Block bares it all legally

Judge cites loophole in law

legislators rush to cover flaw

Completely nude dancers

February 05, 1999|By Rafael Alvarez and Peter Hermann | Rafael Alvarez and Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

From their heads to their toes, anything goes.

That has been the effect of a recent court ruling allowing full nudity on Baltimore's fabled Block and other city strip bars, a decision that has put the sound of ringing cash registers in the ears of business owners and sent Maryland legislators scrambling to cover it up.

Word of the decision reached The Block before it hit the news, and strippers wasted no time in shedding their pasties and G-strings. Visits to a half-dozen go-go joints last night -- including the historic 2 O'Clock Club where Blaze Starr reigned -- revealed completely nude dancers.

"I think it's great for freedom of expression," said Brittany Wilson, the manager of Club Chez Joey.

"It's a good thing," said Joe Chittams, a barker standing outside the Golden Nugget. "It will bring business back to Baltimore. Everybody was going to D.C., where they go fully nude."

In a decision issued Jan. 21, Baltimore Circuit Judge Richard T. Rombro struck down regulations issued by the city Board of Liquor License Commissioners that prohibited nude dancing and a variety of sexually explicit acts, ruling that the restrictions violated the "grandfather" clause in a 1993 state law.

Citing a 1996 Maryland Court of Special Appeals opinion, Rombro wrote that because the General Assembly had enacted a detailed set of rules on the subject, the board's usually broad rule-making authority was restricted.

More extreme forms of sexual entertainment would continue to be restricted by state criminal laws, Rombro stated.

The ruling reversed a city liquor board's guilty verdict against the Spectrum Gentlemen's Club in the 4100 block of E. Lombard St., where dancers fully exposed themselves onstage a year ago.

Rombro ruled that the Spectrum's owner, Reginald D. Krisher, was not subject to a 1993 adult entertainment law passed by the Maryland legislature because the business was first approved as a "Go-Go Girl" club in 1976.

The judge threw out liquor board citations against Krisher, who had been fined $200 and had his license suspended for two days.

The ruling means that any strip club opened before May 31, 1993, is exempted and not subject to the law. At those clubs, wrote Rombro in an 11-page opinion, "neither the prohibitions nor the liquor board rules relating to nudity apply."

The legislature, Rombro ruled, specifically exempted the older establishments from a detailed list of prohibited behavior defined in the 1993 law. Reached last night, the recently retired Rombro said: "The legislature passed a law that superseded what had been in effect before."

Last night, state legislators met with liquor board officials in Annapolis to be briefed on the ruling and look for ways to resurrect the prohibition.

"They can display anything they want to display," said Sen. George W. Della Jr., the South Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the 1993 law in an effort to stop the spread of nude entertainment to city neighborhoods.

Della said he plans to back emergency legislation -- already in the hands of the General Assembly's bill drafters -- to put the restrictions back in place.

"I'm not going to question the judge's decision. The decision is his decision," said Della. "The legislature, if it chooses, can react to that decision There was evidently a flaw in the law that needs to be corrected post haste. When we did it, we thought we had done it right."

Liquor board chairman Leonard R. Skolnik told city senators last night: "Nudity is now allowed in the city of Baltimore, as well as a whole lot of other things."

Skolnik declined to specify what "other things" would be permitted, but referred to a state law's listing of acts prohibited at nongrandfathered bars. Those include a variety of sexual activity, including simulated intercourse, fondling of breasts and genitals and close contact between a nude entertainer and customers.

Block clubs have repeatedly been cited by police and the liquor board for violations that include dancing nude, prostitution, drug use and hiring teen-agers as young as 15 to strip.

For the past three decades, The Block has survived mayoral denunciations, grand-jury indictments and cleanup campaigns. It has bounced back after police raids, including one by 100 federal agents in 1971 and another by 500 state troopers in 1994.

After that raid, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer proclaimed an end to the adult entertainment district, saying what had once been a city attraction had become a detriment to downtown revitalization.

Clubs survived the raid and charges of prostitution, drug running and gambling after it was revealed that undercover state police had engaged in corrupt methods by accepting bribes and sleeping with dancers during the investigation.

City officials passed new restrictions in 1997, prohibiting "barkers" from standing outside and beckoning potential customers. Two clubs lost their licenses for a brief time, and others faced penalties in the thousands of dollars for allowing dancers to entice customers with expensive drinks that served as propositions for sex.

Some club owners even promoted plans to recapture an air of respectability with gas lamps, brick sidewalks and 1920s-era facades. But many civic boosters made no secret of their desire to oust sex-oriented businesses from the city's downtown.

Sgt. Craig Gentile, a vice squad officer, said that there is far more crime on the streets directly outside the strip bars -- including prostitution and aggressive panhandling -- than inside.

"I'll go by what the law says," said Gentile about the new ruling. "It's not for me to interpret."

Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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