It’s hard to make a living on wrath, even in Las Vegas. Most forms of wrath go by ugly names, such as assault. But Ed Hurt found a way to cash in on biblically sinful, wrathful urges. It was a couple weeks after Valentine’s Day when Hurt opened the Libertine. He was excited because he’d found in this town a huge market and absolutely no competition. “How many people get to say they were the first to create something especially in Las Vegas?” says Hurt, who has thin with bloodless lips and pale skin. “The fact is that there isn’t one.”
One what, you ask? Well, that’s where things get fuzzy. The Libertine is a dungeon. Many of the rooms have Hurt’s custom-made torture devices and cages. (All of which, by the way, Hurt is willing to sell. My favorite cage goes for about $700, but the bars are too widely spaced to keep the cats inside.) But that’s not the whole story. According to an article in the Review-Journal last week, on the Libertine’s business license application it was described as a motion picture production company. The county eventually denied the application, but Hurt’s attorney, Allen Lichtenstein, claims that denial was made outside of the 45-day period allowed to review a business application. Officials have disagreed, and in court documents Deputy District Attorney Robert Warhola called Hurt’s business an “illegal sex club.” On Monday morning, a Clark County district judge ordered the Libertine to close its doors.
Hurt professes surprise that the county has provided challenges to granting the Libertine a business license, and Lichtenstein plans to appeal the judge's decision. So, as Hurt speaks of freedom, his attorney is at his side to make sure Hurt says the dungeon is not a sex club. In fact, according to Hurt, the dungeon is not even a club. When the lawyering is done, Hurt wants to be quoted referring to the Libertine as a “play space.”
What sort of place is the Libertine? And why does anyone need a dungeon? “There is a huge BDS&M community in Vegas that is not being served,” Hurt says. And so you bondage-domination-and sadomasochism-loving people (probably the same ones who watch American Idol) of Las Vegas finally have a dungeon of your own. You, the customer, pay to become a member. There are different levels of memberships. “Once you are a member you are entitled to use the play space.”
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If “play space” sounds painfully vague, the list of almost two dozen rules each member must sign makes things a little clearer by itemizing what is not allowed. “Please clean up after your scene. Be sure not to contaminate other areas of the facility with body fluids or other residue from your play.” So, if you spit on the dungeon floor, be sure to clean up with the bleach provided. “You may not offer or agree to any act of prostitution.” Good to know they are kicked out of the club! Of course, it may be hard to be more specific about this mysterious play because of another rule, “By becoming a member, you are agreeing to refrain from divulging the identities and activities of any other members to nonmembers.”
I could only guess at the games other people play, but based on the dungeon setup, many of the games allow for the easy expression of wrath. People can be strapped into devices that hold them in various uncomfortable positions; there are also stocks like in a Hawthorne story and a device called the rotisserie. Wandering about the dungeon, I am a little unnerved to find a room meant to look like a gynecologist’s office. I look to Ed. “It’s very popular for play,” he says.
If the County has been making life difficult for Hurt and his “play space,” the recession hasn’t been helping either. However, the credit crunch has not been a problem. Hurt never expected to get a bank loan on a dungeon. Instead he invested $150,000 of his own money. “Prior to being an entrepreneur I worked in the financial services industry, and I did pretty well,” Hurt says. “Normally in a recession entertainment does pretty well, and people don’t cut back on their vices. I never expected it to bottom out where the business would not be fruitful. And every week it gets stronger and stronger.”
But Hurt admits the economic slowdown has in fact impacted his business, especially in getting tourists to come to the club. “When tourism is down double-digits, everyone is feeling the pinch now.” Apparently, Mr. Economy forgot its safe-word. “It has created a little bit of strain now. We had a business plan, and we are still growing week to week. But I definitely anticipated it would be a lot stronger.”
When operating, the Libertine is open six nights a week. There are different types of memberships, but the monthly membership fee of $65 buys locals who want full access all six nights. According to Hurt, if the play space gathers 135 of those members, the Libertine breaks even. That is not counting the tourists who buy memberships that expire more quickly.
Hurt estimates on a typical weekend night he can have about 100 members passing through. On a very busy Friday he has even hit 150. But on a slow night that number can drop to only a couple dozen, and with Libertine’s doors closed even temporarily that trickle has run totally dry.
Hurt has not changed his basic strategy: betting on his business. “Right now we are still investing in the business. We are spending on marketing. The words is getting out there, and we need to get the word aggressively out.”
And so, if you own Las Vegas’ only dungeon, the way to weather a recession is to bring aggression to the marketing of wrath. Somehow that makes complete sense. And maybe the wrath of the County will help with that aggressive marketing most of all.