A review by Guest Correspondent Bill Lascher
Oregonians take the best field trips. Kick ass field trips, even.
What’s more kickass than nearly 30 Oregonians piled into the back of a party bus to explore their state’s history? One possibility: outfitting that bus with four stripper poles, a ferocious mountain lion hood ornament, disco lights and a blaring sound system. Serve the wide-eyed students bottomless Ninkasis and introduce them to Portland’s surfeit of equally bottomless (and topless) women, and you have quite the practicum in the state’s free expression rules. Pepper the trip with “ghost bars,” tales of first amendment battles won and tributes from Gen X’ers to dead gang members and you have yourself Kick Ass Oregon history’s Oct. 17 Strip Club Party Bus Tour.
It’s difficult to know what to expect when signing up for a tour of adult establishments with strangers who just happen to listen to the same podcast as you. Fortunately, happy hour at the Jack London bar — the tour’s launchpad — helped break the ice.
But before his charges could even count their singles, resident historian Doug Kenck-Crispin triumphantly descended the stairs from the Rialto poolroom to the Jack London. His voice boomed from his trusted Mobile Talking Thing (some sort of amplified bullhorn contraption best identified as, well, a mobile talking thing), announcing his presence with the kind of authority unique to cult leaders, politicians and the most esoteric of tour guides.
The mission was clear. Though free-flowing alcohol, bouncing aureolae and exposed labia may have sweetened the deal, the budding Oregon Historians’ mission was, as always, an intimate glimpse of the Beaver State.
“You came for a fucking history tour, and you’re going to fucking get it,” Kenck-Crispin would later tell the group.
History, of course, isn’t without its risks, especially when ass-kicking is involved. Like any good field trip organizer, Kenck-Crispin followed his welcoming address with that venerable field trip institution: the permission slip.
“It gives me indemnification,” Kenck-Crispin said, shattering his guests’ litigious dreams. “I’m not responsible when a stripper kicks you with her heel.”
Fortunately, the night passed without errant feet. Nor was it necessary for Kenck-Crispin to corral his charges with the kid rope or duct tape he brought along in case of errant students. Indeed, everyone was (mostly) well-behaved.
As any Streckert worth his salt knows, Portland’s storied history as a mecca for vice has much to do with its service as a trading post for Oregon’s abundant resources. Harvesting and shipping the felled trees of Cascadia required grueling labor. At the turn of the century, that labor was generally provided by men. Those men, in turn, offered another resource. The dollars they earned in the state’s forests and mills were extensively mined by alcohol purveyors, gambling racketeers and any number of entrepreneurs who could capitalize on inebriation, games of chance, exposed flesh or variations on those themes.
That meant opportunity for places like Erickson’s Saloon, which was known for its 684 foot bar, pipe-organ, “dainty” lunch and, of course, gorgeous showgirls.
Kenck-Crispin introduced us to this and other aspects of the Portland Strip Club origin story, then shepherded his students from the Jack London to meet their steed. Clad in gold, this was a blinged-out version of another field trip staple: the yellow school bus. The aforementioned dance poles, trays of booze passed out by Melissa the Intern and Doug’s wife Mrs. K, and the drink holders around the cabin added to the enhancements.
Before the tour got far down the road to Oregon’s history, it caught a glimpse of Kenck-Crispin’s personal history with a stop at its first “ghost club.” This was the downtown site of the Carriage Room, a club long since replaced by what Kenck-Crispin diplomatically dubbed “Broadway Multiplex Bullshit.” It was also the corner where Kenck-Crispin waited for the bus every day of his high school career, always hoping for a peek at the splendors he imagined behind the Carriage Room’s door.
“Every day,” he lamented. “Every fucking day, twice a day, I would pray for that door to be open. Four fucking years.”
Kenck-Crispin’s teenage self may never have realized that dream, but surely he would be proud to know he’d grow up to tell stories about his state’s history aboard a bus headed to not one, but three strip clubs. And he’d do so without abandoning the tools of any teacher worth his salt. When the first of these clubs — the Acropolis — neared, Kenck-Crispin urged his audience to form a buddy system before disembarking from the bus. Everyone was wide eyed. Whether strip club veterans, make-out-y couples, or women on business trips about to watch exotic dancers for the first time in their lives, they all resembled first graders about to tour a chocolate factory. Real naked humans awaited them, after all.
They were found mere feet away from a salad bar (Which, as one of the tour group participants noted as she passed, had likely been accessed by many a “semen hand”). Though its wall of beers and a full kitchen known for its steaks suggested much potential for the Acropolis, it proved depressingly quiet on this Wednesday night. Despite their enthusiasm, the historians seemed spooked. Many kept themselves a safe distance from the stage (though some ventured closer to the venerable tip rail).
But the melancholy that seemed to have settled over the group dissipated soon after departing the Acropolis. The drive up Route 99-E was accompanied by a chant of “more beer, more beer.” The chant was answered. Social anxieties vanished, and the historians began making friends with one another. There were couples who’d driven from Yachats just to learn about this unique aspect of Oregon history, managers of medical marijuana dispensaries, grad students, conference organizers and folks from many other walks of life. Kenck-Crispin’s own father, Mr. Bob, was an eager participant, as witnessed when he gyrated around one of the brass poles on the bus to the throbbing beat of Nine Inch Nails’s “Animal” (Which, Kenck-Crispin noted, is a required song at every strip club).
The revelry continued right through a brief stop at another “ghost club.” The Calico Cat on 24th and Sandy was known for its prime rib and for once employing a lactating dancer who offered up $5 shots of her own milk.
“My life is awesome,” one of the field trippers announced, as he soaked up the thought of how he’d decided to spend his Wednesday evening with such enlightenment.
The trip seemed to grow more awesome in the group’s eyes during its visit to Pirate’s Cove. This is the current incarnation of the bar once known as the Sandy Jug. There, the historians who’d been so skeptical at the Acropolis appeared won over. It’s not clear what finally grasped their attention. Was it the further consumption of beer? Could it have been the hilarious sight of the giant bag of tomatoes the Pirate Cove’s owner clutched (not a euphemism) as he watched the crowd? Or was it Holiday, the red-haired dancer whose jaw-dropping performance on stage may have been the first in Portland strip club history to elicit a club-wide standing ovation? The easy money’s on Holiday. That woman held her audience in the palm of her hand and could have wowed the dollar bills out of the hands of even the most puritanical of Red State’ers.
What field trip doesn’t feel like a holiday? From that point on, things were festive. Back on the bus, a full on dance party erupted as flasks were passed around and the tour traveled to the last ghost bar, the Viewpoint on NE Killingsworth. Known for featuring both male and female dancers, the Viewpoint earned its place in Portland lore in the late 1990s when Anthony Branch Jr., also known as “Lil’ Smurf,” was gunned down in the club’s parking lot. In that same lot, the kick ass historians stood in a circle and passed around a 40 oz bottle of Mickey’s in memory of the club, if not Lil’ Smurf. Afterwards, one of Kenck-Crispin’s good friends treated the field trippers to his personal dance moves and striptease on board the bus.
The three-hour tour was nearing its end. There was one last field trip tradition to be honored, of course: souvenirs. These came in the form of tiny bottles of Burnside Bourbon from Eastside Distilling every participant received, if not in the crumpled dollar bills left in everyone’s pockets.
But there was also one last stop. For how could this trip end without a visit to that most venerable of Portland strip joints: Mary’s Club. Portland’s oldest strip club gave Kenck-Crispin’s acolytes a place to linger for a drink or three more. It also provided many glimpses of dangerous-looking vulva piercings and a dancer whose breasts bobbed and shook in perfect rhythm to every song played from the club’s juke box. They shimmied and swayed like the memories that would soon dance in the historians’ heads as they boarded the taxis and buses they’d promised to use in their waivers.
It wasn’t all spilled 40s and well-exercised pectoral muscles on this field trip, of course. Though some of the lessons learned may not have been the most historically-oriented, a few choice tidbits were shared with this reporter:
- “Pole dancing takes core strength. I can’t imagine what it takes to even do that.”
- “A breakout period is a good thing once a month.”
- “I love party buses.”
- “I love Portland. I already suspected that, but I had it confirmed to me tonight.”
More photos of the Bus Tour can be found on The Face Book Thingy.
Bill Lascher is a freelance journalist and storyteller who produces the Thinkingest Podcast. He’s currently at work on a kickass book about the World War II journalist Melville Jacoby, the first Time Magazine correspondent to die on duty. Lascher has been known to unironically wield a typewriter at Portland-area coffeeshops.
And of course, the obligatory Acrop Parking Lot Boobie Shot… Yeah… It was that kinda Wednesday night…