You Can Leave Your Hat On
Heavy-metal music gives way to Prince pop tunes as the woman onstage peels off her black shorts, leaving nothing more to the imagination. A half-dozen guys sitting around are nursing their nonalcoholic beers and staring mutely toward the 10-foot runway. A few other strippers chat at the small bar. This cramped basement space feels like somebody's converted rec room, with its striped black carpet illuminated by the hush of dim red ceiling lights. Welcome to Class Act, the only strip club in Cannon Falls, a riverside town of 3,500 residents some 35 miles south of St. Paul.
Two neon signs advertise cocktails, but to get a real drink, customers must climb back up the stairs, past the guy who collected their five dollar cover charges, out the front door, and around to the side of the building where a paper sign taped to the door announces Peelers Bar & Grill. The separation of nudity and booze at this windowless, brick-and-concrete bunker just off Highway 52 stems from an arrangement made last year between the club and Goodhue County. The resulting compromise appeared to settle more than a decade of on-again, off-again legal wrangling over the club, which offers "Totally Nude Exotic Dancers" every Tuesday through Saturday from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.
But over the summer, an ostensibly routine piece of municipal business prompted the owners of Class Act to sue the city of Cannon Falls in federal court, charging that new municipal ordinances aimed to regulate the double-decker dance-and-drink club are unconstitutional.
On July 17 Cannon Falls officially annexed more than 200 acres of adjacent land on the southern edge of town, Cannon Falls Township, primarily so businesses in that area could gain access to city services. The largely commercial area includes 43 mobile homes, six single-family dwellings, about 20 businesses, and one strip club: Class Act.
Less than two months later, on September 3, the Cannon Falls City Council passed an ordinance that defined sexually oriented enterprises of every stripe--from escort agencies to adult book and video stores, and even the "conversation/rap parlor." None of those specific businesses exists in Cannon Falls; there is only Class Act, which is now legally defined as a "sexually oriented cabaret." The ordinance outlined a process for licensing the business, and forbade customers from coming within 10 feet of dancers and from giving them any tips. Three of the club's dancers are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit; in it, they point out that tips are an essential part of their income.
The City Council didn't stop there. On October 1, its six members passed a public-indecency ordinance banning anyone from appearing nude in public. The regulation defined nudity, in part, as "A state of dress which fails to opaquely cover a human buttock, anus, male genitals, female genitals, or areola of the female breast." The council provided an exception for theatrical productions with "serious artistic merit."
Rather than apply for a license, Class Act owner Dick Jacobson sued Cannon Falls in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. He says he wasn't surprised the city took action, but he views the specifics of the new law as Draconian. "The ordinance they came up with might as well have been written by Jerry Falwell. It was blatantly unconstitutional," he insists.
"That's nonsense. We're certainly not trying to put them out of business," says Cannon Falls City Administrator Dallas Larson, in response to charges that the City Council's measures were designed to shut down the club. "We're trying to secure compliance with our ordinances." Larson nevertheless concedes that under the new regulations, the club would obviously have to conduct its doings differently than it has in the past.
The city intends to argue that the restrictions placed upon the club are reasonable. "The First Amendment is not absolute. This type of business has been demonstrated to produce these adverse secondary effects," says Elliott Knetsch, an attorney with Eagan-based Campbell Knutson, which is defending Cannon Falls. "I'm not sure the First Amendment means that the dancer has a right to spread her legs for you like you're giving her a gynecological examination."
Randall Tigue, the Minneapolis-based attorney representing the club, says the city simply objects to the club on moral grounds, rather than on the basis of constitutionally grounded arguments. "The Supreme Court has said that nudity in the course of an expressive dance performance is entitled to First Amendment protection," says Tigue.
As for "adverse secondary effects"--crime, dropping values on properties near the club, etc.--Larson asserts that Cannon Falls didn't look at any specific incidents surrounding Class Act before passing its ordinances: "It was based on findings of other communities, and not based on any case here." Tigue says the purported problems associated with adult entertainment are wildly inflated: "Secondary effects are by and large mythological."
The key legal issues in the case are the 10-foot rule, the prohibition on tipping, and the requirement for opaque clothing: Knetsch and Tigue agree that none of those provisions has been tested in Minnesota courts. That means the dispute may be a long way from over; Tigue says it could take anywhere from a few months to several years to resolve.
"This is potential U.S. Supreme Court material," he adds, going on to note that because of the design of the club, under the 10-foot rule the only place customers could legally stand would be at the bottom of the stairs--or in the men's room.
Meanwhile, there's a fight over the liquor license at the property, since the city has taken the stance that drinking and nude dancing can't take place together under one roof. Tigue counters that under state law, the club has the right to renew its pre-existing license.
On an adjacent front, in an affidavit filed by Class Act's owner, Jacobson alleges that Cannon Falls City Council member and former mayor Babe O'Gorman is a former "long-time patron" of the club. O'Gorman joined the unanimous votes in favor of both ordinances, and says Jacobson's allegations are out of line: "Where he's coming up with all this bunk is beyond me," O'Gorman says. "Every time I've been there in the last eight to 10 years, it's only to take my blind friend."
He adds that he also used to frequent the bar at the club to talk to the owner's wife, who was involved with city politics. These days, O'Gorman says of Class Act, "It's pretty lewd and despicable. It's getting beyond the spirit of a nice community when some broad's got her legs spread, and some guy's got a dollar in his mouth."
The current lawsuit is merely the latest round of a battle that's been going on ever since the earlier incarnation of Class Act, Jake's Food and Liquor, began featuring nude dancing in 1986. The following year Goodhue County passed an ordinance forbidding strip clubs to sell booze. Jacobson challenged, and succeeded in getting the district court to rule the law unconstitutional. The club then changed its name to Peelers and went about its business.
Meanwhile, the city of Coates, 15 miles north of Cannon Falls, passed a similar ordinance that banned nude dancing in bars. Eileen Knudtson, owner of Jake's Bar (a different club) in Coates, sued. When that case reached the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1994--the first time the court dealt with the question of whether exotic dancing was "protected expression" under the Minnesota constitution--the court overturned earlier decisions and found the Coates ordinance constitutional. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sandra Gardebring noted that the court had never before interpreted the state constitution's protection of free speech to be narrower than those offered by the First Amendment.
Armed with that decision, Goodhue County succeeded in vacating the injunction that Jacobson had obtained against the county; the state Court of Appeals heard the matter and sided with the county. In 1997 the county tried to revoke Peelers' liquor license. Jacobson threatened a lawsuit. Instead of winding up in court, the two parties hammered out a compromise: The building would be divided into two separate clubs, with no common entrance; Peelers, upstairs, would serve liquor, while Class Act, downstairs, would feature nude dancing.
But the agreement between club and county has now given way to a battle with the city. Cannon Falls got some help in drafting its new ordinances from the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based National Family Legal Foundation, which not long ago published a book it describes as "a 'how-to' manual for those who are serious about protecting their communities and doing battle with the incredibly powerful and profitable sex club industry." Tigue calls the NFLF "a religious right, pro-censorship organization. They have a nationwide campaign, basically advising cities how to run sexually oriented businesses out of town."
Scott Bergthold, the foundation's president, says the 8-year-old NFLF has advised some 600 communities around the country. He dismisses Tigue's characterization as "hilarious," and says it's a "total fallacy" to dub the group a tool of the religious right: "We're not for the total censorship of sexual speech--that's totally ridiculous," he says, but notes, "Nude dancing can be constitutionally prohibited in the community if it's done correctly."
Upstairs at Peelers, a guy named Erik--who offers only his first name--is draining a Miller Genuine Draft and stubbing out his cigarette in the pink glow of Christmas lights that line the wainscoting of the room. He comes to the club, both upstairs and downstairs, occasionally on his days off. Erik's no constitutional scholar, which may be why, he admits, he hasn't fully managed to comprehend the city's position in the dispute. Still, he's willing to be edified by anyone who can supply him an answer to one of civic life's most persistent questions.
"If it's okay for Minneapolis to do it, why isn't it okay for the other towns to do it?" he wonders. "You go up to, like, Déjà Vu--that's right in basically the fuckin' heartbeat of Minneapolis! I'd like to know what the difference is."
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