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It's five minutes till curtain on a Saturday night. But rather than donning costumes, the stars of this show are backstage stripping down to nearly nothing. As much as anyone can claim to be the "director" of this kind of production, the man responsible is Jerry Koenig. He's also, to varying extents, the producer, publicist, talent scout, music director, photographer, and costume designer.
As the first dancer steps out onto the stage of the Brass Rail, Koenig lingers in the audience, clutching his omnipresent goblet of red wine and chatting amiably with a few regulars. The choice tables flanking the stage have been occupied in advance by voyeurs hoping for their pound of flesh, or at the very least, prime view of the seminude entertainment.
Canned burlesque music announces the show, and three male dancers stride onstage. Tonight's crowd favorite is a chiseled specimen who looks like the genetic union of Heath Ledger and a pint of canola oil. Glistening beneath a track of colored lights, the dancer lowers his artfully shredded denim shorts. His white thong is no ordinary banana hammock, but a pouchlike garment designed to cradle and enhance a male entertainer's most marketable assets.
Flexing his pecs in rhythm with a techno remix of "California Dreamin'," the dancer has the crowd momentarily distracted from their Shiraz. A rapt admirer in the audience can't resist instigating a game of grab-ass, but the dancer remains unfazed.
This is the leather-lashed underbelly of the Twin Cities' stripping scene, and Jerry Koenig, man-about-town and founder of Portfolio Studios, is its unofficial don.
Koenig, a lean, stylish man, stands at the bar loudly reminiscing about his years as a fixture of Minneapolis nightlife. Unlike the other onlookers, he barely glances at the scene onstage. "The DJ was late," he says simply, pulling up a chair and facing away from the action. Pleasure may be Koenig's business, but it's business nonetheless.
A highly successful photographer of commercial erotica, Koenig founded Portfolio Studios more than 20 years ago. He soon broadened his business model to include managing a male dance troupe, known as Portfolio Men. Koenig's "boys," as he affectionately refers to them, perform regularly in the Twin Cities and also tour 61 U.S. cities aboard a stylized RV that insiders call "the yacht." Of late, Koenig has been aggressively shopping an episodic documentary series about the Portfolio Men's on-the-road exploits to various cable channels.
"We've approached HBO, Showtime, Bravo, and Discovery," Koenig says, "Another guy and myself and another financial investor started ME, which is the Minneapolis Entertainment Group. We had all the footage, and we got the ball rolling. But this is an ongoing story; it's never over. The boys are out of town every week, all the time."
Titled Boys on the Road, the series, Koenig hopes, will appeal to straight female drama junkies as much as to the expected gay demographic.
"We have a lot of skin footage," Koenig admits wryly. "Not really cocks and balls, just skin. Flesh. But it's called Boys on the Road. [Women] want to know the boys, what makes them tick. Why do they take their clothes off? What got them into this business? Do they have a boyfriend or a girlfriend? What do they do in their spare time? Why are they exhibitionists?
"Females want to be tantalized more so than just 'Hey, here it is!' But men are all pigs. They just want to see flesh."
On the Brass Rail stage, a lithe, boyish-looking dancer (or "twink," in scenester parlance) twirls around the pole wearing red fairy wings and little else. As Koenig predicted, the crowd is outwardly composed, but every eyeball in the joint is trained on the dancer's sweat-sheened limbs.
Portfolio Studios, located in northeast Minneapolis, is a Boogie Nights fantasy of claret-colored neon, exposed brick, and Grecian statuary. All-season Christmas lights deck the walls, and mirrors extend the cavernous space to infinity.
It's a placid midweek evening. The vibe is decidedly less ribald than at the Brass Rail, and yet, Koenig is in his element here. Seated in a mod, doughnut-shaped alcove while Sade blares on the stereo, Koenig is more than happy to unearth an impressive archive of adult magazines that feature his dancers, his photography, or both. (The two best-known Portfolio Men in Minneapolis may be the infamous pair of muscle-bound models who fill a 20-foot banner on the side of the Saloon.)
But rather than crassly objectifying his employees or regarding them as muscle-bound units of business capital, Koenig exudes papa-hen pride. There's the straight dancer who meets up with his female-stripper girlfriend after their respective gigs, the successful executive who peels by night, the stunning (and, sadly, deported) Argentine model. Koenig brims with intensely personal stories about all these dancers.
"We have a deaf guy who works with us," Koenig says, eyes wide. "He can't hear a goddamned thing. But when you're in the club, you can feel the bass vibrate. He can dance better than some of the guys who can hear! Unbelievable.
"[Once] while he was onstage, some of the guys backstage were banging on the wall. I came over and said, 'What are you guys doing?' They said, 'We're trying to fuck Jason up.'"
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