WHITTIER — This city's eight-year legal fight to shut down the X-rated Pussycat Theatre--a thorn in the side of merchants and officials pushing to redevelop the once depressed Uptown Village business district--now depends on a legal battle in a city thousands of miles away.
The U.S. Supreme Court next month will hear arguments about a case involving a Seattle suburb and an adult movie theater. Like Whittier, the city of Renton, Wash., has a zoning ordinance prohibiting X-rated movie theaters within 1,000 feet of churches, schools or homes.
The court is expected to decide whether the ordinance violates the theater operators' First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression.
Whittier Mayor Myron Claxton said the Renton case may be the key to his city's long-standing fight to close the Pussycat Theatre. If the city of Renton loses, Claxton admits Whittier officials may abandon attempts to push the Pussycat out of Uptown, a legal effort that has become one of the most expensive in the city's history.
Since the city first filed a suit against the Pussycat owners in 1977, City Manager Tom Mauk estimates Whittier has spent more than $100,000 in court costs and attorneys fees. Owners of Pussycat Theatres, Walnut Properties, Inc., have filed a countersuit and are seeking damages against the city that could tack thousands of dollars more onto Whittier's legal bill.
Freedom to Operate
"It boggles my mind that in this day and age we are still having to fight for the freedom to operate our business," said Jim Johnson, president of Pussycat Theatres, a statewide chain of 48 movie houses, including 33 adult theaters. "We will do whatever it takes to keep them from censoring us. So far we are winning."
Which is why Claxton and other Whittier officials will watch the Renton case closely.
"If they lose, it might be bleak for us," said Claxton, a lifelong Whittierite whose deceased uncle Aubrey Wardman built the theater now owned by Hollywood-based Walnut Properties. "I'm afraid our chances of winning wouldn't be good. We'd have to take a long look at whether it's worth going on."
The mayor, like many officials and merchants in the largely conservative city of 71,000, said he still strongly opposes the Pussycat with its marquee burning nightly in the heart of Uptown, the centerpiece of Whittier's multimillion dollar effort to draw new business and shoppers.
Claxton acknowledges that times have changed since scores of residents picketed the 1930s-era movie house soon after Walnut Properties purchased Wardman Theater in May 1977 and started showing adult films.
The theater's presence among the boutiques, cafes and children's stores of Uptown is no longer a highly visible issue, according to many who live, work and shop in the city's old downtown. There is a grudging acceptance that the theater has become a permanent fixture in the village.
"It's been one of the most frustrating chapters in Whittier's history," Claxton said. "But the fact remains, it still opens every day at noon for business. I'm sure my uncle wouldn't relish the way that theater is being used today."
While Mauk and other Whittier officials publicly say they are prepared to take the city's case against the theater to the U.S. Supreme Court, it is clear the fight is at a crossroads.
Justification Not Sufficient
In July, a federal judge tossed out a section of the city's zoning ordinance that would have forced the theater to either move or stop showing adult films. It was the second time in two years that U.S. District Judge Manuel Real had ruled that the city failed to provide sufficient justification for banning an X-rated theater within 1,000 feet of a church, school or residence. Real ruled that the restriction was arbitrary, and that the ordinance did not give an explanation for selecting it rather than banning such businesses within a 1,000 feet of a "pink house."
The city has until December to decide whether to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review Real's decision. Although oral arguments in the Renton case are scheduled for Nov. 12, a decision is not expected before the end of the year.
Attempts by Renton officials to close Playtime Theater--the only adult theater in the former mining town of 34,000--parallels Whittier's X-rated saga, Kaufman said.
Soon after Renton adopted its adult business ordinance in April, 1981, a group of Seattle investors bought a vacant theater in the city's downtown and began showing X-rated films, said Renton City Attorney Larry Warren. The theater is a block from a central park and a Catholic girl's school, he said.
Playtime owners immediately challenged the ordinance in court, but both the state court and a U.S. District Court in Washington state upheld the law. But a federal appellate court overturned the lower court decisions, saying the law violated the owners' Constitutional rights. So Renton officials appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.