Hot and bothered

The city's ordinance governing topless clubs is a joke. But Bachman Lake-area residents are determined to get rid of the clubs by any means necessary.

Most patrons, too busy eyeballing or fondling dancers, ignore this reference to the long-serving city councilman convicted last month of 65 federal counts of bribery and conspiracy charges for pocketing $1,000 monthly payments from Yellow Cab owner Floyd Richards. But the doorman's jest is ironic in light of allegations that Lipscomb also took $7,700 in "bribes and gratuities" in the early '90s from Caligula XXI owner Nick Rizos. In exchange for that wad of walking-around money, Lipscomb allegedly met with Dallas police and persuaded them to curb "excessive" enforcement at the Northwest Highway club.

These recent revelations fed a frenzy of rumors and paranoia and seemed to confirm the worst fears of topless-club opponents. They claimed the bribes were "the tip of an iceberg" suggesting widespread corruption and explained why police allegedly have a hands-off policy toward area topless clubs. It also reveals, they say, why the clubs haven't budged despite SOB and zoning restrictions that should have forced them to pack up years ago. "It's the first direct tie from a lack of enforcement to corruption," says Tim Dickey, an activist and former Channel 5 investigative reporter who has lived in the Bachman Lake area all his life.

Innuendo also swirled around fears that the city will sell out Bachman Lake residents by settling lawsuits challenging the city's SOB law. The lawsuits were filed by Burch Management, owner of Baby Dolls, and other topless clubs. In the past, city leaders pledged to fight the case all the way to the Supreme Court in defense of public morals and property values. Embittered by years of fruitless fighting, activists no longer trust city officials and fear they will do nothing as topless-club owners turn Bachman Lake into the city's de facto red-light district.

Apartment complex owner Jerry Blake complains of prostitution and indecent exposure near his property.
Mark Graham
Apartment complex owner Jerry Blake complains of prostitution and indecent exposure near his property.
Activist Tim Dickey, a lifelong resident of Bachman Lake, is perhaps the biggest thorn in Burch Management's side.
Mark Graham
Activist Tim Dickey, a lifelong resident of Bachman Lake, is perhaps the biggest thorn in Burch Management's side.

The Bachman Lake clubs, which together contribute at least $160,000 a month in liquor taxes to city and state coffers -- an incredibly high amount for a cluster of nightclubs -- strongly deny they have dragged down the neighborhood. Like other Dallas topless clubs, they have aggressively fought city attempts to regulate them as sexually oriented businesses and zone them out of neighborhoods, characterizing them as unfair and an infringement of their rights to free speech.

The idea that a dancer shoving her breasts in your face during a lap dance is a bona fide expression of free speech seems farcical, and it's doubtful Jefferson or Madison ever envisioned the Constitution casting such a wide net. But that's just what owners of the topless clubs have argued for years -- with great success.

Indeed, a visitor can't help but wonder during a pawing session at Baby Dolls: Is this legal?

Of course it isn't.

But yes, it is.

Touching is forbidden in the clubs under the law passed by the Dallas City Council in 1997. But practically speaking, dancer-patron contact persists unchecked because of an odd technicality. That's because in a preliminary injunction issued in early 1998, a judge upheld the no-touching section of the 1997 law but suspended the section that spelled out what exposed body parts (breasts, buttocks, etc.) require establishments to obtain city SOB licenses.

So touching is illegal, but touching survives since it's unclear what kind of touching is illegal. Eventually, U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer will clear up the mess when he rules on a lawsuit that about 20 Dallas clubs, including Baby Dolls and Burch Management's two "Fare" clubs, brought to get the law thrown out as unconstitutional. But the legal hairsplitting surrounding an issue as seemingly clear-cut as touching another person illustrates why, in Dallas, laws don't have much effect on topless clubs besides increasing their legal bills.

How do the clubs prevail in court? They are tireless "champions" of the First Amendment, ingenious loophole locators, and ceaseless circumventers of zoning restrictions. For instance, they evaded a 1986 city ordinance that cracked down on sexually oriented businesses by requiring them to be 1,000 feet from churches, schools, residential zones, and other SOBs. To dodge the law, they simply said they weren't really SOBs, but seemingly non-sexual "dance halls." By requiring their dancers to wear tiny, see-through pasties over the areolae of their breasts, the clubs covered up enough skin to attain this nebulous status.

Then the clubs easily disposed of a 1993 amendment that sought to require dancers to wear bikini or halter tops rather than mere pasties. Another "content-based" infringement of free speech, ruled a judge, who said the city failed to prove how near-bare breasts endangered the community.

Next, a coalition of Dallas topless-club attorneys succeeded in delaying the 1997 city law aimed at closing the pastie loophole by enlarging the definition of what constitutes an SOB to live entertainment intended to provoke sexual "stimulation" featuring genitals or exposed breasts, with or without pasties. But the clubs argued the city again had violated the First Amendment and passed a law so far-reaching it restricts mildly racy movies at Blockbuster and the saucier women's magazines.

"You look in Cosmo and Glamour and you can see a bare breast," says Roger Albright, attorney for Mainstage Inc., which owns Santa Fe Cabaret and other clubs, echoing a point made by Judge Buchmeyer in his preliminary injunction that blocked enforcement of the law. Both the city and the clubs await the ruling from Buchmeyer, who in early 1998 hinted where he was leaning by calling the city's latest attempt to push dance halls into the SOB category "possibly unconstitutional."

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