When televangelist Pat Robertson, leader of the Christian Coalition, sponsored a 1994 food giveaway in Fair Park as part of a 17-city charitable tour called "Operation Blessing," Dallas politicians eagerly paraded themselves at the event.
But so did a less likely group of volunteers: managers and owners of several of Dallas' topless clubs.
Burch Management, the Dallas company that controls six area strip bars--including Baby Dolls and Fare West on Northwest Highway--had dispatched its senior executives to the event as part of a campaign to burnish its image. "I don't think Robertson knew they were there," city councilman Paul Fielding, who attended the giveaway, recalls with amusement.
The topless clubs' unlikely civic involvement is no accident. Burch, a company long embroiled in bitter litigation with the city, has made a series of aggressive moves to boost its reputation--and political influence. "We're in a fishbowl," says Burch lawyer Charles Quaid. "We're like Caesar's wife. We have to be beyond reproach."
While "beyond reproach" is clearly an impossible dream for a business built on bared female flesh, Burch has had striking success in wooing the city--and its elected officials.
Burch's new treatment at City Hall illustrates the susceptibility of public officials--even in Dallas--to the favors of those once regarded as the political equivalent of lepers. It also raises questions about whether the city's inability to regulate sexually oriented businesses results from legal barriers--or failures of the political flesh.
A Dallas politician would seem to have every reason to regard the company that runs six strip bars--three in Dallas, three in Fort Worth--as political poison.
Dallas remains a conservative, Bible Belt city, where right and wrong are often placed in the religious context of good and evil, sin and salvation. Notes North Dallas councilwoman Donna Blumer, a past president of the Dallas chapter of Phyllis Schlafly's right-wing Eagle Forum and a staunch opponent of the topless clubs: "If you look at anywhere where topless clubs proliferate, they tend to downgrade an area. They are unquestionably having a harmful effect."
If such sentiments weren't reason enough for a politician to steer clear, Burch Management has waged an expensive, nearly decade-long war with City Hall. In 1986, the Dallas city council passed a resolution that stopped just short of an all-out ban on strip clubs--the scenario that many neighborhood and religious groups sought--by embracing a strategy of dispersal. It barred any clubs from operating within 1,000 feet of homes, churches, and schools (a later revision added hospitals to the list). The city council adopted the dispersal approach largely to avoid an expensive, drawn-out legal battle. It figured such limited regulation--unlike an outright ban--could withstand a court challenge.
It figured wrong.
Topless club owners, including Burch, joined together to challenge the law--and the outcome of the fight remains apparent today along Northwest Highway near Bachman Lake Park, where a cluster of the clubs continues to thrive well within 1,000 feet of homes, churches, and schools.
The city's original ordinance made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where, in January 1990, the justices ruled it constitutional. But the city's success in the high court was not reflected on the streets of Dallas.
Through various means, 15 clubs continue to operate near residential areas. Since the court ruling, three clubs--most prominently, Million Dollar Saloon on Greenville Avenue--have persuaded a panel of three citizens on the Permit and License Board to exempt their establishments from the ordinance because they generate so much tax revenue for the city's coffers. Other clubs could not get an exemption, but dodged shutdown by dressing their dancers in bikini bottoms and flesh-colored pasties to meet the technical condition of the ordinance.
The council responded in 1992 and 1993 by passing a series of revisions that extended the ban to simulated nudity in dance halls within 1,000 feet of a residence. But those revisions opened the way for fresh challenges by Burch. This past March, a Dallas federal judge ruled the revised ordinance unconstitutional, a violation of rights to freedom of expression. The city is appealing the ruling.
Rebuffed in court, despite 10 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys' time, council members in June sought a truce, asking the city attorney to negotiate a compromise with their longtime enemy.
"I think that's safe enough for a deacon to vote on," declared council member Al Lipscomb, a deacon at St. Mark's Missionary Church, before voting in favor of the resolution authorizing negotiations with the clubs.
Lipscomb had other reasons to favor a truce with Burch. A month earlier, Burch Management officials had been among those in attendance at a fund-raising party at the Stoneleigh Hotel to celebrate the councilman's birthday.
Carefully crafted to insulate council members from political fallout, the compromise-seeking resolution calls for the city manager and the city attorney "to study the underlying issues that led to the litigation with the operators of adult cabarets...and make recommendations that would resolve pending and possible litigation."
Citing the city's recent courthouse trouncing, even longtime Burch opponents--such as Fielding--backed the resolution, saying it reflects simple political and legal reality: the clubs can't be whipped in court. Only four council members--Blumer, Max Wells, Larry Duncan, and Donna Halstead--voted against the measure.
But a close look at how the resolution made its way onto the city agenda shows its understated language and the courthouse defeat only partly explain Burch's success on Marilla Street. The company is proving it can cultivate enough friends at City Hall to win the freedom to run its controversial business where and how it wants, even in the conservative '90s--even in Dallas, Texas. Charles Quaid, a Dallas attorney representing Burch, sums up the situation this way: "We are on the precipice of getting a good discourse with the city."
Blumer, on the other hand, views the passing of the resolution as a dangerous sign of deteriorating moral resolve: "This can only result," she declared to the council, "in a compromise that will be detrimental to the city."
Captain E.R. Walt, commander of the Dallas police department's aggressive vice section, which enforces the sexually oriented business ordinance, offers his grudging admiration of Burch Management. "They are very astute businessmen," he says. "They have decided politics is the way to go--and I suspect they are right."
The strip of Northwest Highway west of the Dallas North Tollway presents a study in contrasts.
Directly to the south of the four-lane blacktop sits the 205-acre Bachman Lake Park. The man-made body of water wouldn't give any natural country pond stiff competition in a beauty contest. Its landscaping is charitably described as scraggly; its upkeep minimal; and jets from nearby Love Field zoom overhead. But despite its shortcomings, the area provides more pleasurable sights than most Dallas thoroughfares--a lone jogger puffing his way around the lake here; a young boy testing his new remote-controlled motorboat there. Altogether, a tranquil view.
Unless, of course, the passing driver spins his head in the other direction.
Directly to the north and west of Bachman Lake Park are a half dozen "adult cabarets"--as the drafters of the city ordinance dubbed them. They are housed in one-story, warehouse-style structures, roughly the size of a neighborhood grocery store. Late-model sedans and shiny trucks pack the clubs' parking lots, even in mid-afternoon, even in mid-week, even in mid-summer.
Near the street, the clubs' large, brightly lit signs provide a safe haven for tawdry puns. "Barely Legal Duo Team," one proclaimed. "Barish on Fun," declared another. Other signs advertise the endowments of star performers such as "Candy Cantaloupe."
"It's sign pollution," declares Roxan Staff, a director of nearby American Bank, which her family owns, and a participant in a community crusade against the clubs. "I just don't want to look at this every day."
Staff particularly objects to the billboards posted by clubs that are not even located in her area, but advertise in the Bachman Lake area to lure clientele.
Inside the clubs, the entertainment follows a time-worn theme: scantily clad women dance for the hundreds of males who stop by daily to engage in what Burch attorney Quaid calls "the safe sex of the '90s."
Despite the parking lots filled with the cars of tax-paying Dallas residents, city council members know they can win political points by going after the topless joints. This is a city that doesn't tolerate porn--at least as far as official public policy goes.
Doubtful of Dallas' claim to being the nation's capital of imposed morality? A glance at the record of vice squad prosecutions settles the matter quickly. In 1994, the Dallas district attorney's office prosecuted 412 obscenity cases. That's more obscenity prosecutions than all the cases that year in all other U.S. cities combined, says Jeffrey J. Douglas, a California attorney who directs the Free Speech Coalition Adult Entertainment Trade Association. In Los Angeles, by contrast, there were no obscenity prosecutions.
Captain Walt, who directs the police actions that lead to those prosecutions, claims he doesn't know if his officers are just more aggressive--or if more violations occur in Dallas. "The law is there, the violations are there. And I'm in charge of enforcement," he says simply.
The sale of adult videos actually produces most of the Dallas obscenity prosecutions, Walt says. At the clubs, the charges are usually for public lewdness--a class B misdemeanor. Of the 221 public lewdness prosecutions in Dallas in 1994, only 11 were linked to Burch-managed topless clubs. So far in 1995, of the 252 public lewdness prosecutions, 17 have involved Burch-managed cabarets.
Prodded by Northwest Highway neighborhood groups, council members, from the start, zeroed in on dancers' dress in their war against topless clubs.
The 1986 ordinance, known as the Sexually Oriented Businesses (SOB) rules, gave the clubs two choices: They could move to locations more than 1,000 feet away from any church, home, school, or hospital. Or they could cover up a bit.
The ordinance imposed restrictions on clubs that feature dancers appearing "in a state of nudity or semi-nudity." For the purposes of the ordinance, "semi-nudity" was defined as any circumstance when the "buttock, anus, male or female genitals, or areolae of the female breast" were not covered.
In 1990, after the Supreme Court's affirmation of the city ordinance, the topless clubs began having their dancers wear various forms of flesh-colored latex pasties on their nipples, painted to look like the real thing, to circumvent the ordinance's definition of nudity.
One club--not in Burch's group--directly challenged the areolae-coverage requirements in state court, arguing that the rule discriminates unfairly against the dancers on the basis of gender. Why did their dancers have to cover their areolae when performers at male strip clubs faced no such restrictions? A state appeals court refused to buy the argument; it sustained the finding of violations by the club.
But with the dancers dressed in flesh-colored pasties and bikini bottoms, owners could claim that their clubs were no longer "Class D dance halls," or what the city ordinance defined as "adult cabarets." That would mean the clubs didn't have to move away from homes, schools, churches, and hospitals. And the minimal coverage of dancers didn't seem to be turning away patrons.
The council responded on October 13, 1993 by revising the definition of nudity. The amended rules required club owners to keep dancers in clothing, bikini tops, or halter tops that would cover all the breast below the areolae.
The entire situation has made for some awkward public conversations in City Hall. Councilman Larry Duncan, reviewing the history of the legal battle with a city attorney at one meeting, seemed daunted by the subject. "Can you give me an example of some of the, of the..." Duncan stumbled, before pausing for a long moment. "...costume changes?"
Responded Assistant City Attorney Don Postell: "The dancers have, um, have changed, to, uh, essentially bikini bottoms, and, uh, what is commonly referred to as, uh, pasties."
But only one day after the council enacted the revision to the ordinance, club owners, including Burch, took the city to court again over the revisions. The rules were unconstitutional, they argued--a violation of their right to freedom of expression.
In March 1995, U.S. District Judge Robert Maloney agreed, declaring the city's SOB ordinance and its revisions unconstitutional. Club owners successfully had argued that the city--unlike other towns, such as Houston--had conducted no studies to determine if there was what the judge would call "a causal connection" between the nudity showcased at the clubs and any "deleterious secondary effects."
Having failed to prove any ill effects, such as depressed property values, the city had no justification for passing the ordinance, Maloney ruled. The city had not begun to study the neighborhood problems topless clubs produce until after passing the ordinance, the judge noted.
On December 14, 1994, long after the council had revised the ordinance, the city attorney's office received a study by The Malin Group, a group of Dallas economic consultants, that concluded: "adult cabarets ...have both a real and a perceived negative impact on surrounding properties."
The report, which relied heavily on studies produced by other cities fighting sexually oriented businesses, cited decreased property values, higher crime, and traffic problems. But that study was too little and too late for Maloney, who added injury to insult by ruling that the city must pay the strip club owners more than $77,000 for attorneys' fees.
Burch's Quaid, who will get $40,000, triumphantly notes that the $77,000 could have paid the salaries for two uniformed police officers for a year.
Still the city appealed the ruling. The appeals court has yet even to set a hearing date.
Millions are at stake in Burch's battle for survival.
Though the privately held company won't open up its books, court records show that Burch's Fare West club alone serves more than 2,500 customers each week and employs more than 300 workers. In 1992, the company told the Dallas Business Journal that Baby Dolls was generating $3.15 million annually in alcohol sales. The Malin Group report noted that the typical adult cabaret pays up to $300,000 in liquor taxes alone, of which the city and county receive 20 percent.
Determined to protect its franchise, Burch, even while playing hardball in the courts, has been laboring mightily to sweeten its image along Northwest Highway--and in City Hall.
In fact, for those who live around Bachman Lake, it's hard to avoid Burch Management's kindness.
Every Thanksgiving, in a practice that actually predates its legal war with the city, Burch has served free meals to the poor. Dancers and customers are barred from the club until the last disadvantaged family has finished its turkey and cranberry sauce. At Christmas time, Burch hosts a free event at Baby Dolls, where it gives away more than 500 children's toys, such as bicycles.
In December 1992, Burch picked up the $10,000 tab to keep an annual Christmas party in Bachman Lake Park going; the city was going to cancel the event for lack of funds. Burch sent its dancers to the soire, dressed in cuddly stuffed animal costumes rather than bikinis and pasties, to distribute goodies in the park. It also posted a sign proclaiming its sponsorship of the event.
Burch's largesse has also helped the public schools in the Northwest Highway neighborhood, including Stephen C. Foster Elementary and Obadiah Knight Elementary. The company has supplied the schools with playground equipment and encyclopedias.
At meetings of the Bachman/Northwest Highway Community Organization, Burch officials now turn out in big numbers. "They dominate the meeting," says council member Blumer. "They always look nice, and they are the best dressed."
Burch officials, citing their ongoing legal woes, generally declined to talk to the Observer. "We are in litigation with the city," said Scott Burch, brother of Duncan Burch, who owns the company. "I cannot say anything at this time." The company also sent a three-page fax confirming its civic contributions. "We operate as a caring, concerned, and contributing corporation," the statement concluded.
Only Kathie Golden, a financial executive and community liaison for Burch, agreed to answer any questions at all--and Golden limited her comments to two brief telephone interviews. In a subsequent conversation, she said she had been instructed not to say any more and had been mistaken to speak in the first place.
When asked about the motivation for her company's civic involvement, Golden responded: "Our people are normal people. They have children in daycare and everything.
"All we want to do is work out a relationship that's good for us and good for them. I would hate for it to seem as if we are doing these things just for a means."
Burch Management hands out goodies to city council members as well as to the poor.
Council members say Burch executives rarely miss a function where an elected city official is being feted or financed. "They are everywhere," says Blumer. The company bestows its kindness on both council friend and foe. Blumer, for example, says Burch Management still sends her a "beautiful" Christmas card each year. Says Paul Fielding: "They have been making the rounds trying to ingratiate themselves."
Former councilwoman Sandra Crenshaw recalls that Burch often sought to befriend her. Through political consultant Jake Fuller of Starcom Consultants, the company in 1994 bought her a $25 ticket for its table at the Andrew Jackson Day Democratic party fundraiser.
Burch's closest ties on the present council are with Barbara Mallory-Caraway and Chris Luna--the co-sponsors of the June resolution asking city staff to end the war with the clubs.
When asked in August to discuss the council resolution, Mallory-Caraway said she did not recall much about it. "I don't remember--that has been a long time for me." She said she had taken a vacation since then and forgotten the circumstances surrounding the measure's introduction. She did recall that she had met several times with Burch officials in her City Hall office, but declined to discuss any ties her husband, political consultant Dwaine Caraway, had with the company. "You need to ask Dwaine. I am not in a court of law. If you are a reporter, you should know you never ask questions that you don't have answers to."
Dwaine Caraway was among a group of political figures who traveled to Mexico in July 1993 for a beach vacation at Burch Management's expense. Chris Luna had also been invited, but declined to make the trip.
Luna, who declined to answer questions for this story, previously told the Observer that the invitation had surprised him. "I figured something got translated wrong, that they were selling raffle tickets to the Bahamas to benefit the homeless or a youth camp." When he learned the trip offer wasn't a joke, Luna explained, he turned it down.
But in May, before this year's council elections, Luna was willing to accept some of Burch Management's largesse. Luna, in fact, asked his political consultant, Jake Fuller, to arrange for Burch to underwrite a campaign fundraiser the councilman threw in Reverchon Park on Maple Avenue. He wanted Burch to supply balloons, ice cream, soda, and volunteers. The company agreed. As it happened, Fuller says, only about 20 people showed up for the event. Included in the small crowd: Scott Burch.
One month later, on June 14, as the council discussed the resolution he had introduced, Luna took umbrage at suggestions he was doing Burch's bidding.
Councilman Max Wells, who would vote against the proposal, suggested that Burch Management was behind it--and had prompted Luna to introduce the measure. "I am very uncomfortable," Wells declared, "when individual council members attempt to put something on the agenda involving pending litigation. I haven't heard anything from our lawyers suggesting that this is what needs to take place."
Luna responded, sounding indignant. "If I could, I would like to give you a little background on this resolution. It was a result of the neighbors who live in that area saying that 'what you are doing isn't working. Please try to do something that works.'"
Luna referred to outcries at neighborhood meetings and letters he had received from concerned citizens. The citizens, he said, had cited the lack of progress after 10 years of litigation and wanted the council to try a new approach. "It is my responsibility if constituents say what the city is doing is not working," Luna said.
It's no surprise that Luna was familiar with those letters.
His own political advisor, Fuller--who was also working as a paid consultant to Burch Management--had a hand in compiling and sending the citizens' missives to City Hall. (Records in the city secretary's office show Luna's campaign paid Fuller and his firm $10,750 in fees; Fuller confirmed that he also works for Burch, but wouldn't say how much he has been paid.)
In fact, Fuller acknowledges that, on Burch's behalf, he drafted letters for citizens to sign and send on to council members--including Luna. "It's time," declares one such letter Luna received in late April from Ace Market Restaurant Supply executive Mike Halliday. "It's time to get the topless club issue behind us." A letter with the exact same wording also arrived from David Costello, of the Flower Cart shop on Northwest Highway.
Halliday, who has sold supplies to the topless club from his white warehouse building on Northwest Highway, recalls the day he signed his letter. "Somebody from one of those topless clubs came over and said they just wanted to see if they could get City Hall to consider a solution," he says. He signed a prepared letter and the topless club workers mailed it for him, Halliday says.
Luna had suggested he was responding to spontaneous grassroots public opinion. In truth, the episode--so brazenly orchestrated by the consultant, giving cover to both of his clients--shows how members of the City Council respond to Burch Management's political handiwork.
Two weeks after the resolution passed, Luna's campaign filed financial reports that showed the council member had received $5,000 from Burch Management officials 10 days before the resolution passed. Duncan Burch and his wife Sue had given Luna $2,000; brother Scott and his wife Phyllis had donated $2,000; and Burch executive Kathie Golden had contributed another $1,000.
Other council members who voted in favor of the ordinance have also gotten Burch money. Craig McDaniel received a $1,000 contribution one week after the resolution passed; Charlotte Mayes received $650.
In a press release issued September 22, 1995--after Channel 5 broke a story about Burch's contributions to Luna--the council member stated: "My critics have the story backwards. My efforts have been at the request of and to benefit neighborhoods in their fight against the impact of sexually oriented businesses."
Luna noted that he had over 700 individual contributors to his campaign, donating more than $100,000. "I am not aware or familiar with every single contributor. As you can see, a contribution does not impact how I approach my public service."
When called for comment on this story, Luna, through his assistants, refused to add anything--or answer questions about his earlier statement.
Assistant City Manager Levi Davis has met several times with Burch officials and neighborhood groups to start fashioning the compromise the council authorized him to seek.
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Burch has not yet delivered a proposed settlement, but says it will do so soon.
Dallas' bid to regulate sexually oriented businesses offers a case study in cynicism and hypocrisy.
Chris Luna, with his pockets full of donations from Burch employees, declares that citizens' groups prompted his resolution. Burch Management executives, proprietors of topless clubs, mingle with Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition and send their employees to dole out goodies to poor kids in the park. And conservative council members like Donna Blumer and Max Wells contend that they are just trying to regulate topless clubs--not wipe them off the map of Dallas.
Meanwhile, the market for topless entertainment swells like Candy's cantaloupes. And for better or worse--freedom of expression or sign of moral decay--topless bars are here to stay.