Photograph by Thomas Wheatley
For nearly two decades, Dona* has entertained and collected dollar bills from bikers, dive-bar enthusiasts, and tourists at the Clermont Lounge, the world-famous strip club in the basement of the eponymous and infamous hotel. But on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon outside an Austell biker bar, Dona was with family, accepting $20 bills and donations in exchange for one helluva car wash to help her and other Clermont dancers and bartenders pay their rent, bills, and grocery costs while the hotel is transformed into a boutique lodge.
Since the lounge temporarily closed shortly after New Year’s Eve, the dancers have spent their time . . . well, living. Misty, a bartender for nearly 20 years, has been taking care of her autistic son. Barbie, who’s been dancing for 19 years, helped her daughter decorate a nursery (Barbie picked the theme—mermaids and oceans.) Another gave her house a deep clean.
There seems to be some initial confusion about when the lounge was to reopen. Early reports said patrons could expect to be back drinking PBR and watching Blondie crush cans around Valentine’s Day. Employees recall first hearing it would take four to six weeks. But according to the lounge, the strip club won’t reopen until April (Philip Welker of BNA Associates, the firm overseeing the hotel’s redevelopment, tells Atlanta magazine that the lounge’s opening was never delayed.) Some employees have spent their savings, and some have either picked up part-time work or are now seeking side jobs to pay the bills until the lounge reopens in all its dive-y splendor. They’re very much looking forward to getting back to doing what they love. Very much.
“It will be good to see everybody,” says Dona, who worked at the Clermont for four years in the early 1990s and returned after earning a history degree in 2005. “The gang, friends, customers, and whatnot. But I like having a roof over my head, electricity, and groceries.”
“Seven weeks, I can do,” says Kitty, who has danced at the lounge for three years, making her one of the newer employees. “Two months or eight weeks? No. So I started looking for other work.”
Thankfully, loyal lounge lizards are lending a hand. In addition to “Granny Panty Hootenanny” events hosted by longtime Clermont DJ Romeo Cologne at the Star Bar and the recent Bickers Bar and Billiards carwash, a GoFundMe has raised nearly $9,000 to be divvied up among the more than 10 employees. BNA and IDC Construction, the construction firms renovating the hotel, each contributed $2,500, with smaller donations coming from fans of the lounge.
However, Kitty, like all the other dancers and bartenders who spent a Sunday afternoon washing more than a dozen cars in a bar parking lot, can’t wait to return to work. And they’re fairly confident that the hotel’s renovation won’t affect the essence of the lounge that’s high on the bucket list of every resident and tourist seeking the authentic Atlanta.
“It’s probably my favorite place I’ve ever worked,” says Kitty, who dusted off her dancing shoes after growing tired of working a minimum-wage retail job a few years ago. “It really is a big community there. As you can, see we all get along great. We keep in touch with each other during our time off. It’s like a sisterhood.”
“We’re such a tight-knit group of girls,” says Barbie. “Because there’s such a small amount of ladies who work there, we’re friends. That’s one reason I’m ready to get back to work. I miss my family.”
Another Granny Panty Hootenanny—featuring a bike sale—will be held on March 15 at Star Bar. A meet-and-greet is also scheduled for March 24 at Lahrceny Tavern in Porterdale. Additional fundraisers will follow.
*We’ve omitted dancers’ and bartenders’ last names out of respect for their privacy.