YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Eye-Opener at Dad's Coffee Shop Isn't Likely to Be Found at Mom's

October 01, 1989|JULES LOH | Associated Press

DICKSON CITY, Pa. — The question before the court remains: What is entertainment?

It is a subject discussed the livelong day in this gritty little town of 6,700 in the Pennsylvania hills, especially over the plywood counter of Dad's Coffee Shop, an unremarkable establishment in every respect save one. At Dad's, the waitresses, who serve the coffee in Styrofoam cups, are naked from the waist up.

Well, not quite. The law says they must wear what are called pasties, tiny stick-on things that glitter and seem to serve only to accentuate the obvious, and Dad says he insists on operating strictly within the law.

Dad is Thomas Wasley Jr., a stout man of 46 with wire-rimmed glasses, thick black hair just going to gray and brown eyes that plead astonishment over the trouble that has befallen him.

Wasley and his coffee shop came into prominence last May, during a local election campaign as it happened, which brought him more attention, and customers, than his small ads in the sports section of the Scrantonian Tribune ever produced.

Call From Australia

"I even got a call from a radio station in Australia," he was saying the other day, over coffee. "I thought it was phony at first, but it wasn't. That's when I put up that map."

The map of the United States is about the only thing that decorates the pale walls of the coffee shop. That and a bulletin board covered with newspaper clippings about the dispute over the meaning of entertainment. A legend above the map asks, "How far did you come to Dad's?" Pins are stuck in about a dozen states.

Now business has fallen off from 500 or so customers a day to about 75, and the paper will no longer run Dad's ads.

"People think I'm closed," Wasley said. "I'm struggling, but I'm not closed."

Not closed, but subject to a fine of $500 a day since the city magistrate determined, in a 13-page decision rendered June 26, that Dad's Coffee Shop was providing "live entertainment" for which he needed a special permit under the zoning law.

Wasley has appealed to a county court and says he will continue if necessary to appeal to higher courts on up the line.

The magistrate, John E. V. Pieski, ruled that since the zoning statute did not define "live entertainment" he would use the dictionary definition: "The act of diverting, amusing or causing someone's time to pass agreeably."

"That would apply to cheerful waitresses at Dunkin' Donuts," says Wasley.

But, argued the magistrate, Wasley advertised his waitresses, not his coffee.

"So do the places that advertise their waitress-of-the-month instead of their food," says Wasley.

But when Wasley's waitresses went from wearing swimsuits to baring their breasts, ruled the magistrate, the price of his coffee doubled to $2 a cup, no refills. A clear indication, he ruled, that Wasley considered them live entertainment and waitresses only incidentally.

High Overhead

"All price reflects is overhead. You have to hire topless girls from out of town, pay agency fees, motel room costs. That still doesn't mean they constitute live entertainment," says Wasley. "They don't sing or dance. All they do is serve coffee."

The debate lingers.

According to John Maholic, the borough president, the dispute was more political than semantic. "If it were not an election year it would never have come up," he argues.

The pot boiled over a few weeks before the May 16 Democratic primary when a group of residents presented to the council a petition with 1,100 signatures opposing Dad's "or any other enterprise of obscene nature."

"In a town of 6,700," said Maholic, "1,000 names is a lot of voters."

The resident who headed the petition drive, Frank Siderowicz, says there is nothing to the idea politics is involved.

"It was a moral issue from the beginning," he insists. "We collected those signatures outside our churches after services. Politics was never mentioned. It was a coincidence that an election campaign was going on.

"This is small-town America. A topless coffee shop doesn't fit."

Dickson City is a small town all right, but hardly typical of what the phrase usually conveys. It abuts a string of similar communities just north of Scranton, suburbs really, whose varying ethnic makeups reflect the immigrant groups who arrived here years ago to dig coal.

It is a town of seven churches and 15 taverns. It also features a topless go-go joint, The Rose, which is across the street from the borough hall, and a porno shop on a major highway that cuts through town.

"Both of those places were objected to when they opened, but for some legal reasons they were allowed to remain," said Siderowicz. "Dad's Coffee Shop was something we could do something about, so we did."

Incumbents Ousted

Siderowicz says it was also coincidental that the committee he headed to collect the signatures was a group called "Democrats for Good and Honest Government," formed specifically to oust the incumbents. And it did. All three who were running, including Maholic.

Los Angeles Times Articles