceded that it probably could not be revoked. He promised instead to propose tighter restrictions on such businesses in the future. “We can't retroactively ban the Sultan Cinema, but we'll make it tougher for porno shops to set up business,'' he said (Gilmore, The Seattle Times).
One year later, the City Council adopted tough new rules regulating peepshows and panorams (the coin-operated devices that allow patrons to see films and live nude dancing in establishments like the Lusty Lady). The council amended a 1955 ordinance to require that doors in panoram booths be at least 42 inches above the floor, that the doors not have locks, and that the interior of the booths be visible from a main aisle at all times. The council also required that companies operating panorams disclose the names and addresses of all stockholders -- a provision that applied to no other type of business.
The Lusty Lady (licensed then as the Amusement Center Arcade) and nine other downtown peepshows were briefly shut down when the new ordinance went into effect in May 1986, but lawyers for the operators quickly filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law. The council reached an out-of-court settlement over parts of the ordinance one month later, repealing the city’s authority to deny a license if the applicant seemed dishonest or immoral, and stipulating that the bottom of the doors on the booths be only 24 inches above the floor, not 42 inches. Meanwhile, the lawsuit wound its way through the courts. In October 1989, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the original amendments were unconstitutional.
By then, the Lusty Lady had established itself as something of a Seattle institution, famed for the cheeky slogans on its flashy marquee. Among the fans of the marquee was Royer himself. His earlier opposition was "in the context of the time," he wrote in a 2007 email message to HistoryLink.org. "We were trying to keep that kind of business out of the neighborhoods while the courts were taking away all of our options. Lusty Lady just got caught in the dust-up over the larger issue."
As for his later attitude: "Personally, I love the fact that the Lusty Lady comments daily on current AFFAIRS while sitting right across the street from the Seattle Art Museum," he wrote. "This town is definitely BIG enough for the Four Seasons, the Art Museum, and the Lusty Lady. Plus, a sense of humor will win me over every time."
The neighborhood's transformation from gritty to chic accelerated with the opening of the Seattle Art Museum in late 1991. The Lusty Lady greeted its new neighbor in typically ribald fashion: "Welcome SAM! Once you've seen their nudes, come in and see ours."
Over the years, the Lusty had a lot of fun with SAM. After the museum’s signature sculpture, the 48-foot-tall Hammering Man, was installed outside the main entrance, the marquee cooed: “Hammer Away Big Guy.” The marquee often played off exhibits or special events at the museum. A show by artist Chuck Close (1940-2021) brought this slogan: "Chuck Clothes." When the museum reopened after a major expansion and remodel in May 2007, the Lusty was ready with "We Made Sam Grow" and "Ooh -- Sam's Expanding."
Initially, however, Lusty Lady personnel were wary about the likelihood that their "skinstitution" would be able to co-exist with a major art museum. "It certainly won’t have a positive effect on us," said company controller Darrell Davis. "If they’ve got the wherewithal to get a $36 million building built, they have the power to get rid of a business not popular with the mainstream" (De Leon). “I know they’re not too crazy about our existence,” said June Cade, the general manager at the time. For her part, she added, she planned to become a patron member of the new museum. "I love the arts!" (Lyke).
Open, Not Clothed
An even greater potential threat came in 2004, when Paul Schell, cellular phone entrepreneur Bruce McCaw, and other investors began negotiating with the owners of the three-story building that housed the Lusty Lady, hoping to buy it, tear it down, and incorporate the space into a 21-story, $120 million Four Seasons hotel-condo complex at the corner of 1st Avenue and Union Street. According to press reports, the investors offered several million dollars to the longtime owners of the building, Christto T. and Dorothy E. Tolias and their two children. The building, constructed in 1900 and vacant except for the Lusty, and its 4,440 square-foot lot, were appraised at $1.3 million -- much less than the rumored teardown offer. Nonetheless, the family refused to sell.
The developers regrouped. In partnership with Harbor Properties, owner of the Harbor Steps condos just to the south, they offered to buy the rights to the air above the building. Records in the King County Recorder’s office show that the family issued a quitclaim deed for the vertical air rights in December 2005, in return for a payment of $850,000. The Toliases' attorney, John Sinsheimer, said the family's motives were both personal and financial. "They like the building,” he said. “It's a good investment with a steady income stream, and they just wanted to keep it" (Seattle Weekly, 2006). The ladies celebrated by announcing "We're Open, Not Clothed.”
Among those who welcomed the decision was Mimi Gates, director of SAM. “The Lusty Lady’s marquee is a Seattle landmark,” she said. Representatives of the hotel also professed to be delighted with the outcome. Peter Hodgson, vice president of corporate planning at Four Seasons Hotels Inc., called the club "a local cultural icon" (bloomberg.com). Schell agreed. "To be truthful we would have preferred to buy the whole building," he said. “But we’re okay with having the club next to the Four Seasons. We did hear from neighbors that they liked it. And the marquee is cool” (Schell interview).
Now Showing: Everything
In earlier years, the Lusty Lady staff held weekly brainstorming sessions to come up with the puns, double-entendres, and catch phrases that made the marquee a Seattle fixture. Later, many of the slogans were suggested by the public. Submitting ideas for the marquee became something of an in-house sport for people who lived or worked downtown. If a slogan was picked, the writer got a T-shirt that read "Have an Erotic Day." (Schell said he had turned in a few ideas, but had not won a T-shirt.)
While many people loved the marquee, there were others who were much less amused by what went on inside the Lusty Lady. "It's sleazy," said Schell. "I think if you go inside you'll be a little appalled."
As described by former Lusty Lady dancers Elisabeth Eaves and Erika Langley in separate books, naked women danced and strutted on a mirrored stage while customers watched from booths -- one customer to a booth. The booths were cut across the bottom to show the legs of the customers. Nearly all were men, mostly middle-aged; they wore everything from wingtips to tennis shoes to work boots. When money was dropped into a slot, a screen on a window in the booth rose to reveal the stage. In some of the booths, the glass was one-way; in others, it was clear. The more money the customer put into the slot, the longer the screen stayed up. The tiled floor in the booths was often sticky; the air smelled strongly of disinfectant. Langley characterized the environment as "more surreal than terrifying" (27).
In the adult entertainment business, the Lusty Lady was noted for having a relatively respectful attitude toward its dancers. The day-to-day managers were all women, most of them former dancers; the dancers were always separated (and thus protected) from the customers by glass; and they were paid an hourly wage, rather than having to rely on tips. Still, it was a challenge to overcome the "managed seediness" of the place.
Tracy Quan, in a review of Eaves's book, made these observations about the peepshow business in general: “The dancing girls do not work long grueling shifts -- their shifts may be two to five hours long with frequent 10-minute breaks -- but the work itself requires extreme agility, physical and mental concentration and the unusual ability to be instantly expressive in front of a man you've never met before.” The dancer’s performance, she added, “is an elaborate exercise in skirting anti-prostitution laws while providing the maximum degree of titillation. Everything, from the saucy costumes to the gyrating and posing, must compensate for an absence of physical contact between dancer and customer. The result is an erotic niche market that is bewildering to some, profoundly enticing to others” (Los Angeles Times).
Through the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Lusty Lady continued to stand as an iconoclastic holdout against a wave of gentrification in downtown Seattle. Schell, for one, thought its survival would be only a temporary victory. "In the end, with the changes happening in the street, I think it's going to be uncomfortable for their patrons," he predicted.
While patron discomfort -- and the increasing ease of anonymous access to porn on the internet -- may have played a role, it was the recession that began in 2008 that proved to be the final straw for the Lusty Lady. Previous recessions had had little impact, the owners said, but a prominent victim of the 2008 downturn, Washington Mutual, had occupied much of the 42-story WaMu Center across the street from the Lusty Lady, and with the bank's collapse and the closure of the small eateries nearby, foot traffic in the area declined, and so did the panoram's patronage. Its last day in business was June 27, 2010.
The marquee's final posting on 1st Avenue was a simple "Thank You for 25 Years" on one side; "Lusty Later" on the other. But the marquee survived the business it advertised for 25 years. It was donated to the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) and in 2012 it was put on display in the museum's new home in the former armory on Lake Union.