It’s a Wednesday morning, and Troy Lowrie looks like your average wealthy suburban Denver father who’s about to take his little girl to school before heading into the office. Waiting for his 8-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, to gather her things, he puts his briefcase and suit jacket in the pristine trunk of his Mercedes and putters about the granite-topped counters of his gilded kitchen. At 40 years old, Lowrie is of average height, with more hair than many men his age. He wears a fitted dress shirt that’s snug on his solid build, along with a tie, grey suit pants, and shiny dress shoes. Normally, Lowrie drives his daughter and son, Houston, 9, to school, and before leaving he spends these few minutes talking with his wife. But Pam was up all night nursing Houston through a bout of the flu, and they’re both in bed.
Gabrielle announces she’s ready, and the two head to the Benz. In the garage, they pass the family’s fleet of cars: a Jaguar (with plates that read PAMS JAG), a few motorcycles, and a custom pink Hummer. In the corner there’s the 1934 Ford three-window coupe that Lowrie restored with his late father, Hal, the patriarch of the family business, VCG Holding Corp. Gabrielle tosses her backpack onto the car seat and hops in. The 10-minute drive to school takes them past horses grazing in the meadows of the Lowries’ posh subdivision nuzzled against the foothills. “Don’t forget it’s our turn to drive to jazz class today,” he reminds Gabrielle as they pull up to her elementary school. “I’ll be here at 3.” Curbside, Lowrie exchanges “I love yous” with his little girl, and he watches the enormous backpack bounce on her back as she scurries into the school. Then it’s a 10-minute drive to the Lakewood office of his VCG headquarters.
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By 8:15 a.m., Lowrie walks by the bronze bust of his father and enters the corner office. As he does every day, the first thing he does is call VCG’s president, Mike Ocello, in St. Louis to check on last night’s numbers. It was Fat Tuesday—that night when every city seems to have a Bourbon Street—and a very profitable night for VCG, a company founded on booze and boobs. The Lowrie family business is a national chain of 13 strip clubs, with five of them in Denver: three PT’s Showclubs, The Penthouse Club, and the local crown jewel in Lowrie’s burgeoning dynasty, the Diamond Cabaret and Steakhouse, which he picked up last year for $6 million. With the phone cradled to his ear, surrounded by pictures of Pam and the kids, Lowrie nods and smiles. He knows that nights like last night are providing the capital to fund his corporate strategy, one that could make him the Walt Disney of porn—which would make Denver his Magic Kingdom.
Family Values Second-generation strip-club owner Troy Lowrie at home with his wife, Pam, and their children, Houston and Gabrielle. The Denver society columns first took note of the Lowries last year after their $100,000 donation to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
The midday Colorado sun is squint-inducing as Lowrie tosses his keys to the Diamond Cabaret valet. Walking into the dark bar from the sunshine, it takes a minute for the eyes-and perhaps expectations-to adjust. Blinking to clarity, standards conform as quickly as pupils. Identities are difficult to discern; a man is just a guy, a woman is just a stripper.
Every city has its premier gentlemen’s club, and the Diamond is Denver’s. The formidable brick building sits stoically upon prime downtown real estate. With a sturdy exterior of brick and concrete, it stands, fittingly enough, like a vaulted bank, filled with money and naughty secrets. What happens in the club, patrons trust, will stay in the club. Pay your cover charge and the doors open to velvet curtains, cushy armchairs, and beautiful women. Adhering to the “gentlemen” part of gentlemen’s club, there are no poles in the Diamond. There are, however, $20 glasses of wine and prime porterhouse steaks. Waiters occasionally drop the names of prominent guests: assorted Broncos, local high-profile businessmen, and even visiting celebs like Jon Bon Jovi and Sting, who both recently enjoyed post-concert meals in the Diamond’s steak house. The A-list clientele undoubtedly appreciates the opportunities the darkness affords: the ability to anonymously enjoy what Lowrie refers to as the “entertainment.”
Seven nights a week, women stand atop big, round tables, slowly undulating to bass-thumping songs, sporting porn-star heels, tiny thongs, and perfect pedicures. Put some clothes on them and they’d pass for the ladies who lunch in Cherry Creek North-except for those brutal Lucite stilettos. Of course, the strippers don’t actually dance: They bend. Backward, forward, squatting and splitting. The lighting system is carefully engineered; it washes over the women, flattering their assets. Inside the Diamond, everything and everyone looks good. Inevitably, the strippers drop to their knees and snap their G-strings for dollar bills. Anywhere else, it would look like a subservient pose, but here it’s the move that commands the currency. The money comes and is quickly tossed to the center of the table, and when the song ends the bills, some cool and crisp, some sweaty and crinkled, are crammed into tiny purses.
This afternoon, Lowrie waits in the buffet line and takes inventory of the scenery. Among the socioeconomically diverse patrons, clad in business attire ranging from suits to Carhartts, he’s wearing the same business suit he wore when he dropped his little girl off at school. It’s his personal policy: If he’s on the floor of his clubs, he’s in a suit. Today, along with what will be a usual buffet of strippers, the Diamond has laid out a Mexican spread. All you can eat for $4.99. The buffet table isn’t a big earner, but a wise investment nonetheless, providing customers with an ostensibly respectable cover to hit the Diamond on a lunch break. It’s an incentive that lures men to the club during a normally slow time of day. Now there’s only a single entertainer dancing. She’s on a table top, performing for a man seated alone. He stands up, and the topless dancer presses her hands on his shoulders, drapes her long, blonde hair over his face, and slowly starts to groove. “These guys could go to any bar in LoDo,” Lowrie says. “But they come here because they know they won’t be rejected.” It’s this philosophy that is the financial foundation of VCG Holding Corp. and the cornerstone of what is becoming Lowrie’s Denver-based empire of skin.
When Lowrie bought the Diamond almost a year ago, some locals, like those boys who talk business at the Palm and later retire to the Diamond to close the deal, undoubtedly viewed the buy as the top prize in the local girlie biz. But they underestimated Lowrie’s master plan. Acquiring Denver’s most famous strip club is merely another step Lowrie has taken in an effort to bolster his larger strategy. Lowrie visualizes that his chain of strip clubs, which already dot the country’s midsection, will connect him to America’s $10 billion porn industry. Everything he needs is all right here in the Front Range. From the Diamond Cabaret’s front door, pick a direction, north or south, drive 45 minutes, and you’ll run into Colorado companies already cashing in on sex. Just south on I-25, in the Tech Center, you’ll find the offices of On Command, which distributes movies-adult and otherwise-to nearly a million hotel rooms worldwide. Also in the south suburbs are the offices of satellite provider EchoStar’s Dish Network and cable’s Adelphia Communications, two content providers that list porn on their channel guides. Drive northwest from the Diamond up to Boulder, and you’ll find New Frontier Media, which distributes porn flicks to other cable TV and direct-broadcast outlets, which in turn deliver porn to more than 63 million subscribers. Fiscal-year 2005 was New Frontier’s most profitable to date, with reported earnings of $11.1 million. The cable and satellite providers won’t break down the numbers, but porn must bring in big money-it has to, otherwise companies like these wouldn’t dirty their hands with it. And although Los Angeles is where the vast majority of porn movies are made, to hear Lowrie talk you get the sense Colorado-the big red Focus-on-the-Family state-could become the nexus of big-money porn-distribution deals. “This company is my father’s legacy,” says Lowrie. “I took it to the next level. In 20 years I hope to take it two or three levels higher, and I’ll be proud to give it to my own son. I wish my dad could’ve seen what his business is today.”
In the name of the father Every day, Troy Lowrie passes the bronze bust of his father, Hal, in the VCG offices. His plan: To take his father’s small chain of topless bars and create a 21st-century skin dynasty-while avoiding the fate that befell Hal.
“Aren’t you Troy?” a dancer asks him. “I really like the redecorating you’ve done here.” (After buying the Diamond, Lowrie invested another million into an ongoing renovation, including the new nontopless, self-described “ultra dance lounge,” Tabu, upstairs.) He thanks the stripper and mentions plans to spruce up the VIP room next. She points to the Diamond’s main floor, where most of the entertainment occurs. “There’s only one thing,” she says. “Are you going to put railings on the tables out there? The tables are great, but it’s pretty hard for us to walk the steps in these shoes,” she says pointing to her own four-inch heels. “Yes, yes, the railings have already been ordered,” he says. The dancer thanks him and leaves, clearly pleased with the response. Happy strippers are good for business, and railings are a small investment in happy strippers. Lowrie knows his master plan rests on those legs. But as with any business decision Lowrie makes, his motivation is more complex than profit margins. The careful attention he gives his entertainers is also something of a duty, a family-imposed obligation. For in every club Lowrie sees a chance to gild his father’s legacy, and in every stripper he sees a bit of a mother he barely knew.
Attempted murder has a way of changing a family. For Lowrie it happened when he was 15 years old. One evening, after football practice, he was changing clothes in his bedroom before dinner when he heard gunshots. He took off to his parents’ bedroom, and there on the floor lay his adoptive father, Hal, in a pool of blood; his adoptive mother, Lu, stood above him, a pistol in her hand. Lowrie tackled his mom and wrestled away the gun; he quickly emptied the chamber and hid the weapon in the bathroom. He smacked the button that activated the home alarm system and tore back to the bedroom. He had one thought: Was his dad still alive? Yes, he could see that Hal was still breathing and that his mother once again hovered above him. The gun was gone, but what would she do next? He carried his mother kicking and screaming outside, came back inside, and locked the door.
Hal was conscious despite receiving three shots: one each into his arm, hand, and rib cage. Blood was everywhere. Hal directed his son to remove his belt and use it as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Lowrie followed the directions and stabilized his father. When the cops and emergency medical techs finally busted in, he was covered in Hal’s blood. The EMTs went directly to Hal while the police handcuffed Lowrie. It wasn’t me, he insisted. But no one listened. Lu had gotten to the cops first, and she blamed the shooting on her son. From the backseat of the police car, Lowrie watched the ambulance speed his father to the hospital, terrified he’d seen his dad for the last time.
Not surprisingly, that night changed everything for Lowrie. Hal survived and his wife was sent away for psychiatric treatment; whatever conventional father-son relationship there was between Lowrie and his dad was over. The son had saved his father’s life; now they were blood brothers. Equals. And with Lu gone, the Lowrie men could do whatever they pleased-and they did.
Hal was a backslapping good ol’ boy who ran bars in early ’70s Colorado. He was a born salesman whose charm more than compensated for his limited education. Lowrie followed his dad on the job, quietly watching as Hal commanded center stage. Lowrie always knew he’d take over his father’s business. At 5 years old, he’d sit by the register and count the money. By kindergarten, he says, he knew what an MBA was and that he wanted one. Back then, Hal’s joints were just regular drinking holes-until one night when a bartender at the Aloha Beach Club on Federal Boulevard took off her top and brought in the bar’s best take ever. Hal saw the easy money. Zoning laws were undefined, and Hal put up strip clubs wherever he could. First in metro Denver and ultimately in St. Louis. He became a club fixture. His philosophy: Create the best party in town every single night. He’d see to it himself, grabbing the microphone to get the party started. And after last call he’d often keep his friends around and keep the good times going. The business was built on his charms, which held appeal for both sexes. Of course, Hal had always been a ladies’ man. He’d left Lu for another woman, which is why she’d unloaded the pistol on him. After the shooting, after the divorce, the partying only intensified.
And Lowrie now spent plenty of nights by his father’s side at the bars. Sometimes, after enough cocktails, Lowrie would again take care of Hal. “There were times where it was like I was the dad, carrying him home after a late night,” says Lowrie. Finally, when Lowrie was 22, he took an official role in the family business. That kindergartner who’d once sat next to the cash register had brought home his MBA from the University of Denver, and Hal arranged for him to manage Glendale’s Shotgun Willie’s, then a Lowrie property.
Lowrie was instantly anointed as Hal’s right-hand man. Immersing himself in the family business, he managed the club by night and accompanied Hal to meetings by day. Lowrie even bought the house next door to his dad, and the men took out the fence to create one big backyard. Father and son ate dinner together every night. By now the differences in their personalities were apparent. Hal could sit at the bar and drink with his customers all night; Lowrie could eyeball the bottle and tally lost profits. Still, during this time a little of Hal rubbed off on his son. Lowrie had some minor scuffles with the law, including a fight outside a Taco Bell when he was 18. Inside the clubs he sampled the inventory. He even married a stripper. It was a short-lived marriage that lasted a year, and all Lowrie will say about it now is that it was a confusing, messy time for him.
After the divorce, he left his father’s side, taking a temporary break from Denver and managing the San Antonio PT’s for about six months. On nights off, he could be found at the local country bar, Denim and Diamonds. It was the kind of place where the ladies wore fringed shirts and low-heeled boots. The men wore Stetsons and addressed their dance partners as ma’am. Lowrie liked these kinds of places. He’d run the Grizzly Rose in Denver for a short time while his dad tried to buy it. (But the county, afraid Hal would turn it into a monster strip club, killed the deal.) Lowrie felt at home in these Urban Cowboy-style Texas bars. One of the waitresses at Denim and Diamonds was, as the cowboys say, a pretty little thing named Pam. Lowrie knew immediately when he met her that she was The One. She was-and still is-a petite beauty with a whip-smart sense of humor. “I knew,” he says, “she was the woman I would raise my kids with.” Pam was a small-town Texas girl. The two talked about how they wanted to raise a family and discussed their values. She knew about the strip bars; she checked out the local PT’s with Lowrie. It didn’t scare her off. When Lowrie ultimately returned to Colorado, they did the long-distance thing for six months before he convinced Pam to drive her pink VW Beetle to Colorado.
Pam wasn’t the only thing Lowrie brought back from Texas. Watching a sea of cowboy hats move in unison across the dance floor got him thinking. Country dancing was huge at the time, dominated by 50,000-square-foot bars that could hold 4,000 people. Lowrie’s brain ran the numbers. “My dad always said, ‘If there was an easier way to make this much money, we’d do it.'” He brought the idea to his dad, and the Lowries decided to try their hand at country music.
Hal provided the seed money, and Lowrie opened up his first country bar, A Little Bit of Texas, in Indianapolis. The money was good, but it was clear that Hal’s strip-club largesse would become a problem for expansion. “Cities get nervous when the Lowries come to town ready to lease 50,000 square feet,” he says. So Hal removed himself from the country business and Lowrie, on his own, took the company public, raising funds for more country bars in St. Louis and Tucson. “Opening country bars is great. Half the city comes to the opening, and the mayor shakes your hand and says, ‘Thank you,'” says Lowrie. “Nobody says thank you when you open a strip club.” Eventually the country fad fizzled and Lowrie sold the clubs. “I would’ve loved to be the King of Country,” he says. Instead he was rightful heir to a strip-club crown. And there was only one way to assume the throne.
As far as Lowrie was now concerned, his wild times were behind him. He’d established his role in the family business as the responsible bean counter and found the woman he’d start his own family with. Then, just as the couple was to be married, Hal was diagnosed with lung cancer. The disease moved through him swiftly, killing him in the spring of 1994. He was 58. Lowrie’s father was dead; his mother, Lu, he barely spoke to; and his only sister, took off for California long ago. The family business that had taken such a toll on Lowrie was now tossed into his lap. Still, he decided that he wouldn’t sell it off. Instead, he set out to run a respectable strip-club enterprise.
Fifteen-year-old Lowrie had used Hal’s belt for a tourniquet and saved his father’s life; now, at 28, he found himself applying a tourniquet to his father’s business. While he was on his deathbed, Hal was indicted by the feds for racketeering, conspiracy to launder money, and enticing people to cross state lines to commit prostitution near his Brooklyn, Illinois, clubs. Lowrie maintained Hal’s innocence, despite a guilty plea from the former police chief-among others-that followed Hal’s death. Shortly thereafter, Lowrie settled with a $2 million fine. Then he went to work.
The employees mourned Hal, but there was also a sense of relief that his legal problems no longer threatened to topple the business. “I never considered selling the business,” recalls Lowrie. “My dad was determined to make this a career where his employees could support their families, and I had to continue that.”
But he could change the way the business operated. Hal ran the business the way he ran his family, concerned more with partying than profits. Lowrie, on the other hand, was determined to manage with discipline and order. He applied basic business practices to the strip clubs, like computerized cash registers and payroll systems. Unburdened by Hal’s need to be everyone’s pal, Lowrie tightened the ranks and the bars flourished. Lowrie kept track of every penny. No more freebies. “Some of my dad’s old friends would say, ‘You know your dad would sit here and drink with me,'” Lowrie says. “I know it disappointed some of them; my dad could sit at the bar all night, but that’s not me. I’m the business guy.”
With the clubs running smoothly, he implemented some innovations of his own. He locally pioneered “nude rooms”-sections of the clubs where alcohol is forbidden and the women are 100 percent naked. The notion was met with resistance-and lawsuits-from city council members, but it proved a moneymaking draw and a lap-dance destination. Lowrie also started buying more clubs. It got him thinking: “There were all these guys with little clubs around the country ready to retire. I could be their exit strategy.”
Slowly and quietly, Lowrie set about building his father’s business into a dynasty, playing by new rules-some of which were his, some of which were imposed. Unlike in Hal’s day, 21st-century cities have become very good at zoning out strip clubs. “You can’t just go throw up a club wherever you want to anymore,” says Dave Manack, associate publisher of Exotic Dancer Publications. “The trend is buying existing clubs or getting them to license your name.” To manage city relations, Lowrie even hired a government-affairs liaison who flies in on a private jet to help placate city councils. Last year, to generate capital for his strip-club shopping, Lowrie took his father’s company public. He used the capital to buy the Diamond Cabaret and build his pride and joy, the Phoenix Penthouse Club. In a shrewd move, Lowrie divides ownership and management of the clubs in St. Louis, Indianapolis, Arizona, and Colorado between the publicly traded VCG and his privately held Lowrie Management. This means he need not disclose his entire fortune to the public. Ultimately, he says, he hopes to bring Lowrie Management under the VCG umbrella. People ask him what the VCG stands for, but it was just a holding company he acquired to take the company public. Lowrie likes to joke that it means “very cute girls.”
Lowrie’s Mile-High City strip-club empire adheres to a clear structure. He gives his clubs report-card rankings, from “A” level gentlemen’s clubs such as the Diamond Cabaret and the Penthouse Club, to “B” clubs like PT’s Showclub on Evans Avenue and PT’s All-Stars, and finally “C” clubs such as PT’s All-Nude, which caters to young men between 18 and 21 years old and offers nude dancers and topless waitresses but no booze. Lowrie’s newest Denver bar, Tabu, a clothing-required dance lounge above the Diamond, is a gateway club to the racier stuff. Lowrie estimates his “A” clubs earn $4 million to $7 million in annual revenue, with margins at 34 percent-that’s between $1.3 million and $2.3 million in profit. His “B” clubs earn revenue between $2 million and $4 million with similar profit margins. Owning all of these tiers of the market, Lowrie runs the region’s entire spectrum of skin. And with this system, he has access to the best entertainment and the best management, and he saves money on advertising. Buying in bulk means better deals. Whether it’s the limes or ladies, “it’s all economies of scale,” says Lowrie.
The biggest chain of strip clubs, says Exotic Dancer’s Manack, is the privately held Déjà Vu Showgirls, with about 70 clubs nationwide. But Déjà Vu, which partnered with Hustler, usually puts one Larry Flynt’s Hustler strip club in each market. Same goes for Scores, the topless club that shock-jock Howard Stern made famous, which is also licensing clubs in major cities. Another big-name player, Spearmint Rhino, has already eyed Denver, attempting to land a 20,000-square-foot stripper palace in Sheridan. But Lowrie appears to be the only one intent on dominating each of his multiple markets. The real prize for Lowrie, however, lies a step beyond the national strip-club expansion. He wants to leverage the clubs to secure a slice of the lucrative porn industry. Mark Kernes, senior editor of Adult Video News, estimates adult entertainment as a $10 billion to $12 billion industry, including strip clubs, novelty shops, the Internet, TV, and DVD sales. Lowrie is already seeing some of that cash, but he wants more.
The plan hinges on The Brand. Take the Diamond Cabaret. Let’s say it becomes known as the premier “A” level club in eight markets nationally. Lowrie then ties it to a television channel (either satellite or cable, ideally a Denver-based outlet). He gets a cut of the channel, and that channel builds name-brand recognition and drives business to the clubs. Eventually porn stars from “the Diamond Cabaret Channel” make special appearances at his clubs. The television screens inside the club promote the network; advertisers buy time on the network (think Viagra). Complete the scene with a gift shop by the front door selling brand-name porn and the skin business is taking a page from Walt Disney. Except there are only three Disney theme parks in the United States-Lowrie wants 40. As for the name, it probably won’t be the “Diamond Cabaret Channel.” PT’s has the biggest presence nationally and it has sentimental value-after all, it’s the name Hal used on the original clubs. Also, since Lowrie’s already got three Penthouse Club licenses in play, cashing in and expanding on the Penthouse brand is attractive to Lowrie. He calls the magazine “the second most recognizable name in adult entertainment.” If he can’t make his daddy’s brand famous, he’d settle for capitalizing on the Gucciones’ family biz. He’s had talks with the players, and time will tell. “Maybe those guys underestimate us a bit; it just means we’ll have to prove ourselves that much more. They’ll be surprised how well the clubs help the magazine.” He doesn’t sound worried.
His plan is already in play in strip clubs across the country as Lowrie sits in a booth at the Diamond Cabaret Steakhouse, outlining his vision. The room hosts a ministage with one of his entertainers dancing her shift. Under the restaurant’s low light, Lowrie dines on ahi tuna and a good bottle of red wine. This particular booth happens to be “Bobby’s booth,” where one of the Diamond’s original owners, Bobby Rifkin, held court. Rifkin was a legendary Denver character who ran several restaurants and nightclubs before opening the Diamond Cabaret in 1991, his only topless club. Rifkin, a friendly competitor of Hal’s, had something Lowrie’s father and, for that matter, Lowrie himself has never been able to attain: respectability. Denver held both Rifkin and his Diamond in high regard.
Described as a cross between Danny DeVito and Napoleon, even friends say Rifkin was outspoken, brash, and at times self-centered. Then one day Rifkin changed. At age 66, doctors told him he had prostate cancer. Suddenly Rifkin found religion and made it his mission to raise $1 million to eradicate the disease. His annual male-only fund-raisers stocked a hush-hush list of rich Denver men who ponied up $1,000 each for a special night at the Diamond. Ultimately he reached his fund-raising goal with one last party held after his death. At the end of his life, legitimacy and respect suddenly became a priority for Rifkin.
Lowrie constantly battles the strip-club-owner stereotype-Tony Soprano up to no good in the back room of the Bada Bing. Lowrie wants to be more than that. Partly because it’s good for business-respectability helps assuage reticent investors and helps with VCG’s SEC standing-and partly because he wants it for his father and his own family. And so Lowrie’s taken a page from Rifkin’s book with his charitable strategies. After Hal’s death in 1994, Lowrie and Pam created the Lowrie Family Foundation. The Lowries have plenty of money to give, but the foundation is also a charitable strategy for the business-an investment. Sometimes a strip club needs to buy some goodwill. Early on, he discovered not everyone would take his money. But in October 2004, the Lowrie Family Foundation made a donation that made Denver’s philanthropic community finally take notice. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation accepted $100,000 of Lowrie’s money and asked him to introduce Jay Leno at their gala. Lowrie believes he should get credit for his gifts no matter how he earned the money. Everyone else does. Rifkin did.
The strip-club king has invested a small fortune in his credibility and his image, but could expansion into porn ultimately undermine it? Lowrie doesn’t think so. “The argument I get when I open a club is that people don’t want that going on in their neighborhood,” he says. “But with porn, that’s in your home, those girls aren’t around the corner. It’s a movie.” Then again, in Lowrie’s strip clubs no one is getting paid to have sex. “I’ve worked with him on charity events before,” says one local businessperson. “But if the money was coming from porn, it would be a different story. Everyone draws their own line; that would be mine.”
With the $100,000 donation to the Komen Foundation, the time had come for the kids to know what pays the bills. The whole family would attend the gala. But what if Leno made the obvious wisecracks? Houston and Gabrielle were old enough to learn what Daddy does for a living. The family gathered in their Golden home. At first Lowrie asked the kids what they thought he did. They answered that he went to the office. Yes, Dad said, but he went on to explain that he owns restaurants where ladies take off their tops to dance, and men give them money to watch. Lowrie signed onto a laptop featuring a club surveillance system, which he keeps in the upstairs family room. On the screen was a real-time view of the Penthouse Club. The joint was empty, but Lowrie showed the kids the bar, the stages, and the pole. “Houston saw the pole and I guess he’d seen something similar on ‘The Simpsons,’ Lowrie says, “So he kind of looked at me and smiled.” Putting on his best Homer Simpson voice, 9-year-old Houston accepted his father’s profession (and his grandfather’s legacy) with one word: “boobs.”
Gabrielle needed a little more convincing. A few days after the big talk, she came to Lowrie with questions. “Daddy,” he recalls her saying, “if people say it’s wrong for you to do this, well, is it wrong?” Lowrie told her no, it wasn’t wrong. “And it means we can do things like give $100,000 to find a cure for cancer.” What Lowrie didn’t tell Gabrielle was that in each of the strippers, he saw a bit of his mother. Not Lu. She was his adoptive mom. But rather his birth mother-a woman he didn’t meet until 1995, when he was 30. Troy Lowrie was born Troy Martinez. His birth mother, Rebecca Martinez, was 15 years old when her parents kicked her out of the house, pregnant with nowhere to go. She moved to Lakewood to live with a sister and gave birth to Troy. The teenage mom struggled to make ends meet, to feed her baby, to put a roof over their heads. She did what she could to stay together. It wasn’t enough. Lowrie was a year and a half old when his mother admitted defeat and put him up for adoption. By then she’d undoubtedly heard her son’s first words and watched his first steps. “My mom worked at a drive-in on Colfax called Taylor’s,” Lowrie says. “She said she knew she had to give me up when the only thing she could feed me were left over potato peels from the drive-in.”
Later in life, when she married, Rebecca kept her maiden name on her driver’s license, specifically in case her son ever searched for her. When Lowrie turned 30, he did. The caseworker warned him that the process could take years. Twenty-four hours later, she called with word that Rebecca Martinez Smith was living in Orlando. She’d be on a flight to Denver that weekend. They reunited at the old Stapleton Airport. Lowrie and Pam stood together at the gate, holding his mother’s photo, awaiting her plane. They recognized each other the minute she disembarked. They embraced and tears flowed. Rebecca spent that weekend in a hotel, where she told her son her story-his story. She showed her grown son his newborn-baby pictures for the first time. “It was emotional,” Lowrie says, in his typical unemotional manner. “It was like finally the puzzle of my life was coming together. I finally saw how my life started.”
“My mom tried to raise me,” he says. “But she didn’t have any help. She couldn’t do it alone.” Matter-of-factly, he adds, “The day a woman comes in to fill out an application here [at the Diamond] is usually a low point. No one says, ‘I’m at the top of my game, now I’ll be a stripper.'” Lowrie knows many of the young entertainers work his tabletop stages only to feed their own kids. He stages “Dreamgirls Workshops,” seminars that provide tips for boosting income but also teach life skills like balancing a checkbook. “They should leave us better than the day they came here,” Lowrie says. “That’s the way this business should work.”
Today, Gabrielle’s standard response to questions about her dad’s occupation is “none of your beeswax.” She is the one whom Lowrie often puts on stage to present the oversize cardboard checks at charity events.
Back at the Diamond Cabaret Steakhouse it’s close to 10 p.m. The sun set hours ago, and Lowrie’s still sitting in Bobby’s booth. The dinner plates have been cleared, and the boss finishes his wine. Lowrie doesn’t usually eat dinner here. If he’s working late at the club, he’ll have dinner at home first with his family and drive to the city after the kids are in bed. “My dad died of lung cancer, and I have to think it was from all the time spent in these clubs,” says Lowrie. He speaks as if he’s indeed aware of every pitfall his father hit, and he says he can steer himself away from the perils of the industry. “I don’t want that to happen to me. I’m trying to pace myself better than he did.” He says he can keep it all in perspective.
Around the booth, the party that Hal started still rages at the Diamond Cabaret. Lowrie’s windowless bar pulses with sex, money, and booze. The dancers, the customers, they all come to escape their reality-but this is Lowrie’s reality. While his strippers may leave the business better off than they were when they arrived, Lowrie’s not going anywhere. The Diamond is pumping as Lowrie escorts me toward the exit and safely onto the street. As usual, the valet has the boss’ car in the first parking spot, waiting. Underneath the streetlights, Lowrie says good night and extends a solid handshake. There’s still time for him to peek in on his sleeping kids and crawl into bed next to his beautiful wife. But instead of making a right toward the valet, Lowrie turns around and heads back into the club. A world of $6 beers, single-mom strippers, crisp dollar bills, and the ghosts of family. Back at his beautiful suburban home, Pam leaves the lights on till he returns.
Rebecca Landwehr is Senior Editor at 5280.