US: The Snake Lady and the Masters: Augusta Imagines Life Post-Strip Clubs - PressFrom - US
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USThe Snake Lady and the Masters: Augusta Imagines Life Post-Strip Clubs

18:30  14 april  2019
18:30  14 april  2019 Source:   nytimes.com

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It is hard to imagine Augusta without Whitey Lester, a downtown fixture for decades and the city’s last strip - club impresario..

Image. The Masters Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club is a hallowed yearly pilgrimage for golf fans. Image. The Discotheque Lounge, one of Whitey Lester’s downtown strip clubs . By Richard Fausset and Steve Crawford. Photographs by Hilary Swift. AUGUSTA , Ga. —.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — “Folks,” the radio host wrote on his Facebook page, “reports of Whitey Lester’s death were apparently incorrect.”

It was just before Christmas, and the host, Austin Rhodes, was in the awkward position of retracting his on-air announcement about James Lester, who is known to everyone in Augusta as Whitey — and who remains very much alive.

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There used to be 3 shitty strip clubs in Augusta . Now there only his 2 shitty clubs . During the Masters , the visitors would take he easy 1 hour drive to Columbia to Visit the Platinum Plus.

hosted by the Augusta National Golf Club which begins which week. Bartenders, strippers , real estate speculators, golf fans, preachers in addition to politicians — they are all wondering what a post -Whitey Lester world might look like, in addition to whether his clubs definitely would certainly go with him.

It was a cringe-worthy error. But it also set off a mini-explosion of civic speculation about what Augusta, derided as “Disgusta” by detractors, might eventually be like without Mr. Lester, downtown’s very last strip-club impresario, the man whose businesses have for decades offered a lubricious counterpoint to the Masters Tournament, the hallowed yearly pilgrimage for golf fans hosted by the Augusta National Golf Club that begins this week.

Bartenders, strippers, real estate speculators, golf fans, preachers and politicians — they are all wondering what a post-Whitey Lester world might look like, and whether his clubs really would go with him.

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Despite reports that Mr. Lester, who is in his mid-70s, has been in ill health, his son, Butch Lester, said in a brief interview that his father was nowhere near death, and he lamented that so much seemed to turn on the matter.

“That’s a lot of fuss for one man living or dying,” he said.

But it is hard to imagine the town without him. It was Mr. Lester who was responsible for the regionally famous striptease act known as The Snake Lady, an unholy pretzel of human and reptilian flesh that titillated many a golfer, soldier and late-teenage boy. The dancer and a boa constrictor or two would emerge with the “Jaws” theme playing. A voice would announce a visitor from the “Devil’s den.”

He was the obvious go-to quote for The New York Post in 2010 when it trumpeted the 19th-hole hot-cha-cha that has long defined Augusta’s relationship with its famous golf tournament.

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For years, Mr. Lester was also a headline-generating juggernaut for the local paper. He was the man who defied Bible Belt convention and survived a career in the cross hairs of evangelical Christians, prudish city officials, and even — in that odd way that the long putt of history sometimes breaks — an assistant United States attorney general named Robert S. Mueller III.

These days, according to his critics, Mr. Lester is also standing in the way of progress. His detractors contend that his two strip clubs along Broad Street, the Discotheque Lounge and Vegas Showgirls, are the last seedy obstacles hindering a downtown revitalization that might finally help Augusta shed its reputation as a sort of unglamorous urban crust around the sparkling green geode that is the Augusta National.

“We don’t want to continue to be the butt of jokes,” said Matt Aitken, a former member of the city-county commission and a real estate agent who has a number of properties listed near Mr. Lester’s clubs. “We want to be on the cutting edge of economic prosperity, and to be cool.”

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A former mill town of 200,000 people about a two-hour drive east of Atlanta, Augusta has waited a long time for its makeover. Its urban core suffered more than most, not only from suburbanization, but fire, floods and a bitter 1970 race riot. For decades, the downtown was defined by empty storefronts, pawn shops, and places like the Discotheque, the more famous of Mr. Lester’s clubs.

But now, finally, there is energy. There is a fledgling tech sector, helped along by the planned move of the United States Army’s Cyber Command headquarters from Virginia to nearby Fort Gordon. There is a handsome new $40 million convention center and a lovingly restored 1940 theater. There are pedestrians. There is a restaurant on Broad Street that serves quail bisque and pork belly rillette.

It all starts to taper off the closer one gets to the block with the strip joints, to the chagrin of the real estate agents dreaming of lofts and coffee shops. That block “is like a big missing tooth in the whole city,” said Jonathan Aceves, an agent and head of the neighborhood association for Olde Town, the residential area just to the east.

But the fate of that block of Broad Street and the mortality of Mr. Lester are tangled like woman and snake. The law made it so. In 1994, when six strip clubs were operating downtown, city officials made it illegal for nude clubs to serve alcohol. But they allowed the owners of the existing clubs, including Mr. Lester, to keep their alcohol licenses until the clubs closed or the owner died.

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The strip clubs in Augusta are "grand fathered in" meaning no changes, no updates, no construction can be made. The stage desperately needs a pole. Also the first time I've ever left any strip club with money in my pocket. Please don't ever bring back the Snake Lady (s) or the midget stripper .

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And so everybody waits.

They do not mean anything personal by it. But “people made business decisions based on the fact that these clubs would eventually close,” said Joe Edge, president of Sherman & Hemstreet, the company where Mr. Aitken works.

Augusta is the birthplace of the Southern Baptist Convention and, predictably, many have wanted Mr. Lester gone. In 1986, the mayor at the time, Charles A. DeVaney, was livid when a photo book meant to celebrate America’s cities — and sponsored by the United States Conference of Mayors — used a picture of the Discotheque to illustrate the city.

“Savannah gets the river, Macon a beautiful fountain and Augusta gets a nightspot that advertises a snake lady,” Mr. DeVaney complained.

In 1991, city leaders, still on the warpath, passed a law that banned nude dancing in clubs that sold alcohol. But the Discotheque management filed a court challenge and got an injunction, and the Georgia Supreme Court eventually ruled the law unconstitutional.

The next year, Mr. Lester faced his biggest test when he was indicted on four counts of underpaying federal income tax, part of a four-year investigation into what federal officials believed was an illegal gambling operation being run out of the Discotheque and a cavernous pool hall Mr. Lester owns next door called Riverfront Pub & Sports.

According to court documents, Mr. Mueller authorized the local United States attorney’s office to apply for an order allowing the wiretap of Mr. Lester’s office. The Discotheque and the pool hall were seized and padlocked by federal officials on a Friday morning in February. The authorities also seized hundreds of thousands of dollars — and hauled away the snakes.

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More than a dozen people pleaded guilty to gambling charges as part of the inquiry. But the civil and criminal cases against Mr. Lester went nowhere. His properties were returned to him on April 3, just before the start of that year’s Masters Tournament.

Benjamin E. Nicholson V, one of Mr. Lester’s lawyers at the time, said that Mr. Lester was relieved to open just before the crush of Masters traffic. “Whitey had a contingent of Japanese that would spend a million bucks at the Masters,” Mr. Nicholson recalled, “and that made his year.”

Mr. Nicholson recalled that one snake died in federal custody and taxpayers compensated Mr. Lester handsomely for it.

When it comes to the local power structure, Mr. Lester has always counted powerful friends among his enemies. Few were surprised when, in 2012, he served as an honorary pallbearer at the funeral of the longtime local sheriff. And few were surprised when, in the run-up to this year’s Masters Tournament, city officials briefly considered a proposal that would allow Mr. Lester to pass his license down to family members.

When Mr. Edge caught wind of the proposal, he raised hell, and filed an online petition opposing it. It garnered 1,500 signatures and the idea went nowhere.

While it is legal to operate a strip club beyond downtown in Augusta’s industrial zones, none have opened because of a prohibition on liquor licenses. But this week, amid concerns that tourism might be impacted by a dearth of strip clubs, Augusta commissioners agreed to lift the prohibition. It was not immediately clear whether the Lester family would move their businesses.

On a recent afternoon at the Riverfront Pub, an employee eating chicken fingers at the bar said that Mr. Lester was not available for comment. The place was covered with photos reflecting a life in the nimbus of a certain kind of fame.

One photo featured Mr. Lester, bearded and smiling and looking like a roadie for a Southern rock band, next to the basketball legend Scottie Pippen. There were photos of gamblers and golfers and expert billiard players named Weenie Beanie and Cornbread Red. There was a photo of Muhammad Ali, signed by the legend: “To Mighty Whitey,” it says. “Good luck.”

Later that night at the Discotheque, Gina Virella, 32, a dancer, said she was studying to be a nurse. She was not too worried about her future. Some of the other dancers, she said, would have to move out of town when the place closed.

There was trap music on the sound system, and a framed newspaper article from the day Mr. Lester beat the feds.

There was also a framed cartoon that showed a lady from the local chamber of commerce with brochures on all of the attractions Augusta wants its visitors to see.

“Yeah those places sound great,” a bug-eyed male visitor tells her, “But what I’m really looking for is the famous Discotheque!!!”

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This is interesting!