Josh Shaffer

Farewell to onetime topless bar mogul — Shaffer

Doug Langston poses on his canopied bed inside the lavish house he built in Cary’s MacGregor Downs. A topless bar owner, he was denied membership in the country club.
Doug Langston poses on his canopied bed inside the lavish house he built in Cary’s MacGregor Downs. A topless bar owner, he was denied membership in the country club. 1977 Raleigh Times file photo

In 1977, the owner of a Hillsborough Street topless bar built a flamboyant bachelor pad in Cary’s toniest neighborhood – a three-story man cave that featured a kidney-shaped pool, a canopied four-poster bed and a room filled with Playboy magazines.

He took up residence there to the horror of MacGregor Downs, which refused him membership in the country club and turned up its collective nose at the wealth he derived from go-go girls.

And then, in a moment of cocky triumph, Doug Langston invited the public to tour the house that smut built: the free-standing stone fireplaces on every floor, the aquarium built into a wall, the pagoda-shaped gazebo, the whirlpool bath, the dance floor, his collection of owl and butterfly models. For a peek, Langston charged $2.

“Because I’m a single person, because of the business I’m in, there’s a lot of rumors about – everything,” he told The Raleigh Times. “They picture me as a lot worse person than I am. I’ve never been in trouble in my life. I was an Eagle Scout at 14. I had a 96 average in high school.”

Few people noticed that Langston died in May at age 74, his legend as a strip club magnate as faded as the memory of a racier Hillsborough Street, where he ran My Apartment lounge.

In 1971, Langston posted classified ads almost daily seeking women to dance for $150 to $200 a week – a handsome wage for the time. The women who answered would slowly shed spangled negligees, performing for N.C. State University students who applauded politely while sipping cans of Schlitz.

“There wasn’t no ruckus in My Apartment lounge,” said old friend Mike Whitaker. “He had strict rules. And he had people there to be sure you followed the rules. He had guys who would escort you down the staircase and you were gone.”

Langston ran his lounge in an era of confused morality. The go-go clubs operated shamelessly on Raleigh’s main drag, not hidden in industrial parks or behind airports like their modern equivalents. But the crackdowns were constant. In the early ’70s, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control commission banned topless dancing, sending Langston sputtering.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he told The News & Observer. “There are about seven topless places in town now. If they have to close down, it will mean 80 or 100 people on the street without a job when jobs are critical.”

A disappointed customer sent all eight of Langston’s dancers a red rose, and the women vowed to bump and grind on despite a 50 percent pay cut. “Dancing can get into your blood,” said Frankie Smith, a onetime go-go girl. “It’s not just a job for us. It’s art.”

The ban didn’t last, and by friends’ accounts, Langston made a fabulous living on the pent-up desires of college students. His house in MacGregor Downs cost an estimated $350,000 – reported at the time to be the priciest digs in the subdivision.

But Langston, from what I can tell, resisted the role of Raleigh’s Hugh Hefner. He remained proud of his achievements on his undefeated high school basketball team in Princeton, for winning dance contests in White Lake, for graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill and for serving with the Army in Vietnam. When asked why he went into business as a strip club owner, he replied that it was one of the few enterprises that didn’t require a lot of startup capital.

Getting snubbed in Cary didn’t seem to bother him, but I suspect the decision to plunk down his castle in MacGregor Downs was a conscious gesture designed to show his worth. “I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes,” he told the Times in 1977. “I have no desire to socialize. But I don’t think people should label anybody.”

He won the hearts of the Cary Council of Garden Clubs, which he invited to decorate his house as a Christmas fundraiser. Members floated candlelit wreaths in his swimming pool. “The garden club believes in him,” vice president Eugenia Caldwell said in 1977. “He’s a fine person.”

In 1980, a fire gutted My Apartment lounge and, from what I can tell, more or less ended Langston’s run on Hillsborough Street. The city’s attitude changed. Crackdowns grew more frequent. In his 2009 piece for Indy Week titled “Keep Hillsborough Street Funky,” Bob Geary described riotous celebrations after the Wolfpack’s basketball championship in 1983, during which a Raleigh police officer got struck in the head with a beer bottle. After that, the city’s police chief personally fought bars’ license renewals.

Langston disappeared from public view, and I haven’t been able to flesh out many details beyond his years with My Apartment. He sold the house in Cary, which still stands but in heavily modified form, at least from what I can tell through real estate records. But he seems to have finished life as a happy man. At least, I hope he did.

“More importantly than the businesses, projects, and homes that he was able to create and build, Doug was a builder of people,” read his obituary in The N&O. “He had many friends over the years, but he also touched their lives in a way many people can’t replicate. He took people he cared about and showed them their full potential. The word ‘can’t’ was not a part of his vocabulary.”

So I will offer this farewell to Langston, the darling of a bygone Raleigh, the peacock who never hid his feathers.