I Taught Sex Workers to Sing for HBO

A Porn Star, a Brothel Owner, and a Swedish Film Crew Walk into a Bar…

This is a true story, without embellishment, no names were changed, and no laws were broken. 

I am a professional musician, which essentially means that I play music for money and am married to a person with a real job. I was blessed with a gift for singing, had many good teachers, and now I take pleasure in performing and passing on the art as a vocal coach. 

My wife Becky and I have called Northern Nevada home for over 20 years.  In Nevada, the morality reality is that legal brothels are not just a familiar part of our landscape, but also contribute to our tax base and are a part of our rich gold and silver mining history. 

Becky and I live in Carson City, nestled at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, about a twenty-minute drive to Lake Tahoe, during the off season. Carson City is the capital of Nevada, which means our seat of government is located here, and, as such, the rightwing and leftwing folks manage to coexist here pretty well, out of necessity. 

image: courtesy of Marsh Brodeur

One weekend evening in June I was performing at the Carson Cigar Company, a local cigar shop, and bar.  I was singing and playing drums with sax player Rick Metz, and pianist Dean Everett. At this little iconic joint you will find cowboys sharing drinks with artists, old hippies, and politicians on both sides of the aisle. 

The aptly nicknamed Cigar Bar is half bar, half humidor. When you walk in the door you are immediately enveloped in a fragrant fog and are “smoking” a sampling of everyone’s cigars.  Cigar smoke is different than cigarette smoke; it’s more expensive.

image: courtesy of Marsh Brodeur

The smoke, once adapted to, shares the floor (pun intended), with a fragrance suggesting that a Macallan danced here frequently with a Maker’s Mark and had various craft beers cut in. As you walk in the door, about four feet in front of you is the old, well-elbowed, wooden bar that takes up half the length of the back wall. Four small tables on the left, near tinted windows looking out to the street. Six tables on the right, next to the walk-in humidor; think walk-in closet with an overpowering smell of raw tobacco and licorice incense.

image: courtesy of Marsh Brodeur

The Carson Cigar Company’s Rouge’s Gallery includes famous brothel owner and HBO Cathouse reality show star, the late Dennis Hoff. It was not uncommon for Dennis to pop in with clients and some of his employees to hang out for a while. Dennis was a huge man, I would guess six-foot-four, above 300 lbs., not all of which was adipose. He was reminiscent of Daddy Warbucks from the comic strip and musical Annie. 

One Friday night in June, Hoff walked into the bar with a larger-than-usual entourage that included four, fifteen-hundred dollar an-hour sex workers, adult film star (now convict) Ron Jeremy, and a Swedish film crew comprised of three impossibly attractive blond men in their twenties that looked like an ad for overpriced cologne or underwear or something. They never smiled. It haunted me a little. How can you be in a tiny bar in Carson City, at a table with Ron Jeremy, Dennis Hoff, and four “Cat House” stars and not at least smile at the absurdity of it?

About thirty minutes after Dennis and company came in, our trio took a break. I went over to where they were sitting to say hello. A tad insecure, I had to remind myself, Hey, you’re a jazz musician, you actually fit perfectly in this Mel Brooks diorama.

When I walked over to the three tables that the house had pulled together for them, Dennis said, Hey Marsh sit down over here. After introductions, none of which I remembered, Dennis said, Hey do you mind if Ron Jeremy plays the piano a little bit? I’m thinking, A piano-playing porn star, of course, that’s all that’s missing. “Sure,” I replied… do you want us to accompany him?  Dennis said, No, let him play solo, but go announce him. So I did. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, for those of you that don’t recognize this celebrity, you are much better people than the rest of us. [laughter] This is adult film star Ron Jeremy, and he is going to play the piano, I assume with his hands. This cracked up Jeremy and got a big applause from the audience.

Ron Jeremy is about five foot four inches tall in Cuban heels. He is not what you would call a “looker” though apparently, that depends on where you are looking as, at one time, he was the number one male porn star in the industry. Needless to say, he had everyone’s attention. It got so quiet you could hear a blue pill drop. 

Ron Jeremy started playing. Clunky chords, all white keys. It was not good. People, half-smiling were squirming in their seats, small room, can’t hide, can’t leave. To further the audience’s botheration, the playing wasn’t exaggeratedly bad, like he meant to play poorly as a joke or something.  Which was unfortunate, because laughter would have been such a relief at this point. 

I turn to Dennis who is laughing hysterically. I smile, I don’t dare laugh. Now desperate for social clues, I look back to the stage just as Ron gratefully stops playing. 

After an uncomfortable pause, the aging porn star closes his eyes and starts playing a Beethoven Sonata, only slightly slower than written and otherwise flawless. This is a very fast, very difficult piece to play. I turn to look at Dennis, who is looking at me, waiting for a reaction. “That is ridiculous,” I say. That cracks Dennis up and he explains that Ron had a strict upbringing that included mandatory classical piano lessons. So, parents, to be safe, if you don’t want your kid to be a porn star, maybe don’t go pushing the piano on them. 

With a Beethoven/Ron Jeremy soundtrack in the background, Dennis says loudly in my ear, Hey you teach singing lessons right? I replied, “Yes.”  He continued Do you think you could teach my girls to sing?  I thought he was kidding so, without skipping a beat, I said, “Absolutely.” He replied, Good, because HBO wants to do a Broadway-themed dream sequence in one of the Cathouse episodes and they want me to bring six to eight girls to NYC for two weeks to teach us to sing. That will cause me, and my girls, to lose a lot of money, but more importantly, I don’t want to look like an idiot in front of these HBO people. Can you teach us to sing, cuz I told them I wasn’t going to NYC, but I know a guy here.

At this point I realized he was serious. I turned to look him in the eyes and said, “How can I say no to that… but my wife Becky might feel differently.” Hoff replied, Bring her with you, it’s not what she thinks. Then, waggling his hand side to side he said, Well it’s sort of what she thinks, but bring her by.” I said, “Great.

That night when I told Becky, my wife of thirteen years at that time, what had transpired, she said the same thing that I said, Honey, how can you say no to that?  I called Dennis, we settled on a fee, and I was about to spend four weeks, three days a week, teaching the world’s most famous pimp, and six reality show sex workers, to sing 1940s Broadway music. Maybe.

HBO was not happy about any of this. They sent no less than the Director herself. A four-foot-six inch, senior-aged, impeccably dressed, Patty Kaplan was accompanied by two young, impeccably everything, male voice teachers, all the way from NYC just to check me out. If you know Linda Hunt, an actress from NCIS Los Angeles, she is a Patty doppelganger.

Ms. Kaplan glanced at me with a look that simply said; I want you dead.  But in the end, I hit it off with the voice teachers and after two hours of singing for them, talking about my background, my teaching technique, and their expectations, they gave me their blessing to teach the cast. When they reported to Director Kaplan, she looked me up and down, literally shook her head side to side, mentally flipped me off, and walked out without saying a word… but I got the gig. I was a music consultant to HBO working for the Moonlight Bunny Ranch. 

I had so many great experiences, none of them sexual, teaching the Brothel to sing show tunes. The girls were very supportive and most of them could sing quite well because many were entertainers of one kind or another prior to coming to work at the ranch. My wife Becky was given the hero’s welcome when she came to the brothel to visit. The women congratulated her on being so open-minded as to let her husband hang out with working girls. They signed some Bunny Ranch logo wear for her and for her boss’s dad who was a huge fan of the show.

At the end of our four weeks together Dennis and the “Girls” went to New York City and Cathouse the Musical was born. I had an experience of a lifetime along with the world’s best “bar story.” Anytime I hear tall tales at the bar, I manage to find a way to sidle up and when the timing is right, or not, I bellow, “Hey did I ever tell you about the time I taught prostitutes to sing for HBO”?

Marshall (Marsh) Brodeur is a professional musician, composer, vocalist, vocal coach, and music supervisor for film and television. Brodeur is also a vocal/choral director for musical theater productions. He’s received numerous music/film/television industry awards such as the Telly Award For “A Glimpse of Heaven, a Taste of Hell;” a documentary for PBS – Composing and Scoring for Film and Television, a Telly Award For “Off Hand;” 2017-2018 Forte Award for Top Male Vocalist; and the Platinum Remi Award Houston International Film Festival – Music for “Choices” with Brian Cranston. Marsh and his wife live in Carson City Nevada.

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