Augie's bares it all

TOM HORGEN | Updated 11/8/2012

An inside look at the "99 Problems" of downtown strip club Augie's Cabaret.

Dancers at Augie's night club.
Bruce Bisping

'No grandma wants her granddaughter working here," said Brian Michael, owner of Augie's Cabaret. "My grandma doesn't want me working here." That about sums up this topless bar, located on one of downtown Minneapolis' most notorious corners.

Every weekend, 5th and Hennepin turns into a busy crossroads for the entertainment district's staggering mass of drunken clubgoers. Augie's has existed here for 70 years, starting as a regular old cabaret. These days it's more like a raucous hip-hop club. When rappers talk about "making it rain" (throwing fistfuls of money at a stripper), this is the type of place they're talking about.

Strip clubs tend to remain discreet about their operation. Augie's drives so hard in the opposite direction that Michael is seeking to turn his club into a reality TV show. For two years he's been filming and editing demos for a show he calls "99 Problems," a phrase made famous by a Jay-Z song.

Recently, he formed a partnership with producer Christine Evey, who's worked on "America's Got Talent." They are in the process of cutting what is called a "sizzle reel" and shopping it to cable TV. Michael offered to let me and a photographer spend a night inside his club, getting a preview of sorts to the real "99 Problems." Ø

9:45 P.M.: THE BATCAVE

Saturdays begin slowly, like a snake coiled before a fight. Michael, athletic and blond, walks into the bar wearing a V-neck, skinny jeans and running shoes. He looks the opposite of the crowd, a white guy among a mostly black clientele.

In his small office, which is outfitted like a Big Brother command center, he lords over a high-tech security system. Forty-nine cameras give him eyes and ears everywhere -- in the VIP section, the alley, on the street. His multi-screen setup looks like something out of "The Dark Knight."

"My business is riddled with presumptions," he explains. "If there's bad stuff happening on the sidewalk, the perception is it's happening inside, too."

Cops speak highly of his operation. "They work well with the police," said Minneapolis police Sgt. Steve McCarty.

Augie's had 55 police calls in the past 12 months, which McCarty said is not excessive for a downtown club. Envy, the problem nightspot that recently closed under city pressure, had 133.

10:20 P.M.: GOD SAVE THEM

Michael moves the joystick on his desk, rotating an outside camera: "We have a prayer group on the sidewalk."

Seven Bethel University students are sitting in a circle just feet from the front door, Bibles in hand. He steps outside to chat with them. A cop is already there, telling the kids to go home for their own safety.

As always, Michael is extremely direct: "I've seen someone shot here. Someone was murdered over there."

One of the students thanks Michael: "We just want everyone to know that we care about them and God does, too."

10:35 P.M.: COLLEGE?

Backstage, the women walk around topless. The managers are all men, but the place feels strangely de-sexualized. The women talk about their lives outside these walls -- their other jobs, their families, college.

In the hallway, Michael talks with dancer Shayla Pittman, who calls herself Passion.

"How's school going?" he asks, knowing that she isn't enrolled.

"I'm still working on that," the 20-year-old says.

10:55 P.M.: BAD PARENTING

"Is that a baby?!" Michael yells at his computer screen.

A toddler is standing under one of the cameras on Hennepin. Michael radios to his staff to get out there and find the child's parents.

"There's something going wrong with this world," he says.

11:45 P.M.: MACE YOUR FACE

Michael himself steps outside just as two men start to fight on the corner. He intervenes with his security team. One of his guys threatens to mace the primary troublemaker: "Don't make me spray you."