The Stripper King

The story of Frank Colacurcio, the Bellevue boy who built a notorious nightlife empire.

This story originally was published by Seattle Weekly sibling Eastsideweek on July 10, 1996. It is unaltered from its original form.

It ended much like it began-with some girl calling the cops. The first time, 1943, Frank was 25 and the girl, 16. She told the officers Frank had sexually attacked her during a visit to his family home in Bellevue. Frank said the sex was consensual, the girl was just trying to get him to marry her. But hey, Franks a macho guy. Rather than marry, hed do the time, and did: two years for carnal knowledge.

More than half a century later, having achieved geriatric gangster status, amassing several million dollars from his nude- and topless-dancing operations, and with his wife of 36 years bailing out on him, Frank grabbed this other girl, 18, fondling and then offering her $500 to go to bed with him. Not a good move for an old con on parole. For the fifth time in 52 years, Frank went off to prison. Where he resides today.

Which is not to say that the story of Frank Colacurcio, 79, Seattles next-best thing to a criminal godfather, has necessarily reached its final chapter.

What is he, 100, 150 years old? asks a longtime Seattle detective. If he gets out of prison alive this time, Id be surprised. He pauses. But hell, hes Frank fuckin Colacurcio, the comeback kid.

Going off to the slammer has been nothing more than an inconvenience for Frank. He never hung around long, and his associates kept the nudie business humming, taking their cues from Frank long-distance. His son, Frank Jr., 34, himself an ex-con convicted of skimming bar profits and avoiding federal taxes, continues to operate the primary family enterprise, nude dancing clubs. As president of his dads company and combined interests, Talents West and Huns Entertainment of Seattle, Frank Jr. finds himself facing the same nagging problems as Frank Sr.: cops, moralists, probation officers, and zoning laws. Frank Jr. and the old mans associates operate a half-dozen strip joints in King and Pierce counties and most recently have opened, or tried to open, clubs in Kent and the Eastside-Papagayos Cantina in Overlake and Babes in Factoria. Factoria was the venue of the old mans onetime-flagship dance club, the Bavarian Gardens, a topless beer-and-pool pub tucked into a strip mall with a next-door massage parlor. It was the site of Franks first major criminal mistake-getting caught-leading to a federal prison term and spurring a Bellevue law forbidding nude dancing in or near residential areas. Dads legacy to son, thus, was that Babes dancers last year had to keep some of their clothes on. As a result, Babes, like the well-patrolled Papagayos, went you-know-what up.

Everyone calls Frank Francis Colacurcio Sr. just plain Frank. Frank Francis Jr. is called Frankie. Besides nude dancing and doing time, their common interests apparently include a longing for females. As Frankie put it a while back to a Seattle Times reporter, discussing his six-month tour of duty in the federal system, It didnt bug me that much except you dont have women, which is horrible.

Its been horrible for Frank, too: Women have not only kept him in the money, but also in the courts. Topless joints are cash operations and Frank learned quickly how to skim off the top, avoiding taxes. He didnt, however, figure out how to avoid getting caught at it or, whenever he got out of stir, how not to go back to the female commodity business. Frank didnt have a high regard for women; between the first assault in the 1940s and the last in the 1990s, there were myriad dancers, girlfriends, and prostitutes with Franks pawprints all over them, former employees say. He married back in 1961, but never lost his roving eye and touch. A paranoid voyeur, Frank liked to keep an eye on things around the clubs. He had peepholes everywhere, says one of Franks ex-bartenders. He spied on the girls, on the office help, watching people have sex. That was his deal, he didnt trust anyone.

Franks star began its notorious rise in the late 1950s, amid a series of hearings and newspaper reports pointing to him as the man behind illegal gambling, prostitution, and payoffs at clubs in downtown Seattle and around the state. But it wasnt until 1971 that he was first convicted of racketeering-conspiracy and importing illegal bingo cards into Washington-and served two years in federal prison. That one peed him off, says an old friend, because it was a setup deal; they lied to get him. Frank said they werent fighting fair.

Colacurcios trial was the centerpiece of local corruption scandals back then. A parade of police and officials were linked to an illegal gambling/payoff system in Seattle bars and bingo parlors. Despite city prohibitions, the corrupt practices were tolerated by cops who profited through kickbacks and payoffs (a First Avenue bar operator today says he still has this tendency, when spying a beat cop walking through his door, to put a paper sack full of cash on the bar as he did in the 1960s, and tell the officer, Lunch.) Frank was among those accused of heading up a shakedown operation in which hed extort money from other bar operators, then kick back part of it to the cops. In return, theyd protect Frank and other illegal operators by not busting them. At Franks trial in 1971, a nightclub owner testified he once paid Colacurcio $3,000 a month for police protection.

Frank appealed his conviction, and in the meantime, in 1974, was found guilty in a second tax evasion case. That conviction was reversed on appeal. His appeal on the first tax conviction failed, however, and Frank went off to the federal lockup. Released in 1976, he hadnt missed a beat in prison, and walked out still the reigning prince of nude and topless dancing. Franks empire expanded steadily, and by the end of the decade he ran a handful of Seattle and King County clubs and another half-dozen scattered from the Southwest to Alaska. (At a 1985 legislative hearing on crime in New Mexico, a federal investigator testified that Franks gang then numbered about 50 throughout the West and was behind an assortment of topless-related enterprises.)

Not surprising, Frank and his busy cash registers caught the eye of authorities. He complained the feds had it in for him, and they did. But even with that knowledge, he got snared again. In 1981, U.S. prosecutors charged him with skimming profits from the Brass Tiger in Federal Way and the Bavarian Gardens in Factoria. He did four years, got out in 1985, and went right back at it, hiding his interests through frontmen and continuing to pocket untaxed profits.

These were scams Frank had been performing for four decades, but he still couldnt get it right. In 1991, Frank, 73, and Frankie, 28, were convicted for failing to pay income taxes on profits skimmed from two clubs in Alaska-the Good Times and the Wild Cherry-between 1980 and 1989. Their old pal, an ex-con named Gilbert Kapuha Pauole Jr., to whom they had loaned $200,000 to start up the clubs, had skimmed the profits at the direction of Frank and Frankie. Pauole was at that point an unindicted co-conspirator safely ensconced in the witness protection program, and in order to stay there, and out of prison again, was ready to finger Frank and Frankie. They sized up their odds, took a deep breath, and pleaded guilty. In consideration of Franks perceived dotage, a judge gave him just 30 months and a $10,000 fine; Frankie got three years, with all but six months suspended, and was fined $10,000. They were in separate prisons, notes a Seattle detective. That must have put a crimp in those father-son picnics.

Seattle newspapers were never quite sure what to call Frank. Nightlife figure and nightspot owner were the euphemisms of the day in a town historically disregarded by big-time organized crime (except as a quiet spot for East Coast witness-protection mobsters to hide out). Besides, Frank was colorful. Writers liked him. Male writers, anyway. He was always good for a quote about government prosecutors wasting their time on him instead of real criminals and would surround himself with naked women during in-club chats. The few female reporters who encountered him then had a less kindly view: Frank was lecherous, even dangerous-drawbacks that male writers tended to overlook during happy hour.

I was among those who talked with Colacurcio back in his more expansive days. We bantered one night over the pulsing music at the Nitelite on Second Avenue, epicenter of the Talents West topless-dance empire (in trouble with the liquor board, Frank had the place put in the name of one of his sisters). He was a stocky rock of a man, 5-7, 180 pounds, a fisherman when he wasnt angling for money and women, who flashed a well-practiced angelic smile. He wasnt naturally chatty, but talked animatedly if the subject interested him. That dancer over there, he said, pointing to a topless woman writhing under amber-colored lights on a mirrored stage, thats a guy. Was a guy. Or is a guy, I dont know. Cant remember if he got the operation or is gonna get it. Look at the money theyre throwing at him. Hes one good-lookin broad!

(A longtime Colacurcio associate recalls there were three pre-operative transsexuals or transvestites who danced as women at Franks clubs. One became the object of affection of a local politician who was friendly with Frank, he says. One night at the club, Frank and the associate spotted the pol sitting in a booth with the busty pre-op, the pols face smeared with lipstick. Frank was breaking up with laughter when the unknowing politico raced up to the bar and ordered more drinks for me and my girl. Says the associate today: I told Frank to let me buy this round. Frank said no way! He had to have the honor. We never did tell the guy he was smooching another guy.)

Franks public persona was that of a tough but nonviolent charmer. I saw another side one night in the late 1970s. I waited in line with two friends-both female-outside the popular Nitelite, often crowded beyond capacity. In front of us, a big man began drunkenly banging on the door, tired of waiting. Suddenly, the glass in the door shattered and flew into the club. In a split second, Frank was out the door, long steel rod in hand.

Whack, whack! The big guy was on the pavement, screaming, holding his bloody hands over his battered face as Frank continued to raise the rod to full extension over him. He stroked it like a golf club on the customers head and back. Dont hit me no more, the guy pleaded, crying.

Frank then put the rod down against his side, bootlegging it as two beat cops walked up.

Hey Frank, one said with a smile and a wave, standing over the battered, near-comatose man, this guy giving you trouble?

The bum broke my window, Frank said.

Well take care of it, one of the cops said, pulling the man off the walk. They led him down the street, bloodied and looking like someone happy to be arrested.

Brutal spasms aside, Frank never quite made the criminal big time. Im not the Mafia, he liked to say, although state investigators reported he did take a meeting in Yakima with Bill Bonanno, son of the retired New York crime boss Joseph (Joe Bananas) Bonanno. One of his attorneys, John Wolfe, told a federal judge last year that Franks Mafia links were local myth: I mean, there is a lot of folklore about this gentleman. The folklore that I remember growing up here in Seattle is that this was organized crime, if you will, and Mr. Colacurcio has no history suggesting that; there is no history of violence, there is no history of witness intimidation, there is no history of narcotics trafficking. But Frank wasnt beyond the dramatic, Hollywoodesque gangster gesture to get his point across. Take the night in San Francisco, a story never before told publicly, when he hung that fella out the window.

I dont remember his name, says a friend of Colacurcios, but the guy had made off with funds from the state Democratic Party. This was a big disappointment to the head of the party, who was Franks old friend. So Frank goes to work and tracks the guy down in San Francisco. He finds him in a hotel room and, five stories up, opens the window and holds the guy out over the street by his neck. The guys wiggling and screaming and saying, Dont drop me, I got the money, Ill give it back! Which he did.

The story amused Franks friends, as did some of his tough-guy antics. One day were sitting in the lobby of the Lake Quinault Lodge, by a big fireplace, talking business, says a former employee. This was Franks favorite place. He liked the setting, the quiet. So were talking, and this woman comes up and starts looking at the coffee table between us. Its one of those wood-burl tables, for sale for $600. She sits down and rubs it and pokes around and starts asking about it. We dont know anything, we tell her. She sits there rubbing and poking, and Frank cant say what he wants to say. She wont leave. So finally he stands up, goes over to the hotelman, peels off six $100 bills, walks back, picks up the coffee table, and throws it in the fucking fireplace! The woman was running before her feet hit the ground.

His brothers and sisters, raised in the big family home in north Bellevue, looked up to Frank, the oldest of seven kids. His father, William, had been a member of the Mafia in Sicily, not an uncommon affiliation in his native country. Immigrating first to New York, William followed other relatives to Seattle and became a hard-working truck farmer in South King County. After the business succeeded, he and Franks mother, also Sicilian, moved the family to the then-rural, farmlike Eastside of the 1930s.

Frank quit school in the eighth grade and became a truck farmer. The other boys joined in, eventually setting up an office in Seattle. In a manner that history has not publicly recorded, the farm business evolved into a coin-operated machine business. Brother Bill, who became known as the Pinball King of Seattle, and Frank, the Jukebox King, were accused of illegally undercutting competitors in the vending, jukebox, pinball, and cigarette machine business. The Colacurcio Bros. Amusement Co. (Frank, Bill, and other brother Sam), was rumored to be strong-arming customers and sabotaging rivals. The pinball industry in particular was loaded with competitive violence: Five car bombings linked to the pinball battles occurred in the early 1960s, but police never solved them. Says a former Colacurcio employee today: I dont know about the cars, but we used dynamite caps on [rivals] slot machines. It was easy. You light the fuse and then just slap the cap onto the underside of the machine and walk out. Boom, coins all over, and youre down the street.

The U.S. Senate Rackets Committee ordered Frank to show up for its hearings on organized crime back in the late 1950s after Frank was accused of threatening bodily harm to four Seattle businessmen for not buying into his operation. Frank never appeared in D.C. but settled the assault charge by posting a peace bond-an old-time legal procedure that allowed him to put up $5,000 and promise not to hurt anyone for six months, or lose his money. The brothers later sold the coin-op business when the city refused to re-license them, but it didnt end there. Bill wound up testifying before a grand jury, reluctantly, caving in when then U.S. Prosecutor and now-retired U.S. Sen. Brock Adams threatened him with prison for contempt. His undisclosed testimony became part of a headline-grabbing 1960s probe of the pinball industry, which led to passage of a law banning the gambling devices in Seattle, and spilled over into the 1970s kickback/payoff scandal.

A lingering mystery of those long-ago probes has been a tape recording confiscated by U.S. agents from Bill Colacurcios house and said to be prime evidence of corruption by a top Seattle city official. The tapes contents never surfaced from the investigation back then, but, says a former Colacurcio associate today, The tape was a recording Bill made of a city councilman describing how the payoff system worked, how the cops picked up the money and then passed it down the line-to him and others. I understand that they played the tape for him one day and he suddenly felt too old to seek re-election.

Bill went on to New Orleans where he was convicted in the 1980s for racketeering. Sam found his way to the federal pen in 1988 for skimming profits from topless bars in Arizona. Two of Franks other brothers, Patrick and Daniel, also pleaded guilty to criminal charges connected to the Phoenix and Tucson topless operations.

Frank, meanwhile, was working on another regular appearance behind bars. The 1991 conviction, his fourth, brought his running total at that point to nine years in stir the past two decades, and 11 years since 1943. At 73, age was clearly becoming a factor in the continuation of Franks pro-crime crusade. (In a related 1991 case, Nick Furfaro, Franks old friend since they started up the Magic Inn on Union Street in 1963, was convicted of a tax violation and, as part of his short sentence, was told he had to give up his job running one of Franks places, Sugars, the North Seattle soda-pop-and-nude-dancing emporium. Furfaro asked the court for mercy: Dont make him quit, he said, hes too old. He had a family to support and there wasnt much call for a 65-year-old topless-bar manager. The judge politely refused; after all, how would it look for a probation officer to be supervising the boss of a nudie joint?)

Despite his nearly lifelong battles with the law and local crusaders, Franks empire thrives. Son Frankie and his associates paid $1.8 million for the Papagayos property three years ago, and Frank himself is listed in court papers as worth at least $2 million, some of which he split with his wife during a 1993-94 divorce. (She got the Lincoln, the $350,000 house in Kitsap County, stocks, and other property. He got to keep the Rolex, the $400,000 home with an indoor pool at Sheridan Beach, and two other properties worth another $400,000. He also got a reprimand from his exs lawyers for the bad habit of lying to a judge: Clearly, says an entry in court papers, the respondent [Frank] did not make a forthright and candid disclosure of his assets and financial affairs. ... This case represented a difficult problem of proof because of the respondents background.)

Frankie holds down the Lake City fort of Talents West, Franks longtime dancer-recruiting agency where girls looking for waitressing jobs usually wind up disrobing for male customers in nudie joints. The pay can be good, $100 a day and up to $300 on a great day, mostly in tips. But the dancers often arrive needy and vulnerable. As Bob Payton, Franks personnel director (and house-sitter when Franks off doing time) said in court last year, the young job seekers regularly tell him, I have no money, Im broke, my boyfriend left me, my husband beat me, Im on welfare, can I get paid under the table-things like that.

Though requirements of his probation ordered him to stay away from the topless business, Frank nonetheless had an office in the agency, witnesses say, complete with some of his infamous press clips on the wall. The office featured an exceptionally large, handsome desk at which Frank sat proudly. He looked like the president of the United States or something, says a former employee. Frankies plea bargain in the 1991 case allowed him to continue running the current six topless clubs (neither he nor anyone at Talents West returned calls or would comment for this story). In a deposition in the divorce case, his mother, Jackie, wondered if Frankie was up to the job. I feel [that] Frankie-if he had to run it and his father wasnt around-I dont think hes capable of doing it.

Frank, today bespectacled, gray hair thinning, a bit heavier at 200 pounds, is in reasonably good health as he heads toward his 80th birthday next June-although his doctor, Dr. Frank Gleeson, says Frank has polycythemia rubra vera, a condition that can lead to thrombophlebitis, or blood clotting. Nonetheless, those who know him are sure he sits in prison planning his exit and his next business move. He knows that doing time goes with the work, says a friend, although, the odd thing is, I think he could have gotten just as rich doing it all legit. And despite his highly publicized trials and convictions, Franks sentences havent been necessarily harsh-he got only 30 months in prison and five years probation for the 1991 conviction because the judge figured Frank was a harmless old man. Indeed. In court, Frank politely asked the judge if, before he started serving his time, he could maybe take a trip to Canada and Alaska, and spend the summer-perhaps the last summer ever, your honor-fishing off his boat. No problem, said the judge.

Out on probation in 1994, and ordered by the court to stay away from topless dancing, and dancers, Frank just couldnt help himself. He violated his terms in one fell swoop in May 1995-grabbing, kissing, and propositioning a teenager he was interviewing for a topless job. The woman said Frank first asked her to go home and cuddle and be lovey, then kissed her and offered her money. I freaked out, she said. I mean, this is the scariest thing thats ever happened to me. In court, the judge looked down and saw a much younger Frank this time. He got three years. And no fishing trip.

Franks home today is the federal correctional institution in Bastrop Texas, 30 miles out of Austin, built in 1979, holding 900 inmates whose average age is 37. Frank will be 82 if and when he gets out by 1999.

I dont have any doubts Frank will be back, says a longtime friend. This is where the women are.

2003 epilogue: Frank Colacurcio Sr. was eventually released from prison, is retired, lives in Seattle, and fishes in Alaska regularly.

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