Stepping out with Lucky Kargo and South Florida’s gentlemen gigolos.
For $6 a dance, suave escorts help fulfill the aging fantasies of lonely women looking for one more whirl around the floor.
Left to right: Eve Linet, Gino Tranchida, Janie Berg, “Cuban Pete” and Arnold Rodman at Margo’s Ballroom in Hollandale.
In a darkened Hallandale ballroom a nattily dressed man approaches a woman and whispers in her ear. She looks up grinning. He takes her arm and walks her to the dance floor where they do a sexy mambo.
He bows, then takes her arm as if he wer holding a meringue, gently bearing her back to her table. During the course of a week they will go sunning, visit her relatives, go out to dinner several times. He will come to her apartment to give her dance lessons. He'll even accompany her shopping for a ballgown and lingerie. He'll be paid –discreetly- for his time and trouble. He's in his 60s. She's in her late 70s.
The next time I saw this man, Gino Tranchida, he was eating as if it were his last meal. The woman he was escorting was picking up the tab and, like a squirrel, he seemed to stock up for the lean times. He was eating and flirting, flirting and eating, and I found myself leaning away from him as if he were radioactive. Coming from the Midwest, I guess I couldn't really believe that an elderly woman would pay for an escort or that there were such things as aging gigolos. These men aren't cads, and young gigolos have to grow into old age doing something. But South Florida has a way of working its spell on almost everyone, making the tacky seem normal and the normal seem, well, almost idiotic. I would never have believed that I would come to feel affection for this Ronald Colman wannabe.
The escorts and their dates constitute a secret society. It's the ultimate fantasy, really. Every one of the men seems to be playing a part from an old movie. I'd watch a Maurice Chevalier gesture here and hear a Cesar Romero line there. The women would play Rita Hayworth or Vivien Leigh, or even an imperious Bette Davis. What really goes on when women hire men to teach them to dance and squire them around town?
Night after night at the ballrooms, in the dance studios, at the exhibition halls, the air is syrupy with expectation. Men are looking for great clients. Women hope someone will find them utterly fascinating. The South Florida dance world is full of intrigue. There's plenty of money, but the women who have it seem to be holding onto the purse strings pretty tight. The men have to be clever.
These are men for hire. Their entree, their masquerade, is usually the dance. That's how they get women into their arms, and that's where they begin weaving their spells.
What's the difference between a high-priced call girl and a gigolo? Plenty. With gigolos, sex is often not involved. Unlike call girls, these men are more likely to have long-term relationships with their clients. With call girls, it is the man who occupies the higher social position. With gigolos, it is the woman. These women have turned to gigolos because the men who are age-appropriate are married, dead or ga-ga. When it comes to gigolos, we're dealing with loneliness. Instead of the problem being played out privately in a bedroom as with a call girl, it is played out publicly on the dance floor. With the escorts, dance is a metaphor for sex. In this crowd it is sexy that sells - not sex. Certainly there are gigolos who are not dance instructors, and there are plenty of dance instructors who are not gigolos. But the dance instructors who moonlight as escorts or gigolos have their own code of ethics.
Margaret Sell swoons in the arms of Jerry Hill at the Hilton Hotel in Deerfield Beach.
The three men featured in this article represent different levels of the game. One is suave and debonair -the perfect Latin lover. The second is rough-and-tumble. The third, the always hungry Gino, is a man whom women have to soothe the way they would an errant child.
ANDRE CHIASSON “I am not a gigolo”
Escort Andre Chiasson is a professional dancer.
"Andre is a very nice man. And very, very expensive," says Margo Newman, owner of Margo's Ballroom in Hallandale. "Years ago he had a small dance studio and he hired men to dance with the ladies. Andre is very polished. They can take him anywhere."
A French-Canadian, he has been a professional dancer for 40 years. He's watched the dance floors shrink. "Now they're the size of my television set," he complains. But he always seems to land on his patent leathers. The woman he had most often been seen with, an octogenarian, had a major stroke. Andre is now the darling of the "social set" for providing a miracle cure - she's walking and talking.
In the land of the Fountain of Youth, Andre's "dance therapy" is eagerly sought out. He has gotten one aging doctor out of his walker and doing the box step. And he talks about a "young lady" - no trace of irony in Andre's voice - with whom the doctor takes lessons. "She's about 83," he says.
Music is in Andre's genes: His father, who repaired musical instruments, played the violin. His mother was a pianist. As a boy, Andre and his sister performed in revues.
A couple of years ago, he was in the news because he taught a nun to dance. Sister Jean O'Laughlin, president of Barry University in Miami Shores, is a fund-raising genius. She wagered a wealthy philanthropist that she would dance publicly in a ballroom if she took lessons with Andre. The college got its million.
Even on a day off, Andre wears pants from a dress suit and a starched white shirt. "I am not a gigolo," he says, almost menacingly. He has become friends with the "social set," and he glories in that world. The way he describes it, he goes to a few parties a week with his "friends." He arranges for other dance instructors to fill up the charity tables. And he plays golf and drives around in a Rolls Royce.
Ruth Gaines and Michael Robin at Margo's Ballroom.
"I've grown fat and happy," he says.
His small condo in North Miami is well decorated in dramatic white-and-black style. Like Andre, it is all about smoke and mirrors. All the best liquor brands are stocked on a tea cart. Among his valuables are an enormous television and three tuxedos.
"My name is in the Social Register. I didn't want people to refer to me like an escort or gigolo. Maybe I get over-touchy. I feel very funny about these things. People say, 'Oh, he's an escort.' That means I would not be called by my name."
He prefers they call him "a friend."
Andre says the gigolos he knows are travel agents, interior decorators or insurance salesmen "Anyone who has something to sell, to get (rich people) as clients. Interior decorators are great at that. They happen to be nice people. They're trying to get into the right kind of crowd."
Again and again in South Florida's dance clubs and ballrooms I hear debates about the value of paying for a man.
"That's what money is for," one woman says. "You pay to get your nails done. You pay for a good time. What the hell? Tomorrow it could be all over.”
LUCKY KARGO “They like that sexy man appeal”
Lucky Kargo (left) and Ray Wiener strut their stuff on the cruise-ship circuit, where potential dance partners are plentiful.
The Sun Spa on South Ocean Drive in Hollywood looks more like a Holiday Inn. But this is South Florida, where people believe it's a spa, if that's what they're told. At dinnertime, ladies eat alone or in pairs. The grim reality is that there aren't many men in this place - just busboys, waiters and dancers.
It is time for "cabaret," which means that women pay $6 a dance each week, of which Lucky Kargo gets $3.60. Lucky is carefully twirling a frail lady in red to the tune of Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen. He's broad-shouldered with an 88-key grin. "You won't believe this, but I'm 68," he says. (Actually, he is 70.) Perhaps his greatest skill is that he makes the women believe he's having a splendid time.
"Lucky just started doing this. I dragged him in," Judie Friend says.
Judie, 50-something and in sinuous shape, performs an energetic tango routine at the Sun Spa every Friday night in a skimpy turquoise and silver costume. The old ladies go wild.
By day Judie works full time in an office. She adores dancing so much she's out every evening, either performing or just looking for a great dance. She's also a compulsive dance-world do-gooder. When someone needs a ride, she arranges it. If somebody needs a job, she finds one. Lucky turned up in Miami after years in Las Vegas and California, where he had been squiring women around while trying to jump-start his acting career.
He was born in New York's Bellevue Hospital -18 pounds at birth, he claims. (These guys love tall tales.) His family lived in Hell's Kitchen until they moved up a notch, to the Bronx. His father was a construction worker. His mother scrubbed floors at the Paramount Theater.
As a boy, Lucky says he was bad. At the age of 9, he used to shake down vegetable-store owners. For $10 a month he would make sure they didn't get their windows broken. During the Depression, he always had $80 or $100 in his pocket.
Lucky is proud of a new condo he has bought in Miami: He tells me how he wangled buying the apartment from an elderly couple's estate. 'All the couple's touches are still there. "I do interior decorating," he says. His definition of interior decorating turns out to be more hands-on than one normally expects. "I put tiles on the floor, landscape, pour concrete."
Lucky was an extra in Midnight Cowboy, did a Bonanza episode and did Picnic in summer stock. He toured with Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt in the 1959-60 national tour of The Visit. Fontanne and Lunt caught him jumping from a second-story window to escape a jealous husband. "I was caught two times jumping out of windows, three times running out of the apartment and once I hid underneath a car because the husband was looking around."
When acting jobs were scarce, Lucky danced on cruise ships as a male social host, or he worked in Las Vegas. He got his nickname because he always lost at the craps table. If he was unlucky in gambling, he was also ill-fated in love. His first wife tried to commit suicide when she discovered she was pregnant and he didn't want her to have an abortion. He nursed her back to health, then left. His second wife asked for power of attorney, then divorced him. She made $46,000 on their house.
Gentleman dancers like George Pierre Dudeque gravitate toward Judie Friend, who performs a tango every Friday at the Sun Spa in Hollywood.
“I am so frisky when I dance,” says Eve, as Gino does the Tummy Tom Tom, playing her stomach like a drum.
As we go through the tattered pages of his scrapbook, he points out his Clark Gable period, his Kirk Douglas phase, his Bogey era and his John Wayne stage. He keeps his scrapbook in the trunk of his car in case he meets an interesting woman.
"They like the way I dress. They like that sexy man appeal," he says.
Lucky escorts women for $300 a night. (Most gigolos in South Florida quote $150 to $200; usually they will bargain.) He was doing quite a bit of escorting for two women in California before he moved back to Florida last fall.
He recalls: "One night one woman wanted more. But I said, 'Not for $300! If you want hanky-panky, you've got to shell out some green stuff!" Lucky and his cohorts are always coy on the subject of sex.
Within a couple of months, Lucky has moved in with Ray Wiener, a fellow dancer on Miami's cruise ships. It turns out that the elderly couple's will was never probated, and Lucky was out on his ear within a month. A few weeks later, he quits the Sun Spa before the end of the season. "The ladies would stop eating to dance because they felt sorry for me," he says. "I don't want no woman to feel sorry for me.”
After the spa, Lucky went into "sales." Translation: He had a weekend flea-market stand. More recently, he was at a Publix supermarket. "Assistant manager," he throws in, hastily.
“I look them in the eyes, I compliment them.”
At a fancy over-50s singles spot, the Inner Circle at the Hamptons, on North Miami Beach, I find Gino sitting at the bar patting Danielle, a wide-eyed 60-something woman originally from New Jersey. Gino's trademark fluffy white hair is long in the back. He's wearing a navy blazer and red foulard in his pocket. He pats her on the shoulder, on the fanny and on the back. He adjusts his large diamond pinkie ring and his heavy gold bracelet. The band in the darkened nightclub is playing Day by Day I Fall in Love With You.
The throbbing music is an opiate. The more the women dance, the more it drowns out the arthritis, lumbago and sciatica. They live and breathe dance.
Nature is a cruel tease to these women. All these years they have gotten a secret thrill knowing they'll live longer than men. But the joke's on them. With the men gone, many lose their will to live.
One night at Margo's Ballroom, I met a sparrow of a woman who had lost every relative in the Holocaust. When her husband died two years ago, she became a lump on the couch gazing at the television until her friend Sylvia talked her into dancing. Gino was there teaching the sparrow, cajoling her, talking her into fancy dresses, offering to cut her hair. She pays Gino to dance with her at Margo's. And each time he ambles over, her tiny frame expands. Women who pay for dancing have selective memories: The sparrow behaves as if she were the anointed. She forgets there's a price - or she doesn't care. She is in a man's arms. Hope is back. The promise these paid escorts hold out is that maybe they'll return without payment. The women feel alluring, desired.
The rest of the world is working, but not the residents of these waterfront condos. "Her house is your house," Gino announces expansively as he ushers us into a white, mirrored room. A small woman with bobbed spun-gold hair peeks out from behind Gino. Eve says she's in her late 50s. She's wearing a swingy pleated skirt that shows off her good legs. Gino is wearing a flowing print shirt, loafers, no socks, silky black trousers and a tan.
I feel dizzy seeing the game man with so many different women, especially because he flirts so outrageously with nearly all of them.
Eve seems shy. Now divorced, she started taking four lessons a week from Gino two years ago when her boyfriend died of lung cancer. During a photo session, Gino does the Tummy Tom Tom, playing her stomach like a drum as she lies back over his knees. "Put your leg up," he directs. He lifts her knee to his groin, then smiles.
"I'm so frisky when I dance," Eve says.
Heading out for lunch, Eve and Gino get into her fire-engine red Mercedes convertible. "I begged her to get that car," Gino says. Eve claims she can't remember how much it was. "$105,000!" Gino boasts.
Gino was born in Tunis of Sicilian parents. His family came to the United States after World War II. He can't remember the name of his high school where he was studying to be a tool-and-die maker, but he knows he never graduated. When he was in the Army, he won so many weekend dance contests a club owner told him to stop coming because everyone else had stopped competing. Gino moved to Miami in 1959 and began teaching at the Eden Roc and Diplomat hotels.
Summers he followed the circuit to the Catskills. "Then the Twist came," he says sadly. The dance world dried up.
Stepping out for a night of dancing at Luigi’s Italian American Club in Fort Lauderdale.
Gino and his brother opened a hairstyling salon called "Get Your Head Together." Then, in 1979, he started a nightclub in Miami. His eyes are big brown pools as he tells how patrons stopped coming after a double murder outside the club. He closed the place and went on a bender. Finally, he checked himself into a VA Hospital. By the time he had gotten his head together, he was too old to get a hairstyling job, so he turned to escorting.
"What attracts women to you?" I ask.
"I listen. I look them in the eyes, I pay special attention to them," he says. "That's all you need besides being handsome. Also, I'm very honest. I compliment them, but I'm tough."
Now Gino announces loudly that he wants to travel. Eve ignores him. He belabors the point. Eve whines, parodying him, beating her fists on the table. "I want! I want! I want!"
Gino bangs the table harder. "I want to go to Italy and London," he wails.
Early next morning he calls on Eve's car phone. "The reason I'm not making any money is because I lost all my clientele," he says. Will I come watch him in his women's "fashion consultant" sideline?
First we hit the lingerie department at Neiman-Marcus in Bal Harbour Shops. Gino is full of suggestive comments, and at first Eve seems to adore the attention. She tries on satins, and Gino tells her she's too short for them. Now he's acting like a real consultant, and Eve doesn't quite know how to react. We walk over to the $5,000 ballgowns. Five sales clerks hover. While Eve tries on a Mary McFadden, a clerk asks Gino, "Is she your wife?"
"Yes," Gino lies easily.
On the main floor Gino catches sight of a man's silk shirt. He asks Eve to buy it. "You want it for Christmas?" Eve asks. "How much is it? I'll tell you if you can have it" She snatches the tag: $153 on sale.
Gino is furious. "What I really want is that diamond bracelet," he says. They argue. He tries to get her to buy a jacket and tie to match the shirt. Eve refuses. He decides to wait and plot for the bracelet.
South Florida has a way of turning everything upside down. Before coming here, I thought it was pathetic for a woman to pay for a date. But as we drove past condos and trailers, rooms illuminated by the blue-gray light of the TV, I saw the silhouettes of solitary figures slumped on couches.
I was even developing a fondness for that loopy crowd from Margo's. But then I have always had a soft spot for people like Gino and Lucky with stars in their eyes - especially the ones who are still optimistic after so many disappointments.
When I call Eve a few months later, I'm surprised when Gino answers. "I thought you two had broken up," I say. Gino phumphers. "Well, yeah, we are," he says. "I mean we're not... uh.”
Eve had spent three weeks in the hospital with pancreatitis.
"He nursed me from early morning till late at night," she says.
"I didn't think she was going to make it," Gino says. Had he finagled getting into the will? But that is the complexity of Gino; I think he really cares yet he feels obliged, by financial necessity or character, to work every angle. Fortunately, Eve got sick during escorting's slack season.
And then I hear the payoff. Eve was taking him to Italy. As soon as she could travel.
They were both getting what they wanted.
LOU ANN WALKER has written for Esquire, Life and The New York Times Magazine and is the author of "A Loss for Words," a memoir about growing up with deaf parents.