Curse Of The Chippendales is a four-part docuseries about the rapid rise in popularity of Chippendales, the male strip club that started in Los Angeles in 1979 and ended up with a touring show and clubs all over the U.S. within a few years. The “curse” was mostly about how the company’s founder, Somen “Steve” Banerjee, let his company’s exploding growth cloud his business decisions, leading him to be accused of hiring a hitman to kill his business partner and choreographer Nick De Noia. That led to Banerjee’s jail suicide in 1994, shortly before he was sentenced for the murder.
Opening Shot: Shots of downtown Las Vegas. Then we hear someone on a phone recording say to someone else “Maybe you can do it with a hammer or something.”
The Gist: The first episode concentrates mostly on the male dance revue’s explosive growth. In order to get crowds into his night club, then called Destiny II, during more days of the week, he came up with the radical idea of making a male strip show, and only women would be admitted. It also dives into the Dorothy Stratten case; the 1980 Playmate of the Year was shot and killed by her estranged husband, Paul Snider, in August, 1980. Snider was one of the first people to work with Banerjee to promote the club and its male revue.
Prominent dancers of that early era, like Michael Rapp, Robert Menache, and others are interviewed, along with frequent patrons like Nany Dineen (who married and divorced Rapp), and 1977 Playboy Playmate Sondra Theodore. Also interviewed is Bruce Nahin, the lawyer for the club and Richard Barsh, the MC who created the various characters that the dancers embodied, which matched the various fantasies of the 500 women who packed the house each night.
They painted a picture of a phenomenon that exploded in ways Banerjee and the people who worked for him couldn’t ever imagine. Even little details, like the white cuffs and collars cribbed from the Bunnies who worked Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Clubs, worked spectacularly for the club (Hefner was the only man to be allowed in the club to see the revue). But when Stratten was shot and killed by Snider, it set off a period where Chippendales got almost too big, leading to the 1991 FBI investigation that pointed to Banerjee’s responsibility for De Noia’s death in 1987.
Our Take: There’s a reason why we never heard of a “curse” around Chippendales before; it’s because the so-called “curse” is the fact that Banerjee hired someone to kill two dancers who he perceived were competition, and when that hired killer opened up to the FBI, that opened the De Noia case back up. Anything else that surrounded the club and dance troupe — drugs, money, sex, etc. — was more of a natural outgrowth of a business that exploded in size and popularity before its owner could figure out how to manage that growth.
Tying the Stratten murder to Chippendales was supposed to show that this was the beginning of the so-called curse, mainly because Snider was one of the first people that Banerjee worked with to get the male dance revue off the ground, but it feels largely disconnected to Chippendales. While it was good to tell the story of Snider’s connection to the company, it felt like a bit of a stretch to make it connected so strongly to whatever else went on during the ’80s. Was it a dark portent of what was to come? Maybe. But the first episode doesn’t treat it as just that.
That being said, the docuseries is entertaining despite its structural machinations, because it takes the phenomenon of Chippendales as seriously as it should be taken. Yes, it minted money, especially at the beginning of its existence, but it did so on the basis of oiled men in thongs and the aforementioned collars and cuffs. The first episode strikes the right balance of celebrating the phenomenon for what it was and keeping the solemnity to a minimum.
What we hope is that balance continues, even as the story starts taking darker turns. After all, it’s not like the company is out of business; it’s still going strong, despite what happened with Banerjee.
Sex and Skin: It’s Chippendales, for heaven’s sake, though the only thing we see stuffed in those G-strings is dollar bills.
Parting Shot: Former dancer Steve Peterson talks about an agreement De Noia scribbled on a diner napkin that Banerjee agreed to, giving De Noia the ability to take the Chippendales show on the road “in perpetuity.” “That napkin changed Chippendales forever,” Peterson says.
Sleeper Star: The sleeper star of Curse of the Chippendales is time. Boy, 42 years does a lot to a person, doesn’t it? It’s especially evident when we see a picture of Nahin in the ’80s compared to now. But the dancers who are interviewed, all of whom are likely approaching or over 60, don’t look like they’ve aged particularly well, either.
Most Pilot-y Line: We are sticklers for music matching a time period. When the show goes back to 1975 to talk about why Destiny II was popular in the burgeoning years of the disco era, the song played, “Makin’ It,” is from 1979. What, they couldn’t get rights to “The Hustle”?
Our Call: STREAM IT. While we wouldn’t say that Curse of the Chippendales is pure fun along the lines of McMillions or Lady and the Dale, it still has a good sense of what its subject matter is and how reverently to treat it.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.