[THE SOUND OF A LARGE CROWD CLAPPING IN UNISON PLAYS AS THE EPISODE BEGINS]
TOBIN: We are recording this on Tuesday, June 17th, and what a couple of days it has been!
KATHY: It truly has! Where do we even start?
TOBIN: Well, I mean, at least this time what we're talking about is, like, good stuff!
KATHY: [LAUGHING] Yes! Finally.
TOBIN: So, over the weekend, you went to the rally.
KATHY: Yes, I was at Brooklyn Liberation, which was a rally and march for Black trans lives. It took place in Brooklyn, where I live, and I went with my girlfriend. Sound designer Jeremy was there, too, but I didn't see him because it turns out there were over 15,000 people there, all wearing white, and all wearing masks.
[THE SOUND OF CHEERING GETS LOUDER FOR A MOMENT, HONKING TOO]
KATHY: There were amazing speakers, and the family of Layleen Polanco was there. Layleen was a trans woman who died in solitary confinement at Rikers Island last June after prison guards refused to offer her needed medical assistance. And it was just so important to see so many people showing up for Black trans folks, because, once again, Black trans lives matter!
[THE CROWD CHANTS “BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER” AFTER SOME LEADERS CHANT FIRST, THEN SOMEONE SAYS, “AND WE’RE TAKING THAT MESSAGE TO THE STREETS TODAY!” TO CHEERS]
TOBIN: The footage looked so incredible! I was so sad to not be in Brooklyn with all of you. [KATHYS HUMS IN AFFIRMATION] But then, of course, the next day, we woke up to the news that one of the Supreme Court decisions was very exciting. Uh, they voted 6-3 that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does protect LGBTQ folks from discrimination in the workplace.
KATHY: We won! We finally win something! [TOBIN LAUGHS] I didn’t think that was gonna happen!
TOBIN: Yeah, I think most people thought it wasn't going to go down like that. Um, but truly unbelievable that it did! Obviously this doesn't mean that workplace discrimination is, like, magically over.
KATHY: No, no.
TOBIN: But it's probably the biggest step in our lifetime towards true equality for LGBTQ folks in this country. It’s a big deal. Huge!
KATHY: Should we scream about how big of a deal this is? [AFTER A PAUSE, YELLING] Big deal!
TOBIN: [ALSO YELLING] Huge! Huge deal! [BOTH LAUGH] Uh, anyway, before we get started today, we just wanted to jump in and acknowledge what a week it has been, and just to sort of, like, revel in having some nice news for a bit.
KATHY: Yeah! Well, wanna sit for a few seconds and just, like, smile at each other?
TOBIN: Sure, let’s do that. [A LONG MOMENT] It’s weird. It’s very weird.
KATHY: Yeah. Maybe we should start the show.
[NANCY THEME PLAYS]
VOX 1: From WNYC Studios, you’re listening to Nancy.
VOX 2: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu!
[THEME ENDS, WHISTLE]
KATHY: Alright. To kick things off, let's bring in our lovely producer, Parker!
TOBIN: Hey Parker!
KATHY: Hey Parker!
PARKER: Hey, gays!
TOBIN: So, Parker, you have been telling me and Kathy about this movie for, like, as long as we’ve known you. For the longest time.
PARKER: Green Book. [ALL LAUGH]
TOBIN: Not Green Book.
PARKER: [ALMOST INCREDULOUS] Shakedown?!
TOBIN: [STILL LAUGHING] Yes, Shakedown!
KATHY: What is Shakedown? Tell us more!
PARKER: So, Shakedown is this experimental documentary about a Black lesbian strip club in Los Angeles that I first came across a couple years ago at an art gallery in Harlem, when a friend and I were trying not to get stuck in the rain. And so we ran into this gallery and we went up a flight of stairs and in this dark room [A PAUSE] was the documentary playing on a continuous loop. And we immediately were entranced.
RONNIE (IN TAPE): Listen up! If y'all standing in the front and you ain't got no money, please go back there. All y'all right here, I need money. If y'all don't have — [FRIENDLY] hey! — then y'all need to move back, boo.
PARKER: And it was just fascinating, because it was, like, these ladies doing some fairly unsanitary things with money. [KATHY CHUCKLES]
[MUSIC ENTERS: A CLUB BEAT WITH THE WORDS “MONEY” ECHOED]
PARKER: Uh, I mean, you think you know, but you don’t know. [TOBIN AND KATHY LAUGH] Anyway, Shakedown, the club night, started in 1996. And it happened every Friday for eight years, where Black lesbian women would dance and strip for other predominantly Black lesbian women. And it was amazing.
PARKER: And, side note: the documentary itself has had this kind of radical trajectory. It started out in the art world, then it just became the first non-adult film to be officially released on PornHub —
PARKER: — and now it's streaming on The Criterion Channel, which is pretty cool!
TOBIN: Just a classic Hollywood success story!
KATHY: [LAUGHS, THEN] Well, you’re going to tell us about how Shakedown sort of came to be, and what happened to it, right?
KATHY: And so, please, Parker, take it away!
PARKER: Okay, so!
[MUSIC ENTERS AGAIN, WITH A 90s FEEL]
PARKER: The filmmaker who made Shakedown is named Leilah Weinraub.
LEILAH: I guess I was introduced to Shakedown in a very magical, easy way, where somebody handed me a flyer. On one side there was a girl in a cap and gown, like from UCLA, and then on the back it was, like, dancers in thongs, but just, like, a row of butts. I had never seen anything like that before. And then I went.
PARKER: Shakedown was different from other LA lesbian clubs nights at the time. It was much raunchier and served a more hip-hop aesthetic. It was a space that loved everyone that walked in its doors: Black lesbian, bi, and trans people. From the first night, Leilah knew she wanted to document it.
LEILAH: I loved it there. It was younger, darker, faster. It was more sexual. The shows were more, like — you could do whatever you wanted. You could also, like, be whoever you wanted.
PARKER: Shakedown was in the tradition of Black lesbian show nights.
LEILAH: This culture was quite popular in the South, you know, like, in Houston and Atlanta. And, like, Shakedown and, like, the Southern clubs were, like, really about, like, high femme, female persona.
[MUSIC CHANGES PACE]
PARKER: And there was nothing like that in LA at the time — until a young woman was offered a chance to build her dream.
RONNIE: My name is Sharon — Sharon Harris — and I go by Ronnie D. Ron. I am the CEO — the creator of Shakedown Productions, Shakedown Entertainment Exclusive.
PARKER: Ronnie was pretty new to the whole gay club scene, when one night, at the other Black gay club in town called Jewel’s Catch One, she entered a pageant called “Mr. Catch One,” where butch performers competed in their best suits, and Ronnie got to lip-sync the ‘90s R&B song, “Where Do You Want Me To Put It”.
RONNIE: And I won.
PARKER: Did you get, like, a sash?
RONNIE: They give you a sash. They give you a trophy. They give you a crown. Your responsibilities after that is, they give you a show to host. You know, I was used to public speaking, because as a Jehovah's Witness I — you know — walked to people's doorsteps then talked to them about the Bible. So, when she said I had to host a show, I was like, “Okay.” And they said a strip show. I said, “Great!”
[SLOW-BUILDING MUSIC PLAYS]
PARKER: For the next six months, Ronnie emceed a strip show at the Catch.
Then, one night, an owner of another club was in the audience. He saw that Ronnie had the personality to draw crowds, and offered her her very own recurring night at his club, Club Horizon. She could choose the music, the lights, the dancers. It was all hers. So from then on, every Friday night, Club Horizon was Ronnie D. Ron's Shakedown.
PARKER: So, like, I’m a girl coming to the club. What would I see?
RONNIE: She's gonna say, "Dang, this is definitely in the hood." That's the first thing you're gonna say when you drive up. Let me roll my windows up, let me lock my car, let me turn on my alarm. And you see the line outside, so obviously, it must be cracking. So you stand in the line, you see all walks of life. You see a little bit of everybody, you know. Mostly African-American, but big, small, stud, femmes. Soon as you hit that door, there was the music.
[LABYRINTH MUSIC PLAYS]
PARKER: It was a dark labyrinth of people and food and booze and the whiff of weed from the back. The crowds could just be.
RONNIE: And that was another thing about Shakedown. Man, we had some DJs. And that music would be loud, because, again, we had it our way. It was loud, and to the right was the bar. And, you know, Pops had those $5 drinks back then. You know, you got everybody on the dance floor, and there you go with the DJ spinning, and I'm on the mic.
RONNIE: [ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] Y'all better not do nothing but crack up in here! C'mon! [CHEERS] Ooh, baby! Tricks out the closet.
LEILAH: There was, like, all different kind of girls that danced there. There was other clubs in West Hollywood, and you had to have, kind of like, a more, like, skinny, West Hollywood, light-skinned kind of look. And Shakedown wasn't like that at all. I mean, they were ahead of the time.
PARKER: Who would be, like, the main ones that performed?
RONNIE: Idllys, Slow Wine, Mocha … Oh man, then they — they start coming, the list goes on, and you've got the Poison, Egypt — Egypt was like a madam, you know? She was — she was — she was there from jump.
LEILAH: Egypt is a bad bitch.
EGYPT: My name is Egypt, and I'm from Los Angeles, California. Somebody told me about a place called Shakedown. And I'm like, “Shakedown?” They was like, “Yeah, but girl, it's dirty in there, and it's hood. And it's in the ghetto.” And all of this kind of stuff, and they forgot I'm from the ghetto. [LAUGHS] So I'm like, “Let's go!” And they like, "All the fine girls be there.”
RONNIE: [ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] There go Egypt right there. Go look at Egypt! [SCREAMS, THE CROWD CHEERS, THEN FADES UNDER]
LEILAH: In the space of Shakedown, Egypt is in charge. You consent to her space, and she also teaches you, like, how she would like to be treated in that space:
EGYPT: It was always me building — building the tension, you know, and bringing the tease to the audience before I really went there. People say, "Egypt, why you do that?" I'm like, "You know why? Because I'm not gonna move until I've felt you — you took me in.”
AUDIENCE: [ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] Woo! [WHISTLES]
EGYPT: Girl — girl, they pussy be hot. They be hard. They be, like, screaming. Girl, I done had panties thrown at me! I thought I was New Edition.
PARKER: Egypt’s been a dancer her whole life. She started out as a church praise dancer, was a pageant queen, a Raiderette, and for 13 years was a dancer at Disneyland.
EGYPT: When I was at Disneyland, I was introduced to a lot of the whiter strip clubs by some of the gay boys that hung out, because they were already doing the drag shows.
PARKER: Egypt would go with these friends to gay clubs, and began to frequent them more and more.
EGYPT: And, girl, I started to watch boys dancing on boys, right? [LAUGHS] Which I was used to, because I used to hang out with my friends at Disneyland. But I'd never seen a lot of girl-on-girls. And a girl came up to me and asked me to dance, and I remember running back to the back like, "Oh no. I'm strictly dickly.”
PARKER: But it turns out, “strictly” was a strong word.
EGYPT: It was a big night where a big fight broke out, and they used to fight a lot at that club. And, um, I ended up jumping in, ‘cuz it was my friend who was fighting, and it was some girls, and it was a whole lot going on. And what’s crazy is, one of the girls I end up fighting, is the girl I end up dating.
PARKER: So Egypt got a girlfriend. But that wasn’t the only thing that changed for her. At a lesbian night at the club, one of the dancers didn’t show up, so she gets asked —
EGYPT: “You wanna dance?" I was like, “Yeah!" Girl, she gave me that costume and it was on an’ cracking. It was just me and her dancin’, like, strip-twerking and all that kind of stuff, you know, for money. And, um, she was the one who taught me how to do, like, all these tricks, like, pullin’ beads out from between my legs and — can I be nasty on here, or do I got — is this a fam—?
PARKER: Sure! Go ahead. You don't have to censor yourself. This is — you’re fine.
EGYPT: Okay. So, you know, teaching me how to stuff pearls in my pussy and pull them out the hole. You know, and she'll pull them out wit’ her mouth. And it was just a whole lot of stuff like that.
PARKER: In the clubs, Egypt became known for her hard, fast, crunk-style dancing, as one of the best dancers around. So, of course, she ends up at Shakedown.
[DREAMY MUSIC PLAYS LIGHTLY]
EGYPT: When I got into Shakedown, I knew who I was. I was comfortable with being a lesbian. We could be free there. We didn't have to worry about explaining our lifestyles to nobody. We didn't have to worry about being afraid that someone was gonna attack us, because this was our scene.
PARKER: When did you realize that Shakedown was becoming a presence and that it was, like — it was getting popular?
RONNIE: After the first night. Yup. After — ‘cuz we counted — 75 people was the very first night. Before you know it, that second night, we had 300 people.
[A CLIP FROM SHAKEDOWN PLAYS, WITH THE SONG “GET MORE”]
PARKER: Everybody came out to Shakedown. Folks from the neighborhood, baby gays who bribed their way past the bouncer with a couple of bucks, the occasional celebrity. And each Friday night was a different theme. Gangsters, Angels, The Matrix.
LEILAH: My favorite — it's called "Pride Prom." And on the flyer it says, like, "If you missed yours, don't miss this one. Don't be late and please don't hate." And it was just, like, so sweet — such a sweet idea, and so tender, and just knowing that, like, there were a lot of people who could not go to their prom. It was kinda just, like, a healing space where you could, like, redo a memory from high school.
PARKER: Shakedown ran every Friday for eight years. The ladies were living their best lives. It was a Black lesbian utopia. But as Shakedown got more successful, there were some issues.
A VOICE: [ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN, OVER FIGHTING] That is fucked up! That is fucked up!
KATHY: That’s after the break.
KATHY: And we're back!
TOBIN: So, Parker, you've been telling us about this lesbian Black strip club utopia, Shakedown. Um, but you also hinted that, at a certain point, there started to be issues. Uh, what’s going on? What are the issues?
PARKER: Well, the bigger Shakedown got, the more stuff Ronnie and her business partner Theresa had to deal with.
RONNIE: It was a fight every week. I was breaking them up, security was breaking them up. Sometimes Theresa would have to shut the front door to break it up. You know, it was going down, but after the fight, we'd go right back into our scene, partying. Oh yeah!
PARKER: Were you ever scared?
RONNIE: Never. Because regardless to whatever, I always knew we had the armor of God over us, even though we were partying.
EGYPT: They talked about “It was ghetto,” and “It was dirty,” and “It was this,” and you know what? It was. But it was our ghetto.
RONNIE: [ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] Show some love for the queen out there. It don't cost, it don't cost, it don't cost to clap!
PARKER: Were there any problems that you didn't anticipate while you were building Shakedown?
RONNIE: A lot. Because, I mean, if you can imagine, I'm in my late 20s, early 30s, and I just got introduced to this gay scene. I'm head over heels excited — not thinking about the business aspect of it. So, you know, I'm bumping into, like, problems like, “Uh oh, I'm forgetting that — what about taxes? What about — I've gotta protect my name. Somebody might —“ I didn't think about none of that until maybe five or six years into it, you know?
PARKER: [IN DISBELIEF] Five or six years?!
RONNIE: Yeah, you know, I'm not thinking about none of that.
RONNIE: [ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN, IN TIME WITH MUSIC IN THE BACKGROUND] All the ladies, I'm telling you be ready. ‘Cuz these motherfuckas got money out here. Money, baby. Money, money, money, money. Stop playing.
LEILAH: There was a moment in there where everything's happening and alive. When there's a complete system that was working. And that was definitely disrupted.
PARKER: How could you tell it was the beginning of the end for Shakedown?
RONNIE: I knew when the police kept coming and, you know, they were bothering us about the capacity and the dancers.
RONNIE: [ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] Our next performer, coming to the stage right now, right now, right now. Let’s get those props up! I'm waiting on ya! This is the wild side of Shakedown. She's special guest-performing … [FADE UNDER]
PARKER: The real problem Shakedown faced was the cops.
RONNIE: [ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] Remember, we're sponsored by none other than the LAPD in this bitch, so watch yourself.
PARKER: Shakedown wasn’t actually sponsored by the LAPD. But, since the beginning, they were always kind of around. But a few years into Shakedown they started giving out fines under the guise of the place being overcrowded, or underage teens sneaking in. They even arrested some of the dancers for solicitation, because the raunchiness in front of all that cash could be interpreted as a lewd act.
RONNIE: The crowd was not having it.
[ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN, JEERING FROM THE CROWD]
LEILAH: [ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] That is not okay. [A LONG PAUSE] You needed to wait. That is fucked up. That is fucked up!
RONNIE: [ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] Calm down. Calm down.
PARKER: There's a moment in tape when a dancer's being arrested, and there's someone yelling at the police, saying, like, "That's fucked up." Is that you?
PARKER: What was happening in that moment?
LEILAH: Um … [A LONG PAUSE] I had to remember to turn the camera back on and just keep rolling, you know. Jasmine was someone I was, like, interviewing already. And I was like, she's amazing, beautiful, wonderful, special person. [EMOTION SHOWING THROUGH IN LEILAH’S VOICE] And to see her handcuffed, topless — it was insane.
RONNIE: [ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] Now, what’s going on? The girls were clean up in here.
We do apologize. The problem is — we do apologize. The problem is the cops in here, and they're doing whatever they're doing. So we all have to show IDs. Thank you.
EGYPT: Well, the beginning of the end for me was when I was arrested. We were doing the Carribean Nights and I was doing the Belizan representation.
RONNIE: [ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] Right now, representing Belize, representing Belize, representing Belize. [FADE UNDER]
EGYPT: Now in the documentary, you didn't see — you saw Jasmine get arrested. If you notice, if you watch, I looked, and I had my panties down and I was on top of somebody. And I looked to the right, and I pulled them up. And if you notice, I was about to walk, and I did a U-turn and I went to the back. And you see the police follow me.
I was scared. Now, mind you, I'd been arrested before. But not for prostitution. [LAUGHS] And why — why the police was actually there was because there was someone there who parent didn't agree with them being gay and they were young and they were sneakin’ to the club, and somebody told on them, and the parent was callin’ on her child. Because the police always hung out in there, you know? The police always came to the club out of their uniforms. So it's not like they didn't know. And even when those times we got arrested, they watched the whole damn show.
[A MOMENT OF SILENCE]
LEILAH: So, like, when the police came, like, I was like, “Oh, I feel like everybody's gonna protest now and the neighborhood's gonna get involved.” And, like, people from San Francisco are gonna come and be like, “Not this club!” Like, “We're protecting it.” And, like, “Stay away from our space." I just, like, was — had the narrative from a liberal arts college that that's what was suppose to happen next. But in reality, it’s like, you want to get away from the police. We just need to pack up and get the fuck out of here before something even worse happens. Before a more violent situation with the police happens.
EGYPT: Right then is where I got nervous, ‘cuz I have children. And, honestly — and I tell this to Ronnie all the time so she won't think nothing of it — I just felt I wasn't protected. ‘Cuz I was like, “You know what? You guys are gonna keep on going with this — wit’ the show at all costs. And my life can't be at your cost.” It was my time. Time was up. And I wou— I wouldn’t have left — I wouldn't have left if that hadn’t happened.
PARKER: Here’s a scene from the film. It’s 2004. Ronnie and Leilah are talking on the phone.
RONNIE: [ON THE PHONE, ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] This will be our last Friday.
LEILAH: [ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] The last Friday ever at the Horizon?
RONNIE: [ON THE PHONE, ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] Yeah.
LEILAH: [ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] Did the police — like, they’re through? They shut it down? It's over?
RONNIE: [ON THE PHONE, ON TAPE FROM SHAKEDOWN] No. It's just best for us to move on. ‘Cuz there's gonna be no peace in that place. But we're gonna go higher. We're gonna take it to another level.
[QUIET MUSIC PLAYS]
PARKER: What was that last night for you at Club Horizon?
RONNIE: You know, I was sad but I had to really put on the CEO face and say, "We just gotta keep going." Inside, I was hurt.
LEILAH: It’s, like, how you deal with grief. All the things, like, “It's really happening. This is really the end.” I think there was a general denial.
RONNIE: It was a sad night because we were there so long, and we were just family. You know, me and Theresa had decided, “No, we’re — we’re — we’re gonna keep going. We're gonna keep looking for buildings, because we have our crowd. This is not the end. It's the end of the Horizon for Shakedown, but this is not the end of Shakedown.”
[A MOMENT OF MUSIC]
PARKER: Ronnie still hosts show nights every few months in different spaces around Los Angeles.
LEILAH: Shakedown will probably always go on. It's Ronnie's project. Like, it never has to end. But the intimacy that was created there isn't anymore. It only happened in that time.
[MUSIC SLOWLY FADES OUT]
PARKER: Shakedown and Club Horizon has been closed for almost 16 years now. These days, Egypt is a social worker advocating for people with HIV/AIDS and oversees shelters for people experiencing homelessness on Skid Row in LA. She's also an in-demand burlesque dancer, traveling around the world.
EGYPT: I have had teenage girls tell me that their mothers, um — [LAUGHS] were fans of mine and used to come to the club to see me perform. I have had young ladies come to me and tell me that they have posters of me and literally got in trouble for stealing their mother's posters and putting it under their beds. And, you know, and when they got old enough, they came looking for me, and here I is. No — here I am. [LAUGHS]
I have my babies. I have my two kids, um, I have an adopted daughter and I have a stepdaughter. And my oldest daughter have her kids, which I'm still trying to get used saying I'm a yaya now. [LAUGHS]
I can't do the grandma and g’ma, no. That — that’s not sitting with me, ‘cuz I'm still in the world, acting a fool. So “yaya” fits.
PARKER: What would you like Shakedown's legacy to be?
[SLOW, MOVING MUSIC PLAYS]
EGYPT: Shakedown was a home for a lot of us lesbian women who didn't really have a home in that lifestyle. You know, it groomed us to be the women that we are today.
[A BEAT FOR MUSIC]
LEILAH: People watch the film and they're like, "I want to go there." It’s like, “You have to make that, actually.” It's each generation's job to figure out their utopia and their fantasy and make it.
RONNIE: I want it to be that we were known. We were known.
[MUSIC PLAYS FOR A LONG MOMENT, THEN QUIETS DOWN]
TOBIN: Alright, that’s our show!
KATHY: If you’re interested in seeing the documentary about Shakedown, go to shakedown.film. Special thanks this week to Tracie Hunte. Now, credits.
TOBIN: Producers —
KATHY: Zakiya Gibbons and B.A. Parker.
TOBIN: Sound designer —
KATHY: Jeremy Bloom.
TOBIN: Editor —
KATHY: Sarah Geis.
TOBIN: Executive producer —
KATHY: Suzie Lechtenberg.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[MUSIC PLAYS OUT FOR A LONG WHILE. THEN, SILENCE]
TOBIN: I have a hunch that everything will end up on Pornhub one day. Like, that is how we will watch everything.
PARKER: I mean, that’s how I watched Hamilton.