Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Harmony Burlesque

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


Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

A few blocks away on Canal St were bar after bar with topless dancers performing up on the bar, you just had to hold of to your drink and money or else that would accidentally be kicked out of the way. I didn't come here that much, Times Square was my abode.

Anonymous said...

I have been wondering when you would post something about The Harmony! I worked there during its three final years, the era of the Gulliani crack down. I was in a few raids, cops yelling at strippers and customers, all of us made to wait with our hands up while they decided whom to haul off to jail. We were eventually shut down due to our proximity to a synagogue, the irony being that the rabbis were all our customers!

The Harmony hired me when I was a homeless heroin addict and probably saved me from a much worse fate. I am many years clean now, married, leading a very stable life, but I have such nostalgia, a downright ache in my heart for that time in New York. The city held such possibility, and such mystery to me when I first arrived, as if any unmarked door I passed might contain any number of secret worlds.

I consider my time working at The Harmony to be one of my great life experiences for which I am immensely grateful.

Jeremiah, I love your blog so much. Keep up the good fight. I myself am giving it up. After 20 years in NYC I am moving to Los Angeles. Time to decamp to somewhere less superficial. :)

maximum bob said...

Back in the day the Harmony was a client of mine, being that I repaired video edit equipment and they had a Sony sytem. I remember going on a service call and Madeline, as I recall, the owner showed me into a loft type space to work on the equipment. Down below it was dark, and women were circulating in the darkness where men sat in theater type chairs. "What's going on down there?" I asked..."Why don't you go down and see for yourself when you're done."
I did...this was old school NY sleaze, it was essentially sort of a lap dance situation, you tipped the women a few bucks.
It will always remind me of NYC the way it used to be, in the 1980s
my neighborhood, the East 20's, was awash every night with streetwalkers...some of them were
pretty hot. All gone now, consigned to memory.

Cloudia said...

This former (not gentleman's club) dancer/cocktail waitress recognizes a flavor I recognize, and yes do miss in my maturity. I just posted about it the other day, and wrote about Honolulu's dives in my Lil novel.....

Anonymous said...

I used to slip into The Harmony after the 4 - 11 shift at work. For some reason, I remember each and every visit as taking place on a balmy summer night. I would walk fast and determinedly up Church St, lured by compulsion, before suddenly pivoting right and vanishing from the darkness of the night into the darkness of The Harmony.

The price of admission was the same as the cost of a lap dance: 10 dollars. It was so cheap it was like permission to sin. How big a sin could it be for 10 bucks? More than a bargain, once you were in there, bathed in red light and the heavy scent of musk, the price was more like a demand, an imperative to hold one of the girls and grind with her.

All the girls were different. Some were young, others were old. A few were junkies. A couple were Chinatown girls just out of high school. One was an NYU student named Dahlia who talked about her film noir class during her lap dances.

But the lap dances were long, and the girls were who they were. With them, that hackneyed whore-call, "Wanna date?" wasn't, for some reason, hackneyed or worn out at all.

In those sweaty 10 dollar embraces, holding damp bodies in cheap, frayed negligees with the girls’ warm breath on my neck, huddled together under the low ceilings of the dim and decrepit Harmony, I often found something that I didn't think existed in strip clubs.

Intimacy. And maybe I'm fooling myself today just as I fooled myself back then. But that intimacy always felt somehow, for some reason, quiet and shared.

Anonymous said...

I just submitted a piece with the first sentence, "I used to slip into The Harmony after the 4 - 11 shift at work." I'd love it if you were to publish it. But I just panicked that I might have neglected to check "Anonymous." I've been married for 25 years, and would like to keep it that way. For God's sake, please don't attach my name to the submission.

Sam said...

HA HA HA!!! I worked the booth at Harmony and its sister club Angels in the mid 90's up till it's closing.

I was in my early 20's cashiering at a nearby pizza place when I answered an ad for a cashier at a "club" was all the ad said.

Madeleine hired me on the spot.
Great pay for back then $15/hr plus the occasional tips from the girls was more than enough to live on in New York.

The staff, customers and the dancers came from every ethnic group and background you could think of.

Just before the Harmony closed you could sense things in NYC were changing. This was the most memorable time in my life and I miss old New York and it's people dearly.

Hope all the girls from the Harmony made out well.


Jeremiah Moss said...

Anon, your marriage is safe.

Tribeca Citizen said...

The Mulino a Vino deal fell through: I heard about a much more wholesome tenant (than either strippers or wine) moving in, but the company has yet to sign a lease....

melanie said...

my names melanie i used to work there in the last 5 years of it being opened. i was one of the woman that go arrested in the raid. but i do remember it like yesterday, i worked at the one on 23 street too, lots of money being made lots of late nights, i meet some strange people in there but in general great fun , that,s where a meet a good friend called rema, sending lots of love to all the other dancers i miss you all

Anonymous said...

I remember the Harmony well and when it moved to Church St and 22nd St from after being in Times Square area. I think it was called Melody in Times Square. The place used to get packed for shows - guys standing along the walls watching the girls on the stage. The girls would circulate through the theater sitting on mens laps or grinding on them as they stood against the walls - that was for 1.00! This was back in the 1980s. There was a guy nicknamed "Frenchie" that I remember also. At the stage guys lined up to give oral sex to some of the girls - it was surreal. The girls would spread their legs and guys would come one after the other. What a crazy time. Then it shut down and moved to Church street and became a lap dance place. I went for many years. For $5 or $10 you would have an intimate and friendly lap dance. The girls were all friendly and it really was such a great time. While the place was a dump, the bathrooms always had flying bugs and stunk - there was a comfort for us guys who enjoyed touching and caressing women - not prostitution - just human contact for those lonely times. Guliani then went on his crusade to change the city. The Harmony was not dangerous, it was not soliciting anything illegal - but it was closed down. Both the Church st and 22nd st shut down. I had some great memories of the place and remember it fondly. Got me through some tough lonely times.

GMONEY said...

I've spoke before about the Harmony. It's unfortunate that the city shut it down. I've never really been into "strip bars" after the Harmony. At the Harmony, besides a dance; the girls and I would talk and maybe even share a beer I brought in. Hearing about their life, challenges and even aspirations was intimate. The tip was an after thought but well deserved. Today the bars charge you a certain dollar amount and get 2 songs for X dollars. It's very regimented and the girls seem to be disassociated with the customers. This is a huge turn off, as most guys are just looking for little attention, not sex. The Harmony girls are a dying breed that made you forget about your day, without constantly sticking their hand in your pocket. Not that money wasn't a part of the equation but they made you feel like it wasn't "just" about the money. I thank all of you Harmony girls who helped me through the week. Much love. GMONEY

Anonymous said...

Went to the Harmony many times during the 90's and early 00"s met many great people there, the place was indeed a dump:) but it was a great place for a guy like me to share the company of a woman, without pretense. The first time I went there it was like I walked into a Fellini Movie :) it was surreal for sure ! one of my favorite dancers was pixie, as well as Pheonix. Sadly it's now a part of my memory along with alot of the Old New York that many of us remember fondly. Perhaps it was a bit sleazy, and at night it had an air of danger, but I'd give anything to have one more saturday at the harmony on church St or the one on 22nd. I'd take it any day over the Gentrified antiseptic neighborhood it's become.

Anonymous said...

No remembrance of the Harmony would be complete without a mention of a dancer, stage name Stacy, who was there during the halcyon days circa 1990-1992. She was the queen of Harmony,of Cuban descent, and 24 years later, still the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.

I had the pleasure of spending more than a few afternoons and evenings in her company. In 1992, she got baby fever and decided to have a child.

The Harmony was about as far from the bottle service rip offs of today as you can get. I'm glad I was able to partake in a little bit of bygone New York.

Anonymous said...

I was just a runny nose kid back then, just turning 21, when I stumbled across Sandy, the sweet, beautiful, busty, sensual MILF. The things she could do with her shin and forearm of all things....I still think of her. :)

Anonymous said...

I spent many evenngs at the Harmony Burlesque Theatre in the late 90s. I didn't earn much money back then, so it was great to have such an affordable and friendly place to hang around women who happened to be nude. I was a little frightened the first time I ventured in having read about it in Al Goldstein's "Screw Magazine," another relic of dirty old New York. I thought damn this must be what a crack house is like. Going down those stairs was descending into hell even though it was the no-smoking section of the club. I brought my out of town friends there often and they loved it. We never failed to chuckle when we heard "Bagel Express delivery is here" on the PA system. Suffice to say that lots of guys treated this like a second home. I went there every time I had a few extra bucks in my pocket. The girls were down home NYC style, all sizes and shapes. Some were incredibly warm and pleasant while others were more aloof. I remember a few in particular, but sadly not their names. One was a snooty Peruvian-Russian, very beautiful. Another looked like a California beach bunny, and there were plenty of hipster girls and just plain regular neighborhood girls. It was a real solace to have the Harmony nearby to keep your lonliness at bay. That's when NYC had real high and low culture. One of the few times in my LIFE when I splurged on a taxi for myself was right after I attended a literature conference at NYU on Samuel Beckett and I was overcome with he desire for some lowest of the low kind of entertainment. I remember thinking to myself, "This is why I came to NY." I feel lucky to have experienced that even though I lead a more respectable life now.

Anonymous said...

I used to work there. I worked at all the bigger clubs uptown, and heard a lot about the club- owned by a woman who danced. I was intrigued. I looked a lot like Drew Barrymore, and I was very young at the time. Dominique wanted me to work there, because it was right after the real Drew Barrymore got on stage in their other club, Angel's around the corner. I generally have fond memories of the place. My experience was good. I met nice men, and never had to do anything unusual to make money, unless you consider a lap dance unusual.

It was fun. I could even act silly, and play up my very young look on stage. I once even got on stage in my jeans, with my book bag. And the CROWD ATE IT UP! I had a following. It was good fun times and I was young.

There was a write up about the Harmony and I was included. I used to walk around with a box of baby wipes and make people wash their hands before even touching me. (hahaha - I would still do it)

Here is the thing, it is terrible that the club closed. I am not a man whining about it. I am a woman, it is part of the culture of NYC. The authentic NYC. There was not prostitution in that club, or any club I worked at. It was strictly prohibited. Why would any club owner in NYC promote that, and risk loosing their club.

Any logic person would realize this.

The condoms that they mentioned in the paper.. Lots of guys would literally get off and lots of them were married, and I guess this was a way of not going home mysteriously stained up.

I wish I knew what happened with the owner Dominique. I did a ton of cool photos for her website. They are all gone. I am older, and it is a part of my story. I wish I could have them.

MY name was April back then. It was the month I started dancing and I went with it.

I also danced at the Baby Doll, the one on the corner, and that other one that was down the block from WTC, maybe Church Street (I think that is the street)

I think it is a shame these things are gone.

I also want to add, this club was featured on HBO's Real Sex. They really did a good little piece on the club.

My fondest memory. I usually did not like to dance on the bottom level. IT was hot and really dark. One time I wound up with one of my regulars down there, next to the bathroom, and HE just went limp and started to slide down the wall. It TOTALLY Freaked me out, I panicked and just screamed. Some of the dancers reacted angrily towards me, as I killed the head for the whole club! (HAHAH) The ambulance was there so fast, they opened a side door I did not realize even existed until that day, and the man came to, and he hands me like 200.00. After that, I was April the girl who gives people heart attacks.

Do you know that guy still kept coming to see me after that?

I am smiling reminiscing over my wilder days past. I thank you for keeping the spirit of the old NYC alive, and remembering this place. As it is being erased in my opinion, sadly.

I have tried to search this club, and look for the previous owner, in the hopes I could get copies of those photos.. It is a shame in my eyes.

Anonymous said...

The Harmony Theater has been replaced in the 21st century, by "Cyber Harmony’s" (Web Cam Models) where you pay sometimes as much as $2.99 per minute, to watch a dancer from any part of the world; in the comfort of your own home. I bet old Giuliani is a big fan----but there is something terribly scary about the people who substitute this for the real thing and do not know any better! There was something about the Harmony that nobody can explain in words but it was REAL in every sense of the word. I was a fan from 1981-1998 (during which time I had at least two live in ladies that I simply had to get away from) and there was no better place to do it than at the harmony. Another thing I really liked Mr. Giuliani; was they never served alcohol at the Harmony, so there was practically no violence there. There’s probably more violence in the new place. New York City is just not the same. At least from 1998-2004 you could find an ersatz Harmony run by a former dancer, and it was the same deal. (On Ludlow Street-29th/Broadway and other locations) That place was always moving around, but old Rudy missed that one! I knew some of the Harmony ladies personally, and actually visited one in Los Angeles in the 1980’s it was another reason to always want to stay in New York City, besides rent stabilization! I liked my neighborhood so much more in the 1980’s than I do now. I never ever thought they would take the time and money to sterilize New York City, but somehow it happened through (MONEY & A MAFIA STYLE GOVERNMENT) etc. Dam shame, but the memories here that we all share are nice. Peace & Love.

Anonymous said...

I remember Sandy too if not mistaken she was one of the few that also had worked in the Times Square location Great French kisses too

caponsacchi said...

In 1979 the Harmony (on 47th St, between 8th and Broadway, formerly the Melody Theater) was the most festive and fun of many adult attractions in the Times Square area. It wasn't one of the private open-window peep shows or one of the massage parlors hiring vendors to pass out flyers with the picture of a model and the words "$10 Complete." It was by contrast the greatest show (or "show-all") on- or off-Broadway. The most popular time to come to the Harmony was Saturday afternoons, when hundreds of middle-aged gentlemen lined-up on the sidewalk, waiting for the doors to open so they could walk upstairs to pay the $10 admission fee (half-price before 1 P.M.), in anticipation of "Mardi Gras" day at the Harmony.

The veterans came prepared, knowing how many dollar bills they had brought because, once spent, any opportunities as an audience-participant were finished. The cast was numerous, as many as 3 or more entertainers appearing simultaneously on a stage extended into the audience, and none bothering with the preliminaries of "stripping." The only apparel was a garter belt, which soon became stuffed with dollar bills (and if the stack overflowed, the customarily polite customers would diligently pick them up and return them to the lady at the end of her time on stage.

For those of us who remembered the Puritanical 1950s and the fantasies born of repression, the experience was a dream come true: 2-4 hours of intimate touching (and occasionally even kissing), which made the days prior to the arrival of the next Saturday afternoon seem like years.

Whether it due to the N.Y. Post's discovery and subsequent exposé of the festivities or the actions of Giuliani, the Harmony was closed when I returned to NYC in the '90s and was told that Mardi Gras was long gone. I walked from 47th St. down 8th ave. to 42nd st., then to Times Square. Nothing looked remotely familiar. I could just as well have been at Disney World or in a colorful but synthetic, artificial and absolutely sterile "family theme park." After that visit to NYC, I saw no reason to make another.

Anonymous said...

I was a 19 year old heroin addict when I started working @ harmony . I've worked for times square clubs and peeps shows ,wall street bars and pretty much every place in the city that wasn't too particular about I'd's ,underage dancers ,etc....I remember showing up ready to talk my way into getting hired without proving I was legal and audition ,but to my surprise ,the only question I had to answer was whether I was ready to start right then and there and which name I wanted to use. So many people have so much to Say about harmony and not all of it is always great for me. I can only say that the harmony years were still innocent and fun filled and on those rare late nights when I still think about that lost time I actually feel the nostalgia and ache for the lost new York that can never be recreated ,and will never be again. Yes ,it was a bit dark and sleazy but I've never felt threatened or in danger ,most customers were nice and let's face it ..Where else could I earn 500-600 a shift (more if iboulled a double ) tax free ,guilt free dollars to spend however ibdamned pleased ...only to show up broke the following afternoon ? Speaking of $ ...does anyone sale (the girls I mean ) remember those ridiculous fines Dominique had in place ... Punched inn2 minutes late ,? Pay a fine ...want to leave Daly early ? Pay a fine ! Don't want to dance on stage ? Pay up and thatvparticukar inconvenience can be avoided as well :)

Amedeo Chenier said...

I remember April from both Church Street and West 22 Street which I think she preferred. Glad to hear the years have been kind to her. Thanks to Jeremiah for his efforts and would also like to invite anyone interested to join our Facebook page- "Fans of NYC Harmony & Melody Theaters". Several former Harmony dancers are in the group but we would warmly welcome others. Regards to all.

joffyjazz said...

I loved the Harmony on both Church st and 22nd st. I remember the first time I went it was like on 17th street near union square in an office bldg. You had to go up in an elevator. Great times. i don't remember too many names except my favorite latinas Maryane and Feather. Also a nice lady named Goldie. Good harmless fun ruined by Guiliani that forced me to go darker into the underside of NY.

anon said...

I remember first hearing about the Harmony when I went to gogo rama in NJ in the early 90's when I was in college. I was getting a lapdance and the girl told me she had worked there before. This got me really curious so when I eventually moved to the city I knew I had to check it out. I must have been to the church st location about a 100 times over a three year period. I can't remember many names but I remember this skinny blond girl who looked really young and used to put her hands down my pants. Another blond named Claudia was my favorite; she was gorgeous. I think she was dancing on the front page of that website they had but I never saw her actually dance on stage. I used to call that payphone they had to ask if she was working that night. When that place closed down I was really bummed.

Mahogoney said...

I worked at the Harmony from 1994 to the day it closed. I started at the BabyDoll my name was Mahogoney back then. I was tall and thin had extremely long legs...made great money and loved every bit of it. I was 19 when I started. The most dirtiest wretched place ever and yet the girls the customers such beauty in such filth. It has shaped me as a person today. The girlz Laurie, Fifi, Tabu, Joey, Carera, Daphney, Cleo, Deciet, Honey, Sexina, Joan,Fountain, Storm,Roz, Estee, Lonni, Quemmie,Murphy, Charolette, Cheyenne, Olivia, Lanna, Gabby, Constance, Comfort, Janet, Purity, Shandi, Tate, Candice and soo many more who names escape me I wish you all well ladies and May God Bless you all in your every endeavor. We were the women of the Harmony........Oh and to the two fat old dried up sisters Dominique and Rosie God Bless you too for giving bitches like us a great place to make money.

Tim1 said...

I am really curious as to how the life of those dancers evolved.

As a student and virgin college student I did visit the Harmony theater at the Times Square location. I was ashamed of my virginity at 21 then and I am so eternally thankful to the dancers for their $1 to $2 lap dances (year was 1979). I found new courage and wish I could gift those girls because they helped me to gain self esteem.

I did see people standing in line to go down on dancers who came with wipes !
I did not want to do that but I thought it was so intimate. I only have the best feeling about the theater and the girls who worked there.

Even if I did not have a dance with anyone, my heartfelt salute to you girls who worked those year. Please share how your lives evolved. Thank you.