Twenty years ago, Morganna the Kissing Bandit—a voluptuous chickfamous for running onto baseball diamonds and smooching the players—wasarrested at a topless bar in the fabled “Hooter Heaven” area of BachmanLake after she attacked a customer, apparently boxing his ears with herblouse bunnies. Fortunately she didn’t poke an eye out, and afterpleading no contest, she said she’d learned her lesson: don’t pointthose things unless you intend to use them. I still receive an annualChristmas card from Morganna, who remembers my balanced, in-depthnewspaper coverage of her case, and the event lives on in thecollective memory of those of us who believe a little harmlesshell-raising in proximity to nekkid bazoomas never hurt anybody andpossibly contributes to the overall sanity of the city.
Those days are not just gone, they’re now regarded as a dark age of civic lawlessness. Nobody got all that upsetabout Morganna flouncing her flopdoodles in public. But if she showedup today and battered a bald pate with her bouncing betties, she wouldbe handcuffed, booked, fined, and probably jailed for a considerabletime. The club owner would be in danger of losing his liquor license.And the whole incident would be trumpeted seriously as evidence of thedepravity of the Dallas underclass.
Yes, the New Puritans are in the ascendant. They’re taking away our fun. I’m here to tell ’em to go to hell.
Perhaps a little more history is in order.
Inthe beginning, there were titty bars, skanky roadhouses, biker dives,clip joints, and all kinds of prefab shacks with “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS” onthe blinking neon signs. If you ventured inside—we’re going back to theprehistoric ’70s now—you could be fleeced by the strippers,short-changed by the bartender, served a cocktail full of seltzer waterand rotgut, and, if you got rowdy, pitched out into the alley by abouncer named Hawg.
But then Dallas made the world safe forexotic dancing. I know this because I’m sitting in the Men’s Club,having a sirloin steak, chatting up a half-nekkid psychology gradstudent from Cocoa Beach, Florida. (Yes, they tell you stuff like thatnow.) Last night, at the Lodge, I discussed the ski slopes ofInterlaken (well, actually above Interlaken; she corrected me on that)with a Swiss girl in a string bikini who apparently had to choosebetween being a supermodel or a stripper. Later on I might mosey downto the raucous King’s Cabaret, formerly the King’s Lounge, on MarketCenter Boulevard, where working-class girls entertain guys who justcame from the auto body repair shop, often still wearing theirgrease-spattered overalls with “Buster” stitched over the shirt pocket.(For those topless-history completists, I should add that the King’sCabaret is the descendant of the Busy Bee, the last true burlesquehouse in Texas, where a stripper whose name I’ve forgotten was stillworking with a giant anaconda as recently as 1982.)
Yes, Dallasis still the capital of exotic dancing, but just barely. Of course,it’s not called exotic dancing anymore. “Exotic” was a Bourbon Streetword, something invented to replace “burlesque artist,” which hadreplaced “stripper.” They’re not strippers or exotic dancers orecdysiasts anymore—they’re just dancers, and they work in places calledgentleman’s clubs. The purveyors of nekkid booty manipulation havealways sought euphemisms for their business, trying to scrape thesleaze off the nature of the beast, but in Dallas, as nowhere else inthe world, the experiment actually worked. The gentleman’s club wasborn here. The Million Dollar Saloon, the first “gentleman’s club” inthe world, wasn’t much by today’s standards, but it was a trailblazerin the world of erotic dancing, with its dress code, deejay, multiplestages, a “VIP room” (it cost $3 to be a VIP), and other amenities.(Some claim that Rick’s Cabaret in Houston was the first gentleman’sclub, but the Million Dollar had a marketing concept, not just the bells and whistles.)
“Peopledidn’t know what ’gentleman’s club’ meant,” says Steve Craft, a droll,good-natured fellow who runs 17 topless clubs for Duncan Burch’s BurchManagement Company. “They would say, ’Is it a gay club?’ We were justbeginning to educate them.”
I meet Craft on a recent morning inthe calm of a conference room at Cabaret Royale, which 10 years ago wasthe most famous gentleman’s club in the world and probably still ranksin the top 10. (In the club’s heyday, dancers based as far away asLondon would routinely fly to Dallas on Thursday afternoon to workthree nights at Cabaret before flying home. Those days are all butgone, thanks to copycat clubs in Atlanta, Las Vegas, New York, and,yes, even London, but there are still girls from Miami and New York whosurf in regularly.) Seated at the table this morning are three ownersand managers representing 41 topless bars: Craft, whose bookishcountenance can suddenly become animated as he reels off an amazingarray of detailed legal and statistical information; Nick Mehmeti, asuave Greek with a sort of Old World charm reminiscent of the Germanactor Curt Jurgens in And God Created Woman; and an owner who wants to remain anonymous but who would be recognized by anyone in the business.
Elsewherein the country these guys would be regarded as visionaries, similar tocasino executives like Steve Wynn, who cleaned up Las Vegas and turnedit into a safe, Wall Street-friendly business. Their designs andmanagement techniques have been copied in clubs as far away as Moscowand Buenos Aires. Some of their clubs are now publicly traded. InDallas, however, they’re regarded as public enemies No. 1 through 3.The fourth ace on Mayor Laura Miller’s hit list would be Duncan Burchhimself, but he’s not around this morning. These guys have been thetargets of every legal brickbat the city could throw at them for thepast 18 years. They thought that was all done a few months ago whenthey agreed to everything the city said it wanted, but now they’regathering their armies of lawyers for another round. The city pulled abait-and-switch, told them for two decades that all they wanted was forthem to move away from churches, schools, and residences. When they allhad, they got zapped again. Now we don’t like what goes on inside your club, the city said.
“Doyou know how much this is going to cost the city?” Craft says,referring to the upcoming titanic legal battle about the “6-foot rule.”
“Wedon’t have any choice,” Mehmeti says. “We have to either fight or closeup. But the city doesn’t have to do that. We’ve tried meeting withthem. We’ve even offered to buy clubs and shut them down, so that thecity will have less of them. Nothing works.”
What’s going onhere, circa A.D. 2004, in the city of gilded lilies? First we get thesmoking ordinance, one of the most anti-business measures passed inyears, something you might expect in Aspen or Berkeley or Madison—butDallas? (The city of Austin, truer to its “live and let live” Texasroots, recently repealed its smoking ordinance, returning to thecommon-sense rules of the early ’90s, which said, “Keep ’em separate,but let ’em smoke.”) Then there’s the ongoing attack on after-hoursclubs in Deep Ellum. (Said one Councilman, “I just can’t imagine areason anyone would need to be out after 2 a.m.” Shades of Footloose?)And now there’s the 6-foot rule, requiring topless dancers to remainisolated from their customers, making the lap dance obsolete—hell,making the table dance obsolete—and threatening to return the industryto the standards of Jack Ruby, circa 1962.
Originally Iplanned to list here all the legal arguments and counterarguments madefor and against topless dancing during the past 30 years—I’ve read thecases, done the homework—but the fact is, concentrating on why and howthe clubs have had to defend themselves is beside the point. The legalreasons are always changing, but the goal remains the same. There’s apattern of lying and subterfuge and legal fictions practiced by a hostof Dallas bureaucrats that add up to one conclusion: they’ve alwaysbeen trying to drive these men out of business.
They’ve never actually saidthey want them out of business. That would have made for an interestingdebate on morality, individual freedom, and all the other ACLU-typeissues that these cases should turn on. Instead, they’ve said that theoperators are entitled to run their businesses without interference solong as they’re not close to a school, church, or residence. Of course,once the clubs found locations that complied, the city added otherthings they didn’t want them to be close to—a hospital, a historicdistrict (!), and even another topless club. The justification forthese laws is always horse hockey. I have yet to find a civicofficial—and I’ve been writing on this topic for two decades—who canpoint to an actual crime that occurred because a topless bar was tooclose to any of these places. In Canada, in fact, topless bars can belocated almost anywhere, and the expected social chaos has failed tooccur. The legal record is there for anyone to examine, and the amazingthing about it is this: city officials often lie about theirintentions, and topless-bar owners almost always tell the truth.They’ve asked repeatedly for a coherent and permanent set of rules—sothey can obey the law.
The way City Hall has treatedthe industry rivals the way the press has. Whenever this subject isdiscussed in Dallas, the writer takes one of three tacks:
1)”Well, I personally wouldn’t go into those places, but I will defendtheir right to exist.” Put another way: “We can tolerate a littlesleaze for the sake of free speech.” If you wouldn’t go into thoseplaces, then shut up. I personally would go into thoseplaces. Thousands of Dallasites would go into those places. Thatthey’ve thrived in spite of constant attempts to suppress themindicates that the market has spoken.
2) “They’re bad for theimage of Dallas.” It would be more accurate to say thatDallas—suffering its second serious recession in 15 years—is foreverstruggling for an image, and the topless bars are one of the few thingsthe city is known for nationwide. For most of the ’90s, the bars made60 percent of their incomes from conventioneers, and there was a directconnection between the quality of the clubs and the decisions ofconvention organizers. “New Orleans? Bourbon Street is nasty. LasVegas? The clubs there are sinister. Hey, what about Dallas? They’vegot nightlife, and the clubs are safe.”
3) “A toplessbar is a magnet for crime. It’s not the nude dancing—it’s what happensbefore and after.” This is the argument, in fact, that’s been used tojustify almost every anti-strip-club ordinance for the past 30years—that the places are hotbeds of prostitution, drug sales, andgunplay. In fact, no study bears this out. It seems to be rather somekind of ingrained assumptive attitude among law enforcement types.
First of all, if somebody wants a hooker, he calls a hooker! Picked up the Dallas Observer lately? Been on the Internet? They’re not hard to find.
Secondly,anyone who has been to a topless bar in Dallas knows that parking lotsaround these places are illuminated like Texas Stadium. At 2 a.m. youcan literally read a book in any spot in a gentleman’s club parkinglot. There couldn’t be a worse place to contemplate a crime.
Thirdly, a dancer who leaves the club with a customer is subject to instant termination—even if the man is her boyfriend.
And,finally, the hiring of dancers has become a finely honed processspecifically designed to get rid of drug users—or “coke whores,” asinsiders daintily put it.
“The dancer [club owners] want today,”says Steve Swander, a Fort Worth attorney who frequently representssuch establishments, “is, No. 1, a single mom. The single moms are thebest employees. They never get in trouble. And No. 2, college students.They rarely get in trouble. The third category, the type of girl who’strying to get something out of the customer, that’s exactly the kindthey fire and weed out. Twenty years ago you didn’t have thisadvantage. Single moms and college girls didn’t work at these places.Today they’re our chief protection against violations.”
Thewhole “topless bar as a hotbed of crime” argument could be dealt witheasily. The topless-bar owners have offered to pay top price to City ofDallas off-duty cops to provide 24-hour security both in and outsidethe club. This would be the easiest way to make sure nothing badhappens, to make sure everyone remains safe if something bad doeshappen, and it costs the city nothing. Instead, the city has a policy forbidding officers from working at sexually oriented businesses in their off hours.
WhenDallas passed its first comprehensive zoning ordinance for SOBs, in1986, the targets were Greenville Avenue and Bachman Lake. Greenvillewas still winding down from the post-disco era, when clubs likeConfetti’s, Packard’s, Cafe Dallas, and Elan thrived, and the idea wasthat topless bars were driving out the upscale businesses. The sameargument was made by Bachman supporters, who argued that a once-vibrantrestaurant and shopping area was being ruined by Baby Dolls, CaligulaXXI, and The Fare, not to mention the massage parlors on Harry Hinesand the world-famous Geno’s Topless. (Okay, it wasn’t “world-famous,”but it was a Dallas institution.)
But, really, Greenville Avenuewas declining because it was glutted with cheap, aging “singles”apartments that couldn’t compete with better places north of LBJ. Whenthe yuppies moved, the restaurants and bars went with them. The BachmanLake area had always thrived off of Love Field, and when the airlinesmoved to the new DFW Airport in the early ’70s, they took with them theflight attendants and other airline employees and transit hotels, andthe restaurants and trendy clubs went into a slow decline. (RememberBob Lilly’s place? Craig Morton’s bar? Kosta’s Greek restaurant?) Theone large-scale effort to revitalize the area, the European Crossroadsshopping center, was such a colossal failure that it became a symbol offoolhardiness. The topless bars didn’t move into the Bachman area untilit was already a carcass, and once there, they improved the economy ofthe place, not to mention the safety. Crime is up since they leftearlier this year, and the whole area now looks like a slum. Even thegas stations are going out of business.
“It’s a ghost townwith those topless bars gone,” says Mary McKnight, owner of the CottageLounge, a neighborhood bar that is fighting its own battle with thecity as a “noncomplying business” under the new Communist MoralsCrusade that allows the city to issue citations to businesses that havebeen there for four decades. “We’ve had more break-ins since they’vebeen gone than in years and years. They even broke into my car andstole my school bag.” (McKnight is a sixth-grade math teacher, just thekind of undesirable we should be leaning on.)
The concept thatpeople can’t seem to wrap their minds around is that topless bars,especially the upscale ones, just might be good for the city. At thevery least they’re innocuous. Judging by the names and alliances of theattackers, the war against dancing is part and parcel of the wholeparanoid conservative backlash of the past few years, based on the ideathat the country went to hell in the ’60s and must be forcibly hoistedout of its decadence. In 1999, social historian Gertrude Himmelfarbargued that America has become “One Nation, Two Cultures,” and nowhereis that better illustrated than here. One culture is religious,family-oriented, conservative, and white. The other culture istolerant, secular, mostly single, and multicultural. The hard-coremembers of each represent only 20 percent of the population—10 percenton the religious side, 10 percent on the anything-goes side. The 80percent in the middle believe in live and let live.
“There’s nodoubt it’s a cultural war,” Swander says. “The city is basically tryingto eliminate [topless clubs]. Interestingly, it doesn’t break down onliberal/conservative lines, though. The women’s movement, for example,is divided on it. Half think it’s horrible. Half think it’s economicfreedom for women. It’s actually an alternative to prostitution. Thisbusiness is just selling a fantasy. Make the dancing illegal and someof these girls might just try prostitution.”
But if it truly isa cultural war, why is it being decided in back rooms with all kinds ofex parte conversations? If the outraged moralists really want to bringSOBs down, why not openly list the reasons they’re bad for the city anddebate them on their merits? I can think of arguments they might make—that they’re dehumanizing to women, that they’re anti-family, that they’re a breach of community standards.
Why don’t opponents make any of these arguments in court?
Because these points are all losers.
It’sdifficult to prove the dehumanization of women if you have an army ofsingle moms and young women putting themselves through college troopingforward to say topless dancing is their preferred livelihood.
It’sdifficult to say gentleman’s clubs are anti-family when you have familymen spending their Sunday afternoons there watching Cowboys games.
Andit’s difficult to make the community standards argument when thecommunity has made these places among the most lucrative liquorestablishments in the nation. Of the top 25 topless bars in Texas,ranked by alcohol receipts, 13 are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Thenumbers don’t lie.
The claim has also been made lately that theadvertising for the topless bars, especially billboards, is offensiveto community standards. But if you check into any hotel, you’ll findtwo publications for visitors—the Dallas! official visitors guide, and the After Hours adult-entertainment guide (because the other guides often won’t accept topless-bar advertising). On the back of After Hoursis the standard ad for the Men’s Club—the face of a pretty, dark-hairedgirl with bare shoulders. No use of the word “topless.” No use of theword “girl.” The only words that might be occasionally used in Men’s Club advertising are “Free Lunch Buffet.” On the back cover of Dallas!,on the other hand, is a picture of a sultry blonde with a plungingneckline and a come-hither, frankly sexual expression. It’s an ad forNorthPark.
The fact is that Dallas, even in 2004, doesn’tsubscribe to the agenda of the goody-two-shoes zealots, despite theirclaim to represent the aggregate community. The average guy in atopless club is the same guy with season tickets to the Mavericks andCowboys—hence the profusion of big-screen TVs turned to sports channelsin all the clubs. The average guy in a topless club doesn’t want aprostitute. He wants a spectacle. (A stripper at the Platinum Club, notone of the better looking girls in the business, told me she moved fromTampa because the guys here talk more and grope less. They’re basicallylooking for a party, not a sexual encounter.)
Because all thesearguments are legal nonstarters, the opponents of SOBs are thrown backon the shaky premise of secondary effects. And just like secondhandsmoke, the unscientific chimera that smoking bans are based on, thesecondary-effects case has yet to be proven. There hasn’t been a singlestudy that shows SOBs to be surrounded by any more crime than any otherlate-night establishment serving alcohol. (There have been manystudies, but they all amount to polling, not scientific data.)Moreover, there’s evidence that nonsexual dance halls, like Cowboys RedRiver, have a much higher incidence of brawling, drunkenness, andquality-of-life offenses like noise. (There is no noise outside atopless bar.)
The secondary-effects argument for the ban on lapdancing is even more specious. Supposedly such a ban will cut down ondrug transfers (how do you hide drugs when you’re naked?), prostitution(in a room full of hundreds of people and numerous security guards?),and “touch violations.” (The city already has a no-touch ordinance, andthis is a way to enforce it. It would save the embarrassment ofundercover cops constantly testifying that they spent three hours andhundreds of taxpayer dollars getting lap dances, and then—oh my God, I was shocked—a dancer put her hands where they shouldn’t have been. Juries have been laughing these cases out of court.)
Thecase that sums up what’s going on here is revealed in the short,troubled history of Baby Dolls, a unique institution that opened in anall but derelict Bachman Lake shopping center in the early ’80s andquickly became one of the most popular clubs in the country. Baby Dollswas not the prettiest or most lavish club, but it was the Billy Bob’sof topless: larger, rowdier, with dozens of girls on the floor at alltimes, most of them hometown Texas babes instead of the Swedish modeltypes you might find at Cabaret Royale. When the SOB ordinance waspassed in 1986, existing clubs were given three years to comply withthe new regulations, and then they had to move. (This in itself is astrange stipulation. Normally, if a new zoning ordinance is passed,existing businesses are grandfathered.) The only way a recently openedclub could avoid moving was to argue once a year before the authoritiesthat it would lose its investment if forced to move. Older clubs alsohad to state their cases yearly. Many of the clubs won this argumentyear to year, seeking annual exemptions, many of which will extend into2004, when all of them expire in accordance with their finalsettlements with the city.
Baby Dolls didn’t like theuncertainty of the exemption process, though, so owners decided theywould just stay where they were and cease being a sexually orientedbusiness. They ordered dancers to cover up, bringing back the era ofpasties, rarely seen since the heyday of Candy Barr. Once Baby Dollsbecame a bikini bar, it technically became a dance hall, not an SOB, sothe issue should have been done—but apparently this didn’t satisfy thecity. There ensued a series of arguments about the precise definitionof nudity and the actual form a pastie could take.
The firstBaby Dolls pastie was clear latex. The city called that “simulatednudity” and ruled it illegal. Then Baby Dolls put eye shadow in thelatex, but the city wasn’t satisfied. There were rules about thepercentage of the breast exposed—difficult to enforce, because you cansee greater percentages in a Victoria’s Secret ad. There was, in fact,a more or less constant amendment of the definition of the word”topless” from 1986 to 2003, when Baby Dolls, seeking peace, moved toits new legal location in a warehouse district a few blocks away.
Thereal question we should be asking is whom are the hooter-haters tryingto protect? The dancer? The 6-foot rule would put her out of business.The customer? I doubt that anyone really buys the argument that thecustomer needs to be shielded from a drug transaction. The public?Where are the crimes? Aside from violations of the “touch ordinance,”many of which get dismissed or successfully defended, there’s a lotless crime at these places than a typical Texas bar.
During theFebruary 2000 Bachman Initiative, which went after clubs for violationsof the touch and drink-solicitation ordinances, Police Chief TerrellBolton sent 27 armed officers, some in ski masks, to arrest almosteveryone in Baby Dolls. No one was allowed to leave before policechecked their IDs and ran them for warrants.
No drug dealers.
Just a lot of scared cowboys, calling their wives to say they’d be home real late.
Joe Bob Briggs has been a frequent contributor to D Magazine for two decades. His latest book is Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies that Changed History.