The other side of Steve: A Bombay boy who founded Chippendales, America’s first all-male strip club
In the California of the ’80s, two men in a rundown club struck a deal by the dance floor. The owner of the club was Steve (Somen) Banerjee, a Bombay boy who had landed in the US a decade earlier and after failing to run a gas station, was now hoping to hit gold with a nightclub. He was a dreamer, he had initiative, and he was willing to put his money into an idea that makes most music halls sing: Place some half-naked girls on a revolving stage. And then play the organ.
Steve just wanted to do it the other way around. He wanted to put men on stage, oiled, dancing, and cuffed, nearly in the buff, and see women outside the ring screaming. Nick De Noia, a choreographer, said he could make that happen. When Steve got into business with Nick, the agreement was Steve would sign the cheques. And Nick would show the boys how to move.
Steve’s club, Chippendales, and the Chippendales troupe, were soon booming. The concept of men dancing for women at a nightclub was novel for that time. It made Steve nearly a pioneer in America’s adult entertainment industry. By the late 1980s, writes Anirvan Chatterjee, a writer-activist of California, in his blog, diasporic.com: “The Chippendales were almost a household name. Over a million copies of their calendars were sold every year. Touring profits exceeded $25,000 per week, and at its height, Steve controlled an $8-million-a-year business.”
An Indian in America
Steve’s success, even though it went unacknowledged by the Indian or the Bengali community, was reported in the media of that time and that is how Pablo Bartholomew, one of the front-ranking photographers of India, then in his thirties, who had arrived in America on an Asian Cultural Council grant, heard about him.
Bartholomew used the grant money to document the lives of the Indian community for his project Indian Emigres. He was familiar with America as he had already worked for a French American photo news agency. From 1983, Bartholomew began researching for subjects to photograph; he scanned Indian community newspapers like India Abroad, India West, and various archives and local Indian associations with the US. He found that Steve was one of the many Indians who had been finding a foothold in the US as economic migrants.
Bartholomew brings to the current edition of Fotofest 2018 Biennale in Houston, Texas, 35 photographs from his five- country Émigré documentation – US, France, Mauritius, UK, Portugal (this has been arranged chronologically at the fest). With India being the theme of the 33-year-old Fotofest , there are over 35 participating photographers from India and of Indian origin. Bartholomew’s display of photographs is one of the largest and most geographically diverse.
“When I worked on the American part, my one big regret though was not getting to photograph a big hero of mine - Amar Bose, the academic at MIT, an acoustic engineer, innovator and founder of the Bose Corporation,” says Bartholomew of his documentation of Indians in America. “We had long chats and he invited me to visit him in Boston but somehow I couldn’t make it. I never met him in person and at that time his was a niche acoustic system in the ’80s before Bose became a global brand.”
If Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, was one of the pinnacles of Indian-American success in the ’80s; Steve Banerjee with a mini empire of road shows, satellite clubs and merchandise such as the Chippendales Calendar, and an annual turnover of several million dollars, was no less than a stalwart of the Los Angeles club scene. Bartholomew did portraits of both.
This month, Steve’s photo is hanging – along with 34 other photos from the Indian Émigré series – at the FotoFest 2018 Biennale in Houston, organised around contemporary photography within India and the global Indian diaspora. And Steve’s is the photograph that perhaps messes the most with the neat narrative of the American dream, or the story of the Indians as a model community, a homogeneous collective as it were, where all its members land equally on their feet.
So let’s meet Steve. Bathed in cherry-pink club-lights, dressed in sharp suit and tie atop a bar stool with a blonde hunk in the background, he has a cigarette in hand and a Screwdriver to his side. Steve may not have had an all-American bone structure, but you’d think this was what an all-American success looked like. Running establishments in New York, Dallas and Denver, he could steer California if need be! You’d think this was a guy at the top of things.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Bartholomew met Steve at his flagship club, Chippendales in Los Angeles, in 1987, a year before the unravelling of his business and three years before the FBI would begin to build the evidence to make a case against him.
In 1986, a year ago, he had allegedly got his creative partner Nick De Noia murdered, who, according to the The Chippendales Murder, the USA Networks’ telefilm based on Steve’s life, was trying to palm off the ‘Chippendales concept’ to other clubs. (Nick was the ex-husband of Jennifer O’ Neill, the lead actress of the Summer of ’42 whose smouldering appearance on the screen had helped American boys come of age.) This side of Steve, Bartholomew says, he was unaware of. It certainly explains his hesitance to be part of Bartholomew’s project.
“Steve initially did not want to be photographed,” says Bartholomew. “I told him I’m doing a project and it could take multiple forms, it could be a book, it could become a National Geographic story – basically, I gave him a basket of reasons. He was evasive and said he didn’t have the time. But I pursued him stating that I only need 15 minutes of his time. And for good measure threw in ‘I like what you are doing’.” Steve, softened and came around, asking Bartholomew to visit his New York venture “to experience,” what he did.
On 60th Street and 3rd Avenue, under a bridge near the Trawney Plaza, New York, stood Steve’s theatre. “On a bright afternoon, I knocked at the box-office window where the guy manning it signalled me to go the main entrance door. To my utter surprise I was met by a demure woman in her mid-thirties dressed in a traditional green-coloured saree who introduced herself as Steve’s sister,” says Bartholomew. She escorted him to the well-positioned box, a large private area at the centre of the arena. It was three in the afternoon and a group of white American guys with naked torsos and dressed in bow ties and cuffs were doing a bump and grind routine. As they came close to the audience of wild purring women, the women lunged at the men to stuff dollar bills in their underwear. “And I thought sure, this is just what I am looking for!” recalls Bartholomew with a grin.
Steve, says the photographer, was, however, not a difficult subject. The slight smile playing around his mouth as seen in the photograph, could even be self-deprecatory. He had been doing well, but perhaps he had an inkling that the law would catch up with him.
Bartholomew’s photograph of Steve Banerjee is thus an important document of the many sides to the Indian migrant story –– the hunger to make it, the fragility of financial success begun with modest means [Steve’s father had been in the printing business], the anonymity that comes when an immigrant’s life becomes tainted with failure, and the need to acknowledge all of them. Did the photographer think Steve was a success or a failure? Or was he both?
“All photographers who do portraits do it for different reasons. When doing photos the story needs to be told in that one photograph, I’m not interested in stripping people to their ‘truth’, or in adding anything. They are as I find them,” says the photographer. “I am a secret admirer of people with great enterprise, maybe Steve messed up, but if he had astute business sense, he would have been thriving today.”
In the photograph there is one detail that inadvertently humanises an Indian immigrant undeniably gone rogue. On the ring finger of his right hand Steve wears his wedding band. From all accounts, he was a family man. In the film, actor Naveen Andrews playing Steve, says in right earnest as he courts his soon-to-be wife Irene, an American: “I see Chippendales as a place anyone can come in, even children.” Who knows, perhaps he meant it!
For a man who planned the murder of four of his associates –– besides Nick De Noia –– and tried to sabotage three of his competitors’ businesses, his suicide at a detention centre in 1994 was an act of generosity and love towards his family. As his death occurred before the formal sentencing by court, it put the ownership of Chippendales in his wife’s hands as Steve had intended it. The photograph freezes that moment in his life, when, from the height of financial success, he could see, even if no one else did, how close he was to slowly losing it.