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Nudes on Stage: Dirty Dancing or Art? : The law: Westminster is trying to close a club featuring naked dancers, and the owner is fighting back. But the U.S. Supreme Court is pondering an Indiana case that will probably decide whether such nude performances are constitutionally protected.

February 13, 1991|STEVE EMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTMINSTER — You walk into the Shangri-La, a cabaret in a small, out-of-the-way, vacancy-plagued shopping center.

You pay $5 at the door. No one asks whether you want a seat in the dining room. You just turn straight into the no-alcohol bar, where about 20 other men are sitting silently, waiting for the show to begin.

The waitress asks what you want. You order a Coke, $3.50.

After a while, a woman emerges from the lavatory wearing the skimpiest string bikini in the galaxy. She turns on the stereo, ascends to a narrow, lighted stage and begins dancing and smiling at the front-row patrons.

She strides back and forth, turning, gyrating, contorting to the music. And she begins to remove her bikini. By the end of the song, she is flamboyantly naked. A few of the men applaud. She leaves the stage.

Is she making an artistic statement? Or is she just foolin' around?

It's not a question that burdens the patrons, some of whom were aiming wadded dollar bills into the dancer's G-string.

It doesn't trouble the Westminster police either. They say the cabaret, which offers the only live nude dancing in Orange County, opened last December without the required live entertainment permit. So they raided the place last month and led away the owner, four employees and a dancer in handcuffs.

But it's an important question to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is pondering an Indiana law banning all public nudity. Its ruling, which will probably decide whether nude dancing has constitutional protection, is expected in July. It could affect not only Westminster's attempts to hustle the Shangri-La out of town, but also all performers and artists who deal with sexuality.

Westminster police are blunt about their goal. "We'd prefer to make it known we don't want this in the city," said Lt. Robert Burnett as he stood in the door of the cabaret just after the raid. "If they want to be here, they'll have to fight to be here."

The fight began almost immediately. Shangri-La owner Theron M. Smith sued in Superior Court, asking that the city's permit ordinance be declared unconstitutional. The ordinance requires a permit for any kind of live entertainment, and it gives the City Council complete discretion in deciding whether to grant one.

"It's going to be a dogfight," predicted Costas Ladikos, the Brea attorney representing the city.

"Most cities realize you can't ban nude dancing and don't waste their money trying," said Shangri-La's attorney, Roger Jon Diamond of Santa Monica. "But instead of fighting smog and toxic waste," Westminster "is trying to get everyone excited about nudity."

Discovery of an adult bookstore in Westminster, along with a suspicion that another business was a front for prostitution, prompted the City Council last September to declare a moratorium on all permits for "adult" businesses while it rewrites its regulations.

Two months later, Smith went into City Hall and applied for a restaurant business license for Shangri-La.

Smith had been looking for a new location. His repeated court battles had kept Los Angeles County officials at bay for nearly four years, but the Shangri-La finally was expelled last year from its longtime home in an Azusa shopping center.

Mobile-home residents nearby had complained of noisy and unseemly goings-on in the parking lot, but the Shangri-La closed not because it was obscene or noisy. Smith continued business after new zoning regulations would no longer permit such a business there. He eventually was convicted of violating the zoning code, a misdemeanor, was fined $2,350 and placed on three years' probation.

The Westminster Shangri-La had been open only about a month when the raid came. Now the cabaret is closed, the battle lines are drawn, and both sides say the war could be long and costly.

"Maybe they're just trying to test the city," Mayor Charles V. Smith said. "Our message is, we won't tolerate (the Shangri-La), and we'll do everything to get rid of it."

Nude entertainment has been around for decades, having appeared in bars way back in the '60s. Weren't all the issues settled back then?

Not really. Pepperdine University law professor Bernard James, who analyzed the pending Indiana case for the American Bar Assn., says local governments were able to thin the ranks of nude and topless bars without the U.S. Supreme Court ever confronting the central question: Is an erotic performer making a constitutionally protected expression?

No one gave it much thought until early in the 20th Century, when a campaign emerged to keep erotic French postcards from being mailed or brought into the country, James said. "Many federal mail regulations stem from this. It made nudity an acceptable topic for political discussion."

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