Clubs hope for revival of Block

Nude dancing makes comeback in area

February 14, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Between songs, the dancer steps to the side of the mirrored stage at the Diamond Lounge, casually removes her final piece of stringy clothing and, without fanfare, crosses a line that last month could have gotten her arrested.

Next door at the Jewel Box, veteran doorman Lucky Phillips barks to a passing group of baseball-capped college types a promise he couldn't make a month ago: "Come on, guys, we've got what you want -- no cover charge on the outside, no clothes on the inside."

It seems that The Block, Baltimore's rumpled but resilient slice of Babylon, is giddy that it can now do what it once did so well: get naked.

The name Rombro may mean nothing to exotic dancers like one at the Dynasty Show Lounge who calls herself Star. But the strip clubs clustered along the 400 block of E. Baltimore St. can thank Circuit Judge Richard T. Rombro for recently lifting Baltimore's six-year ban on nudity and liquor at its bars.

"That's what guys come here for," said Star, who is in her 20s and said she was nine months pregnant, but continues to dance at the Dynasty. "They don't come to see clothed dancers."

Like her colleagues, Star used to cover herself with Band Aids and a G-string panty. "Now the guys, when the girls get naked, are throwing money up on the stage, so the girls are making more money," Star said during a break from her job, wearing an oversized sweat shirt.

Dancers and doormen, bartenders and bouncers say it's still too soon to declare a revival of the ailing Block. It will take time for word to spread of Rombro's Jan. 21 decision to overturn the city's 1993 ban on nudity at bars that serve liquor.

But the early signs indicate that nudity is sure good for business.

On Friday night, Omni Inner Harbor Hotel shuttles dropped van-loads of passengers on East Baltimore Street. Packs of young men, 10 to 12 in a bunch, roamed from club to club, searching for the prettiest women. Men in suits paid $20 for a dancer in their lap and a Coke.

A patron of the Flamingo Lounge -- who, like men at other clubs Friday night, said his name was Bob -- said downtown Baltimore businesses may not like it, but The Block provides a service. And the pasties and G-string days weren't giving customers what they wanted.

"Nudity now puts these clubs on equal footing with some of the outlying clubs," he said, referring to fully nude clubs in other parts of the city where they don't serve alcohol.

Herbie Graff stood outside the Dynasty, where he's manager, and spoke hopefully of a return to the days when The Block was one of the East Coast's best-known adult-entertainment destinations. He said business plummeted 60 percent after the 1993 nudity ban. But he's seen bigger crowds in the past three weeks, and he's selling more drinks.

"Once we get the word of mouth out that The Block's nude again, it'll really pick up," said Graff, 64, who's worked The Block since 1960 but plans to retire and move to Florida in August.

Graff and others were cautious not to get too excited, however.

Rombro's ruling was based on a grandfather clause that said any club with nude dancers prior to the 1993 ban could continue to sponsor nude dancing. That meant most of the city's 36 adult-entertainment clubs -- most of them in The Block -- took it all off again.

State Sen. George W. Della Jr., a South Baltimore Democrat who had sponsored the 1993 bill, is drawing up new legislation that would close any loopholes and again ban nudity.

That's what scares Graff. "Once a man gets a taste of something, you can't take it away from him," he said.

City Council is considering legislation that would give the Board of Liquor License Commissioners authority over strip clubs. They're now governed by the housing department.

Leonard R. Skolnik, chairman of the liquor board, said that change could lead to tighter restrictions on nude dancing, but wouldn't necessarily lead to a ban on nudity.

"Large cities across the country allow nudity, but they have specific rules," Skolnik said. "I think as long as it [nudity] is controlled, there aren't a whole lot of problems."

Baltimore Police Sgt. Craig Gentile, who heads Central District's vice unit, said the past three weeks of nudity haven't led to an increase in crime on the streets or code violations in the clubs. There have been the typical violations -- one dancer was found to be 17, and one club was written up for sexual contact between a dancer and a patron -- but otherwise it's business as usual.

"I haven't noticed any real change," Gentile said.

The dancer who performs as Ivory has -- in her pocketbook. A blond 32-year-old who has danced for seven years at the Dynasty, Ivory said the crowds had thinned in recent years.

"Now the girls get buck naked and we get a full bar," she said. "The customers are happier. I can tell by the way I've been making money."

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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