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Business (And G Strings) As Usual


News: Analysis & Commentary: LETTER FROM PEORIA

BUSINESS (AND G-STRINGS) AS USUAL

Outside the workplace, almost anything still goes

It's Corporate America's most politically correct campaign: stomping out sexual harassment in the workplace. Recent scandals at Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing and drugmaker Astra USA amply demonstrate the perils of not doing so. But away from mahogany-lined boardrooms and suburban office parks, out on the road in the grittier precincts of American business, not much has changed. A visit to Big Al's in Peoria, 40 miles from Mitsubishi's car plant in Normal, Ill., shows how deals get done.

The house music is pulsating at a deafening volume as a voluptuous redhead in a skintight leopard-print dress dances for five businessmen in suits and ties. The young woman teases the men by slowly lifting the hem of her dress, then lowering it again. She smiles and secures a few dollar bills for her effort. Eventually, the woman peels the dress off, dancing nude.

NOTORIETY. Midnight in Times Square? Hardly. It's Friday afternoon in Peoria, the heart of Middle America. It's a typical start to the weekend at Big Al's, an upscale strip joint smack in the center of downtown. Lately, the club has gained a certain notoriety: Big Al's is popular with workers from the Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America Inc. factory. Photos that Mitsubishi workers say featured club dancers were passed around the plant, and then were cited as evidence in a class-action sexual harassment lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Peoria on behalf of women at the plant. Duane Cassano, the club's owner, says none of his dancers are in the Mitsubishi photos he has seen.

Regardless, in Peoria, Big Al's is a well-accepted fixture, and has been since 1985. That's when Cassano, a former welder with Caterpillar Inc., the giant construction equipment company headquartered in Peoria, bought the place from his brother and transformed it from a simple strip joint into a relatively upscale club. For Cassano, the club was a way out of the Rust Belt decline of the early 1980s. He was among the 17,500 workers Cat laid off in the 1981-82 recession. Today, Big Al's annual revenues are estimated at up to $3 million.

The club is at the center of Peoria's business life. It is located on Main St., right next to the Hotel Pere Marquette, the city's best hotel. Cassano is a respected local entrepreneur, so much so that he was one of 19 investors in a lucrative local casino that may soon be sold for $175 million. Big Al's success in this city of 113,000 shows how respectable it still is for nude women to be used as props at business gatherings, even in conservative areas of the nation. "This is a great place to build business relationships," Cassano says.

It's no surprise that Big Al's should lure in Mitsubishi employees: Regulars come from as far away as Tennessee. Cassano says employees of nearby operations of companies such as Dresser Industries Inc. and State Farm Insurance often stop by; Caterpillar dealers make a point of bringing customers when they hit town. In all, the club's mailing list boasts 6,000 people in 50 countries. "It's certainly popular for some people who visit Peoria," says Gregory M. Edwards, president of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Women are not uncommon among the clientele.

The crowd at 5 p.m. on Friday, May 10, is mainly businessmen, suit-clad and anything but rowdy. That's no accident either. When Cassano bought the club, it was dingy and downscale. He rehabbed it, hired dancers with more cachet, and sought out a business crowd. Now, Big Al's features a marquee dancer every week--today it's Krissten Conrad, a Playboy and Penthouse model. It also has $6 T-bone steak dinners and its own Web site. Brags Cassano: "This is the best conference room in Peoria."

A lot of deals get done in the club, the dancers say. "Sometimes [customers] tell you to come back in half an hour--after they've taken care of business," says Brooke, from Chicago. The lure is partly the relative respectability conferred by its strict rules about engagement between the sexes. Dancers often strip completely, and even sit (partially clothed) in men's laps. But there's no sexual touching beyond that, say local police and politicians who monitor the club. Prostitution, they say, is strictly forbidden. "As far as that kind of an operation goes, it's run in a very classy kind of way," says Andre Bohannon, the city councilman for the district in which the club is located. And in Peoria, it's where a lot of business gets done.By Peter Elstrom in Peoria


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