n 1962, Jack and Leah Eurich came out from Michigan looking for a saloon of their own. They found a little place they liked, a piano bar in a two-story office complex on North 12th Street near Camelback. Jack tended bar, which had been his line since the end of World War II, serving bottled beer to customers out of a reclaimed fridge. Leah ran drinks to customers. "We couldn't afford to hire a waitress or a bartender," she says.
Business at first wasn't so good.
"We practically starved to death for a year," Jack says. "These couples would come in, but not very many. They were usually cheating or something. They'd say, `You know, we really love it here because there's never anybody here.' I was starving to death and they were rubbing it in."
The Eurichs began to hear talk around town about a new kind of entertainment. A few local bars had gone to go-go, and the bikini-shaking dancers were bringing in herds of customers. "We went out to check out a place where it was occurring," Leah says. "It was real busy."
The couple returned to their quiet bar and thought things over. "We decided to put girls in," Jack says. "I threw out the piano bar and put a couple of pool tables in. The place was so small I had to put covers on the pool tables for the dancers. Then I put up a couple of blacklights."
And so was born Phoenix's newest go-go bar. "The first night it was so busy that we had to get a customer to help bartend," Leah says. "They had people lined up at the front all the way around back."
In 1967 the bar moved a few feet north into a building of its own, which is where the club stands today. In the early Seventies, the dancing girls took off their tops. In 1974, the Eurichs split up. When Leah remarried, she took the last name Hay.
Jack Eurich and Leah Hay still co-own the Hi-Liter Lounge, ~the oldest mom 'n' pop topless bar in town, although their son Johnny manages it for them now. Last year ~the family celebrated the Hi-Liter's 25th year of operation, no small achievement in this business.
Nobody threw a big party or anything.
THE TOPLESS BIZ is not on ~the whole foreign to the concept of "family." There are those in the law enfor~cement community who will testify to the fact that it is several large "families" that run the industry. Topless is not a livelihood for lightweights.
Your best customers are often lonely inebriates who get their only pleasure in life from ogling nearly naked, vastly unattainable "dancing" girls. Your most trusted employees are often transient drug addicts who get their emotional support from 300-pound bikers named Tiny who stay home all day and make speed in the bathtub. Your business is heavily taxed and more extravagantly regulated than almost anything else that is legal, including investment banking. The hours are bad, the music is loud and you better love breathing cigarette smoke.
But. Not all people who enter a topless bar will leave it with ruined lives. Most, but not all. Disregarding for a moment the more sensational aspects of a typical topless-bar operation--not an easy thing to do if you've ever been in one--it's important to remember that it is a totally legal enterprise, that a buck or two can be pocketed by a hardworking small-business owner, and that those dancers and cocktail servers very probably provide a very important service to their customers. You ask: Important service? Like what? Well, say you're a guy. Say your entertainment needs are fulfilled by neither ESPN nor your weekly Bible- study class. Say you occasionally visit a large local disco, where you must deal with a hefty cover charge, costly drinks, dancing--most guys really don't like to dance, but do it only to avoid having to talk--and, ultimately, rejection. Topless bars are, in comparison, a much more cost-efficient form of entertainment.
All of which, it can be argued (and we're still disregarding brother Tiny's bathroom lab here), is good for the economy.
ONE OF JOHNNY EURICH'S first memories is seeing a go-go girl dancing on the family Ford. "Mom," he remembers asking, "why is that girl dancing on our car?"
The car, one of Jack's early brainstorms, was parked on 12th Street out in front of the Hi-Liter. "This guy owed me some money, and he couldn't pay me, so he gave me this Ford," Jack says. "I had a sign put on it, and parked it right on the street in front of the building. I'd have the dancers go out and dance on top of it. Jesus Christ, they'd stop all the traffic, you know. It really got the place known in a hurry."
The Eurichs lived on the street behind the bar, in a house with a red tile roof. The children grew up in the business, starting in a playpen in the bar's back room. "Mom, between orders, would come back and check up on us," Johnny says. "When I was nine or ten, my dad took me in and let me sit next to the stage. The girls would come right over and dance in front of me. When you're nine or ten, when you're a kid, you get really embarrassed, flushed. While she wasn't looking, I'd catch a peek at her from the corner of my eye."
The Eurich family grew to a total of four kids. The Hi-Liter family grew, too. Jack set to work recruiting crowd-pleasing dancers from other go-go bars in town. "I just went around and stole all the best girls," he says. "We'd go in and get a drink, and when the girls would go in the john, I'd send Leah or somebody in the john and offer 'em more money. That's the way we got started. We had the best girls in town because we went around and stole 'em."
With the girls came customers. "It was standing room all the way around the building seven days a week," Jack says. "It was so packed we'd have to let two or three out before we could let two or three in. They had to hold their glasses close to their chin.
"This town was always starved for entertainment, right up until the last few years. I would just stand there amazed that they would come back and look at the same goddamn girls night after night. They didn't seem to have any imagination. But there was nothing else to do!"
Not all of the Hi-Liter's early days were skittles and beer. One of the bar's co-tenants in the little office building was a union hall full of quick-to-brawl tradesmen. "At first, in the daytime, it was all union men," Jack says. "There'd be two, three fights a day, guys swinging at me. I was always pushing them out the back door and saying, `Go at it out there.' And they would! They'd go out and, you know those union men, they'd go at it. Those years I was over there, I got sick of stopping those fights."
The union toughs, coupled with a long- running dispute with their landlord, caused Jack and Leah to look for greener pastures for their popular club. They settled on the pasture next door. Jack bought the land and designed a show room. Meanwhile, his landlord had no idea the construction work next door was his tenant's project. Three days after the Hi-Liter's lease ran out at 4712 North 12th Street, the new Hi-Liter was up and roaring at 4716.
"When we built the new place, the union guys threatened me," Jack says. "They said if I didn't have union bartenders that they wouldn't come in. I said, `Jesus, that's perfect for me.' So they blackballed me. I said, `What's gotta be has gotta be.'"
LEAH HELPED DECORATE the new bar, which Jack had custom-made for the purposes of flesh display. "It was really pretty at first," she recalls of the simple block building. A single runway stage was the focus of the action. Judging from some snapshots Leah has kept from the early days, the room has changed very little.
The style of entertainment has changed quite a bit. In the old pictures, a grungy band plays in the background, jamming, no doubt, on "Gloria." The old photos also show a bordello-red color scheme around the room, a quaint touch that has long since vanished. The dancers wear frilly French bikinis and tall go-go boots. Their hair is motorcade-era Jackie O. or swingin' Carnaby Street.
Jack, Leah and older Hi-Liter customers remember with great fondness one dancer in particular, a girl named Haley who had a huge following. "She would dance sometimes twenty minutes to, like, `La Bamba' and `Twist and Shout,'" Jack says. "You could hear a pin drop. All these guys--lawyers, guys with suits on--you could hear a pin drop for twenty minutes as she danced."
Haley's whereabouts today are unknown, although Leah thinks she may have become a nurse.
"This Haley, my God, she'd have ten, twelve guys waiting for her every night out here," Jack says. "She would always kind of pick one. She was kind of ruthless in those days and made fun of the ones that didn't make it."
Alas, those comparatively innocent times were drawing to a close. By the early Seventies, a slight liberalization of local mores called for more show, less go-go. "First they went to net bras with pasties," Leah says. "Then they did away with the net bras and just had the pasties." The pasties would fall soon, too. The law today requires only semi-opaque nipple coverage and the briefest of bikini-style bottoms. Compared with today's bare minimum, Haley's old costume was an infield tarp.
This costuming trend did in no way discourage customers from visiting the Hi-Liter. "We had a real good clientele," Leah says. "Lawyers and doctors, and we used to have bowling teams come in." Jack remembers hosting a regular lawyers' night promotion. "There was a lot of guys that were professionals, in suits," he says. "It wasn't so much cowboys back then. Guys would come in with suitcoats on. They'd take those suit coats off and twirl 'em around their head."
It still is possible to see such crowds in the Hi-Liter today, although all of the Eurichs seem to sense a shift in topless demographics. "The average guy who comes in here is, I would say, 28 years old, a blue-collar construction worker who just got off work," Johnny says. "There are lawyers and office workers who come in with a group of friends, too. They come in, sit down, laugh, tell jokes, high-five each other and punch each other in the shoulder, and spit. Maybe they don't have any other release."
The Hi-Liter's file with the state Department of Liquor Licenses and Control isn't as thick as one might expect. There are a few citations and warnings, sure, but no more than most neighborhood taps would have. Despite the apparently toughened mix of customers over the years, the club's only close brush with a license revocation came in the late Seventies, when Jack tried a short experiment with what was then a new trend in exotic dancing. "The one time I almost lost my license, it was because of a male dancer," Jack says. "It was a girl grabbing at his privates."
Still, says Leah, who longs for tamer times, "it's harder than it used to be. It seems like the people are different. It's a lot younger crowd, more from 21 to 30. We used to have older people coming in, and a lot of couples, believe it or not."
"I'VE BEEN PUNCHED, kicked, robbed and hit with a club," says Johnny Eurich, Hi-Liter manager, explaining his attraction to the place. "But my whole life I've been supported by this bar. You feel kind of an obligation to not milk it for everything it's got. You feel like you owe something.
"When I started working here, when I was barely over the legal age, I started to see what my parents went through. I started to see employees screwing up on my mom and dad's time, and I wanted to do something about it. People were--not stealing--but someone would lift a six-pack out of the back room on their way out. It took that for me to really come to see the faults of the place.
"It's never dull. You can always expect some kind of liveliness. That's what makes it interesting."
At this point, just about everybody on both sides of Johnny Eurich's family has worked in the lounge at one time or another. Both of Johnny's brothers tend bar. Johnny's mother-in-law tends bar on Sunday nights. Johnny met his wife Tracey there, through Tracey's sister Cindy, one of the more popular Hi-Liter dancers. After the wedding, Tracey became a dancer, too. "She would come in and visit when I was working," Johnny says. "She would look up and say, `Oh, he's always looking at the girls, maybe I should do it.'" They have a five-year-old girl but have been separated for several months.
Johnny expects his dad to sell his share of the bar to him and the other Eurich kids someday, as soon as some legal action against the bar (brought by a former customer) is cleared up. Jack doesn't come in much anymore, Johnny says. "He's generous, but he keeps to himself a lot," Johnny says. "His mind has changed over the years. He doesn't believe that making money through alcohol is right. He's sixty years old. When you get older I guess you start feeling more self- conscious about things."
IT'S TRUE. Jack Eurich, one of the local pioneers of this kind of thing, wants to get out. An era is ending.
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"I enjoyed it at first," he says, "when I was creating--like putting tops on the pool tables and black lights and decorating the new place. You're inventive and creative. Once I built the new place, I just kind of lost interest. As you get older, the music gets louder, and you get more nervous."
Eurich's biggest headache--the havoc created by rowdy, liquored-up customers--would seem to be incurable. "My theory is, I like to have 'em for two drinks, then I'd like 'em to leave," says Eurich. "When you get in any farther, you've got a problem." But it's possible for a Hi-Liter customer to sit happily in his seat for hours at a time, watching an ever- changing line-up of dancing girls parade on the stage, drinking all the while. Without question, near-nudity and booze are a volatile mixture. Jack Eurich has grown tired of fighting it.
"It's a rough business, you know. It's not a glamorous business, I'll tell you," he says. "It seems like it, you know, but it's not that glamorous. You have to be young to stay inside there, to listen to all that hard, loud music. I practically never go down there except when there's trouble.
"I hate to say it, but I don't believe in it anymore. It sounds kind of hypocritical, but I don't. I think drinking is too damaging. Not just because of the automobile accidents, but it's the personal problems that guys get into. You know, I really don't believe in it anymore.