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Law forces strip clubs, adult industry to cover up

How Sen. Matt Bartle's new adult entertainment restrictions are affecting local businesses

September 23, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST

UPDATE: Olde Un Theatre's hours are now 7 a.m. to midnight seven days a week.

Two doors and a buzzer stand between the customers and the dancers at Rumors Cabaret. Inside, a few late-night patrons, their silhouettes blurred by the blinding flash of red and blue dance lights, slouch in dark corners. Covered by tall mirrors, every inch of wall space reflects dancers’ gyrating hips and detached expressions. A dozen or so small round tables with clusters of chairs ring the long stage equipped with two gold metal poles in the center of the room, and a group of women in baggy jeans and loose-fitting T-shirts sit front row at the stage. A dancer with seven-inch, light-up heels strapped to her feet twists her porcelain-white body around the pole. Her hips swing slowly as she disrobes down to a white thong.

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As pop queen Ke$ha’s “Your Love is My Drug” fades out, a new dancer takes the stage. Her hair whips around as she twirls for the sparse audience. Six minutes before midnight, at the prompt of the club DJ, all nine dancers go up on stage. Laughter rolls as naked bodies press together. Hugging and grinding on each other as Fat Joe’s “Make it Rain” blares, the women shout in unison, “F--- you, Matt Bartle.”

At midnight, the high-heeled dancers teeter dangerously off stage to a room at the back of the club. A few minutes later they return, only now they’re covered in cotton panties and bras in accordance with Missouri law. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the DJ shouts, “we are now a bikini bar.”


Bartle’s ban

Prompting this change in strip club attire that night is Senate Bill 586, which took effect Aug. 28. Sponsored by Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit, a 1987 MU alum and Columbia native, the bill cracks down on strip clubs, adult bookstores and other adult entertainment businesses. It’s a hefty piece of legislation that regulates nearly every aspect of these businesses: Dancers can no longer appear in the nude, stores have to close their doors at midnight, and touching between customers and semi-nude employees is prohibited along with serving alcohol. Stores must also be equipped with an observation booth that allows an employee to view the entire store. However, if dancers don bikinis, it’s no longer considered a sexually oriented business and can stay open past midnight, serve alcohol and allow touching.

Bartle, a lawyer with Graves, Bartle, Marcus & Garrett, LLC in Kansas City, was elected to the state Senate in 2002 and began his crusade against the adult entertainment industry when he introduced legislation during his first term that banned adult business billboards from being located within one mile of a state highway. His legislative brainchild died when a federal appeals court struck it down in 2004 as an infringement of free speech.

But Bartle didn’t give up. In 2005 he pushed for legislation similar to what the media has dubbed the
“anti-porn bill,” but it never made it out of House committee hearings. After tweaking it, Bartle presented what is now Senate Bill 586, and in May of this year, it sailed through the House and Senate, 118-28 and 27-4 respectively. The bill became Missouri law with the signature of Gov. Jay Nixon on June 25, right as Bartle’s career as a senator comes to an end because of term limits.

The bill’s template is the work of Scott Bergthold, a lawyer based in Chattanooga, Tenn. Bergthold built his career crafting legislation against the adult entertainment industry, and examples of his work have appeared across the country in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. But the proposed bills failed except in Ohio, where adult businesses must close at midnight. Missouri is now one of the only states to place such tight restrictions on the adult entertainment industry, and some business owners say this grip might suffocate the industry and affect the state budget.


Lap dance liquidation

Dick Snow, co-owner of Bazooka’s Showgirls in Kansas City, is the treasurer of the Missouri chapter of the Association of Club Executives, a national organization with 45-50 members that aims to help adult nightclub owners stay in business. Snow says about 3,000 people work in the adult entertainment industry, and the tax loss for the state will be about $3-5 million as a result of the law.

Nellie Symm-Gruender, co-owner of Passions adult bookstores in Columbia, Boonville and Marshall, says the seven adult entertainment businesses in Columbia add $90,000 annually to the city’s tax revenue. “That’s the equivalent of one police officer’s salary for a year,” she says. In this economic climate, “$90,000 from one group of businesses is not insignificant.”

On Aug. 10, Symm-Gruender, Snow and more than a dozen other adult entertainment business owners and dancers in Missouri cried foul and filed a lawsuit against Senate Bill 586. But the group faced two rulings against them, the first from Cole County court and then from the state Court of Appeals. Disheartened but not defeated, Symm-Gruender says she’s ready to fight.

Symm-Gruender and her husband, Gene, never planned to enter the adult entertainment industry until they learned how lucrative the business could be. Before Passions, Symm-Gruender worked as a registered nurse, and her husband was an electrical engineer. In 1996, they quit their jobs and spent a year sailing around the Caribbean with their 10-year-old son. The family decided to sail full-time and searched for a way to pay for that lifestyle, hence, the interest in the adult entertainment industry.

“When we got into it, we were just wanting to have a retail business,” Symm-Gruender says. But when Bartle’s billboard legislation passed, the couple sued the state. Suddenly, owning Passions didn’t seem so simple. They won the lawsuit after a federal appeals court ruled the law was an infringement of free speech. Now, with other Missouri adult business owners, the couple is suing the state again. Even though the injunction was struck down Aug. 27, a hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Nov. 4.

“If we’re really that dangerous, are we more dangerous after midnight?” Symm-Gruender asks, referring to the early closing time the law now requires. “The premise of this bill is that we cause secondary effects like prostitution, drugs and violence. It just doesn’t happen.”

In fact, Jessie Haden, public information officer at the Columbia Police Department, says most of its resources are used at local bars, not at Passions or Club Vogue, both of which are located by the Business Loop. Since January 2010, eight police reports have been filed about Club Vogue, one about Rumors, 47 about Harpo’s and 18 about Club Memoir. Calls issued regarding Harpo’s included 16 liquor law violations and one rape.
But Bartle and supporters argue that the purpose of the bill is to protect citizens from “adverse negative effects,” such as prostitution, obscenity, illegal drug use and trafficking, decreased property values and the potential spread of disease. As he said in an interview with KSMU, an affiliate of NPR in the Ozarks, “I think a lot of people felt like it just make [sic] our state look tawdry.”

For Snow, this is the real issue being debated — morals, not economics.

“Anybody with common sense can see that the real purpose (of the law) is to close the businesses, and closing these is an infringement on civil rights,” Snow says.

Bartle, who declined Vox’s request for an interview, responded to the claim in the NPR interview that adult entertainment businesses make Missouri tawdry by saying: “Some would say we’re making a moral judgment. Laws make moral determinations. They set parameters up. Our society believes that one person shouldn’t be allowed to kill another person. Well, that’s a moral judgment. That’s our job — is to, kind of, set the bar. And if we set it in a place that is either unconstitutional, then the courts will tell us, or if we set it in a place that the people don’t agree with, they’ll throw us out.”

Snow has been involved in the adult business since 1979 and thinks stereotypes play a significant role in this issue. “Many of the people arguing for the law have never been in a club, but they watch too much TV,” he says. Stereotypes that strip clubs are dirty, seedy holes in the wall or underground prostitution rings are misguided, he adds. ­

“The modern-day strip clubs are pretty damn upscale,” Snow says. “We’re in the entertainment and hospitality businesses.” Even the stereotype of strip club clientele is off-base, insist Snow and Rumors owner Robert Call.
“People expect raunchy, and they expect lonely old men sitting in the corner,” Call says. “That’s not what we’re about.”

Rumors uses the touch of a DJ to keep its crowd pumped. The night the law kicked in, he did his best to keep customers’ spirits up as he rattled off the store’s lap dance liquidation sale. “Those lap dances got to go,” he shouted. An ad ran on the radio weeks before the law took effect advertising the sale, but three weeks later, Rumors still offers lap dances — without the excitement of nudity, of course.

The dancers at Rumors made their opinion about the law clear on Aug. 27. Strutting around the club, many wore cut-off white T-shirts that read, “You can’t take my freedom away.” Perhaps, but the law can make them put clothes on.

“A lot of (the dancers) are wondering if they’re going to have to travel out of the state to work,” Call says. “Kansas and Illinois are about to get hit with a ton of dancers coming from the state of Missouri. That’s a lot of money that’s going to be traveling out of the state.”

According to a Sept. 15 Kansas City Star article, Kansas City’s Shady Lady adult lounge went from employing 55 dancers before the ban took effect to only 13. They moved to Kansas, manager Joe Spinello said.

“It’s the unintended consequences of trying to manage culture,” Snow says. “Matt Bartle would like to see (the dancers) in burqas.”


Lay off

Strip clubs aren’t the only businesses being hit by the law. Symm-Gruender and Olde Un manager Debbie Simon are losing revenue.

Olde Un Theatre is one of the longest-running adult bookstores in Columbia. Brightly lit, it looks a little like Blockbuster with a few Exxxtreme series dildos hanging next to a wall packed with porno DVDs. Olde Un offers more than just the usual sex gizmos. Three movie theaters, complete with a popcorn maker and rows of couches in each, give it a dressed-down Ragtag feel — minus the movie The Best Rears of our Lives running in the background.

Simon and her business have been in Columbia for 39 years, first on Fifth Street and now on Walnut. When her father decided to sell to the sexually adventuresome in 1971, protestors with signs waving flocked to the parking lot.

Simon’s dad got fed up with the hoards of angry people and put the issue on a local ballot through a citizen’s initiative. Columbia decided Olde Un could stay. Now Simon is facing a different group of protestors — legislators.

On Aug. 27, the day before the new law was to take effect, Simon sat in her office at Olde Un and anxiously awaited a phone call that would let her know if the courts granted her and the other businesses involved in the lawsuit relief from the law.

“Obviously, economically, it’s going to affect our business,” she says. The store was open from 8 to 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and 24 hours on the weekend but is now open from 7 a.m. to midnight seven days a week.*

If Simon turns off her lights at midnight, she’ll lose her after-bar crowd. She estimates that’s about 30-40 percent of her business.

“If we lose this revenue, I tell you what: I’m going to have to get rid of some of my clerks,” she says.
Five clerks and two managers run the show at Olde Un, and laying off employees has weighed on Simon’s mind since Nixon signed Senate Bill 586 into effect in late June. Her employees have families, and one pays child support. “So what are you going to do, Mr. Nixon, when I have to let that guy go?” she asks.
Around noon Simon gets the phone call she’s been waiting for.

“Hello,” she says anxiously. “It did, really. Oh, gosh. Wow.” She sighs and hangs up the phone.

Her fingers type absentmindedly on a calculator to her right as her mind works over the news. The injunction failed.

Passions laid off two of its employees.

“We pay for 75 percent of their health insurance, pay over minimum wage, and we pay for one week’s vacation after they’ve worked for us for a year,” Symm-Gruender says. “That kind of business is what the Chamber of Commerce wants coming into their community.”

As Simon and Symm-Gruender worry over losing employees and revenue, supporters say the law is a win.

Wilfred Tolson, president of the steward board at Russell Chapel CME Church near Olde Un, says congregation members complain all the time about having the adult business as their backyard neighbors.

“We think eventually they may end up leaving or closing,” Tolson says. “So we’re happy about the new law.”

But Symm-Gruender doesn’t think adult businesses should be under fire. “You can go to the convenience store next door, and they have some of the same magazines we do. The difference between us and them — you have to be 18 to walk in our door, so who’s showing the most responsibility? I think we are.”

Although Symm-Gruender and Simon argue their businesses aren’t a nuisance, their real problem with the law, which is made in the lawsuit, is that it’s a statewide rather than local regulation.

“One of our contentions is that the local government has done an excellent job of regulating the adult entertainment industry,” Symm-Gruender says. She thinks every community should decide on the adult entertainment industry based on its demographics and acceptance.

The Columbia Chamber of Commerce echoes this sentiment. “Everyone’s situation is different, and our position is we felt this was a local issue not a state issue,” says Don Laird, president of the chamber.

“I believe (Matt Bartle) has a very direct moral compass, and I absolutely respect that,” Symm-Gruender says. “What I have a problem with is when someone who has been given legislative power takes their moral values and begins saying every single person in the state of Missouri must tote that moral value.”

Until a court issues an ultimate ruling, adult entertainment stores in Columbia must comply with the law. But that doesn’t mean all businesses in Missouri are following the new restrictions.

The owner and manager of Blondie’s, an adult entertainment business in St. Joseph, was arrested Sept. 13 for offering alcohol and nudity. But Haden says unless Columbia police get calls complaining about adult entertainment businesses violating the law or a city or state agency asks them to have officers stop by the businesses, the department won’t use its limited resources to enforce the new restrictions.


Bare business

At 10 p.m. Friday, Rumors is empty. The three paying customers have left and are now smoking in the parking lot.

Call says the club has lost approximately 70 percent of its revenue and customers. Since the restrictions were put in place, eight of his dancers have left. For now, Rumors is still open, and though the women might not be nude, the plus side for customers is that the entrance fee, once $10 on weekends, is now $5.

Inside, music hums, and the laughter of Call and two dancers can be heard over the depressing vocals of Creed’s “One Last Breath.” The round tables that dot the club floor are empty. The cushioned benches are empty. The dance stage is empty. With no customers to entertain, the last performer doesn’t bother to finish her dance.

Comments on this article

     

    This story just puts me into a rage. Why, in this economy, is the state of Missouri purposely making laws that hurt businesses? Oh, because they find it "tawdry." That disgusts me. And for this moronic Bartle to have the audacity to compare it to laws against murder is beyond incomprehensible. Shame on the entire Missouri House and Senate.

    Posted by Amber Hanneken on Sep 26, 2010 at 9:44 a.m. (Report Comment)

     
     

    I am very happy that Bartle is working to manage this problem. Hopefully we can get these people to cover up and decide to find a more noble career.

    Good Job Bartle. Let me know if you need support because I would be happy to clean up the USA.

    Posted by Susan Taylor on Oct 2, 2011 at 9:24 p.m. (Report Comment)