Owner Leroy Griffith
BY DAVID SMILEY
In two South Beach clubs just 10 blocks apart, women shed easily discarded garments and gyrate against poles on raised platforms.
Customers ogle stageside, reaching out to tuck dollar bills into the dancers’ garter belts.
House music thumps. Lights flash. And booze flows both at Rachel’s and in Club Madonna.
But at Rachel’s, bottles of vodka start at $350. At Madonna, where they literally can’t even give drinks away, patrons are encouraged to tote in their own liquor, beer or bubbly.
The new BYOB policy at South Beach’s only full-blown strip club is an oddity in the land of pricey bottle service and double-digit cocktails — and is the latest salvo in a long-running tiff between city officials and Madonna owner Leroy Griffith.
Causing the friction: While clubs like Rachel’s, where pasties and thongs offer at least a cursory nod to modesty, are allowed to sell liquor, Madonna’s all-nude roster of dancers means it’s prohibited from doing the same.
A squat, fast-talking man who says he dropped out of school in the sixth grade to work in and eventually own burlesque theaters, Griffith knows he can sell plenty of liquor and beer in his Washington Avenue club if his ladies adopt the barely there uniforms of their cohorts down the street.
But if tantalizing customers is his first passion, being a perpetual thorn in the side of government officials is likely a close second.
“It’s not the money. I can get by doing what I’m doing,” Griffith, 79, said while descending from a catwalk where customers receive $25 lap dances, one pleasure not afforded to Rachel’s customers. “It’s the principle of it.”
Until last month, club customers had to drink elsewhere if they wanted to catch a buzz. But Griffith says a loophole in the city’s laws allows his customers to bring in their own drinks — and they did this week, straggling inside after midnight with pints of Bud Light, a 12-pack of Miller Lite and a bottle of vodka.
Miami Beach City Attorney Jose Smith, however, said Madonna is operating as an unpermitted, illicit “bottle club” and will be fined.
But threatening South Florida’s pioneering provocateur with fees, lawsuits or even arrest has never been a deterrent. If anything, it motivates Griffith, who was being raided and prosecuted for alleged indecency decades before porn outfits like Reality Kings raised eyebrows by filming sexy exploits on Miami Beach’s historic Monument Island.
Since converting his adult Roxy Theatre to Club Madonna around 1994, Griffith has been only able to sell customers near-beer and non-alcoholic Ariel wine as elected officials warn of the dangers of mixing exposed breasts with rum and coke.
Griffith came close to changing that in 2004, winning a preliminary vote. But he lost a final decision 4-3 when two elected officials, including then-commissioner Smith, reversed their support after a colleague’s wife waged an opposition campaign, and students and parents at nearby Fienberg-Fisher showed up at city hall to protest against a booze-hawking adult club just a block away from classrooms.
Griffith has been on a warpath ever since. He filed a slander and libel suit against Jane Gross, wife of then-Commissioner Saul Gross, saying she had wrongly called him a tax-evader — he recently settled a $6 million IRS debt that he still disputes — and smeared him by comparing his website to a virtual “gynecological/rectal exam.”
He also sued the city, and then said officials tried to extort him into paying $30,000 in Jane Gross’ legal fees in order to settle and reconsider his bid to sell alcohol. City officials denied wrongdoing, and prosecutors punted to the Miami-Dade ethics commission, which hit a stalemate on whether city officials erred.
An ethics investigator concluded that commissioners likely pushed “their collegial bonds over the ethical line” by linking the settlement of Griffith’s suit against Miami Beach with his suit against Jane Gross, but said proving it would be difficult.
Since then, Griffith’s uphill battle has only grown steeper.
Transcripts of the closed-door, 2005 city hall discussions at the center of the controversy show that commissioners, including Madonna supporters, were incensed that Griffith had sued Gross, and by extension her husband, and felt he was strong-arming them.
In 2009, just before Saul Gross left office, Griffith received another hearing as part of a settlement of a federal lawsuit he filed challenging the constitutionality of Miami Beach’s liquor ban. He lost unanimously.
Today, commissioners still take his $500 campaign checks, but they won’t even agree to discuss alcohol at Madonna, much less vote on changing their laws.
Griffith continues to fire away with elections, Florida Bar and ethics complaints, and criminal allegations – most of which have been dismissed.
“It is unfortunate that Mr. Griffith tries to manipulate the courts, law enforcement agencies and the Florida Bar, at great public expense, to force the city to give him a liquor license,” Smith, who along with First Assistant City Attorney Gary Held and others recently beat a Griffith bar complaint, wrote in an emailed statement.
Lobbyist and political consultant Randy Hilliard, who has also been the subject of a dismissed Griffith extortion allegation, said Griffith’s litigious nature has made it difficult to even have a conversation with him. “Leroy’s problem is no one wants to talk to him because they’re afraid they’ll be deposed,” he said.
Miami Beach is just the latest bureaucracy to grapple with Griffith, who has owned burlesque houses, X-rated theaters and strip clubs throughout the East Coast and first opened up in South Florida at the Paris Theater on Washington Avenue around 1961.
First he fought laws restricting burlesque shows, and then he moved on to shocking pleasure police with films like Deep Throat.
He waged one of his most-epic battles with Miami police, who raided his Pussycat Theatre 18 times between 1978 and 1987. When Griffith eventually lost the Pussycat over $55,000 in disputed civil judgments, his theater was auctioned off on the Miami-Dade County Courthouse steps.
It was sold for $10,200 — back to Griffith.
He has tussled with Hialeah over the morality of his long-closed Atlas Theater’s A-rated movies. He sued the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office over an indecency charge for the 1979 film Three Ripening Cherries, and won.
He also spent four decades fighting the U.S. government, which went after him for years of allegedly underpaying taxes. The U.S. Department of Justice said Griffith owed more than $6 million, and he settled in 2009 for $600,000.
As Griffith battled the IRS and Miami police, he was also grieving for his granddaughter and son, Charles Leroy Griffith, who shot 3-year-old Joy Griffith in the chest six months after the foot rest of a recliner closed on her neck and left her comatose in 1984. Charles Griffith, at the time a projectionist working for his father, called it a “mercy killing.”
He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, only to be released in 1995 after a judge ruled his attorney cared more about suing the recliner company than his criminal defense.
Over the years, Leroy Griffith’s Miami-based empire shrank. Griffith now has just two strip clubs, Wonderland on Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 78th Street, and Madonna, South Beach’s only full nudity establishment.
While Griffith leases out Wonderland, Madonna is still his baby. Despite the city’s liquor ban and Griffith’s resistance to pasties, he has outlasted other full-blown and quasi-strip joints like Vegas Cabaret and the Gold Club, which prompted the city to ban alcohol with nudity when it opened in 1990.
Then-mayor Alex Daoud — a Griffith confidant who in 1993 served 18 months in prison on jury tampering, obstruction of justice and bribery charges — believes the city should remove the ban, which he said was partly born out of scandal anyway.
Daoud said he pushed for the new law partly because of concerns abut a strip club deluge, but also because he wanted to squeeze a $25,000 bribe out of former mayor and Gold Club lobbyist Harold Rosen.
Rosen said that’s “a bunch of nonsense.”
“Times have changed drastically,” Daoud said. “Nightlife is soaring in South Beach and they have clubs openly doing what Leroy is doing.”
Some commissioners say they agree — or at least think the city should examine whether gay and straight clubs that offer pole dancing and stripteases are violating the alcohol and nudity ban.
But that doesn’t mean Griffith has the support to change Miami Beach law, even though he remains optimistic.
Commissioner Michael Gongora, who in July paid a $2,000 fine because of a Griffith complaint over undocumented 2009 campaign donations, said Griffith has failed because he is uncompromising and “keeps trying the same thing over and over and over again.”
So while the city prepares to host Exxxotica at its convention center, Cameo promotes Lapdance Tuesdays, and Mayor Matti Herrera Bower has dinner at Rachel’s — the pasties and bikinis “make a difference,” she said — Griffith continues to fight for the ability of his customers to drink beer while his girls bare all.
“It’s not a legal thing. It’s a personal thing,” he said. “I’m just fighting back.”