After more than three decades in business, Santa Fe’s only strip club has seen its last pole dance.
Cheeks, a topless bar on Cerrillos Road that morphed into a local institution after it opened in the late 1980s, quietly closed its doors two weeks ago.
All that remains at the business is a sign facing Cerrillos that reads, “Thank you Santa Fe especially our customers & friends.”
Owner Elmo Montoya did not return messages seeking comment on the shutdown.
A woman who danced at the club in 2007, using the stage name “Paige,” said she was saddened by its closure. When she first heard the news, she didn’t believe it.
“And then I attempted to go on what I thought was the last day — Friday [Dec. 17] — and they said it was a private party and they weren’t allowing anyone in. Then I knew it was true,” she said. “I wanted to say my last goodbyes.”
She visited the club about a month ago, the 38-year-old said, but she didn’t know any of the dancers working at the time.
“There’s a certain nostalgia to it, she said. “… It was the only strip club we had. It was a local hangout. I just feel like the world is turning into a giant corporation, so I’m sad to see it go.”
She noted Cheeks can’t be replaced by a new strip club.
It was grandfathered into a city ordinance approved in 2000 that strictly limits adult entertainment businesses, from X-rated theaters and bookstores to hourly rental motels and clubs featuring topless dancers. The ordinance, prompted by one councilor’s concerns over a proposed topless maid service that never got off the ground, prohibits such businesses within 1,000 feet of schools, restaurants, playgrounds, parks, day care centers, churches and libraries.
Cheeks is near several restaurants on the busy Cerrillos Road business corridor.
Paige acknowledged the coronavirus pandemic and other factors likely took a toll on the club.
“I think the biggest impact is people not having enough money to go to those sorts of places,” she said. “It is pricey — you pay a door fee, for alcohol, for dances. With people being strapped for cash with COVID, it has an impact.”
In a 2009 interview with the Santa Fe Reporter, Montoya, the club’s owner, characterized Cheeks as a gentlemen’s club.
“I don’t really like people to call it a strip club because the women here are entertainers,” he said at the time. “They’re not strippers. Strippers, I think, ended in the ’70s.”
Montoya’s son, Clayton, mused over the closure of Cheeks on Facebook.
“Gosh I love this bar,” he wrote Dec. 18 in a post that included a photo of more than a dozen scantily clad dancers with their backsides to the camera.
“I do not want to accept tomorrow will be the last day at Cheeks Santa Fe,” Clayton Montoya added. “Thank you everyone for the support.”
He did not return a message seeking comment.
The business, along with the adjacent Arcade News, an adult entertainment store, are listed for lease or “build to suit” by Albuquerque-based Pegasus Retail.
“We know nothing,” an employee of Arcade News, which remains open for business, said in a brief interview.
Anthony Johnson, president of Pegasus Group LLC, declined to provide any information about Cheeks or the future of the property.
“We’re under a confidentiality agreement, so we can’t discuss what’s happening there,” he said. “It will become public record, obviously.”
The property is listed on Pegasus’ website as 1.84 acres with about 230 feet of “frontage” along Cerrillos, which it calls “the primary retail thoroughfare of the city.”
The listing states the property has “excellent visibility” and is located in an established and growing trade area and that the market is tight.
“This is one of the only available pad sites on Cerrillos Road,” according to the listing, which also states a drive-thru is permissible on the property.
While Cheeks had somewhat of a seedy reputation, it was also an establishment many Santa Feans visited at least once.
In the 2009 interview, Elmo Montoya said Cheeks was a bar similar to the watering hole featured on the long-running TV show Cheers.
“We know a lot of our customers, probably 75 percent, by first name,” he said back then. “We have tourists from all over the country coming in. It’s just a place to relax without worries of fights. We have the least fights, I believe, out of any bar here in Santa Fe.”
A fight in 2011 later pushed Cheeks near the brink of closure.
A man shot outside the club filed a personal injury lawsuit against Elmo Montoya and three of his corporations in 2014. The victim said one of the club’s employees knew the shooter was likely to pull a gun from his vehicle and that Montoya should have known there was a potential for violence between patrons because police had been called to the club more than 100 times in the 10 years before the shooting.
The parties reached a $437,000 settlement in 2016. While the club’s insurance company paid $200,000, Elmo Montoya was on the hook for the remaining $237,000, which he was supposed to pay by March 2017 but didn’t. According to the settlement agreement, Montoya’s promise to pay was secured by a mortgage on the club and a security interest on the club’s liquor license, putting the future of the club in peril.
Rick Sandoval, the shooting victim’s attorney, did not return a message seeking comment. But Roger Prucino, then a private practice attorney who represented Montoya, said he believed the terms of the agreement had been met.
“To the best of my knowledge, every term of that settlement agreement was satisfied,” said Prucino, who now works for the Santa Fe County Attorney’s Office.
Staff writer Robert Nott contributed to this report.