Is a Gay Strip Club Too Close to Nationals Park for D.C.'s Comfort? The area around the stadium once housed a thriving gay club scene. Today, the lone survivor feels singled out.

Balls and Strikes: Ziegfeld’s battles D.C.’s liquor-control umpires.
Darrow Montgomery

Say this for the nightclub located in the shadow of Nationals Park: You’ll pay a lot less to see guys grab their crotches here than anywhere in Major League Baseball. The doors open for free to anyone repeating the password of the night, which is regularly posted on the club’s website. “I want to see naked men,” earned this reporter free entry to the 1824 Half St. SW establishment one recent evening.

The venue is split into two distinct enterprises. On the lower level is Ziegfeld’s, where performers in drag host weekend cabarets. Upstairs is Secrets, where nude male dancers gyrate on the bar and atop raised platforms throughout the club, wearing only socks and shoes.

Sometimes baseball fans straggle into Secrets without realizing, a door man explains. They usually leave fairly quickly.

The venue was once part of a thriving gay nightlife scene in what was then a distant corner of the city where club owners could do their business blissfully free of the usual quarrels with neighbors who might protest booze and debauchery. “For a good part of this decade, there wasn’t much else in that [area],” says local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner David Sobelsohn. “There wasn’t a whole lot of concern about the clubs.”

That changed in 2005, when the city invoked eminent domain to make way for the shiny new baseball stadium that was supposed to make the Anacostia waterfront safe for out-of-town visitors. In came ballpark outlets for Ben’s Chili Bowl and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Out went Glorious Health and Amusements—“The Glory Hole,” to regulars at the three-decade old arcade and theater—as well as establishments with names like Heat, the Nexus Gold Club, Wet and The Edge.

In 2007, the D.C. Council passed legislation intended to help the displaced clubs relocate, but it didn’t really work out that way. “There were so many restrictions. It didn’t do any good to keep these clubs from getting killed off,” says Rick Rosenthal of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance.

Only Ziegfeld’s & Secrets managed to re-emerge nearby, in a spot just a few blocks away across South Capitol Street. “I never thought it would reopen,” says longtime DJ Steve Henderson. “They tried and tried and tried. They were promised a building almost immediately and it just never happened. It was a nightmare.”

But the lack of competition wasn’t the only change owner Allen Carroll noticed after re-launching the club in February 2009. District authorities are suddenly a lot more persnickety about rules and regulations there. In the nearly 40 years that Ziegfeld’s & Secrets operated before baseball, the club was never once cited for alcohol violations, according to the proprietors and to officials from the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. Yet in the short time since baseball’s arrival and the club’s relocation, it has been repeatedly cited for violations.

In June, after its latest run-in with regulators—Ziegfeld’s & Secrets was shuttered for five days for liquor-law no-nos. Management used the club’s website to label the action a travesty. “PUNISHMENT—NOT. INJUSTICE—YES,” the site read.

The trouble dates back to the club’s re-opening weekend in February 2009, when police informed ABRA regulators that the club appeared to be allowing patrons to consume alcoholic beverages after approved hours. An investigator arriving on the scene at 2:13 a.m. that Monday spotted at least two patrons drinking beer, ABRA records show. Moments later, while the investigator was speaking to management about the after-hours consumption, a fight reportedly broke out between two female patrons; one of whom was placed in a headlock “causing her to strike her head on a nearby wall,” according to an ABRA report.

An officer from the Metropolitan Police Department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, which was on hand during the club’s opening weekend, told the liquor agent that club employees “did everything they were supposed to do” to handle the brawl, the report notes, though he added that the venue “would benefit greatly” from additional security.

The night before, at around 1:20 a.m., officers had responded to another assault at the club, where a patron was reportedly punched in the face after his assailant recognized him as “the person who had bullied him in elementary school,” ABRA records show. The assailant “appeared to be a ‘lunatic’–possibly drunk or on some kind of drugs,” the victim told police. Again, cops praised the staff for doing “a good job” in handling the situation, the report notes.

Less than a month later, on March 6, authorities were again called to the scene after a patron allegedly assaulted one of the nude dancers, identified in documents as Arthur “AJ” King. “A male patron tried twice to grab Mr. King’s penis as Mr. King was dancing nude on an elevated box,” according to ABRA documents, which note the club’s “no touching” policy. “During the first attempt, the patron managed to touch Mr. King’s penis. During both attempts, Mr. King swatted the patron’s hand away.” He also “instructed the patron that he could not touch his [Mr. King’s] penis.”

When bartender Matthew Banford noticed the commotion, he rushed to aid King. He escorted the patron to a cab, but the patron pushed the bartender twice in the chest. Then he was arrested. Although there are normally three to five security guards present in the establishment, King told ABRA that he didn’t see any security on the night in question.

The club’s regulatory troubles were exacerbated by an ABRA investigation in December, in which two investigators “observed five to six nude male performers, standing on individual pedestals, each performing a sexual act on themselves (masturbation),” in apparent violation of D.C. Code, according to an agency report, which includes a grainy photo of one performer touching himself. Patrons were also observed “rubbing and massaging the performers about the body (not the genital area) and the performers did the same to the patrons,” the report notes.

In May, the club agreed to settle its violations by serving a 20-day suspension of its liquor license—15 days stayed, provided the club receives no further violations over the next year—and paying a $4,000 fine.

The punitive closure didn’t sit well with some members of the gay community.

“This comes down to another case of blue-nosed busy bodies, using the government to try to impose their delicate sensibilities on the rest of the population,” says the GLAA’s Rosenthal, who thinks it’s unfair that “when any altercation breaks out, it’s automatically blamed on the establishment, even if the establishment summons the authorities, even if they make it clear that they don’t tolerate it and make every effort to remedy it.”

In a statement posted on the club’s website, proprietor Carroll, who declined to be interviewed for this story, concurred: “We’ve served our gay community for over 40 years without infractions with the ABC Board. We were forced out of business for three years due to the city invoking eminent domain to take possession of our former home to make way for the construction of the Washington Nationals Stadium.

“After our three-year fight to reopen, which included a difficult search for a new building, we have been subjected to the utmost scrutiny from the ABC Board.”

At a hearing in May, ABC Board Chairman Charles Brodsky told Carroll that his business wasn’t being singled out for enforcement; it was simply a matter of law and order.

“We support businesses all up and down the social economy food chain of way, shape and form. Yours is no different,” Brodsky stated. “But at the end of the day, the ABC [license], it’s a privilege. You have to operate in good conduct to keep it.”

Our Readers Say

I miss the old days of hanging out at the dance clubs! I hadn't even realized Ziegfelds had reopened! Good to know - the weekend shows were always so much fun. Why must the white-bread baseball crowd be so coddled?? They can't stand the idea of a gay club so near the ballfield?! Would do more of them some good to wander into the place and expand their world a little. Stop harrassing these businesses to try to make them go away. They have a right to be there, and there is enough space for all to coexist. Can't wait to stop by after my next visit to the ballfield.
Ziegfeld’s should be closed on account of having such horrible drag queens. If you're going to have a drag show at least make it a good drag show with talent. Ziegfeld's queens are poorly done up, poor dancers, and lack the personality that you would find at a well done cabaret.
The sad part of this story here is simply put, the gay community failed themselves in allowing the city to railroad them the way they did in the beginning of the buy outs for the new stadium.
The gay vote in DC used to be a powerful group both by their money and support! It is now reduced to a few repeatedly arrogant activist that constantly scream foul. The Gay community should have taken to the streets with how they were railroaded out of their clubs businesses in order to build a baseball stadium. They should have joined together and demanded a grand father clause be written into the legislation protecting their licenses, and their rights to reopen at a location near one another supporting the cause that members of the community would then be able to support each of them.
The city failed the long established gay community in all regards here and the community itself allowed it to happen.

Now, sadly, Allan Carroll is left to fight this one on his own.
Zigfield's being fined and closed is nothing more than the Fenty administration's way of sticking it to the gay community. As they have done in other situations too.

From one of the doubters that was hating on putting a baseball stadium in DC - “I have to say, it’s been for the betterment of the community, Our crime seems to be under control. The neighborhood looks 100 percent better. The new housing is a great improvement. There are 4 times as many residents living in the neighborhood” .... and this is from 7 years of watching by far the most HORRIBLE team in MLB, still bringing approx. 20,000 peeps 81 nights a year. Money from the surrounding suburbs gets spent in DC & boosts the DC economy. The only downside is less gay strip clubs & pronogrophy shops... darn

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