On June 27, 2010, the Lusty Lady, a downtown Seattle "panoram," or peepshow, closes after 25 years. Famed for the irreverent puns and double-entendres on its iconic pink and black marquee, "the Lusty" is an echo of Seattle’s bawdy past, when 1st Avenue was lined with pawn shops, tattoo parlors, and topless clubs instead of luxury condos and trendy restaurants. It has survived several efforts by civic authorities to shut it down, only to fall victim to changing economic times. The owners say their profits have been stripped away by the recession and the proliferation of free titillation on the Internet. They donate the much-photographed marquee to the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), which in 2012 will put it on display, complete with cheeky one-liners, alongside signs from other bygone Seattle institutions.
There Goes the Neighborhood
The Lusty Lady, at 1315 1st Avenue, was established in 1985 when the owners of the Sultan Cinema, an X-rated theater, expanded into a vacant tavern next door and converted the combined space into an "adult entertainment center." The featured attraction was a stage where nude dancers could be viewed through glass from booths with coin-operated windows. The Sultan’s old-fashioned theater marquee, with its border of blinking lights, was put to new use as a tout board, enticing customers (and tweaking the establishment) with ribald postings. "Have An Erotic Day" became the company motto.
Downtown property owners, developers, and city officials were appalled by the opening of a "live girlie stage" in an area that they were trying to "revitalize." Until the late 1970s, 1st Avenue was the heart of Seattle’s vice district. Locals called it "Flesh Avenue" because of its concentration of adult bookstores, topless clubs, seedy taverns, and porno theaters. Drug dealing and prostitution were commonplace. The tone of the neighborhood began to change in the early 1980s, after a renovation of the Pike Place Market and the construction of several upscale hotel, condo, and office buildings. "I don't want this stuff downtown,'' said then-Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939), announcing plans to try to revoke the Lusty Lady’s building permit in 1985. "We can't retroactively ban the Sultan Cinema, but we'll make it tougher for porno shops to set up business," he promised (The Seattle Times, 1985).
Over time, tougher city regulations and continued redevelopment pushed most of the Lusty’s X-rated competitors out of the neighborhood. By 1991, when the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) moved in across the street, many Seattleites had developed an affection for the iconoclastic Lusty -- at least for the marquee, if not for what went on inside. "There's just something about the vibrancy of their presence that made it difficult for people to perceive them as a negative force in the community," Phil Bevis, owner of Arundel Books, located down the street from the Lusty Lady, told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. "What's that fancy French word I don't know how to pronounce? Insouciance. That's what they had" (Los Angeles Times, 2010).
Peepshow Goes Bust
In the end, the changing economy did what city officials had failed to do. "It’s really the world economic climate," said Darrell Davis, comptroller for the Lusty Lady and one of its five owners. "Amazingly, pornography is not recession-resistant. The other recessions we've had in the past have not had much impact before. But we're right across the street from Washington Mutual, all the small sandwich shops nearby are closing -- there's just no traffic" (The Stranger, April 2010).
The collapse of Washington Mutual in 2008 virtually emptied out the 42-story WaMu Center, built two years earlier in partnership with the bank’s next-door neighbor, SAM. The art museum occupied the first four floors of the building and owned another eight floors, which it had leased to the bank. Although other tenants later announced plans to move into the building, including floors owned by SAM, the bells of midnight had already tolled for the Lusty Lady.
It didn’t help that the Internet, a mere curiosity when the Lusty opened for business, had become ubiquitous by the time it closed. A search for the word "porn" on Google returned 307 million results. "The fact that you can get massive amounts of fairly high-quality pornography for free [on the web] has had a definite effect," Davis said (The Stranger, April 2010).
According to Davis, the business peaked financially in 1998. Revenue had dropped 60 percent since then. The landlord lowered the rent (from $23,000 a month in 1998 to $7,500 a month in 2010); the managers cut wages and benefits; and still "the numbers just didn’t add up" (The Seattle Times, 2010).
Art of the Pun
The closure left about 100 dancers and support staff out of work. It also prompted an outpouring of regret -- mostly from people who said they had never stepped inside the Lusty but liked the marquee. "There haven't been any problems of the kind one might typically associate with that kind of place, and maybe that's one of the reasons Seattle has such a fondness for it," said Seattle Art Museum spokeswoman Nicole Griffin. "They've got this great visual presence on one of the main streets of the city, and they have great humor about it. And you know, Seattle's a city of individual-ness, and I think people have appreciated that" (Los Angeles Times, 2010).
It was the art of the risqué pun that made the Lusty Lady a cultural landmark. In earlier years, the staff held weekly brainstorming sessions to come up with the double entendres and saucy catch phrases that went on the marquee. But submitting ideas soon became something of an in-house sport for people who lived or worked downtown; and most of what went up in recent years was suggested by the public.
Preference was given to the topical. The Lusty Lady welcomed SAM’s signature sculpture, the 48-foot-tall Hammering Man, with "Hammer Away Big Guy." When Seattle was rocked by protests during the World Trade Organization meeting in 1999, the marquee cooed "W-T-Ohhhh." When the economy lurched into recession, it was "All Clothing 100 Percent Off." The response to Congress’s economic recovery plan was: "Check Our Stimulus Package."
Holidays and movies provided always reliable fodder for the marquee. The Lusty wished everyone a "Merry XXXmas," followed by a "Happy Nude Year." On St. Patrick’s Day, it was "Erin Go Braugh-less." At Thanksgiving, "Our Birds Have No Dressing." When "The Hurt Locker" won the Oscar for best picture in 2010, the marquee touted the "Skirt Locker." The movie "Avatar" became "Avatart." A perennial favorite at Oscar time was "We’d Like to Spank the Academy."
Not everyone appreciated the suggestive humor. "I hear you when you say some people think these signs are funny and clever," one anonymous Seattleite told the San Francisco Examiner. "But frankly I don't like my kids reading those every time we drive by." However, most people quoted in news accounts expressed a sense of loss, from museum staffers to bus riders. "I walk by it every day to go to my bus stop," said Olin Gutierrez of Seattle, in an interview with KOMO-TV. "I'm going to miss it if it's not there anymore. It's always timely and creative."
"Another big loss for Seattle," commented a contributor identified as "J-J" on a "Soundoff" page at www.seattlepi.com. "The city is becoming too vanilla." A contributor using the name "Dread Poet Jethro" offered this haiku: "Visiting L.L. / Was a peek experience / Sorry they’re closing."
"Bare Thee Well, Seattle"
The announcement that the Lusty Lady would be closing set off considerable speculation about the marquee’s final message. A Seattle news website, PubliCola, invited users to submit suggestions. Among the nominees: "Thanks for the Mammaries" and "It Was Fun While It Blasted" (both of which made the marquee at some point in the final weeks). PubliCola picked "We’re All Clothed Up" as its favorite; "Pelvis Has Left the Building" as a runner-up. The actual final posting was a simple "Thank You for 25 Years" on one side; "Lusty Later" on the other.
The day after the dancers left the building for the last time, MOHAI announced, via its Facebook page, that the marquee would join its collection of neon signs from other defunct Seattle businesses, including the gas flame from the former Washington Energy building, the red "R" from the old Rainier brewery, and the pre-globe P-I.
Leonard Garfield, executive director of MOHAI, told The Stranger that the Lusty Lady’s owners had donated the sign part of the sign -- the "lexan," or plastic panels that hold the letters -- and the pink and black letters, but not necessarily the lightbulb-studded frame that attached the sign to the building. "There's some confusion about whether the frame is owned by the business or the building owners," Garfield said, "but I am very pleased to be able to display the sign." The Stranger gleefully reported the news with the headline "Museum of History and Innuendo."
In 2012, the marquee was installed in MOHAI's new home in the former armory at the south end of Lake Union. Garfield had hoped to be able to display it -- and some of the museum's collection of other iconic business signs -- in the way they were originally meant to be seen: outside. Design limitations made that impossible. Instead, the marquee was placed on the second level in the armory, next to a display about Forward Thrust -- a series of bond propositions for various public improvements in King County in the late 1960s.
The message on the marquee: "We Support Forward Thrust."
Future plans called for a sort of "crowd sourcing" for the marquee, with the public invited to submit suggestions for quips and slogans that could add a little lust-er to history. "It was such a great form of audience participation and we'd love to continue that," Garfield said back when the donation was announced (KOMO-TV, April 11, 2010).