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Larry Beard, a 51-year-old with a cowboy drawl, was having cocktails and discussing business with a coworker last June. Despite being clean-shaven and tan, he had bags under his eyes. There were constant meetings and promotional events and fliers to be designed. A workaholic, Beard boasted 60 national awards for graphic design and was once commissioned by the king of Ghana to create his personal flag (a rooster and a lion on a green backdrop).
Now he was working 20-hour days cropping photos of cleavage, which didn't leave him with much time for a love life. Even hitting the town with 20 beautiful women felt like a chore — while promoting, he had to make sure they didn't get drunk or spend too much time flirting with the same fellow. All of that baby-sitting could make a guy feel like a grumpy granddad.
Inspired by the Popemobile — a glass-encased wagon from which the pontiff can wave in public without being shot — Beard bought a used billboard truck. He removed the signs from its plexiglass sides and directed the club carpenter to install hot-pink carpet and a pole. He then designed six-foot adhesive cutouts of women that were printed onto the sides. By fall, the company had poured $50,000 into the "Stripper Mobile." It was free to cruise the strip as long as there were no lap dances, booze, or exposed lady parts.
Still, it infuriated everyone from politicians to feminists. The bus nabbed the attention of the Associated Press, CNN, and Japanese newspapers. "Eskimos and Pygmies heard about it," Beard likes to say.
Born in March 1959, Beard grew up well-off on the shores of Perdido Key in North Florida. After he graduated from high school in 1977, Beard scored a gig with a printing company that paid his way through Pensacola Junior College. He then bounced from one corporate project to another — including Sara Lee and Winn-Dixie — and eventually created his own design studio. From 1987 to 1999, he married three women and had two daughters but never gave up the bachelor life.
In 2004, after a third divorce, he lost his home in Hurricane Ivan. "I had to start from scratch — I didn't even have underwear," Beard says. "I guess you learn it's just stuff."
Broke and alone, he moved in with his father in Texas before heading to Las Vegas to work for a real estate company. Once a nice Christian boy, Beard was swallowed up by the all-night neon discotheque that is Vegas.
When the housing market went bust, he took a job with Déjà Vu Showgirls in mid-2008. "I got to thinking," he remembers, "if you can't market a naked woman during a recession, you can't market anything."
The emails arrived just after breakfast this past November 12. By dinnertime, dozens of messages had flooded the inbox of a well-tanned county commissioner in Las Vegas named Steve Sisolak, who hated the stripper contraption. The strait-laced 56-year-old took the emails seriously.
The outrage had been prompted by the Las Vegas Sun, which ran a story quoting Sisolak. And at a county meeting the next Tuesday, the politician argued the sex-on-wheels was a distraction to drivers. He called it dangerous and pushed to have it banned.
"You hit the brakes and they bounce around. I mean, there are pictures of the girls upside down on the pole," Sisolak says now. "Drivers were looking over and not paying attention to the road, and they could have slammed into the sidewalk."
Beard has another theory about why the bus caused trouble: "There are a lot of Mormons in Vegas."
Frustrated, the marketing man fought the commissioners. He explained that dancers' moves would be "PG-rated," they would wear bikinis, and the rolling stage would cruise the strip only between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. so as not to upset families. If it came down to it, he proclaimed, he wasn't afraid to take the matter to court.
Reporters across the nation soon caught wind of the conflict. That week, CNN interviewed Beard standing alongside the blinking contraption. "This is our new baby," he beamed.
In a two-week span, business at the club doubled. Even so, Beard, who was seeking a liquor license, decided to play it safe. He didn't want to further piss off commissioners, so he parked the bus. ("Stripper Mobile Ends Its Reign of Sexy Terror," teased Manhattan-based blog Gawker.com.)
But it wouldn't be empty long. After media attention died down, this past January, Larry announced a new plan: The bus would take a cross-country road trip to Seattle, Portland, and New Orleans. Then it would descend upon Miami in time for Super Bowl XLIV during the biggest street party outside of Mardi Gras.
It sounded like a reality-TV show in the making — eight naked girls speeding through the Bible Belt — but it was actually much less fun. For one, dancers weren't thrilled about the idea of roughing it on a chilly bus for weeks at a time. Plus there was nowhere to sleep, and the truck wouldn't go much past 50 mph.
So Beard drove it for 48 straight hours from Vegas to New Orleans. He picked up some local strippers near Bourbon Street, cruised around after the Pro Bowl, and politely obliged when cops asked him to leave. Next stops would be Tampa and then South Florida — where nobody knew what to expect.