“It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” - Noël Coward, Blithe Spirit
"My method is basically the same as Masters & Johnson, only they charge thousands of dollars and it's called therapy. I charge fifty dollars and it’s called immoral." - Xaviera Hollander (The Happy Hooker)
"Hypocrisy - prejudice with a halo.” -Ambrose Bierce
Upon hearing the news that our region’s premier (and only) Gentleman’s Club known as the Saginaw Déjà vu was gearing up for its 40th Anniversary Celebration in early April, it seems appropriate to investigate a little deeper into this entity that in many ways has evolved into a cultural phenomenon .
Born of humble beginnings when it boldly decided to break ground in the conservative farmlands of Mid-Michigan, over the past four decades it has managed to play by the rules while also testing them; and today 40-years later it still holds its head tall and proud within its massive and architecturally tasteful 8,000 square foot facility right next to Communications Family Credit Union on Bay Road.
The notion of 'Gentlemen's Clubs' in reality is as old as ancient history, pre-dating Rome and referenced as harems in classical literature such as Tales from the Arabian Nights. Erudite authors such as James Joyce reputedly wrote erotic stories for wealthy members of the upper class to finance his forays into serious literature, while arguably it was none other than publisher Hugh Hefner that first popularized the contemporary conception of the adult nightclub with his Playboy Clubs in the early 1960s.
Yet even today, the topic still carries a stigma - a kiss of 'taboo', if you will, upon the lips of moralists whom adhere deeply to the belief that human expression be confined to narrowly codified rules of behavior, and that nudity never be displayed amidst strangers, even if it’s from the skin of an Oscar winning actress shimmering down from the silver screen.
But as with most things in life, the devil is in the details. Between what we believe as truth and what in fact is reality often falls a shadow, which only the discerning eye of discourse can escort into the light of day.
So having said this, it is incumbent for us to dig between the sheets a little deeper.
In terms of background, Saginaw Déjà Vu is the third of a trio of clubs built by Durand entrepreneur Harry Mohney back in the early 1980s. Based out of Durand, Michigan, he expanded these three clubs into a franchise of 132 clubs and numerous other adult businesses in 41 states as well as multiple clubs abroad. Indeed, for a period of time he was the single largest distributor of adult material in the world.
The first club was in Kalamazoo, followed by Lansing, and then came Saginaw. Today there are over 70 clubs worldwide, including locations in Paris, Washington, D.C., and California. Indeed, their iconic logo of a garter-clad leg is probably as recognizable to most tri-city residents as the neon Bean Bunny shining atop the grain silo on I-675, yet the mystique, and stigma, remains.
Karen Gay is the owner and operator of the Saginaw Déjà Vu and started with the organization in Lansing back when she was attending Michigan State University. "I started as a waitress, and didn't even know what a Déjà Vu was," she admits. "I was working in the cafeteria at college at the time and desperate for cash, as most students are. I started dancing and made a ton of money, worked in a few other states, and eventually became a manager."
When asked about the controversy that surrounded building the Saginaw Déjà vu in the middle of a conservative farmland community back in the early ‘80s, Karen holds some vivid memories.
“I didn’t come to Saginaw until 1999 and do know in the beginning years things were a little tougher. When I was down in Lansing people were walking picket lines and fighting against Gentlemen’s Clubs; but coming up through the ranks, I’d been with it so long and knew the business inside and out and wanted to own my own business, so when the opportunity came to purchase the club I felt comfortable doing it.”
Karen’s right-hand man at the establishment is Ryan Pergande, who started working as a door guy back in 2003 and has moved up through the ranks locally at the Saginaw Club. “Working for Karen has been great because she provides a fun environment. I was just a little stupid boy back then, but she took me in, showed me the ropes, and eventually let me run different facets of her Multi-Million dollar club.”
In terms of how the paradigm for Déjà Vu’s business has evolved over the decades, both Karen & Ryan reference the explosion of social media, which has circumscribed and re-focused attention away from direct human interaction and made it more controllable.
“In this specific business over the decades it went from something a little crazy and racy into something that is more conformed, which is true with everything,” reflects Ryan. “It’s altered the shape of our business, but we’ve been able to capture it and use it to the best of our ability.”
“What really changed the most through social media is that young women could essentially to things from their home.,” adds Karen. “Women can perform online through social media, but obviously the experience is different and distanced and separated by a screen.”
“Social media has also ushered in more acceptability and made the notion of Gentleman’s Clubs more mainstream,” she continues. “Without doubt its biggest impact has been breaking stereotypes and stigmas. We roll with the changes and went from being a taboo industry to a mainstream business.”
"Through my years of the business a lot has evolved," she reflects. "I think it's become more of a 'norm'. Stigmas are still attached to it, but people are quickly adapting in terms of their attitudes. There is a broad spectrum to the term 'entertainment'. And throughout history, adult entertainment will always survive."
"Some people obviously think what we do here is nasty, filthy, and dirty, but times are always changing and more people are starting to understand and accept the niche that we fill," she elaborates.
So what niche is that?
"It's entertainment," laughs Karen. "It's fantasy. It's an escape for a lot of people, but it’s also fun at the same time. It's on the edge and always has been, but many people are confronting that 'edge' now. We have mothers & daughters, from thin to heavy, enrolling in our Stripper Class 101 just to add a little excitement and exercise into their lives and see what it’s all about."
“Back when the club started, it was more on the edge of society and so were the people that helped run it,” she continues, “but now I see a better class of people. You'd be amazed who you see here - men, women, couples from all walks of life. "You get all of it - all sectors of society."
Over the past year Karen estimates an average of 500 customers per week, although is optimistic that the 650 customers she received the previous weekend to our interview is indicative of an upward trend towards normalcy.
“In the early days we would accommodate 1200 customers per week, so things have definitely changed; but then again, a lot about the life and economics behind Saginaw is a lot different since then as well.”
While most of their customer base is still drawn from the tri-city area, Karen says a lot of their customers also derive from the Flint area. Regarding talent turnover, she is thankful to have such a dedicated staff. “Some of our entertainers have been here for 20 years and they’re the Best-of-the-Best. We have some wonderful women who have stuck with us their whole lives here, bought homes and cars, and vastly improved their lives; and then we have a lot of women who use the monetary freedom that is afforded as a stepping stone for other goals in their lives.”
Over the past two years, the biggest challenge Karen has faced is the Pandemic, which severely hit their business particularly hard insofar as Congress attached an exclusion to Pandemic assistance money that denied the funding to entities involved in the Adult Industry - an abhorrent and obviously prejudicial move that resulted in numerous lawsuits being filed at the federal level.
But on a local and more important level, it impacted the many ‘Signature Events’ that were core to building the success of Saginaw Déjà Vu, as they emanated from the creativity of Karen and her staff.
“We weren’t able to stage our Showgirl of the Year contest and other of our signature events such as Melon Fest, but have started doing those again,” she states. “We still plan and promote larger events but they’re not as common as they once were.”
“Most clubs do individual promotions to keep their programs alive, but in terms of national events there isn’t a lot of travel anymore,” adds Ryan. “Consequently, since 2019 the bigger national events have been more or less localized by the smaller individual clubs with their own entertainers, just to keep the programs alive. Now we keep it local, small, wonderful and manageable.”
In terms of possible future evolutions for the business, one is moving to a more ‘Tavern Rype’ of establishment that would feature alcohol sales. “Michigan changed their law, or at least resolved it, so now it’s up to the owner of the club if they want to serve liquor,” notes Ryan. “But the liability insurance is outrageous. Therefore, the idea would be to make it more into a beer and wine but not liquor tavern. It’s easier to get the license, but is still steeped in paperwork.”
When she looks back at some of the highlights and achievements that stand out in Karen’s museum of memories, a glimmering bubble of recollection carves a rich smile upon her lips.
“At the top of my list would have to be our Big Top Tournament, which turned into a huge success. My richest memories are the events we’ve had to innovate and watch them come alive. It’s neat to watch your success, look back, and try and improve upon it - that’s my goal - to do better each year, which also creates a fun environment.”
Indeed, this year’s 2022 Big Top Tournament is coming up on Saturday, May 14th. Featuring a 3-Ring Circus of entertainment, Karen notes how the first one was staged in 2002. “We had 800 people that night and it was something we will never achieve again to that level because so much has changed; but to me that event represented the pinnacle of our success,” adding, “another great memory that I will never forget was when I was able to bulldoze over the old building prior to constructing the new one.”
Forty years down the road Karen remains eternally optimistic.
“This past Saturday we had our Big & Beautiful Contest and all the waitresses and staff did really well, plus it was so much fun. We intend to keep going for another 40 years. While we may not be able to re-create past glories, now my goal is to make a ‘New Fantastic’, because that’s what we are and it’s what we do.”
And perhaps that is the key understanding the highway of this phenomenon known as Saginaw Déjà vu, which was built upon flesh, dream, courage, and fantasy.
For as the great writer Anais Nin once wrote, 'Ultimately, the only abnormality within man or society is the inability to love.'
9th February, 2024