It's Halloween night, and the biggest party in metro Phoenix resembles Dirty Dancing as if imagined by the Marquis de Sade.
A couple hundred people fill the dance floor, bathed in bright red lights and psychedelic, paisley blue and yellow projections. The thumping electro-metal of Rob Zombie blasts partygoers in the face as they gather around the stripper platform, where a slender topless dancer shares space with a busty female patron in an elaborate, black Victorian gown.
Apparently, vampires, werewolves, and skeletons kept stepping on her bustle, so she ran for high ground. She keeps pulling her bustier up to contain herself as she bounces to the beat.
Rasputin's Equestrian Manor
Below her, a sea of shiny black vinyl outfits and pasty white makeup writhes en masse. Revelers worm through the sweaty swarm with red plastic cups held high. Body heat turns the room into a thick and heavy rainforest.
A few dozen people are hanging out in the dungeon down the hall. The dungeon includes a giant swing, a playhouse, and several bondage racks, but at the moment, they serve merely as furniture.
In a playroom off to the side of the dungeon, a plump redhead in a black miniskirt is relentlessly being whipped by another girl as a handful of people watch. The rhythmic thwacks of the leather strips on her derriere resonate through the dungeon room, background noise for drunken conversations about the weird bookshelf wallpaper and what that spot is on the carpet.
There's a line at the makeshift bar, where a young brunette is serving a green-faced Grim Reaper who's not happy there's no ice for his absinthe. She explains that somebody went to the store to get some more ice. He consoles himself with the potent brown European beer he brought.
The scene's not that different from any popular club in the Valley on a Saturday night, except that it's now 6 on a Sunday morning — and this is no nightclub.
Basically, it's the biggest house party any of these people have ever seen — held at an opulent estate in the East Valley that began hosting huge bashes in mid-September. You probably haven't heard about it, and, amazingly, neither had the police, 'til Halloween. The property's a private residence on a multi-acre lot, so even when several hundred people are getting soused inside, sound rarely drifts onto the surrounding properties. The place is being rented and run by a group of people who live there and collectively call themselves "The Family."
They call the house Rasputin's Equestrian Manor, and it includes all the trappings of a typical nightclub. But as a private residence, there are other bonuses that can't be enjoyed at the Valley's bars — indoor smoking, liquor service past 2 a.m., B.Y.O.B. privileges, and an invitation to pass out and stay the night.
Parties sometimes don't even start until 3 a.m. and often last past sunrise, like the Halloween fete, which raged until Maricopa County Sheriff's deputies arrived near dawn to find a couple hundred people still shaking their booties to booming music. Deputies politely informed the occupants of the house that they'd received some noise complaints and it was time to wind down the Halloween party. The deputies left without incident, not even a written citation.
The people who live at the Manor refer to it as a speakeasy, even though their alcohol service appears legit. They're going more for the feel of Prohibition-era lounges, the exciting vibes that come from drinking past last call and imagining that any minute, the cops could bust in and confiscate your mint juleps.
Or maybe just politely ask for the music to be turned down.
Pretending to be taboo is trendy these days. Rasputin's is operating at a time when nostalgia for the hidden drinking holes of the 1920s is big all over the U.S., particularly Los Angeles, New York City, and Seattle. All those places have their popular faux speakeasies, where patrons use passwords and sip classic cocktails in retro-looking rooms, but they're still public businesses operating with the proper liquor licenses. If you've got your ID and some money, you can easily find it and get in. It's really just all about the aesthetic.
While there's plenty of naughty behavior at Rasputin's Equestrian Manor, the whole illicit "speakeasy" label — perhaps its biggest selling point — isn't really true.
The term originally referred to any establishment that illegally manufactured or sold alcohol during Prohibition (1920-1933). Since the repeal of Prohibition, true speakeasies became unnecessary.
A speakeasy must serve alcohol illegally to fit the traditional definition of the word, and Rasputin's Equestrian Manor apparently doesn't. Because the property is a private residence rather than a bona fide business, the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control says it doesn't require a liquor license. Spokesmen for local police departments say they don't care how big house parties are as long as no one's breaking the law or disturbing the neighbors.
In the past several years, the term "speakeasy" has grown to include places that even feel remotely exclusive and illegal. Inconspicuous clubs supposedly tailored for high society on the down-low have established a club aesthetic. For patrons, the appeal lies in feeling as if they're doing something dangerous and edgy, and for those who run the sham speakeasies, there's plenty of money to be made.
Rasputin's is the latest speakeasy-style place in metro Phoenix, and one of dozens across the U.S. But Arizona once saw its share of the real deal, too.
While big cities like Chicago and New York were home to the original speakeasies that served bootleg liquor during the 1920s, northern Arizona had thriving bootleg operations and speakeasies, like Joe Hall's rooming house in Cottonwood and the Monte Vista Lounge in Flagstaff, where people needed passwords to access hidden bars and drink coarse, homemade liquor.
Those operations folded with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933, but the spirit of the speakeasy lives on in pretenders nationwide, from Los Angeles' Varnish and San Francisco's Bourbon & Branch to Cleveland's Speakeasy and the Manifesto in Kansas City, Missouri.
Some of these faux speakeasies, like the PDT (Please Don't Tell) in New York City, even require patrons to identify themselves into a phone receiver before being buzzed through a secret door.
The now-defunct club The Door in Scottsdale tried the speakeasy aesthetic from 2007 until it closed this year. People had to e-mail the club or sign up for phone texts to receive a password, and the entrance to the club was concealed by a long hallway that resembled a janitor's closet.
The small chain of Sopranos bars in Tucson was another stab at speakeasy-themed drinking holes that went under. With a couple of exceptions, superficial speakeasies haven't been so hot here.
But Rasputin's Equestrian Manor has been a big hit, and it's not Phoenix's first successful speakeasy in recent memory.
The Black & Tan had its heyday in 2004. That year, New Times staff writer Stephen Lemons wrote about the B&T in his nightlife column ("Dirty Doggy Style," October 21, 2004). Although he didn't disclose the address of the club, he pointed out that the promoters were listing shows on popular local Web site azpunk.com and referencing the place all over MySpace. Soon after Lemons' story, the Black & Tan announced it was closing.
The people behind Rasputin's Equestrian Manor are not the same people who ran the B&T, but they know them and express admiration for them.
In order to protect Rasputin's image as a secret spot, the organizers asked that we not reveal the address. But they have advertised on Craigslist.com and circulated fliers with the location around town. People sign up for free memberships to the Manor's "private club" at www.funfux.com to get information about events and directions.
The core group of organizers — four main figures who've worked in various strip clubs around Phoenix and several people from the local arts and music community — calls itself "The Family" and has been rather bold about the parties, which have exploded.
Nearly 500 people paid to party at Rasputin's Halloween night. Between the cover charges and the "donations" at the bar, organizers made an estimated $12,000 to $15,000 that night.
Many of the Manor's weeknight events, such as the Monday Night Football parties around the big-screen TVs throughout the house, are free or cheap to members (as little as $10 to get in on some nights), but weekend parties can rake in a few grand. Other parties look promisingly profitable, too — like the "Babes in the Cage" MMA-style fight, scheduled for December 12 and to feature topless girls. That will be a 12-hour party with a $100 cover charge.
The organizers say the club is "private but inclusive." They advise would-be visitors not to expect the refined, discreet vibe of 1920s speakeasies, because they're "welcoming of all lifestyles" — which explains why nobody flinched at the naked guy giving out "free hugs" one night. (Nobody hugged him, though.)
They brag that they attract the artists, the eclectic geniuses, and the subculture trendsetters of the city — people like Vex and DJ Squalor from popular Valley industrial dance collective *Sadisco, fire dancer and flesh hook suspension artist Dani Danger, and painter and sculptor Shayne Bohner.
Metalworking artist Xac, who created the steel cages and metal body gear for an act called "Grindwhore" (wherein people don goggles and said gear before grinding power tools against metal to make sparks fly), has also lent his talents to the Manor. He installed the stripper pole in the ballroom.
Faces from the Black & Tan, Phoenix's former favorite speakeasy, often pop up at Rasputin's, too, like James Bound of local AZ Fetish Ball promoters Horns & Halos and Simon Rohrich, tech geek and Society for Creative Anachronism junkie ("Nerd of War," February 17).
Bohner, who designs the club's fliers and hangs his Tim Burton-esque paintings on the Manor's 20-foot walls, like to say, "This is not your granddaddy's speakeasy. It's for people on the small end of the bell curve."
People live at Rasputin's Equestrian Manor, and guests occasionally crash here, sometimes for a couple of days. The property's being rented by four guys who've asked to be identified only as Matthew, Tap, John, and Mez.
Matthew's bedroom is behind the dungeon, and on an unseasonably chilly Wednesday night in mid-October, he's sleeping on a twin mattress on the floor, under the glow of his computer monitor. It's just after 9, but he's been sleeping for several hours.
Someone cracks open Matthew's door and says it's time to get up; a few guests have arrived. Still groggy from the party the night before, Matthew gets up and flips on the light to reveal distressed, cobalt blue-striped wallpaper and several piles of clothes around the mattress on the floor.
"I know it looks bad. I'm still in the process of moving in here," he says sheepishly. "I've been focusing so much on the club that I haven't had a chance to redo this room yet."
Matthew, dressed in gray pants and a dark brown sweatshirt, greets the guests, who include a wealthy-looking, middle-aged couple wearing business clothes. He offers them a tour and rundown of the impressive, two-acre estate.
There's a large stable house, plus two pastures out back that can hold up to 250 cars. The natural-form pool on the property is designed to be like an oasis in a sandy canyon, with faux rock formations as fountains and a grotto area with a hot tub. There's a fire pit on one side of the pool, and a large patio with a makeshift bar on the other.
Inside the dimly lit house are all the trappings of a lush, exclusive nightclub. The walls are painted gold, with floor-to-ceiling velvet drapes hovering above long, black couches. The dance floor comfortably fits about a hundred people.
There's a DJ booth by the fireplace, consisting of somebody's laptop wired to massive speakers. A touch-screen video game sits atop the kitchen counter, where patrons can also grab some grub from the chef's menu.
Off the main room are several others: a small billiard room, a photography studio, a handful of bedrooms, and, of course, the dungeon. There is wireless Internet access throughout.
Although Matthew refers to himself as "the quiet one" on his MySpace blog, he's actually quite talkative. Tall and lithe with a neatly shaved head and soft, boyish features, Matthew seems perpetually full of energy, constantly flitting from one place to another (almost always barefoot) and talking at length with an auctioneer's speed about a variety of topics. Had he not sworn that he doesn't do drugs, one might think he's on some kind of stimulant.
Tap is laid-back, a self-described ex-jock from Chicago who will still show you his shoulda-been-famous football throwing arm and has a Sean Penn-wise guy look. John, a short, goateed Italian guy, is also from Chicago. Self-styled filmmaker Mez is bald and blue-eyed, a soft-spoken but well-spoken guy who wears glasses, crosses his legs when he sits, and smokes hand-rolled cigarettes.
They met on Phoenix's restaurant and strip club circuit at various points over the past 14 years. John was a bartender and chef at Cozymels in 1995 when he met Tap, then working as a manager. The pair went on to work together at Grayhawk Golf Club, among other places.
Matthew and Tap met at Amazon's strip club on Seventh Street and Indian School Road in early 2003; Tap was a shift manager and Matthew was a DJ. The two became friends and stuck together over the years through gigs at The Jungle, Christie's, Crème (later Vegas Cabaret), and Pinups.
Everywhere they went, they say they tried to realize their dream of a rock 'n' roll strip club with a fetishistic twist. Every time, there was conflict with the general manager or owner of the club.
The group perhaps came closest to creating its dream club in April 2006 with the dingy and now-defunct Vegas Cabaret, at 32nd Street and McDowell Road. Instead of the usual hip-hop, they'd have the DJs play Nine Inch Nails and Metallica. They replaced the dancers with women they'd met in various clubs over the years, almost all of whom resembled Suicide Girls, with tattoos, piercings, and colorful hair. They incorporated things like fire breathing and rope bondage into their routines.
Just before taking over the management of Vegas, Matthew met Mez, who messaged him via MySpace, saying, "I seek succulence, I am Mez, I come in peace, take me to your leader." Matthew helped Mez procure the use of the now-defunct Chandler Cinemas to film scenes for Mez's still-unreleased movie called Crimes Chapel, now an ongoing, four-year project. Then Matthew hired him to bartend at Vegas.
To summarize what amounts to a lot of convoluted drama, Vegas went bankrupt in the spring of 2009 and changed ownership and thus, management. Matthew, Tap, John, and Mez had to find a new home.
The group says it found the extravagant property now known as Rasputin's Equestrian Manor through friends at Alpha Omega Plumbing, which had done some work on the property. They don't want to disclose who owns the house, but they admit they had to slip the landlady two grand when she showed up all pissed off at 3:30 on the morning of the Halloween party. "The more money we give her, the more she calms down," Matthew says.
Reportedly, the property was previously rented by a professional dominatrix, and several B&D/S&M parties are known to have taken place there over the past five years (the dungeon is a carryover from those days). But those parties were never on the scale of what's been happening there since September.
In addition to the four guys who live at the Manor, several other people frequently hang out there. They include sculptor Bohner, a scruffy, stout guy with glasses. There's also a petite dancer with a short black bob named Raevyn, her boyfriend Derek, and one of the security guys, Mark, a big guy with a long black braid. Local photographer and rope bondage guru Bio-Argent, who often dresses in lavish suits and smoking jackets, is also a frequent guest.
Despite the wacky, nefarious connotations of calling yourselves The Family (the mafia, The Manson Family, the Family of God alleged sex cult), they say they're really just close, enthusiastic friends who throw outrageous (and sometimes, outrageously profitable) parties.
They decided to name the place Rasputin's Equestrian Manor in honor of Matthew's hero, Siberian "mad monk" and personal consultant for the family of Tsar Nicholas II, who was reportedly poisoned, shot, strangled, and bludgeoned before drowning in the icy Neva river in 1916. "He was well-known for his debauchery, his orgies, his heavy drinking," Matthew says. "He was a famous party animal."
A fleet of cars pulls onto the property at Rasputin's, kicking a cloud of dust in Matthew's face as he ushers them through them gate and onto one of the pasture lots. It's a brisk Saturday night in early October, and he's a shepherd of honking vehicles filled with waving hands.
These people have already gotten past the front gate, where a burly, bearded security guard barks to drive around back and park on the property, not on the street. But first, he has to check IDs to make sure everybody is at least 21.
People pile out of the cars with all kinds of liquor. Somebody's carrying a six-pack of Samuel Adams Octoberfest ale; another clutches a purple Crown Royal bag.
There's also plenty to drink at the "bar," a counter on the patio under a bedroom window. The bartender at the window serves almost everything but gin (a shame, considering gin was a staple of real speakeasies). But somebody here probably brought some.
A handwritten menu on a dry-erase board is next to the bar. At the top, the phrase "$5 Donations" is scribbled and circled. The menu includes canned beer (Miller Lite or Budweiser), mixed drinks, cheeseburgers, and hot dogs. And there's soda and bottled water, for "$3 Donations."
There are probably 50 people here by midnight, and Matthew says he's never seen many of them before. So how did they find the club?
Matthew says they've been advertising on Craigslist and MySpace. For the Halloween shindig, which was the official after-party for the *Sadisco concert with Norwegian industrial artist Combichrist, The Family made fliers, complete with the street address of the Manor and detailed directions. They circulated hundreds of fliers at Chasers in Scottsdale, where *Sadisco was held.
So much for secrecy. Apparently, the location of Rasputin's is supposed to be hush-hush just for the speakeasy pretense. Tap says he's not worried about any legal problems because "we're not doing anything illegal here."
The organizers stress they're not selling liquor at their private events, they're just "accepting donations." But there are a couple of recent cases in Phoenix in which the "donations for liquor" argument didn't fly.
Local hip-hop collective Universatile Music had their UM Gallery in downtown Phoenix raided by police this past June. The gallery owners were serving cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and cups of Charles Shaw wine to First Friday patrons in exchange for a "recommended donation" to help support the gallery. UM promoter Rueben Martinez argued they weren't in violation of state liquor laws because they weren't technically "selling" liquor.
Phoenix police disagreed and cited five of the organizers for selling alcohol without a permit, a class 2 misdemeanor.
If a business sells food, provides entertainment, or charges a membership or cover fee, it must be licensed to serve alcohol, says Lee Hill, communications and special projects director for the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control. And licenses can be costly: The current fair market value of a new liquor license for a bar in Maricopa County exceeds $111,000. Licenses must be renewed every year for a $150 state fee, on top of varying city fees — but not just any business can shell out and get a license.
"The primary purpose of the business must be the sale or service of alcohol," Hill says. "It can't be incidental to your business. You can't be a hairdresser and have a liquor license to serve beer. Likewise, you can't get a liquor license to serve wine to people in your gallery while they look at your art."
There is a Special Event license that allows organizations to sell spirits at a single establishment for a temporary period (no longer than 10 days in a calendar year). The license requires applicants to take a Title 4 training course on liquor laws, display a sign within 20 feet of the cash register warning pregnant women of the dangers of consuming alcohol, and keep an employee log on the premises.
Even silver-haired seniors sipping wine and playing Po-Ke-No under a gazebo have to comply with the onerous liquor license laws. In January 2005, the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control raided a weekly senior citizens' garden party at a gated community in Mesa. According to an account in the Arizona Republic, organizer Bill Wise said he purchased alcohol for the events with money people put into a donation box and that attendees didn't have to contribute money. He was still cited for selling liquor without a license, because the party was on community property.
So what if the party was on private property, say, a retiree having a wine tasting with a handful of friends at his home and charging them $5 per glass of Cabernet?
"The board only regulates the sale and service of alcohol at businesses," Hill says. "If you were having a party at home and selling it at your house, we wouldn't do anything about that."
Not even if, say, there are a couple hundred people partying at a house every weekend, paying cover charges, dancing on stripper poles, and making donations for liquor? "We don't regulate private residences," Hill says.
And as long as house parties don't spiral out of control, local police don't seem to care, either. "Having a house party is perfectly okay, if you're doing it responsibly," says Sergeant Joe Favazzo, a spokesman for the Chandler Police Department. "Our concerns would be things like noise complaints from neighbors, illegal parking and drugs, underage drinking.
"The key is keeping it under control," Favazzo says. "As long as the neighbors aren't being disturbed and there are no beer bottles in the streets or nobody's standing on the lawn urinating, we don't care. You should have a party. We want you to have a party. If people are having fun, they're not fighting. We want you to have a good time."
But how big is too big for a house party? "There's no such thing as too big," says Phoenix Police Detective James Holmes. "There's no law that says how many people you can have in your home. You can stack them head-to-toe, if you'd like."
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While not quite stacked "head-to-toe," the revelers at Rasputin's on a Saturday night in early November number around 50 by midnight.
On the patio, a group of people gathers around a hookah to smoke and chat. A short guy with close-cropped dark hair stumbles out of the glass doors and collapses into a chair.
He doesn't move until Tap and several other people walk by, carrying cases of beer and bags of booze from the local Fry's grocery store.
And everybody applauds.