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There's no stage at this strip club. No pole. Not even a bar. And the music comes from a boom box.
Welcome to Club Thunderbolt, the strangest place in the city to get a lap dance. It's located in the back room of an old house in an east side neighborhood of working class bungalows.
"Everybody in the neighborhood knows what I do," says Jay Thunderbolt, the 45-year-old club owner, homeowner, house mom and house DJ. "In the summertime you got all these girls leaving wearing four ounces of clothing, so they kind of get what's going on."
Thunderbolt, who stopped using his real name years ago, is a striking sight. He's 6 foot 5, has longish hair combed back, and he wears a black suit with a bulletproof vest underneath and a gun on his waist. His face droops on one side, the aftereffects of getting shot in the head, in a Detroit alley, when he was 11 years old.
"Before they [strippers and patrons] come over I tell everyone I'm real scary looking, so don't freak out," he says. Get past his looks, though, and he's droll and laid-back, with an acute sense of the club's absurdity.
Other than the girls, he's the only one who works here. "I play everything — daddy, uncle, banker, provider of tanning," he says. His empire is called Thunderbolt Entertainment, the umbrella name of the in-house and mobile stripper service. Twenty-four hours a day, any day, you can come to a show or a show can be brought to you. He says he's open for business 24 hours a day, and will wake up at any hour to get the club going.
There's no cover charge. Customers can order different strippers out of the company catalog — a photo album full of seedy-looking Polaroids. Each page features one of his strippers in three poses — bent over, spread eagle and come hither. There are dozens of girls to choose from.
Thunderbolt doesn't need a cabaret license like other Detroit strip clubs must have. The city ordinance regulating other places doesn't apply, because it's not a bar serving liquor or food, but rather a private arrangement in a private home. To him it's like having a strip-o-gram sent to your own house.
"As far as I'm concerned," Thunderbolt says, "when a guy calls up to come here, he's my 'friend.'" And though the club is dry, people can still drink. "If they want to party and bring their own party favors, that's OK," he says.
There's absolutely no prostitution allowed. Thunderbolt stays in the room the whole time, watching. He takes 10 percent of the girls' earnings for his services.
His business card is vague, like a secret pass to some hidden afterhours spot. It says simply "Thunderbolt — Party Naked" next to a phone number. He places ads now and then in newspaper classified sections offering just as few details: "Private strip club. By appointment."
The club's main room, at the back of the house, looks like a Northern Michigan lodge decorated in the 1970s. The walls are fake wood paneling. The aged carpet is greenish-brown. The seating is an old, thick, sectional couch. A single bed rests suggestively in a corner. An ancient stereo receiver and 8-track tape player sit on a table. A few shotgun shells are lined up along its edge, incongruously. A patron's first visit is an eye-opener. "Usually everybody is shocked," Thunderbolt says, "but I've been in AmVet halls smaller than this."
Before every night's show, customers are given the same introduction. "Listen up," Thunderbolt announces to the room. "These are the rules: There's no licking, sticking, biting or slapping. Can't hurt the girls, gentlemen. Be good to the girls, they'll be good to you. It's 10 dollars a dance with the g-string on, 20 dollars with the g-string off. OK? It's lap dance time."
The club got its start after a botched bachelor party. The guy across the street was getting married. Thunderbolt hired a stripper and threw him a party that went sour.
"For 225 bucks she came out, did three songs and fucking left. And I was pissed, 'cause I set it up and then it falls on me. So I said screw it, I'm gonna do this." He came up with his showbiz name, printed some business cards, hired a few strippers and began what might be the strangest home business in town.
He has had the club in several different houses, mostly on the east side. Every time he moves to a new one, he goes door-to-door to explain what's coming to the neighborhood.
"I tell everybody, 'This is what I'm gonna do. Don't be freakin' out.' I have to because the girls put a shitload of cars on the street, but I keep the grass cut, I pay the bills."
His current home belonged to his parents, who both died recently. Until a few years ago his elderly dad shared the house with Thunderbolt and his business. His last days were spent among strippers roaming the house. "My old man didn't give a shit," he says. "There's a bunch of naked girls laying around here? Believe me, he didn't care."
Everything about Club Thunderbolt is surreal. The front room has several tall mirrors lined up against the walls, behind the easy chairs. The curtains are drawn tight. Ashtrays overflow with stubbed-out cigarettes. The walls are yellowed from years of smoking. It's dark, dank and creepy.
"It was a little weird at first," says Summer the stripper. She's 29 and works at a local strip club when she's not here. A friend introduced her to the place. Now she's a regular. "I got used to it."
Weirdest of all are the framed certificates on the wall from the Republican Congressional Committee's Business Advisory Council, naming Thunderbolt as an honorary co-chair and lauding his business acumen. One is signed by Newt Gingrich, the other by Tom DeLay.
He thinks they're tied to a breast-cancer fundraiser he attends and donates to. "I make my money off of boobs, so the breast cancer thing, coughing up a couple bucks seemed like good karma to me," he says. "So I happened to go to their breast cancer thing, I got invited and for some odd reason they put me at a table with a bunch of Republicans. I never sent them a dime but they sure do like to send me shit."
Thunderbolt just might be indestructible. As a kid he got 10 operations during a 10-month hospital stay after getting shot by a stranger as he headed home one night. He spent most of his career as a bodyguard; once for a dirty cop, another time for the owner of a porno theater. In his time he's been stabbed with a crochet needle in the thigh. Shot in the shoulder. Stabbed in the back. Blasted by buckshot. Wounded by a bullet in his calf.
He figured that, if anything, strip club work would be less dangerous. So far so good, except for a burglary last year. The club's front door is half plywood right now because Thunderbolt nailed it there to cover the jagged hole left by the shotgun blast he aimed at the fleeing robbers. The cops showed up, took the report, and scratched their heads at the mirrors and curling irons and hairspray cans everywhere. "They're looking around — 'What do you do, man?'" he remembers them saying.
By now though, most cops know him and what he does. If they pass by he'll send a welcome committee out. "I say, 'Somebody show them some boobs, press them up against the window and say thank you for being a cop,'" he says.
So cops leave him alone, as does the city. Now he's just got to attract more customers. "I imagine some time and some advertising will do it," he says. He thinks the house's advantages over traditional gentleman's clubs will outweigh the weirdness of getting a lap dance in some stranger's back room.
"I think people get tired of the minute and 54 seconds worth of song," he says of normal strip clubs. At Club Thunderbolt on the other hand, it's a flat fee that gets you long songs with no last-minute surprises.
"Here, when you buy a Cadillac," he says, "you actually get the rims and tires too."
Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.