ALBANY PARK — When Jonathan Stacks told his mother he'd be performing at a strip club, she had just one question for him.
"She said, 'Are you really that hard up for cash?'" recalled Stacks, aka Jonny Stax.
Stacks himself wasn't sure why the Admiral Theatre, a well-known "gentlemen's club" in Albany Park, would be interested in booking his Scooty & JoJo Show, which features sketches that he described as "The Captain & Tennille meets The Muppet Show." In drag.
Turns out, Tim Brown, the Admiral's marketing manager, wasn't recruiting cross-dressing strippers. He was pulling together a lineup for an old-school burlesque show, "Bride of the Stripping Dead," in a bid to expand the club's audience appeal.
"I know he [Stacks] didn't think I knew he had a big LGBT following and that maybe I didn't understand what I was getting into," said Brown. "But we did our homework on all the acts. I knew they would add something special to the show."
If the "Stripping Dead" lineup, which made its debut in October, was heavy on scantily clad zombies and acts with "fetish" on their resumes, it also included comedy and magic, courtesy of Mark the Knife and bawdy ballads by musician Voltaire. Scooty & JoJo's contribution, a gender-bending cabaret-style spoof of slasher movies set to Carpenters' tunes, was as well received by the Admiral crowd as it was during its debut at Mary's Attic in Andersonville.
All of the performances represented common elements found in true burlesque, a form of entertainment popular when the Admiral first opened in the 1920s.
Sam Cecola, owner of the Admiral since 1989, is looking to revive that tradition, even if only occasionally.
"I like the theatrical aspect of it. If we just had girls on poles, I'd get bored," said Cecola, 67, who also operates Club Paradise in Las Vegas. "I'm probably a frustrated producer."
He's also a survivor of 40 years in the adult entertainment business. During that period, Cecola has seen the pendulum in Chicago swing from an anything-goes free-for-all to a tightly regulated environment.
"Clubs that started as legit morphed almost into bordellos," he said of the atmosphere in the late 1970s.
Today, strip club owners have to choose between serving alcohol or showcasing full nudity. Cecola opted for the latter, which has given the Admiral a unique advantage in the market.
But strip clubs, like many businesses, are facing increased competition for customers from the Internet. The Admiral recently shuttered its "video arcades," private rooms where patrons could watch pornographic films, for lack of business.
Special promotions, such as a Sarah Palin lookalike contest, or a revue such as "Stripping Dead," are ways for the Admiral to lure a wider audience.
Where the theater typically attracts 2,000 customers per week — half of them in attendance on a Friday or Saturday — "our numbers will triple or quadruple" for special shows, said Cecola.
When Cecola initially took over the the Admiral, he brought in weekly touring productions or "freak shows." At one time, the theater employed two seamstresses and an in-house wardrobe mistress to support these more elaborate spectacles. But in the last decade, the focus has been on what an MBA might call the Admiral's "core competency."
"No doubt it has to do with seeing naked girls," Cecola said.
Though he's not about to turn his back on his most loyal customers, Cecola has decided to dip his toe back into more theatrical waters.
"We were like the X-rated Rockettes of Illinois," said Brown. "We had art directors, stage hands, costumes and lines around the corner. Sam's gotten very nostalgic for that."
Brown and Cecola are currently working to create a revue they can mount several times a year, swapping out the variety acts to keep the production fresh. An art director was hired this fall to assist with staging.
Burlesque holds particular appeal for women, who make up a growing segment of the Admiral's clientele, evidenced by the number of couples taking in "Stripping Dead" on a date night. The entertainment form, which spawned stars such as Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand, is currently experiencing a renaissance led by such artists as Dita Von Teese.
"The beauty of burlesque and variety acts is that they draw a more mixed crowd. My fan base is 60 percent women," said Mosh, a Los Angeles-based burlesque performer who took part in "Stripping Dead."
"Women enjoy the glamour. It's not overtly sensual. It's really about prancing around in costume, almost like watching a fashion show," Mosh said.
Los Angeles, Las Vegas and the East Coast have embraced the return of burlesque, with the Midwest slower to follow, according to Mosh.
"They think of it as very raunchy, in your face," she said. "Then you go and see it's really people putting on an actual production, an actual show. I think more can enjoy it if they gave it one chance."
Artists such as Stacks take some convincing as well.
"I don't mind making people blush a little bit," he said. But Stacks, the JoJo to performer Scott Bradley's Scooty, said he struggled with the perceived exploitative nature of strip clubs.
"I'm a man, and I identify as a feminist," he said.
Before accepting the Admiral's offer, Stacks said he "had a conversation with 10 of my trusted women friends." After receiving their stamp of approval, he said, "They were like, 'Tell me when you do it.'"