Larry Flynt, the man who made America safe for pornography, will open a new "gentleman's club" in Baltimore tonight with a promise to add some class to the seedy strip-joint center known as The Block.
If nothing else, Larry Flynt's Hustler Club will bring a new architectural feature to the city's tenderloin, one block south of City Hall: a glass dance floor that allows patrons on a lower level to look up performers' skirts.
Except they won't be wearing skirts. The club is all nude.
"It's not a sleazy operation," the Hustler magazine publisher said in a telephone interview yesterday. "We run a first-class operation. And that's why we're able to be successful with so many clubs."
Flynt, who owns clubs in San Francisco, New Orleans, Los Angeles and other cities, said people warned him against the East Baltimore Street location, saying it was too trashy.
"A lot of people suggested that we not open in that area," he said. "We didn't agree with them. We feel that area can be revitalized and the club will help achieve that."
Fearful of competition, owners of other Block clubs initially objected to Flynt's plan to turn the second and third floors of the old Gayety theater into a 14,000-square-foot club. (Some small clubs and an adult video shop occupy the first floor.)
But owners interviewed yesterday said they expect the Hustler Club to draw new, better-heeled patrons to the district, which for years has been troubled by prostitution and drug dealing.
"I'm with them," said Herb Graff, owner of the Dynasty Lounge and the Glass Slipper. "I hope they revitalize The Block, bring all them good customers [who] used to be here years ago."
Mayor Martin O'Malley, usually a cheerleader for any effort to revive faded corners of Baltimore, has been mum. Through a spokeswoman, he declined to comment yesterday.
"In general, he doesn't want to see any expansion of business on The Block," said spokeswoman Raquel Guillory.
In the past, O'Malley has said he hoped The Block - situated in the heart of downtown, a stone's throw from family-oriented Inner Harbor attractions - would "fade away."
But instead of going the way of burlesque and fan dances, the district could make a comeback with the backing of one of America's best-known pornographers and a national strip-club chain. More than $2 million has been spent on the club, Flynt said.
Flynt is hardly offering a return to The Block's tamer heyday, when comedian Jackie Gleason was part of the lineup and stripper Blaze Starr used corny jokes and a feather boa in her act.
His magazine is unabashedly raw. "Now packed with 100 percent more hardcore," its Web site promises.
Legal battles over Flynt's pornography, portrayed in the 1996 movie The People vs. Larry Flynt, have made him as famous for defending the right of free speech as for peddling porn. He also made headlines recently as one of California's higher-profile candidates for governor in its recall election last month.
Flynt is a partner in Michigan-based Deja Vu, a national strip club chain. Jason C. Mohney, whose father runs the Deja Vu chain, is a partner in the Baltimore club. So is Roger Hartzog of Baltimore, whose involvement met the need to have a city resident on the liquor license.
For all that high-powered backing, the club was in a state of disarray yesterday on the eve of its opening. Orange extension cords crisscrossed the floors. Drywall sat waiting to be hung. And cushy, crushed velvet chairs needed to be freed from plastic wrapping and arranged on the floors.
Dancers had not been hired - tryouts are at 9 a.m. today. The owner of a formalwear shop hurriedly measured male staff for tuxedo jackets. Management was working out details for valet parking and determining what the cover charge should be.
But club officials said all the pieces would come together in time for tonight's unofficial opening. The grand opening, which Flynt plans to attend, will be Wednesday.