Tribeca does not often compel me to visit, but I went not long ago to see what's there. Standing on a once-familiar corner, I noticed something I hadn't noticed before. At 279 Church St., a lonely BURLESQUE sign is still bolted to the bricks.
A remnant of another age, when this part of town hosted adult clubs and bars like the Baby Doll Lounge, the sign might have belonged to the Harmony Theatre, a place I remember as a cramped, womb-like room where men sat around in plush, red chairs while women writhed in their laps.
Author and former stripper Lily Burana called it "rough trade central" when she recounted her experience at the Harmony in a 1995 article for New York magazine: "Martha Stewart would have a coronary if she ever saw this place. The walls are covered in chipped red paint and promo stills of porn stars circa 1985. Garbage and stray butts collect around the legs of the chairs... The Harmony is commonly regarded as the bottom of the barrel, but I like it here. The money's good, most of the customers are sweet, you can work at your own pace, and there are no pretensions of gentility or illusions about the club's purpose."
The city shut it down in 1998, when Giuliani "proclaimed the Harmony, which employed 250 women, a ''corrosive institution.'" The dancers had few options, as the city made it impossible for small strip joints to operate, while glitzy "gentlemen's clubs," with airbrushed dancers, survived. As one Harmony performer told the Times, "I don't have that Barbie doll look, and I'm afraid of rejection. What am I going to write on a job application, that I was a lap dancer for the last four years?''
In 2006, non-profit theater group Collective Unconscious moved in for two years, and Pinchbottom Burlesque held regular shows. When Collective Unconscious shuttered, Trav S.D. wrote in the Voice that it meant "the demise of one of the last physical ties to a now-vanished time and place—the Lower East Side of the ’90s and early ’00s."
In 2009, the Harmony's manager, who owned the building, placed an ad seeking a new tenant. According to Downtown Express, the ad read: "‘Anything goes’ uses include bar/night spot/party space/restaurant/live theater/store." The neighbors opposed the liquor license and "anything goes" did not pass go.
The space is now occupied by Italian winery Mulino a Vino. Said the broker on the deal, “It’s pretty exciting. While [the patrons] taste wine, there will be cellists and violinists. It’s very classy."
But the sign remains--and so do the memories. On my Baby Doll Lounge post, many former dancers and customers of the Harmony shared recollections of the place. The comments are worth reading for their detail and vividness, but here are a few choice quotes:
"The place was filthy, dark, and the stuff that went on in there was raunchy on a slow day." --L'Emmerdeur
"I guess the best way to describe the stuff that went on there was 'Medieval.'" --GMONEY
"We 'd pay the $10 at the booth and enter the dark Harmony illuminated by the faint red lights. We 'd recognize the same cast of characters week after week, the fat mailman, a wild old man, and the little man with the beard. Of course, there were the women. Fifi, Suzie, Faye, Claudia..." --Anonymous
"I do have many fond memories of being close to the other women who were also just trying to make a living, go to college, raise their kids, etc." --Anonymous
"Working there was soooo much fun--grimy but fun." --Anonymous
"One time Time Out did a write up about Harmony, and they actually wrote about my amazing lap dance, and how I washed their hands before with baby wipes or they could not put their hands on me." --Maggie
"It was a place we could be ourselves and not have to conform to the Barbie image they expected at the flashy clubs. It was NY through and through." --Katie