Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

July 15-21, 2004

city beat

Lasagna to Lap Dances

ALL SMILES: And why shouldn't Ted Pagano be, having 
parlayed his family's famous University City eatery into a 
gentlemen's club/adult-video store empire of sorts?
ALL SMILES: And why shouldn't Ted Pagano be, having parlayed his family's famous University City eatery into a gentlemen's club/adult-video store empire of sorts? Photo By: Michael T. Regan

After a McPenntrification of yesteryear, Ted Pagano went from renowned restaurateur to strip-club bigwig.

When Club Risque owner Ted Pagano first asked me to host Monday Night Football parties at his Delaware Avenue gentlemen's club, I was a little hesitant. Seriously. As a radio/TV/standup "personality," one of the many things I do is make personal appearances like "Have a Miller Lite with Big Daddy." It's fun. I enjoy it. It's easy money.

Understandably, my wife wasn't all that nuts about the Risque gig. Despite the long history between standup comics and strippers, I never really went to go-go bars. It just isn't my scene, but what the hell? Ted seemed like a nice enough guy. (And did I mention that I don't turn down money very often?)

When I found out Ted's last name, I told him I used to go to an Italian eatery on Penn's campus by that name before or after every Big Five game that I ever went to. Everybody did. It was the Chickie's & Pete's of its time. Well, turned out that Ted and "Pagano's" were one and the same as the restaurant was his family's joint.

Today, Club Risque runs pretty much like a zillion "normal" Italian-owned nightclubs where I've worked over the years. Go back to the kitchen and you'd find the manager — Ted's namesake son — handling the money while 55-year-old Aunt Connie, who hires all the dancers, fixes the schedule and keeps everyone in line. (His family runs most facets of the Risque empire.) The only discernible difference was that when an employee — in this case, "Tiffany" — was complaining that she couldn't work the night shift, she was, uh, pretty much naked. Here's a look at the man who parlayed a famous eatery into two gentlemen's clubs (the other's in Bristol), six adult-video stores and a massive online business.

City Paper: Philly boy your whole life, right?

Ted Pagano: Born in '42 at 6544 Lansdowne Ave. Graduate of St. Tommy Moore. Forever Moore!

CP: What gets you in the restaurant biz?

TP: My dad opens Pagano's Pizza in '55 at 36th and Walnut, and by the seventh grade I'm sweeping floors. We raised the cost of a pizza on the first day we open from 65 to 75 cents. My mother pitched a fit saying no one buy such an expensive pie. There was a Penn-Navy football game at Franklin Field and we ran out of pizza! After five years, we move across the street because the store isn't big enough to handle the business — and that's when the restaurant explodes. We go from sitting 90 in 1960 to over 300 by 1970.

CP: Some of these customers are pretty famous.

TP: Well, of course all the players and coaches of the Eagles and all the Big Five schools are always there. Tom Gola. Jack Ramsey. Richie Allen loved Pagano's and loved my mother, who everyone called Aunt Mary. One time … Richie came in and my mom thought he was a delivery boy and told Richie he had to get these pizzas out right away. Richie was actually gonna deliver them before my mom realized who he was. He was a great guy, completely misunderstood. Then there was Bill Cosby, Ed Rendell, Sonny and Cher. We also used to deliver to the Latin Casino every Monday night, so eventually everyone from the Temptations to Dean Martin ate Pagano's food.

CP: C'mon, give me some dirt!

TP: Well, Sammy Davis Jr. left one morning driving the wrong way down Walnut Street. Peter Falk and John Cassavetes were in one night, had one too many and lost a ring that apparently was extremely important to a movie they were shooting. We had to close the place down to look for it and to this day no one found it. The there was the night during the Girard College riot that Frank Rizzo and Cecil Moore both took a break and came into Pagano's for a meal. They ate and went right back out to the protesting. And, of course, we rarely saw Wilt leave by himself, if you get my drift.

CP: Then Penn tries to buy you out.

TP: We fight them for five years, but eventually lose. [Much like it does today, the university made efforts to purchase property to expand its campus.] We end up at 38th and Chestnut in '84. [The lot at 36th and Walnut remained empty for 25 years; today, it's the Annenberg Center.] My dad has fallen ill and, with my partner Nick Saponara, I'm running the show now. … The restaurant does OK, but the bar in the basement called the Campus Lounge is packing them in. Unfortunately, with a college bar, it's all underage drinkers. There's only so many phony IDs you can check. With the restaurant struggling, I needed the money.

CP: But the police don't see it this way.

TP: No, they don't. They keep busting the place and eventually they close it down. Bad times. Spent a few nights in jail. … The city allows us to reopen, but with such a strict carding policy, we're open to no business. So we turn it into a dance club, and Connie, who had been with us waitressing and such from the very beginning, hires a couple [of] nice-looking women to dance on risers. Just to liven it up a little. Well, one night this beautiful dancer named Mitzy, who everyone just loved, started taking her clothes off. We didn't know what to do. The laws were very vague. Needless to say, the little crowd we had went nuts and the next night there was a line around the block. My nickname at the time was "Wizard" so we called the club "Wizzards," and just like that we were in the go-go biz. [Today, Pagano owns the building which houses Club Wizzards, but doesn't run that operation.]

CP: What does your family think of all this?

TP: Well, I'm separated by then and I guess you can say that my mom and my daughters aren't thrilled. However, I was swimming in debt after Penn moved us, and any club owner who has a line around the block is gonna go with the flow. And that was understood by everybody. It was all a big accident.

CP: Give us some dirt on the dancers.

TP: Personality rules. Of course, they have to be gorgeous and be willing to dance in front of strangers topless, but it's the dancers who know how to be friendly and sexy at the same time that are gonna make a lot of money. Most last six to seven years. Many dance one night and say, "Well, I thought I could do it." Many are single mothers and despite what Chris Rock says in his latest HBO thing, many are working through college. Some have problems, but many have a great head on their shoulders.

CP: What did the Craig Rabinowitz scandal do to your business? [Rabinowitz was convicted of killing his wife in 1997 so he could use the insurance money to fund a relationship with a stripper named "Summer."]

TP: Sent shockwaves. We try very hard to prevent our dancers from dating customers. They get fired if they do. You wouldn't believe the offers that some of these guys make our dancers. Apartments. Furniture. Vacations. Cars.

CP: What effect has the strip club from The Sopranos had on your club?

TP: Actually, it's been good for our business. It's the first time that a very popular show with a strip club in it entered American households. Movies have had gentlemen's club scenes in them forever. So The Sopranos has helped clubs like ours become more "mainstream." But trust me, there's no cops or politicians having sex in some back room. We would be closed immediately. Our "back room" is Connie yelling at a dancer for being late.

CP: Does everyone think you're "connected" now because of The Sopranos?

TP: Big time. But there is no "connected" in this city anymore.

CP: How was it back in the day?

TP: I have the last photo of Angelo Bruno ever taken before he was murdered. Let's just say we were friendly.

CP: So here's the ironic thing. You run a restaurant that becomes famous because everyone knows that's where a lot of famous athletes and celebrities eat. And you have a press agent that gets all this in the paper.

TP: And now I own a club that's full of famous athletes and celebrities and I have a press agent that makes sure it doesn't get in the paper.

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