Friday Column Reprise
Note from Dan: While I’m on vacation, I’m treating you to some oldie-but-goodie columns from the past. This one, published March 22, brought as much reader reaction as just about anything I wrote all year. VDOT hasn’t yet torn down the building, but that’s scheduled to happen soon, to make way for Roanoke’s second traffic circle.
Roanoke will lose a piece of its history later this year.
It’s doubtful to raise the ire of any Roanoke Valley preservationists when a nondescript building along Wise Avenue in southeast Roanoke (most recently the home of Vinton Roofing) is demolished to make room for the city’s first traffic circle.
However, in years past the two-story block, brick and stucco structure was one of the most newsworthy and notorious in Roanoke.
Back in the 1960s, it was Papa Joe’s, a beer joint reputed to be the first topless bar in the Bible Belt. Its fame — or perhaps infamy — stretched for hundreds of miles.
The proprietor was George “Papa Joe” Christofis, an Egyptian-born Greek who had a mind for business and an outrageous flair for publicity. On the side of his building, he painted in large letters, “The place that made Roanoke famous.”
That was not much of an exaggeration.
Papa’s Joe’s would go through as many as 18 kegs of beer on a weekend.
“He held the state record for draft beer,” Maria Christofis, the entrepreneur’s daughter, said of her dad.
At Papa Joe’s, the money came across the bar so fast there was no time to count it. Instead, bartenders raked it with their hands into peach baskets set on the floor and did the counting later.
During a break from training each year, the Redskins used to make an annual pilgrimage to Roanoke for a beery long weekend at Papa Joe’s, recalled Lee Coleman, whose dad owned some of the pinball machines in Papa Joe’s.
There, in the oddly-named Elbo Room, patrons would behold the talents of Pacific Shane, Choo Choo the exotic country dancer, Lisa Duran, and Pistol Packin’ Penny Payton.
The house dancers shook their skimpily-clad booties in neon-lighted dance cages that flanked a large stage with rock ‘n’ roll and country musicians.
Featured dancers performed stripteases on a smaller stage, and some of their acts verged on the hard-to-believe. For example, there was the dancer who billed herself as “Lady Godiva.”
“He had a stripper in there who had a horse that undressed her,” Maria Christofis told me.
Lording over the establishment was Christofis, who stood roughly 5 feet 7 inches tall, had striking eyes and bore a passing resemblance to actor Omar Sharif. Phyllis Taylor, nee “Pacific Shane,” loved the man “like a daddy” and still speaks of him in a measure of awe.
“He was a trailblazer,” said Taylor, perhaps the club’s most famous dancer. “It was a time.”
Her steady gig at Papa Joe’s launched her onto a national burlesque circuit that took her on an eight-month tour all over North America.
Then Phyllis Whorley, Taylor is now 64 and calls herself an “old fat happy country mother and grandmother.” She lives with her husband in a comfy home out near Explore Park, and church is one of her mainstays.
She started dancing at Papa Joe’s when she was 15 or 16, around 1964 or so.
“I had to get a permission slip from my mother to ‘make sandwiches’ for Papa Joe,” she recalled. “But I didn’t make any sandwiches.”
When her mother discovered she was dancing, she disowned Taylor for two years.
By the time Taylor left Papa Joe’s, in the late 1960s, she said Christofis was paying her $350 week — dancers weren’t allowed to accept tips. That was serious money back then.
None of Papa Joe’s dancers ever took it all off, she said — pasties and G-strings were the limit.
Taylor was also the “bride” in one of Papa Joe’s greatest publicity stunts ever — a 1967 affair that drew more than 400 guests. Christofis promoted it as “the world’s first topless wedding.”
“I don’t know if it was, but that’s what they called it,” Taylor said. (She and the groom, who was 17, were actually married later that week in North Carolina — he was too young to get married in Virginia.)
The Associated Press covered the event, at which the bride and her attendants were all topless, wearing pasties.
“None of the preachers in town would do this wedding,” Maria Christofis recalled. “So one of the local rabbis did it.” Papa Joe gave Whorley away.
READ THE REST OF THIS COLUMN HERE.