Tony Galeota's shaved head fairly glows with nostalgia as he remembers the days when you might have strolled into his Hialeah bar in search of commercial sex, or maybe to get beaten up or swindled, or even overhear Russian mobsters at the next table brokering a deal for a submarine to make cocaine smuggling more efficient.
"We had some good times at Porky's," muses Galeota, nodding in approval as he basks in memories of hot hookers and cold cash, when customer enthusiasm ran so high that he often ended the night "picking up broken teeth, pieces of torn skin, cleaning up blood." Oh, and counting his money; at its most popular, the club was bringing in $175,000 a month.
Porky's, a garishly lit strip club just off East Okeechobee Road in Hialeah, has been gone nearly a decade. But in its day, it was "the wildest, craziest and most profitable club in Miami," says Galeota, and also the most lasciviously criminal. Just stepping inside practically made you an accessory to a felony; a good percentage of the booze and cigarettes for sale were stolen, and then there were the illegal slot machines and the $300-an-hour hookers in the basement VIP room.
Of course, if you were a Porky's regular, there was a good chance that your acquaintance with felonious behavior went far beyond illegal cigarettes. So many Russian mafiosi crowded into the place every night to plot their rackets that the federal agents who were perpetually investigating Porky's called it, among themselves, Redfellas South.
Porky's is back in the news these days because of the release of a new documentary, "Operation Odessa," airing this month on Showtime, about one of the most infamous conspiracies hatched inside the bar. Its Russian-speaking, Ukrainian owner plotted with a Cuban gangster and a Miami exotic-car dealer to broker the sale of a Soviet military submarine to a Colombian cocaine cartel.
And that's what has brought Galeota out of the seclusion of a Cocoa Beach retirement from the skin trade to talk about his days as manager of Porky's. The movie, he thinks, doesn't give him enough credit for his role — no matter how nefarious, brutal or bat-guano crazy — in making the bar a success.
"The owner of Porky's was a Russian guy [actually Ukrainian] named Ludwig Fainberg, who calls himself Tarzan," says Galeota. "And if you watch the movie, you're gonna think he's kind of the hero, a lovable gangster who kept everybody in line and was the genius behind everything....
"But I’ve known Tarzan 27 years now, and I'll tell you, it's just not true. He's not a Russian gangster — he knows some Russian gangsters, but that doesn't make him one. He's just a guy who watches "The Godfather" or "Goodfellas" and imagines he was in that life. But he wasn't.
"When we needed muscle at Porky's, that was all me. I've been in 25 or 30 knockdown fights, fights where I had to be stitched up afterwards. He's never even been in one."
Could the menacing-looking Galeota be exaggerating his own importance? You tell him. Tarzan — who might offer a counter-argument, if asked — is believed to be keeping a low profile, possibly in Russia.
Galeota's campaign to ensure that he get all the credit — if that's the right word — for putting together what was probably the sleaziest bar in the history of South Florida may strike some as slightly (or more) bizarre. But in eight hours of conversations with the Miami Herald, he painted a fascinating and sometimes repellant portrait of life inside a criminal institution.
And unlikely as it may seem, Porky's played a hugely outsized role in reshaping crime to fit a globalized economy. "There's a cop I know who calls Porky's "the maître d' of 21st century crime," says Tiller Russell, who wrote and directed "Operation Odessa."
"You had all these crooks and freewheelers — Russian mobsters, Italian mafia, Colombian narcotraffickers, a cross-current of underworld factions — go in there separately because it's a place where anything goes and they can get a drink and ogle pretty girls. And when they march back out, they're hand-in-hand and they've transitioned into a transnational criminal movement. It's an amazing achievement for a seedy little strip club in Hialeah, Florida."
(So consider this a footnote to world history: No, the low-brow, low-budget comedy "Porky's," the 1981 flick about a group of South Florida high school kids engaged in a blood feud with the owner of a strip joint in the Everglades, was not inspired by the Hialeah club. The club, or at least its name, was inspired by the movie, which was Tarzan's all-time favorite.)
Galeota seemingly gravitated toward the dark side from an early age. "I was a bad kid," he admits. Though he starred in three sports at his Long Island high school, it didn't keep him out of trouble. He was arrested for the first time at age 16 after he broke another kid's jaw in a fight following a basketball game. ("His dad was a police detective.")
It didn't help that a lot of the kids he ran with were offspring of the Gambino crime family. "I never joined, I'm not a made man, but I learned a lot from those guys," Galeota recalls. For instance: The fine art of cultivating inside sources at clothing and shoe stores, then recruiting them to rip off high-priced merchandise for resale at a five-fingered discount.
But when one of his collaborators was busted and seemed inclined to name all his accomplices, Galeota headed to South Florida on vacation, waiting for things to shake out. Instead, he decided to stay — all those beaches and bars were a hustler's paradise.
"When I got to Fort Lauderdale, I noticed that people were — slower," he remembers. "I don't mean dumber. But in New York, I go in a deli, there are 12 people in line and I'm in and out the door just like that. Here, there's three people inside the Subway and I wait 30 minutes in line."
Galeota had worked part-time as a wedding DJ in New York, and he soon had a job at a Broward disco. But it shut down for the summer as tourists departed, and he looked for a new job. Stopping into a topless club one night, he was astonished to find the women danced to just the sound of a jukebox. "If you hire me to DJ," he told the owner, "I'll bring in my own equipment, and you don't pay me a thing. I'll just work for tips. I'll even recruit some younger dancers."
The owner quickly accepted that seemingly impossible offer. But Galeota was pretty sure he could find some willing dancers at the beach. And he knew a live DJ would be able to count on a steady stream of tips as the dancers jockeyed for better spots in the dance rotation.
"The dancers get paid next to nothing, they get all their money from tips from the customers," he says. "And a lot of times, they're going to need a DJ's help. Maybe they have rent due next week and they need more dances, so they'll give you $10 to move up the rotation. Or they're sitting with a big-spending customer, getting him to buy them overpriced drinks, and they want to stay there, so they tip you $10 to move down the rotation. By the end of the night, you've had 20 dancers tip you $35 apiece. You do the math."
The club's new format was an instant hit, and Galeota soon got a call from some of his old Gambino family buddies in New York, the first of several over the next few years. They all went pretty much the same way: We've got a friend with a strip club down there, and it's not doing so hot. Could you help? Each time the club was bigger, the money better. Galeota soon found himself a regular guest at an after-hours Gambino family "social club," rubbing shoulders with serious wiseguys.
That paid off in a big way in 1991 when his final Broward gig came to an abrupt and horrifying end: A customer, irate at at the news that the club was shutting down early that night, imposed his own grisly last call, shooting two of the dancers and trying to tear their clothes off as they lay bleeding on the floor. The topless format was over and done with the next day.
But Galeota's pals at the Gambino social club were quick to the rescue. They knew somebody in Hialeah, a man who called himself "Tarzan" —
"Ummm, what?" interjected Galeota.
It turned out that Ludwig Fainberg, the man Galeota would soon be visiting about a job, had as a very small child jumped off a roof to get his family's attention. When he didn't die, they gave him the nickname Tarzan, and nobody had called him anything else in years. Now he had a moldering little strip joint in Hialeah that was circling the drain. It sounded like a perfect match for Galeota.
Until he saw it.
"It was a horror show," he remembers. "Hardly any furniture, very drab." Porky's was taking in barely $15,000 a month, a wheezing death rattle in terms of strip-club money, and looked like it could flat-line at any moment.
Galeota's regular formula — sound system, DJ, svelte new dancers — livened the place up immediately. He started bringing porno stars to do shows on stage, and many of them brought props for their acts, including animals. There were pythons. There was a cougar.
Perhaps most memorable of all was a sex toy mounted on a little radio-controlled car. The woman who brought it lay down on stage, and for $5 apiece, customers took turns in maneuvering the car around with a remote control. Raunch ensued.
But it wasn't until a few months later that Galeota hit on a steady stream of cash. He had noticed that some of his golf buddies would stop into Porky's for a drink but leave by 10 p.m., when a strip club is usually just starting to gear up for the evening.
"Where are you guys going?" he finally asked one night. The answer startled him: His friends were leaving him for another strip club, Solid Gold, in Fort Lauderdale, which served only fruit juice and soft drinks rather than alcohol — but the women offered lap dances, in which they'd do their bumping and grinding not on a stage but in a customer's lap.
"I couldn't believe it," Galeota says. "These guys wanted to have a drink, but after that, they were driving all the way to Fort Lauderdale — that's a 35-to-40-mile round trip, in the middle of the night — for the chance to touch a dancer." At Porky's, the most intimate (or maybe "dirtiest" is a better word) thing a customer could get was a table dance, in which for $10, the dancer came down from the stage to perform just a couple of feet away, but there was still no touching. It was generally believed in the industry that a club holding a liquor license couldn't legally allow lap dances.
We gotta start doing lap dances, Galeota told Tarzan, who replied: Let me talk to our lawyer. A few days later, the attorney reported back that lap dances seemed to fall into a gray area of the laws on liquor licenses. In the brains of Galeota and Tarzan, that translated to a bright green light.
"So we started doing lap dances," says Galeota. "All the customers who used to buy table dances for $10 were now buying lap dances for $20. We literally doubled our money overnight."
Having danced right up to the fuzzy legal line, the Porky's crew soon didn't just pass over it but erased it altogether. Galeota set up a VIP Room in the club's basement. A trusted customer could buy a wildly overpriced bottle of champagne for between $150 and $350 and get a private area and the company of a dancer; the higher the price, the longer he could keep the room.
What exactly the dancer would do, and how much she would charge for it, was negotiated directly between her and the customer. But the average total cost, Galeota figures, was around $300. Disputes were not frequent, but also not unknown.
"You'd have a dancer running up the stairs saying, 'I'm not gonna have sex with that guy, he smells terrible,''' remembers Josh Weiss, who worked as a Porky's DJ for seven years and remains one of Galeota's closest friends. "And the guy has already paid, so we're here in the middle trying negotiate some kind of settlement. In a strip club, you're not managing inventory, you're managing people."
Of course, some customers wanted something even kinkier than sex. The oddest, Galeota recalls, was a well-known South Florida urologist, who regularly took dancers down to the VIP Room. Once there, he'd ask them to pull on a pair of stiletto heels. "And then he'd ask the girl to kick him right in the balls, hard, over and over, for about half an hour," Galeota says. "The girl would always come running upstairs right afterward and whisper, 'omigod, that guy was sooo weird.' And then they'd say, 'Hey, tell me if he comes back in.' Because he paid something like $500, and they didn't even have to have sex with him.
The VIP Room marked a major departure for Galeota. It wasn't kinda-sorta-maybe illegal but a felony, plain and simple. It also clearly delineated his complicated relationship with Tarzan. Galeota had recognized right away that Tarzan not only had no talent for running a strip club, he had no talent for business, period.
"He was more interested in saying to people, 'I own a strip club,' than he was in actually working at it," says Galeota. "What he really dreamed of was being — I'm serious — a big garage-sale king. He actually had this place for a while, in a big empty warehouse, Tarzan’s House of Bargains. It went bust. He had a Russian restaurant in North Miami Beach, and even with all those Russians living there, that went bust, too."
But for all Tarzan's financial ineptitude, he shared one important quality with Galeota: a larcenous heart.
"I was an aggressive moneymaker at other topless bars where I worked, but it wasn’t until I got to Porky’s that I went over the line and started doing illegal stuff," Galeota says. "It’s because I was given the freedom to do it at Porky’s. At the other bars where I worked, the owners would never have allowed me to have the girls do prostitution or the stuff I did later, like slot machines. I would never have asked.
"But Tarzan, he was down for it. He wanted to live that gangster lifestyle, even if we weren’t made guys. The more illegal, the better, as far as he was concerned."
From that point on, nothing was too unlawful or too unhinged for Porky's. Illegal slot machines? Check. Dwarf zooming around the bar selling shots from a toy motorized Cadillac Escalade? Check. Selling clothing stolen from a hijacked delivery truck? Check. Serving stolen liquor and cigarettes? Check. Scamming your own customers? Oh, check-check-check.
"You watch your regulars over time, and it’s pretty clear that some are in a haze most of the time, from drinking or drugs," says Galeota. "So you wait, and the guy comes in one night, and you glare at him and maybe turn your back, make it clear you’re mad. The guy comes over and says, 'Hey, Tony, what’s wrong?'
"In an outraged tone, you answer him: 'Seriously, you just think you can come in like everything is forgotten? Like we’re still friends?' The guy has no idea what you're talking about, because none of this really happened, you're just making it up. He says, hey, what you mean, and you tell him, 'Last time, you were short on cash, borrowed $250, promised to come back later and pay. But you never did!' And almost always, they'll pay you the $250."
Did you ever feel bad about any of this? a reporter wonders. Galeota's mouth twists for a moment in genuine contemplation. Finally, a terse answer: "No."
Fistfights and fusillades
About the only illegal goods or services that could not be purchased at Porky's were illicit drugs, Galeota says. Though later federal indictments would accuse Tarzan of plotting big-time cocaine shipments with Colombian narcotraffickers from the comfort of the bar, Galeota insisted no drugs could come inside.
"Right from the start, my Italian friends warned me, 'Don't get involved with drugs, it brings too much heat, you have to deal with crazy people, it makes everything worse if you get caught,' " Galeota says. "I've smoked some weed, but I've literally never touched cocaine and I've certainly never sold it."
Oddly, the cocaine ban caused more trouble at Porky's than any of the illegal stuff that was going on. Some of the bar's customers were drug dealers, figuring Porky's was a promising marketplace. When Galeota and his staff went to kick them out, there was almost always a fistfight, unless there was a shootout instead. "Some of those guys, as they were driving away, would just spray the place with bullets," says Weiss, the DJ, adding that police came to Porky's at least 10 times after reports of gunfire.
Curiously, though, no law enforcement agency ever tried to shut Porky's down until the 1997 federal indictment of Tarzan over his dealings with Colombian narcotraffickers. Galeota says that's because Tarzan had a silent partner in the bar: Weston auto magnate Bill Seidle, who operated seven car dealerships around South Florida. Miami-Dade County even named a street after him — Bill Seidle Way, near Miami International Airport.
Galeota, however, says Seidle had a fascination for the wild and woolly side of life. Legal records examined by the Miami Herald confirm that Seidle owned the sites of both Porky's and another Hialeah strip club, Club Pink Pussycat, a notorious drug marketplace before it finally shut down in the mid-2000s.
Federal court files show that Porky's operated with a liquor license that actually belonged to Seidle. And when the federal government tried to shut Porky's down after the 1997 indictment, it was Seidle who went to court to argue against the closure on the grounds that it would leave 70 Porky's employees "needlessly unemployed" and inflict "extreme hardships for absolutely no reason." Seidle offered to take the bar over, and eventually a federal judge agreed to it.
In an interview with Robert Friedman, the author of the 2000 book Red Mafiya, Seidle confirmed that he was a friend of Tarzan, who he called "a big-mouth kid, always bragging, boisterous, but very nice, very kind ... I would describe him as a very, very dear friend. I was close to him. He was close to our family. They loved Tarzan. They think a lot of him. They still feel the same."
But Seidle denied that he was any kind of business partner of Tarzan, just a landlord who collected rent. Seidle died following cataract surgery in 2008, at the age of 82. He was never charged with anything connected to Porky's.
Nonetheless, Galeota says that Seidle was Tarzan's partner and Galeota regularly took him envelopes stuffed with cash — as much as $25,000, every two months. Part of the money, Galeota says, was paid to police and public officials for keeping a blind eye toward Porky's.
At least one former Hialeah official says Seidle's status as a silent owner was revealed to him in the 1990s as part of an attempt to get him to drop a legal crackdown on Porky's. "We had a lot of strip clubs in that area around the airport, and they were creating a lot of problems with prostitution," recalls former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. "And we were trying to do something about it."
In the midst of the legal maneuvering, Martinez says, Hialeah Councilwoman Ruby Swezy asked if there wasn't a way around the crackdown. Seidle, she told Martinez suggestively, was a secret part-owner of Porky's. Martinez, who had never met Seidle, wasn't impressed.
"I told her I didn't care about Seidle," Martinez says, "and the only way to end the pressure on Porky's was for them to clean up their act. I never heard any more about it, and I certainly didn't get any bribes. If somebody was giving money to the police, I didn't know about it."
The Herald was unsuccesful in reaching someone with the Seidle firm or family.
Doing stuff, or whatever
Galeota had never had a high opinion of Tarzan's gangster skills, yet he was still amazed when the federal indictments came down. Reading the court filings, he was horrified to discover that a principal source for them was a cellphone given to Tarzan as a gift by another gangster. The guy had neglected to mention that he was an undercover FBI agent or that the phone was tapped.
"I knew right away they were talking about this Motorola flip phone Tarzan had," says Galeota. "He was bragging about it, that somebody had given him this trick phone that was a clone or something, and he could use it to call anywhere in the world and never get charged. I told him, told him, to get rid of it. 'Remember what we do for a living,' I told him. 'If somebody gives you a phone for no reason, give it back, throw it away.... Why would anyone give you a free phone?' But he just kept using it."
Tarzan, facing a life sentence, agreed to cooperate with federal investigators. He served 33 months, then was deported to Israel. These days he's reported to be lying low in Moscow, hiding out from all the people who took offense, to put it mildly, when he began cooperating with the cops.
Porky's closed for about a month after the indictment, then reopened and stayed in business for more than a decade more. But within months of Seidle's death, police for the first time began taking an interest in the bar. In 2009, a raid shut Porky's down, and it never reopened again.
Galeota spent the next several years traveling overseas, mostly to Latin American countries where some form of prostitution is legal — even Cuba. (His market analysis: Communist islands and hookers don't mix well.) His activities in some of the nations he visited bore a relationship to the law that might be politely termed ambiguous, and he prefers not to discuss the subject.
For the past year or so, Galeota has been holed up in Cocoa Beach, "doing stuff," in his nebulous words. What, or where, remains a secret. "But I won't be opening another strip club, you can bet on that," he said. Without saying how much.