Debbie Dee’s been in the exotic- entertainment industry for 25 years. She knows there’s risk involved. “That’s business,” she says. “There’s no guarantee you’ll make money.” But when Dee, an owner of the south-suburban Club O, got involved with the All American Exotic Dancer Awards, she didn’t think her reputation would be on the line as well. It looked like a golden opportunity–an idea so great it could become an annual event. And as December 5 approached, everything on her end was ready.

One hundred thirty-seven girls were trekking in from distant parts of the country to compete for the $10,000 prize. Dozens of flag bikinis had been ordered for a finale that would’ve had 100 girls onstage at the Riviera theater in front of a giant Stars and Stripes. Sponsors were lined up, and Dee had sold more than a hundred tickets at $50 to $150 each. Feature performers like Leah Lane–who drove in from Vegas pulling a 38-foot trailer loaded with costumes and equipment–were arriving daily, turning the O parking lot into a campground. It wasn’t until Dee and her associates, Pamela Evola and Lynda Gears, went to the Riviera for a final meeting December 3 and the backers failed to show that she began to realize things were going wrong. The Riv hadn’t been paid its $10,000 deposit for the event, and the leasing agent told her only nine tickets had been sold through Ticketmaster. (“I said, ‘Nine? Nine?’ I couldn’t believe what my ears were hearing.”) That night, 48 hours before the show, Dee says she got a call saying the backers, John Alonzo and “Big” John Santucci, were pulling out.

Looking back, Dee and Gears and Evola can spot the red flags, sticking out like bad pasties in a spotlight. Evola, who sells exotic dancewear, first heard about the idea from an acquaintance named Tony Bell, who had dreamed it up, and told Dee to call him. Nothing like the Midwest Stripper Awards (as it was called until the dancers took offense) had ever been done in Chicago, but they could all see its potential. Dee and Evola agreed to line up the dancers and Bell brought in Alonzo and Santucci, big talkers, the women say, who promised to handle everything else. “We met at Ruth’s Chris,” Dee recalls. “I had to pay the bill. I should have known then something was wrong.”

Dee and Evola began recruiting: girls would pay $200 each to compete; clubs would kick in $1,000 for a sponsorship. They went to a late-summer gentlemen’s club convention in Vegas to talk it up and got a warm reception. But the backers kept changing the date. Always in too much of a hurry, Evola says, they set and canceled three dates in October and November before settling on December 5. When one sponsor changed its mind and wanted a refund, the backers refused. By that time Bell had been kicked out of the deal by his moneymen and Evola says she took herself out (but told Dee she’d still help). Dee called Gears to come in from California to work on the event, and things turned a little ugly. Alonzo and Santucci did not return calls for this article, but according to Dee, Big John looked her in the eye and said, “If I give this deposit and this doesn’t go off, somebody’s going to get it.”

From the beginning, Evola and Dee say they insisted Dee would hold the competitors’ registration fees and money from tickets she sold in her club until the night of the event. They weren’t expecting a fiasco, but they weren’t born yesterday. “I figured, I don’t want to ruin my rapport with the girls or my customers. If this show doesn’t go off, I need to be able to refund this money,” Dee says. In the end, the backers claimed they were pulling the plug because Dee wouldn’t turn over the money in advance. “They got in way over their heads, didn’t sell any tickets, and tried to use a lot of excuses to back out of it,” says Evola. “I said, ‘Pulling out two days before the show? Are you on drugs?'”

Horrified, Dee tried to salvage things. “I said, listen, I have all these people in from Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Vegas, California, Ohio, Oklahoma, Georgia. I have to put these people to work. I can’t make them take this trip and they’re not gonna make a penny.” After an unsuccessful attempt to relocate the event to a club in Old Town, she did the only thing she could: she invited everybody over to Club O. On the afternoon of December 5, she rented two luxury buses as shuttles and hired two men to stand outside the Riviera. “One guy said maybe there was 40 guys that came up. The other guy said, ‘I counted them. It was 23.’ In my opinion,” she adds, “[the backers] were looking to make all their money off the girls.”

“Those guys looked at us like we were so dumb,” Dee says. “They have no respect for women. But we were the ones who came through. Ninety percent of the people I got involved are still supportive of me and know I had nothing to do with it. Ten percent are probably very mad at me. I am reimbursing everybody that bought tickets from my club. I just hope when we do it again people will know it’s now us and not one of these promoters. And I want the sponsors to get their money back. Everything else, all my time, hard work, and expense, I lost it. But you know what–that’s business. Like the girls. One day they come to work and make a lot of money; the next day they don’t make anything.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.