MANAGEMENT OR BUST

EX-DANCER DEBBY KOSOBUCKI THOUGHT SHE'D BEEN HIRED TO MANAGE A FIRST-CLASS TOPLESS CLUB. NOW SHE BELIEVES SHE WAS MERELY A FRONT TO CONCEAL THE INVOLVEMENT OF A CRIMINAL.

But Kosobucki was itching for the job, a chance to run a classy club that treats its dancers right. She was sick of being a bartender.

"For me, it was a career move," Kosobucki says, taking a hard pull on a Virginia Slims 120. Cigarettes and life have toughened her voice and skin, but she's still got a dancer's figure. She's an odd combination, with a sex kitten's pout, a truckdriver's mouth and, yes, feminist tendencies.

She wanted to manage a topless club so she could make the lives of her dancers better. "Being an ex-dancer myself, I had respect for them and they had respect for me," she says. It's as simple as understanding when a sick kid keeps a dancer from showing up for work, and as complicated as making sure dancers are fairly compensated.

Kosobucki is no pushover. She's poured drinks in bars where the patrons use cue balls as weapons. She's danced topless to feed her kids, then to pay legal bills when her ex-husband whisked them away. And she says she's been fired from jobs because she wouldn't put up with prostitution.

"I'm not patient. When I want something, I want it now, and I work hard for what I get," she says unapologetically.

But she wasn't prepared for Elizabeth Brazee and Dennis Mondavano.
She knew she'd get the job as soon as the interview ended. "I've only had two speeding tickets in my life, and I do know the bar business. I was perfect," she says.

Sure enough, Postal called the next morning. No time to waste. It was March 18, 1994, less than three weeks until Expos‚ Cabaret's license was up for consideration by the Arizona state liquor board.

Dressed in another pricey suit, her shoulder-length hair teased and sprayed and her answers scripted by Postal, Kosobucki performed for the liquor board. She was the only person involved with the club who had any experience in the liquor business. The license was granted and construction of the club proceeded.

Kosobucki and her husband, Gary, began making the rounds of local topless clubs, wooing the best talent with the promise of better working conditions. She lost her bartending job at Pollock Joe's in May, she says, partly because Postal kept calling her at work and coming in with papers for her to sign. (Her former boss at Pollock Joe's didn't return calls.)

Kosobucki still hadn't talked salary with anyone but Postal, and Mondavano was starting to make her nervous. She says Postal warned her not to mention Mondavano's name, because he had a felony conviction and couldn't be listed on the liquor license. Was he really the manager, she wondered?

She put it out of her mind, and kept recruiting dancers and preparing advertisements. She couldn't wait to be in charge, to prove herself. Finally, something in her life was going right.

Then Kosobucki slipped in her backyard and broke her arm. In early September, with her arm in a sling, she visited Brazee and Mondavano at Expos‚ Cabaret, which was under construction. Her worst suspicions were confirmed.

"As soon as I walked through that door, [Brazee] looked at me and she said, 'How are you gonna bartend?' And then Dennis yelled out, 'How's my number one bartender gonna bartend with a broken arm?'

"And I looked at Gary and I went, 'Omigod, I was right.'"
Expos‚ Cabaret opened in November, without Kosobucki. She claims that she was wrongfully terminated, saying Brazee never intended for her to manage the club, but used her to get the liquor license. Brazee insists Kosobucki never showed up for work, although there's no evidence that Kosobucki failed to follow any specific orders to that effect.

Mondavano doesn't remember calling Kosobucki his number one bartender. He says, "I think [Brazee] said, 'How are you going to bartend on occasion?' And the reason was, Debby had a real problem with doing anything but calling the shots. . . . She wanted the keys and the title and that was it."

Brazee does remember Mondavano calling Kosobucki his number one bartender. But everyone laughed, she says. She never suspected Kosobucki was unhappy.

"We intended to keep her. We never once did not intend to keep her," Brazee says.

Kosobucki's old friend Dave Postal--who's no longer associated with Expos‚ Cabaret--doesn't have much sympathy for Kosobucki. "She's sometimes not very realistic about life," he says.

But Phoenix assistant city attorney Jim Hays, who tried to get the liquor board to overturn Expos‚ Cabaret's license in February, believes Kosobucki was set up.

Hays says, "She was nothing more than a front, a fa‡ade. She was never intended to be the manager."

Hays lost the case before the liquor board, but has appealed the board's decision in Maricopa County Superior Court. For him, it was just another case.

For Kosobucki, it was the latest in a string of disappointments.
"I've had a fucked life," she says.
She was born and raised in Clio, Michigan. Her mother waited tables, and about the only thing she recalls about her father is that sometimes he detailed cars.

As a little girl, Debby didn't dream of becoming a ballerina or a doctor. She dreamed about her next meal. "People don't know what it's like to be as poor as what we were."

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