The stage, its columns supporting a mock portico, might make an appropriate setting for a recitation of Homer's "Odyssey" -- if it weren't for the gleaming brass pole.
Everything about the Atlantis Gentlemen's Club in semi-rural Ford Heights belies the nature of its entertainment program. The inside is loaded with vases, cushy chairs, flatscreen TVs and pricey-looking light fixtures. From the outside, the strip club, a hulking mass of white stone standing alone at the end of a farm field, looks like a wayward federal courthouse.
"We wanted to make something comfortable," Mark Valle, the club's part-owner, said.
"You pull up, you feel like you're special."
This place's coyness and luxury are not accidental, and its upscale attitude matches an industry trend, said Angelina Spencer, executive director of the Association of Club Executives, a strip-club trade group. Las Vegas-style establishments that attend to comfort and customer service are taking the place of smoky, ramshackle "chicken coop clubs," Spencer said.
"Those have really given way to emporiums of elegance," Spencer said.
For the traditionalists, the region remains home to conventional strip clubs. Gary city spokeswoman LaLosa Burns said the city's strip club count hasn't changed recently, and zoning hems in other potential strip clubs. A few clubs do business in other Lake County municipalities. Porter County is strip club-free, thanks, at least in part, to zoning in the county and Valparaiso.
Nationally, strip clubs in major cities have been more insulated from the recession than their small-market counterparts, Spencer said. Clubs in manufacturing towns have suffered most, she said. She mentioned a club in Sandusky, Ohio, that closed with the two automotive manufacturers that flanked it. She said club owners nationwide have said their recent revenues are down from 20 percent to 60 percent.
But many clubs continue to thrive, said Spencer and other experts. Jeremy Stunt, an account executive for online strip-club marketing company Cybertech Internet, said club owners aren't getting out of the business.
"Right now, the price of a strip club is holding its market. It's a very lucrative market to own and operate a strip club," Stunt said.
Local strip club aficionado Mr. Goodtimes, who asked we use his Internet handle because he works in social services, pointed to Atlantis and clubs such as The Pink Monkey in Chicago's South Loop as proof the customer-service trend has come to Chicagoland. Mr. Goodtimes runs the Web site chicagostripclublist.com.
"It's an overall experience instead of just coming in to just see strippers," he said.
Most local clubs have not followed this trend. Deja Vu in Lake Station appeared clean and safe on a recent Wednesday afternoon, but "elegant" would not be the appropriate adjective. The club is smoky and dark, though not unwelcoming, with low styrofoam tile ceilings. The place is, in short, a strip club. A manager, who asked not to be named because he doesn't own the club, said revenues are down from better economic times three years ago. But the club is persevering, he said.
"Sometimes it's bad, but sometimes it's up," he said.
Deja Vu added hot food briefly a few years ago. The food was good, but the experiment didn't make financial sense, so the food was discontinued, the manager said.
Even with the marble and ferns, Atlantis has not changed the business model: men pay for drinks and watch women dance naked.
But Valle said his club's Vegas-style "details" set it apart. Guiding a tour, Valle, a middle-aged journeyman strip club professional attached to an incessantly ringing cell phone, showed off the expansive kitchen; the dozens of semiprivate dance nooks; the DJ booth with equipment like an aircraft control tower's; the plush private party rooms; the urinals that stand beneath TVs tuned to ESPN. The food -- including steak and seafood -- is good, Valle said. People do buy the $1,100 magnums of Cristal champagne, he said.
"To compete with us, you're going to have to go a long way," Valle said.
You may recognize Maricar Perea, Atlantis' director of marketing. She owns the face that looms over the Bishop Ford Expressway on Chicago's far South Side. Another billboard towers above the Dan Ryan Expressway around 61st Street. Perea works conventions and uses hotel concierges and limo drivers to try to bring men -- and, occasionally, women accompanied by men -- into the club. The club's Web site, atlantischicago.com, is less explicit than other stripping-related Web sites, and that wasn't an accident.
Atlantis has never been open during strong economic times, and Valle admitted people are spending less in strip clubs. But he said Atlantis is staying "above water."
"We're not goin' anywhere," he said.