Most people remember their first time inside a strip club. For New York-based filmmaker, Tom Gould, that rite of passage was so memorable he made a movie about it 14 years later. Last year while back at home in New Zealand, the director visited Auckland's infamous Karangahape Road, where he retraced his steps to a velvet-lined bar named Las Vegas, which has been open since 1962, making it the oldest strip club in the country. This is where he rediscovered Adrian "Adriatix" Churn, the character who has been the voice of Las Vegas for the last four decades.
The resulting short film is a mix of glamour and grime, starring not only the cast of the club but also the drag queens and fa'afafine that coexist with the drunks, punks, and vagrants out on the street. We talked to Tom about making the film, and why he's keen to share the shadier side of New Zealand with the world at large.
VICE: So Tom, what's your first memory of Las Vegas?
Tom Gould: Well the first time I actually went in there I was 14 years old and we were just kids hanging out on K Road. I was really small when I was younger and I could never get in places. All my friends looked older but I was short, so there was no way I was going to get in there. We walked up the stairs, which is this creepy long stairway that is really steep, and you get to the top and there was the booth where the bouncers and owners would be. And back then there was a curtain on the right-hand side which went through to where the catwalk and strippers were. I remember going up there with my friends and everyone else had fake IDs and looked a little bit older but I had to sneak under the curtain to get in. I remember being down on my hands and knees while everyone was distracting the owners. I snuck through the curtain and popped up and was like, "Wow, this is what this place looks like".
Was Adrian there that night?
He was there in the DJ booth. I remember hearing his crazy voice. He would put on voices and accents. His voice is what I remembered from that first night.
Why did you want to make a film about it?
To me it's one of those historical Auckland places that I really wanted to document. And the fact that Adrian is still there and doing what he wants to do, that makes it all the more special. Coming back to Auckland all the time, I see things changing and a lot of the history gets lost. Every time I come back I see little bits of the city gone. But Las Vegas is always there, and before anything happened to it, I wanted to immortalise and preserve it because it's just such an icon.
When you approached Adrian about making the film how did he react?
I wasn't sure how he was going to react because he's quite a crazy kind of character, but I went up there one night and spoke to everyone and he was keen right away. We filmed over the course of three weeks. It was a lot of long nights hanging out on K Road and speaking to people and listening Adrian about his stories. He has so much history in that area. You'd see him every day from Wednesday to Saturday out the front of Las Vegas chain smoking, just observing the evolution of K Road. For the past 40 years he's watched it from street level, standing in a doorway in the same position. If anyone's going to speak about the history of K Road and what's gone on there, it's got to be him.
In the film he talks about K Road in broad strokes.
Yeah, that was important. I wanted to get the surroundings of Las Vegas, not just the club's interior, because it is just a strip club. But what makes the whole thing special is the environment and the history on Karangahape Road. I really wanted to get a lot of people that made the place special – the street workers and the drag queens, the people out on the street. K Road is one of those places where people are still individuals. Characters like them can still exist and they're all in a beautiful harmony. I wanted to paint a picture of the people that Adrian has been watching all these years.
Let's talk about Dirty Dave, who features in the film alongside Adrian. What's his role at the club?
He's like a manager, but he has since left the club. He'd been there for a long time. Not as long as Adrian, but he was there for over a decade.
He's a strange character because he's silent, but you can't help notice him there smoking, and the hat. Yeah, it's crazy. It's hard to pick up in the film, but on the front of the hat it obviously says "Dirty Dave" and on the back it says "World's Greatest Dad". His daughter gave it to him. She worked at the club as well.
I heard that Adrian still plays eight-tracks up at the studio?
He used to play vinyl back in the day, he actually sent me all these old photos because he documented all the different setups he's had. And I'm sure he would have played eight-tracks but it's gone all digital now. I spoke to him a lot about the music, which is obviously dictated by the girls and the songs they want to dance to. So he's not playing as many of the old classics that he would have back in the mid 60s and early 70s. The technology he uses has to keep up with what the girls want to dance to.
The cover of "Lola" by the Kinks was a nice touch then.
For the film I wanted Adrian to get in the booth and play one of the songs from the golden era of Las Vegas, so I asked him to put on his favourite song and he put on the original Kinks version. It was crazy and fitting because of what the song is about. I wanted to get a local band to cover it so we could use it in the film so I reached out to the Raw Nerves.
Before making this documentary, you also released an emotionally striking short film about Martyka from the Mongrel Mob. How did that come about?
That came about when I first came back to New Zealand. I saw an article in the local Hawke's Bay newspaper about the Mongrel Mob and how it was getting a bad rap for domestic violence. Martyka was in the article saying he was trying to help fellow Mob members change their ways. It mentioned in the article that he'd raised all these kids, four of his own and another six through foster and welfare care, and I thought it was really striking.
The Mongrel Mob and other gangs are a big topic in New Zealand. It affects so many people in different ways, and a lot of it is negative. I wanted to show a deeper story, not something that is just on the surface. I wanted to show something more real and personal that had a positive side.
These films are both under ten minutes long. What is it about the short format that you enjoy?
I think you can tell a story in a really short amount of time and there is something great about that. I also think it helps get it out there, it's more accessible for people to watch and it caters more to people's attention spans. And it's nice for people to see a little snapshot of something and be able to appreciate it.
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