When Raymond Pistol opened Showgirl Video on Las Vegas Boulevard in 1983, the live dancers performing behind the peep show window were taxed the same way as “vending machines” under the city code, he said.
His partner and former peep show dancer Treasure Brown said that in a sense they were “coin operated girls.”
Showgirl Video, which also included an adult bookstore, operated just north of Charleston Boulevard for nearly four decades and eventually became the area’s lone peep show — dancers perform behind a window, which opened when a patron placed $1 into a machine, for tips.
But the business shuttered last month and the building it occupied will soon be torn down. New construction will bring a marijuana dispensary.
The closure marked the end of an era, as Showgirl Video was believed to be the last peep show in Las Vegas. In 1992, the city passed an ordinance barring sexually oriented businesses along Las Vegas Boulevard, but Showgirl Video was grandfathered under old code and continued doing business.
“Sexually oriented businesses have been supplanted by the internet,” said Pistol, who sold the business in 2016. “You can get anything you want at any time. It’s a 24/7 smorgasbord from all around the world.”
Peep shows or peep boxes trace back to ancient times, according to curators at the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas. The first peep shows would have a “show-man” who would entertain spectators. Performances were viewed through a drilled hole in a box, which enclosed a nude girl, or two girls engaging in erotic sex acts.
More contemporary peep shows featured both video and live performances of sexual acts. In the St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture, author Jon Donlon Griffin wrote that patrons would typically feed money into a slot in the booth before viewing the performance.
“Depending on the particular business, patrons could ‘tip’ fully or partially nude ‘models’ to act their directions and requests,” Griffin wrote.
The patrons at Showgirl Video came from all walks of life, Pistol said, from Average Joes to CEOs. The performers he hired were typically young, with little experience in the adult entertainment industry.
Brown was one of those dancers. She went by the stage name Quinn Quills and danced at both gentlemen’s clubs and the peep show at Action A1 on Main Street. Action A1 closed in 1996.
“At peep shows, I could use my youthful good looks, be in a safe place and not feel tricked by anyone,” she said. “I could leave feeling like it was a job well done.”
Erotic Heritage Museum Director Victoria Hartmann was also a performer at Showgirl Video. She had always been interested in studying sexuality through a scholarly lens, and being a dancer at Showgirl Video seemed like a good opportunity for fieldwork. The glass barrier between her and the patron also made her feel safer.
“I wanted to dance exotically and that seemed like it was safe for me to do,” Hartmann said. “The regular clubs didn’t feel very safe for me because I didn’t want that personal interaction.”
While Hartmann agrees that some get their adult entertainment in a “virtual experience,” she says that’s not the sole reason for the decline of peep shows in Las Vegas. An entertainer simply undressing behind a glass barrier wasn’t as satisfying as other local options, she said.
“In the peep show, the interaction isn’t as intimate, it’s also not creating as much of an experience,” she said. “With someone you’re watching through a window, they’re kind of doing their own thing … there’s minimal interaction. Whereas with gentlemen’s clubs, especially with the clubs that have existed within the last 10 or 20 years, their whole mantra is creating an emotional experience for their guests.”
But Brown says there was a lot of intimacy in peep shows between the performer and the guest that they wouldn’t be able to get from a lap dance at a gentlemen’s club.
“As a performer, you are in a completely different room, yet it is a far more intimate experience,” she said.
Hartmann said there has been a move in recent years to make Vegas more “family friendly.” A similar move happened in New York City, with an effort in the mid-90s to “clean up” Times Square by heightening security and closing its pornographic theaters and peep shows.
While Hartmann laments the closure of Showgirl Video, she said she is currently in negotiations to obtain the iconic Showgirl Video marquee, which she plans to display in the museum, preserving another part of Las Vegas’ history.
For Brown, Showgirl Video was more than a business for her. It was a refuge.
“It saved me from white trash hell,” she said. “I walked into Showgirl for the first time in 1992 ... I lived with my grandma in a trailer park. Showgirl helped me gain the means to being a member of the American middle class.”