Naked Oppression

Denver may soon be the last city in the metropolitan area where you can legally buy a one-on-one table dance from a stripper and hand a tip directly to her. With the help of a religious-right legal foundation based in Arizona, virtually all of Denver's neighboring cities have adopted ordinances in the past year that dramatically restrict the interaction between dancers and customers. Club owners in these cities say that the new laws could put them out of business.

The latest burg attempting to crack down on strip joints is Glendale, a municipality of 4,100 that sits on a sliver of land in the middle of south Denver. Last week the tiny city, long known for its strip joints, proposed a new ordinance that, among other things, would force strippers to stay six feet away from patrons and would bump up the minimum age for dancers from 18 to 21. And Glendale isn't alone. Seventeen cities surrounding Denver have adopted similar regulations.

"This isn't anything cutting-edge," says Glendale mayor Joe Rice. "The same sort of regulations which we're proposing are already in effect around here, and they're doing fine. This is simply a nuisance issue."

But local club owners say that the nuisance is Glendale's city government. "We wish we could just move forty feet across Colorado Boulevard and be in Denver," says Deborah Matthews, owner of Shotgun Willie's in Glendale. "We're like a guy in the desert dying of thirst when there's a glass of water within reach."

Salvation might be further away than that. For over a year now, the Denver City Council has refused to issue any new adult-business permits while the city conducted a fact-finding study of strip clubs and adult arcades. The study concluded that adult-oriented businesses adversely affect adjacent property values and encourage crime. And even though the study has been wrapped up and the moratorium is scheduled to be lifted this week, Assistant City Attorney Thom Bigler says there aren't any immediate plans to open the city's doors to new adult cabarets.

"The idea is to put on the brakes long enough so that we could step back and take a look at the effects these types of businesses have on the city," says Bigler. "After we determine that, we can take the appropriate steps."

Although Denver's introspection comes at a time when many of its neighbors are enacting tougher ordinances, Bigler says that's just a coincidence. "We're not going to make a decision based on what other cities are doing," he says. "But I'll be watching to see how the law develops."

Denver obscenity lawyer Arthur Schwartz, who often defends adult businesses in court, has kept an eye peeled as well. He notes two separate lawsuits filed by strip clubs in Commerce City and Federal Heights claiming that new regulations violate their First Amendment right to free speech. In both municipalities, injunctions have temporarily stopped enforcement of new, restrictive ordinances. Schwartz cites these injunctions as evidence that the battle is far from over.

"The outlying areas are really cracking down," says Schwartz, "and it seems as if Denver's position is to let them litigate and then do what's required. It's actually rather mature on Denver's part."

Although every Colorado strip joint that serves alcohol is subject to uniform regulations imposed by the state liquor board that spell out basic restrictions on stripper conduct within clubs, municipalities can adopt their own ordinances that further stifle stripper/customer interaction. One of these restrictions, which is also being proposed by Glendale, infuriates club owners to no end. That ordinance would require customers to place tips in a "tip box" rather than hand them directly to the topless dancers.

"That's where most of the money comes in," says a club owner who asks not to be identified. "We encourage our girls to communicate directly with the customers, because that's what brings them back. But if the guy has to be six feet away and put his tips in a box, that's not going to happen. They'll go to Denver, where they can."

Which is exactly the idea, according to the National Family Legal Foundation, a conservative group in Scottsdale, Arizona, that has helped Glendale, Aurora, Lakewood and Fort Collins craft what the NFLF calls "SOB"--sexually oriented business--ordinances.

Glendale mayor Rice says that in return for a $1,000 fee, the NFLF (which has the enthusiastic support of such people as Colorado Springs religious broadcaster James Dobson) flew a representative into town to talk with city leaders. "They have a lot of experience in these matters," says Rice, who adds that the city modeled its proposed law after the NFLF's sample ordinance.

Rice says he "bumped into" NFLF personnel at a National League of Cities convention, where the group was recruiting business. The NFLF also actively fights gay rights and abortion rights along with its crusade against obscenity.

(The NFLF has obscenity of a different kind in its past. The group's family tree includes Charles Keating, a moral crusader of the Eighties who was jailed for S&L fraud and branded in Congress as an "economic pornographer" and "financiopath." The group also claims connections with former U.S. attorney general Edwin Meese, who was forced to resign from office in 1988 because of his role in the Iran-Contra scandal as well as an alleged cash-for-influence deal he struck with a defense contractor. Meese, who formerly headed a national commission on pornography, has said he "proudly serves" on the NFLF's board of directors.)

The NFLF prides itself on providing legal assistance to towns "fending off sexually oriented businesses without running afoul of the courts." In addition to trying to fight the porn industry in Colorado, the group has received 300 requests for assistance from around the country in the past three and a half months, says NFLF coordinator Scott Bergthold.

Denver's Bigler says that the group sent an unsolicited packet of materials to the city but adds that the packet "was in no way" used by the city in its study of adult businesses. That move by the NFLF was not surprising. The group lobbies hard across the country to spread its anti-obscenity message by drafting suggested anti-porn laws and marketing them. It suggests that cities "cut into profits" by using regulations or even physical barriers that prevent customers from tucking tips into the dancers' G-strings.

"Like any business," says Bergthold, "the bottom line is money."
Shotgun Willie's Matthews agrees, and that's why she feels threatened by the proposed Glendale ordinances and plans to vociferously oppose them at a March 17 public hearing. "We've been here since 1982," she says, "and that's longer than all the [time served by] city council members."

Bill Junor, a Glendale city councilman from 1990 to 1996, says that lack of maturity on the council may be why the city government is going after the strip clubs. "What really bothers me," says Junor, who drafted the city's original sexually oriented business ordinance in 1993, "is that a city council of amateurs can make a decision that will profoundly affect people's ability to make a living without taking responsibility for the consequences. A city council's job is to regulate, not eliminate. And that's what this new ordinance will do. I think one of the reasons they're doing this is because it's popular right now."

Morality may be the driving force behind the NFLF. But Junor, who lost to Rice in the last mayoral race, says the real motivation in Glendale may have more to do with the real estate business. "What we're seeing under the guise of morality," says Junor, "is a quest for real estate. I can't prove that it's economically driven, but everyone on the city council is a protege of the old mayor [Steve Ward], who wanted to buy those clubs up to change the character of the area." Some people in the strip joints have the same suspicions.

The 28-year-old Rice says that contrary to what club owners and some residents believe, the purpose of the new ordinance isn't to close the strip joints down. "If that was our intent, there are mechanisms that we could use to do it," says Rice. "Strip clubs have been a topic of conversation for a long time out here, and we're taking an opportunity to look at how they affect the community. This isn't a complicated smokescreen conspiracy like the owners say. There are no hidden motives."

Shotgun Willie's didn't attempt to hide its feelings about Rice when it recently took a shot at him on its marquee along Colorado Boulevard. The message read that the business was being threatened by a "Rice diet." Rice, however, was more amused than angered by the jab and says he asked the club if he could have a photo of the marquee message for a keepsake.

"Mom would have been proud," says Rice.

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