Go-go clubs shed clothes, drink permits Officials attempt in vain to shut popular nightspots

'They can't touch us'

Some clubs thrive as nudity brings customers back

October 26, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Less than 24 hours after Anne Arundel County officials tried to close the county's only go-go club because its dancers lifted their bikini tops, the girls were back on stage wearing nothing at all.

As if to taunt the county's liquor board, the owner of McDoogal's in Pasadena raised a sign advertising the price of his five nude "chicks": "10 legs, 10 thighs, 10 breasts, 1 can of coke. $12.50!"

This backfiring of the battle against nudity has been repeated in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County and elsewhere as clubs freed of their liquor licenses also shed the clothing requirements for dancers as imposed by state liquor laws.

"I'm sure they're just gritting their teeth over there at the liquor board," laughed the 65-year-old grandmother, Betty Hall, who manages McDoogal's at 8025 Fort Smallwood Road.

Standing outside the club on a recent night with a fist full of cash from a new $10 cover charge, the small, gray-haired woman smiled defiantly as customers shuffled past to nurse $2.50 cans of Sprite.

"They thought they were closing us down. But now we're a private club. They can't touch us at all," said Hall, who is called "Mom" by some of the dancers.

It might be too soon for McDoogal's to strut, however.

Although the 10-year-old business reopened after the liquor board seized its license Aug. 12, revenues have dropped with the loss of beer sales, and county officials are not sure it has the proper zoning for a so-called "house of burlesque," according to county officials and the bar's management.

After an anonymous person complained about the club's comparison of chicken parts and female anatomy earlier this month, the management changed its sign to read "Super Show!" But the sign itself remains illegal, said county land-use spokesman John Morris.

Go-go clubs that change their colors to become alcohol-free strip joints have a mixed record of survival in the Baltimore area.

Howard County's only nude dance club, Good Guys on U.S. 1 in North Laurel, earned only enough money to survive for two years after it surrendered its liquor license in 1993.

The Night Shift club at 1725 S. Ponca St. in Baltimore, however, saw its business increase after it shut its taps and shed its G-strings that year, said manager Lisa Smith.

And Charlotte's strip club on Pulaski Highway in Essex is grinding away more than a decade after it was stripped of its liquor license, said Philip R. Leyhe Jr., chairman of the Baltimore County Liquor Board.

Stamping out smut can be a slippery process for government, said Donna A. Johnson, zoning administrator for Baltimore. Obscenity laws are ambiguous. Legal battles are expensive. And clubs retain their First Amendment rights even if they've lost their liquor licenses, she said.

"Without being able to threaten clubs with the revocation of their liquor licenses, we don't have a hammer to insist that dancers cover their bodies," Johnson said.

Richard C. Bittner, chairman of the Anne Arundel County Board of Liquor License Commissioners, said the county shouldn't blush about the results of its anti-nudity efforts. "I would think that because [McDoogal's] doesn't have alcohol anymore, that over time it will be driven out of business because it won't be as profitable," Bittner said.

The business at McDoogal's clearly has fallen off, but how much is unclear. Hall, the manager, said the number of customers is down at least 5 percent.

The owner, William J. Steiner, a millionaire animal-rights activist from Linthicum, refused to discuss what losses the club might be suffering, hinting he might use those figures in a lawsuit against the liquor board.

But he said the club is in some ways healthier without the booze or the bikinis. "It's more peaceful," said Steiner. "When you eliminate the alcohol, you also eliminate drunks from the road and fights from the club. In some ways, it works out better."

County police filed a report with the liquor board in February alleging 80 violations at McDoogal's of liquor board rules that require dancers to cover their breasts and genitals.

An undercover detective testified during a hearing Aug. 12 that he saw the bikini-clad dancers rub against customers and let customers touch and kiss them.

Steiner threatened to use police testimony to his own benefit at the hearing, summoning as witnesses more than 30 officers who had enjoyed his bar during police Christmas parties. In fact, just before Christmas 1994, a county officer was charged with indecent exposure for allegedly exposing himself and rubbing against a dancer. The officer was suspended but has returned to duty.

When Steiner's time came to testify at the hearing, however, he failed to call any witnesses for reasons he declined to explain. The only evidence he presented was a dictionary definition of an obscene word describing the human posterior. The board was unmoved. It voted unanimously to revoke his license.

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