Meet the Man Who Women Want … and Men Want to Be
*This is an updated version that corrects an error found in the original March 2011 print edition.
Alan Markovitz has the fighter-pilot-swagger-thing going on.
Yeah, he’s been shot twice — once by a drunken off-duty police officer and another time by one of his dancers. He’s also survived a contract put on him by a former partner and almost became the hood ornament of an ex-girlfriend’s Fiero; but the 50-year-old Oak Park native has survived — and thrived — on his journey to become Detroit’s own sultan of skin … or sin, or both.
He enters the Flight Club during lunch hour, wearing his designer jeans, knit shirt, dark-gray overcoat and Ferrari-logo cap — with a glint in his eye that says, “Hell, yeah!”
And, why not? Besides the Flight Club in Inkster, he owns the All Star Club in Detroit, Penthouse clubs in both Detroit and Philadelphia and a soon-to-be-opened club in Aventura, Fla. His book, Topless Prophet: The True Story of America’s Most Successful Gentleman’s Club Entrepreneur (AM Productions; 2009) has been optioned to Hollywood.
Thus, the swagger.
“I’m not quitting my ‘day job,’” he said in a small conference room adjacent to his office. “I’m having fun with it, and I’m making a couple of bucks.”
That’s been his mantra since he first set his sights on redefining the strip club industry as a weekend bartender at La Chambre, a strip club — in a strip mall — in Redford Township, owned by Sol Milan, a neighbor.
Markovitz didn’t necessarily set out to be a purveyor of women’s assets. He had passed up a chance to qualify for fighter-pilot school in the Israeli Air Force — realizing he’d have to move to Israel, learn a new language and face a 90 percent washout rate.
He tried going the typical “Jewish, Oak Park guy” route — first as a pre-med major at Wayne State University, then as a liberal arts major there. But, he says, all he wanted to do was start his own business and make some dough.
With his father, Max, a Holocaust survivor, and Milan as business partners, he opened the Booby Trap on Eight Mile Road in Detroit, an upscale topless club inspired, he said, by the pioneer in casual chain-restaurant dining — TGI Friday’s. The rest is history — and in hardcover for $24.95.
“My dad told me whatever you do, be the best at it,” Markovitz said. “You could be a garbage man with one truck; but as long as you’re doing your best, you’re going to be a success. That’s why I’m always improving.”
Zest for life is something Markovitz always admired about his father, noting that rarely has there ever been discussion of his dad’s experiences in the Holocaust — until the entrepreneur’s ghostwriter called the old man for Markovitz’s book.
“I hope that people got the message that he was my rock as far as where I get a lot of my strength and stamina, or whatever you want to say — ‘balls,’” he said, the adulation for his father apparent.
“I don’t take any shit. I always look back to what he experienced in his life, any minute of any day you literally didn’t know if you were going to live or die. How crazy is that?” he said. “So when I feel a little apprehensive about something, I think about him and it comes right to the forefront.”
The Flight Club, open for 14 years, has been redone three times, said Markovitz, and the Flying Aces Casino will be added to the club in April. Beyond the glitz and glamour the clubs try to present, the personable Markovitz — with a Clark Gable-esque moustache and the panache of a Vegas casino host — has been an innovator in every facet of the business.
He stretched the law to allow private dances for customers; originated the idea of hiring dancers as independent contractors instead of employees; and brought in high-tech glitz, great food and pretty, topless women within the confines of a safe viewing environment where security is key. All patrons check their vehicle with the valet and check their coats, and the bathroom attendants are as imposing as the doormen.
At the Flight Club, amid the neon lights and loud music played by a DJ, two dancers, one topless, the other about to be, dance slowly on the main stage that contains a staircase and three poles. Between 20 and 30 girls work the lunch crowd, and 30-40 work the night shift.
Six tables and 10 booths are on the main floor; a cigar bar and 14 private, curtained booths occupy the balcony. About every two hours, a 1967 Corvette convertible descends from the ceiling, and two dancers writhe together in the car to the beat of 1960s hot rod tunes.
At the larger and glitzier Penthouse Club, with six tables, 20 booths, seating for 16 by the stage, and a cigar bar and private booths upstairs, two custom motorcycles have replaced the Corvette. Four dancers are in rotation on stages or on top of the bar at the same time.
“We’re always looking to push the envelope because you can’t be status quo, especially in today’s economy. Under Reagan, we were flying; under Clinton, we rocked” he said. “If you were No. 6 out of 30 clubs, you were still going to do well; but now, you gotta be No. 1 because it’s a long way down to No. 2. There’s no real room for error.”
“It’s trickle-down economics. We’re getting the same amount of customers, but the average guest check is down,” said Markovitz. “We’re not as bad as the other businesses, but if you shave 15 or 20 percent, you feel it. Certain fixed costs are still there.”
He said he hasn’t laid off any of the 750 employees who work in his four clubs.
The food menu is like any high-end eating establishment, but it’s the drink prices that shock and awe. Perusing the bottle menu placed at each table and booth reveals that the most expensive champagne will set you back $700. Wine runs between $38-$300 a bottle, and a bottle of Absolut Vodka costs $225, Patron Gold Tequila, $325, and Johnny Walker Blue, $725. (Unfortunately, you can’t have the booze wrapped to take home.)
Markovitz isn’t the only Jewish gentlemen’s club owner. He said there’s good camaraderie among the 10-15 others around the country he keeps in touch with as they try to “do good” for the industry by trying to catch up to the popularity of the gaming industry.
“Our industry is lagging behind but gaining on the gaming industry — where the perception was that the ‘fellows’ ran the casinos. When I got in the business, there were a lot of wannabe gangsters. There were a few real ones, too,” he said. “As the gaming industry becomes more legitimate, regulated and corporate, which it should be, we’re following the same path.
“I don’t get the visits I got in the ’80s — threats about injury and paying protection,” he said. “It’s getting better.”
The vision of the prototypical strip club owner — shady, overweight, replete with a half-chewed cigar resting between fleshy fingers and flanked on either side by sultry, scantily-clad bimbos — is one Markovitz acknowledges still exists.
“I still think we’re fighting that perception — that we’re doing or dealing drugs. I haven’t done drugs in my life; I work hard to try to be a little more conservative,” he said. “I like to live well, enjoy the fruits of my labor.”
Those fruits include a Grosse Pointe Farms home built in 1926, owned originally by the Ford family; a new home in Florida; and cars — a Ferrari 360 Modina, a Lamborghini Gallardo and his favorite, a 2007 Dodge Charger SRT8 Super Bee.
He’s also married, to Lea, a Czech Republic beauty. The wedding ceremony in August 2010 was a private one at Graceland in Memphis because Marcovitz is an Elvis fan. There also are the recently started golf lessons in Florida, with a female golf pro, of course. And, at one time, he was part owner of both Allie’s Flash Dancer, a thoroughbred racehorse, and of a plane.
He’s also giving back to the community.
“[I was] just at an AIPAC meeting,” he said. “We have relatives in Israel, and you have to be generous there. A lot of people come to me for different causes. [The] Humane Society is dear to my heart.”
Not that it’s always been that way.
There was a time, Markovitz says, that people were far more reticent to ask for his financial assistance due in large measure to the industry where that money came from. But, it seems, things have changed.
“When people ask me to give, I take it as a compliment because in the old days, with my business — it’s unfortunate, but I understood — they shied away,” he says. “But now, I’m viewed as a businessman-owner because I’ve been at it so long — I’m a veteran.”
Nor has he received much flack from the Jewish community. “Lots of my customers are Jews,” he said. “I get nothing but support.”
And, not having fallen off the turnip truck, he understands what works and what’s allowed — so there’s no fear of seeing a Penthouse Club in downtown Birmingham.
“It’s too close to home,” he said, laughing. “You don’t want the wife to drive by and see your car. Our Eight Mile location has worked out really well for us. From Telegraph and Long Lake, it’s 10 minutes outside of rush hour.”
Markovitz tried to go “legit” once, but it didn’t pan out; he built the Avenue Diner on Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak — a chrome and glass building fashioned after the Buckhead Diner in Atlanta.
“Those were the days when all my bars on Eight Mile were rocking and I was in my 30s, and I was thinking of doing something ‘legitimate,’” he said. “I was in Atlanta doing a deal. I was in the Buckhead Diner, and I thought it was beautiful. So I spent a fortune on this local joint. We opened, and I had a chef that turned out to be a whack job. A lot of chefs are temperamental, but this guy was out there.
Markovitz said he was successful when the restaurant opened, with patrons waiting upward of two hours to get seated. Of course, he adds wryly, there’s no money to be made by “waiting” customers.
“You work all day and all night and at the end of the day, I’m looking at the grosses, going, ‘I can make this in two hours in my club,’” he said, noting there was no love lost when he finally shuttered the place. “I didn’t lose my shirt, but I lost a couple of sleeves. I like that old saying, ‘Stay with what you know.’”
One thing he knows is that his business, like any other in the service industry, is interconnected — and one of many cogs in the wheel of an economy that reaches beyond the walls of his clubs. “It’s a $200-million industry that includes the beer distributors, meat vendors, champagne vendors, agents who support the girls,” he said.
Markovitz also understands the motivations of bloviating politicians when they slam his industry. But he also knows his place in making Detroit a cosmopolitan city, confirmed for him in a conversation he had with Detroit’s then-mayor Coleman Young as Markovitz was trying to get his business off the ground.
“He told me he wanted to build up the Renaissance Center, he wanted to build the convention business and he knew that our business was necessary,” Markovitz said. “The guys aren’t coming to go to the symphony. When they’re done with Cobo, they’re not going back to their hotel room to read a book. They’re not going to an opera or a play. They’re going to a titty bar. He said as long as I didn’t bring it downtown, it was all right with him.”
After meeting him, it’s hard not to come away thinking Alan Markovitz is on top of his game. But, just like the time he tried to go “legit,” he says he would walk away from it all should the party cease.
“If this becomes a grind and I don’t look forward to coming in to work every day, I’m outta here,” he says, “I’ll say, ‘Just send me the check once a month.’”