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Steve Banerjee, Bengali Entrepreneur

by Anirvan Chatterjee, July 2000

This is the story of a Bengali immigrant to the United States--an amazing Bengali immigrant entrepreneur. A self made man, he was not applauded in our circles for building perhaps the best known brand name that any Bengali in North American has ever created. His controversial life has turned him into a subject of gossip, and self-censorship in Bengali immigrant communities. While we may question whether or not we identify with him, we cannot ignore the fact that in some of the most crucial moments of his career and life, he chose to identify with us. The time has come for us to reclaim the story of Somen Banerjee, and to face the assault that the example of his tragic and triumphant life makes against some of our most cherished myths--the model minority, the politely schmoozing nerdy technology entrepreneur, the naïve, self-effacing Bengali immigrant "good boy."

Model Minority: An Immigrant Success Story

Somen Banerjee was born in Bombay, India in 1947--the year India gained independence from colonial British rule. He was a fourth generation printer. While he later went by his nickname "Steve," he retained his name "Somen," even after immigration; perhaps the coincidence of his given name (in Bengali, pronounced as "show-men") did not escape him. Somen left India sometime between the late 1960s and early 1970s. He loved to travel. He spent some time in Canada, before he settled in Playa Del Rey, California, near Los Angeles, in the early 1970s. An entrepreneur from the beginning, he owned and operated a Mobil gas station in Playa Del Rey for some time. He dabbled in other ventures, but was burned when he lost a large sum of money in a failed backgammon club.

In 1975, Steve used a small investment to buy a failing Los Angeles rock and roll bar called Destiny II. He worked to turn it into a disco with jazz and street-dance performers. Four years later, inspired by word of a Canadian male strip club, Steve renamed the club "Chippendales," and along with female mud wrestling, he launched a "Male Exotic Dance Night for Ladies Only" it was the first American troupe of its kind.

By the early 1980s, Chippendales was the best known of the several hundred male strip clubs in America. Steve drove the business to amazing heights with his professionalism and marketing skills. By the late 1980s, the Chippendales were almost a household name. Over a million copies of their calendar were sold every year. Touring profits exceeded $25,000 per week, and at its height, Steve controlled an $8 million a year business.

Steve was known to be a family man. He spent time with his wife and daughter, born in 1985. As his success grew, observers noted him to be a sharp dresser, and someone who obviously enjoyed the rewards that he had earned as a self-made man, going from pumping gas, to ownership of an entertainment empire, at the forefront of his industry. He owned several homes, including a large one near the ocean; he drove fine Mercedes cars. Ever the entrepreneur, he also sold real estate in his part time.

Steve devoted thought to the long term. He idolized Walt Disney, and had plans for eventually developing an adult amusement complex. He also enjoyed reading business journals, and spent time studying the works of favorite designers and filmmakers like Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, and Steven Spielberg.

Capitalist: Playing With the Big Boys

To the outside world, Somen "Steve" Banerjee was the poster child for hard working immigrant entrepreneurs, building up their dreams in their newly adopted land. However, such success did not come without a price. Capitalism is not a game for the weak, and from the beginning, Steve understood that his chances for success were based on his ability to contend with the competition. In March 1979: Steve attempted to get someone to burn down Moody's Disco, a competing nightclub in Santa Monica; minor damage was sustained to the premises. Again, in 1984, he attempted to have someone burn down the competing Red Onion restaurant and bar in Marina del Rey; no major damage was caused.

The mid-1980s had been a difficult period for the Chippendales organization. The judgments of a series of major lawsuits--personal injury, as well as suits alleging discrimination against patrons, both African-American, and male–had hurt the bottom line. On January 31, 1987, the Chippendales' parent company filed for reorganization under federal bankruptcy laws. The organization survived, but not all those affiliated with it were so lucky.

Steve started working with Nick DeNoia, an Emmy-winning director of children's TV shows, in the early 1980s. He became the Chippendales choreographer, and was a major reason for the success of the Chippendales dancers. Nick was initially promised a large share of the (then-low or nonexistent) touring revenues. He later exchanged his financial interests in the Chippendales clubs for control of all touring, and for half the generated profits. As touring grew to account for significantly larger proportions of the Chippendales' income, Steve and Nick had a falling out; in 1987, Nick DeNoia sued Steve for violating their touring agreement by taking his own Chippendales revue on the road. In April 1987, Nick DeNoia, was shot in the face in New York City, by hired gun Ray Colon. While rumors connected Steve to the killings, the case remained unsolved. Steve subsequently bought back the Chippendales' touring rights from the DeNoia family, for $1.3 million. In 1988, the original Chippendales club closed, after losing its liquor license and fire permit. The group turned into a solely touring revue, under Steve's new control.

In 1990 and early 1991, Steve Banerjee tried to have former Chippendales choreographer Mike Fullington, then working for the competing male dance group Adonis, killed. Ray Colon was also set to murder two former Chippendales dancers, who had also joined the rival Adonis group, then touring Britain. Ray hired a hitman--an FBI informant--to do the deed. The hitman confessed to the American Embassy. The conversation between Ray and the hitman was recorded. Some time later, Steve flew to Zurich to meet Ray to discuss the planned killings, but didn't realize that the police had ensured that Ray was wired for sound. By 1990, the FBI had begun to build the evidence for what would eventually lead to its case against the founder of the Chippendales.

On September 2, 1993, Steve Banerjee was charged with conspiring to kill three business associates, the former club choreographer and two dancers who had joined Adonis. He was indicted and held without bail on six counts, including conspiracy to commit murder for hire. The denial of bail was based on his having earlier told Ray Colon that were he to be apprehended, he'd either kill himself, or return to India and raise a new family there (by paying a pilot $25,000 to get him out of the country without a passport).

One month later, the charges against Steve Banerjee were expanded to include the killing of Nick DeNoia. The grand jury also charged him with racketeering and arson, as well as the 1990 planned murder of Jagjit Sehdeva, over a business dispute. If convicted, Steve faced life in prison, and a fine of up to $1.75 million.

On July 29, 1994, Steve pled guilty to racketeering, attempting to burn down a competing nightclub, and arranging the murder of Nick DeNoia. He faced 26 years in jail, as part of a plea bargain that would drop his other murder for hire charges; he would also have to forfeit his interest in the Chippendales' parent company. He was to be sentenced in three months, on October 24. Steve had been treated for mild bouts of depression in the time he was in jail; he was particularly concerned about the impact that being imprisoned and fined would have on his family.

Sometime between 3 and 4 am on the night of October 23, 1994, just hours before he was to be sentenced, Steve Banerjee took his own life; he hung himself using a torn bedsheet on a coat hook, in his tiny cell in Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles. He died at age 48. The police found a note left in his cell--written in an Indian language, that they couldn't decipher. A family man until the end, Steve may have ended his own life to ensure that his estate went to his family, rather than being confiscated by the government.

Anti-Hero: Why Steve Banerjee Matters

Much has been written about the vaunted myth of the model minority. The loudest voices in the Bengali community in America (as with many South Asian diasporic communities) have been willing to accept the consequences of the label; internally marginalized groups (real or imagined) have been more willing to publicly challenge the concept -- but to what end? Long evenings of discussions don't mean very much as long as the terms and consequences of the debate remain unaltered. Histories like that of Steve Banerjee allow us to begin to do just this. Steve Banerjee is Bengali. Again, Steve Banerjee is Bengali. His Bengali-boy-does-good, rags-to-riches rise incorporates the same tactics and techniques that many of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, heroes of the community, use today. His success based on "culturally derived" values of hard work, ambition, care for family, etc. predates that of the more recent wave of middle-class IIT engineers laden down with stock option glory. To condemn Steve Banerjee is to condemn one who is narrowly different from our greatest heroes. Same culture, same ambition, and with even greater success -- surely the Chippendales are a more lasting contribution to the American cultural landscape than the plethora of desi-engineered technology products. To condemn Steve Banerjee is to acknowledge that model minority values are not neutrally positive, neutrally equal.

While the Bengali community has been slow to identify with Somen Banerjee, the triumph and tragedy of his life has been recognized by the outside world. Barry Sonnenfield, the director of the hit film "Men In Black", plans to produce a film called "Chippendales," based on the life of Steve Banerjee and the early history of his troupe, based on Ron Sheldon's unpublished book of the same name. It's expected out sometime in 2000, from Touchstone Pictures, which is owned by Disney. (The British television network ITV showed a program on the same theme in September 1998, called "Chippendales: A Secret History.") It would be the ultimate irony if the first major Bengali immigrant character on the American big screen were to be someone we refuse to acknowledge as one of our own. Acknowledgement does not imply endorsement; as a community, we need to begin to break past our own myths about ourselves, to see ourselves as fully rounded, capable of having our own complex antiheroes. The legacy of Somen Banerjee both extends and reinforces different parts of our understanding of what it means to be Bengali in America, but we can never learn from it unless we can begin to extend our sense of community identification to acknowledge the non-politically-correct aspects of our shared history, warts and all.

Further Reading

While the rise of Steve Banerjee was less reported upon, his legal troubles and subsequent suicide was dealt with extensively in the press. I've pieced together Steve Banerjee's story from dozens of newspaper clippings and online references. We await the release of Ron Sheldon's book for a better account of the life and death of this fascinating figure.

© 1998-2000 Anirvan Chatterjee

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