Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. The Wright Brothers invented the airplane. And Joe Redner invented the nude lap dance.
At least that’s how he’s credited in Tampa, the site of Redner’s Mons Venus strip club on a tacky stretch of Dale Mabry Highway and, funnily enough, the site of this week’s Republican National Convention—a celebration of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and the party of family values.
“It just kinda happened,” the 72-year-old Redner tells me, recalling the moment more than 30 years ago when the G-stringless lap dance came into being. “The dancers started getting closer and closer to the customers, and I stopped it just at the point where it was approaching the legal definition of prostitution. I considered the ‘lewd and lascivious’ statutes, and I thought, ‘I can defend this.’”
Since that epiphany, Redner has pursued his argument for intimate naked boogying by spending thousands of dollars in legal fees for court appearances arising from police raids, and hitting the books in law libraries to review judicial rulings and other precedent-setting cases. He points out that a municipal statute requiring six feet of separation between dancer and customer (passed a decade ago by city council member Bob Buckhorn, Tampa’s current mayor) is observed in the breach.
“It’s on the books, but as a practical matter, they can’t enforce it,” Redner says. “It takes too much manpower and the county courts are swamped” with serious, often violent, crimes. “I’m a freedom type of guy. I think people should do whatever they want as long as they don’t hurt anyone or intrude on anybody else.”
Yet he strictly observes the statute declaring that if nude lap dances are on the menu, alcoholic beverages cannot be—possibly making Mons Venus Mormon-friendly, yet another reason for Redner to expect a 60 percent increase over his normal receipts during convention week, amounting to $100,000 in cover charges and soft drinks.
“It might be more than that,” Redner says, holding court in a dark upholstered corner of Mons Venus while 15 feet away a nude dancer named Monica ministers to a grabby, silver-haired patron (suggested tip: $30). “I don’t want to get too excited, because then I’m disappointed. I know the delegates and candidates have been warned not to come.”
He’s quick to point out that “they’re not the only people” who’ll show up at Mons Venus. “There’ll be a lot of media. There’ll be a lot of people looking to take advantage of people—people with money. I find most Republicans to be suckers themselves.” He adds that “in Washington, D.C.,”—whence many of the conventioneers hail—“there’s more bondage leather sold than anywhere else in the county per capita. I read that somewhere. Check it out.”
“The only thing they can’t do is they can’t touch between the legs. That’s ‘penetration’ or ‘titillation.’”
The voluble Redner—a slightly built man in sandals, creased shorts, and a camouflage cap—stops talking long enough to observe Monica’s gyrations. “She’s going about as far as she can go,” he announces approvingly. “Touching is permitted if it’s OK with the girl. It’s not my business,” says Redner, who boasts substantial real-estate holdings, notably a commercial building he leases to the Internal Revenue Service, and has persistently run for seats on the Tampa City Council and Hillsborough County Commission.
“It’s up to the dancer to set the rules,” Redner elaborates. “But the only thing they can’t do is they can’t touch between the legs. That’s ‘penetration’ or ‘titillation.’ I know that from being arrested, reading the statutes, and reading the case law, knowing that a criminal law has to be strictly construed.”
An autodidact who dropped out of high school and became wealthy from hard work, intelligence, and imagination—in other words, Mitt Romney’s kind of guy—Redner can quote at length from Supreme Court majority opinions affecting his business interests, and is seldom reluctant to offer a disquisition on the nuances of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. He attributes the failure, so far, of his political ambitions to the fact that “I’m an atheist…And this is the Bible Belt.”
He’s a fan of the late Christopher Hitchens—a circumstance that no doubt would have delighted the author of god Is Not Great. “I have three of his books in my bathroom,” Redner says. “Some of his books are easy reads. But Arguably [Hitchens’s final collection of essays] is a tough read for me.”
Redner has lived in Tampa since he was 9 years old. He arrived from Hackensack, N.J., after his parents divorced and his mother brought him and his older brother to the Sunshine State. She toiled as a waitress to support the boys, and later became a licensed practical nurse. Redner doesn’t remember his father, who “wasn’t involved at all,” he says.
After dropping out of ninth grade, young Joe went to work—in an upholstery shop, then a tile store, and then for the Continental Can Co. where for nearly five years he was a union shop steward. He ran circles around management, exploiting every advantage in due-process hearings whenever a worker was in danger of being dismissed. “The company got mad at me,” he recalls with a grin.
After that, he worked as a carpenter, and was a regular in a Tampa lounge that offered live music three nights a week. The owner took a liking to him and hired him to work the door collecting cover charges. “He thought I was honest—which I was,” Redner says. “I always gave him a good count, and he knew it.”
The owner also ran what was then known, in the early 1970s, as a “go-go club,” and before long Redner was giving advice on how to increase the number of customers—namely, present a greater variety and higher quality of dancers “to create some excitement.” Redner was offered the job of manager, and business boomed.
He also, by his own account, indulged his appetite for la vida loca, smoking marijuana on a daily basis and getting a frequent kick from cocaine. And then, of course, there were plenty of women.
“I’ve been married several times,” Redner says, vaguely, “and I have a child by a woman that I wasn’t married to. I think by two different women I wasn’t married to, and two women I was married to. I have five children.”
He quit smoking weed years ago, gave up drinking, and today lives a fairly abstemious life. More recently he has been coping with treatments for lung cancer, from which he has, luckily, been in remission. A registered independent with libertarian leanings, Redner has obviously enjoyed the soap box as a public figure and perennial candidate.
“I almost won a couple of times,” he says. “I may run again.”
Not surprisingly, Redner has little use for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee—whom he repeatedly insults as “a liar and a thief”—and is hardly more complimentary of GOP officer-holders in Florida. “Marco Rubio is a con artist,” he claims, referring to Florida’s highly touted junior senator. “He’s helping to dismantle our conservation laws, doing favors for energy companies in return for campaign donations. Just whatever it takes to get elected—never mind what the people really want.”
He voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and plans to do so again. “Yes, I will. Absolutely. I give him my money,” Redner says, arguing that the president doesn’t get enough credit for his accomplishments.
Meanwhile, he has no wish to live anywhere but Tampa, the city where he’s lived the American Dream. “My identity is here,” Redner says. “I don’t have any identity anyplace else.”