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The Meat Merchant

What, you've never been to the ballet before? Jerry Koenig and a dancing friend backstage at the Brass Rail
Raoul Benavides

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.'"

Koenig chuckles and shakes his head, rising from the circular sofa, arms laden with mounds of press clippings. "I'm kind of like a surrogate father to these people because I treat them like gold. I really do; they're my talent."

He admits that not all of his dancers are golden, but says that issues of drug use and off-duty prostitution have a way of resolving themselves. "When we hire guys, they know [not to] bring any mental baggage in here," Koenig says pacing excitably across the dim studio, red wine in hand. "But every now and then someone will slip through the cracks, some steroid-addicted, alcoholic freak. I let the guys weed 'em out."

Drama aside, wayward entertainers are the least of Koenig's concerns these days. Birthing Boys on the Road has been a Herculean effort for Minneapolis Entertainment Group (which comprises Koenig, executive producer Rick Zachau, and producer Ryan Reparsky). The slickly packaged footage Koenig has been screening for entertainment honchos reveals tight production values and an emphasis on glamour and high drama. Koenig cues the tape and exits the room hurriedly. Against the gargling synths of a Kylie Minogue track, dancers with names like "Ace," "Darryl," and "Valentino" grind, gyrate, and claw their way to the glittery summit of Mount Fabulous. At first glance, the show looks like an addictive treat: promising if not profound.

At times, the plot twists sound as if they've been generated by a Hollywood scribe, a fact that amuses Koenig. His travels have provided him with a surplus of material from the stranger-than-fiction files.

"We had this one dancer, a gorgeous personal trainer," Koenig recalls. "[Our choreographer] told me, 'He's not ready.' So the next time he came in, we told him, 'Whenever you walk into choreography class, we're going to do something to you. And believe me, we're going to do it for a reason.' So, every time he walked in, we'd start [groping him]." Koenig paws my thighs frantically to demonstrate.

"This is a straight guy, kind of a beefy, macho-type guy! Then we gave him his little debut. All of a sudden we threw him out there [onstage]. When he came back he said, 'You guys were really right! People came up and touched me!' I said, 'Of course they did. Did you think I wanted to grope you? I was conditioning you for what was going to happen!'"

Despite the jocularity he brings to these anecdotes, Koenig can't deny that there's an invasive, often threatening aspect to semi-nude entertainment. "When we go into a club, I tell the manager and I tell the bouncers that [this is] our code of ethics, so to speak, and that these guys are not cheap pieces of meat," he says. "I'm adamant about it. Any problems with patrons need to be taken off the floor. Some people come back. The liquor is talking to them and they try to cop a feel."

Ultimately, Koenig resigns himself to the reality of the business. "I always say there's good touching and bad touching."

His conflicted expression is suddenly interrupted by a flash of levity. "I have a great guy who designs g-strings for the guys," he exclaims. "Let me show you some of his stuff." And with that, Koenig dashes off to another room to find a more fabulous pair of underwear.


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