It's just shy of midnight, and more women are sitting at the bar than dancing at one of Kansas City's older strip clubs. Sally is behind the bar, joking with the few regulars who are here, pouring shots when they're called for. There are only a few customers now, and this is as quiet as a Friday is likely to be.
Sally doesn't dance and doesn't plan to start. Not that she's a stranger to strip clubs. When she was a little younger, she went to them with friends because the clubs stayed open later than most bars.
Tonight, as on most nights lately, the patrons and dancers are talking about her family.
"He's just against anyone having fun," says one dark-haired dancer on the way outside to smoke a cigarette.
"Bartle's the guy who passed that law about open coolers on the river, right?" asks a man at the bar. "What the hell's his problem?"
Sally doesn't answer. The man they're talking about is Matt Bartle, a Republican state senator from Lee's Summit who has spent his political career trying to close the doors of every adult store and strip club in the state. Though he doesn't know it, one of his relatives would be among the people losing jobs if he managed to shut down the industry.
Sally has asked The Pitch not to reveal her identity because, right now, her family doesn't know that she has been serving drinks at this club on the outskirts of the metro for almost a year. She's not a member of the senator's immediate family, though she says their paths might cross at a family reunion. (Bartle did not return calls for this story.)
"They're all very conservative," she says of the Bartle family.
A week ago, Sally sent a letter to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon asking him to veto Missouri Senate Bill 586 that Bartle, in his final term, at last pushed through this year. She says closing topless joints and nude cabarets would make life dangerous for the workers left behind.
"I don't want to lose my job, but that's just part of it," she says. "I don't think he needs to tell people what they can and can't do. We should have more freedom than that."
On a sweltering June afternoon, a tavern in Columbia serves as the meeting place for 40 or so men and women who together employ almost 3,000 people, all of whom might be out of work by the end of the summer.
Among them are Dick Snow and Joe Spinello, competitors under any other circumstances. Snow owns Bazooka's Showgirls, a nude revue and adult arcade on Main Street in Kansas City. Spinello operates the Shady Lady, a topless bar in KC's Northeast neighborhood. Both men are veterans of the adult industry. Snow started out in Colorado in the 1970s, where he owned an adult theater during the Deep Throat era — the golden age of pornography. Spinello's parents owned the Shady Lady beginning in the 1930s, when a different name was painted on the door and live country-and-western acts shared bills with cabaret dancers. He spent 20 years working for Anheuser-Busch before returning to the family trade.
They've come to this Columbia bar to rally Missouri members of the Association of Club Executives, a national trade organization for adult-bookstore and strip-club owners. Snow is the state chapter's vice president. The first item on today's agenda is to make sure everyone knows why Missouri is about to have as many rules regulating nipples as it does guns. The second is to prepare for the possibility of a long and probably expensive legal battle.
Sitting on Nixon's desk is a bill that would regulate strip clubs, adult video- and bookstores, and semi-nude modeling studios. Business owners say the restrictions would jeopardize their livelihoods. Full nudity and alcohol sales would be banned; employees deemed semi-nude would have to be on a stage at least 18 inches high and at least 6 feet from customers in a room of at least 600 square feet. The businesses would have to close by midnight, and zoning restrictions would be similar to those for sex offenders, with new businesses prohibited from operating within 1,000 feet of homes, schools, churches, libraries, parks and day-care centers, as well as other sexually oriented businesses.
Nixon's smartest political tactic might be silence. If he doesn't sign the bill, the legislation will become law in July anyway.
"I could always open up a comedy club," Snow cracks in a room where jokes are scarce.
As the meeting stretches to three hours, Snow and Spinello field questions.
"All of this started over some XXX sign on the interstate. It was for an adult bookstore," Spinello says. Bartle, he says, "had some cockamamie story about driving past it with his little girl and having to explain it to her. Truth is, if the business had just taken it down to begin with, we probably wouldn't be going through any of this. But he didn't win that one, and he's never let it go. Ever. He's been obsessed with sex."
During his first term in the Missouri Senate in 2002, Bartle introduced a bill limiting signs and billboards advertising adult businesses. It became law, but in 2004 a federal appeals court struck it down as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. In 2005, Bartle pushed a bill exactly like the one that club owners are discussing today; it passed the state Senate but never made it out of House committee hearings. This May, the bill finally passed, 118-28 in the House and 27-4 in the Senate.
Before the end of today's meeting, most of the people at this bar pledge money to the cause. Snow and Spinello believe that it will be enough to carry them through the first few months of legal motions.
Megan sips from a tall glass of iced tea at the bar of the Bulldog, a Main Street restaurant owned by Snow that shares a wall with Bazooka's. She's tan and in her late 30s, with wavy, chin-length hair and the easy smile of someone who has spent much of her professional life charming people.
At 18, the Kansas City-born high school student was spending her days at St. Teresa's Academy and her nights sliding out of her Catholic-school uniform at a strip club. That place has changed its name a few times since she worked there; now it's called the Show. Dancing took her around the country. When she wasn't onstage, she was posing for Hustler and other adult magazines. Once, she had a gig as a backup dancer for Kid Rock at Kemper Arena and caught a glimpse of herself on a big screen as she swirled around the pole. "There's my ass filling up a 24-foot television," she says with a laugh.
Megan retired from the stage a few years ago. Now she grooms miniature show horses. Evenings at Bazooka's, she works as a waitress and sometimes helps the dancers put together routines for competitions or theme nights.
"I'm a theater person, so to me it's about putting on a show," she says. "There is an art to this. I love doing the costumes and figuring out the routines. You can't just go up there and take your clothes off. I promise you, it will not work."
The way Megan describes it, to dance is to present an exaggerated idea of eroticism, the same way professional wrestlers use cartoonish exaggerations of violence to take their audiences on a ride.
It's ridiculous to think that a private dance simulates sex, she says. "You're going through handstands and supporting yourself over the guy so you don't crush him — you have to be really strong to do it. You're going through a routine that looks great, but it wouldn't even be possible to have sex in the positions. This is about putting on a show and, a lot of times, talking to guys who come in just because they need someone to talk to."
She's almost reverent about Kansas City's cabaret history, one nearly as storied as its jazz legacy. The life of legendary performer Gypsy Rose Lee, for example, was adapted into a Broadway musical.
Bartle and his allies say the business drives up crime, that it's unsafe because it puts alcohol and women under one roof, and that it creates a haven for prostitutes who meet clients by dancing.
There's not much evidence to support Bartle's argument.
Far from being a detriment to development, both Bazooka's and Temptations (at 15th Street and Grand) watched the Crossroads Arts District grow around them while Kansas City's downtown underwent a multimillion-dollar nightlife revival. Spinello's business is a block from a police station. "They bring half their guys down here once a month to show them how to read the licenses," Spinello says.
"You can't have a town get any convention business if they don't have clubs," he continues. "Ask anyone. It's always the second question conventions ask the Chamber of Commerce when they're considering booking a city, after asking about hotels. If you don't have clubs, they don't book the convention. I promise." (The Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association declined to comment for this story about whether convention planners inquire about adult businesses.)
It's hard to tell where Bartle has found his ideas about prostitution and crime. Missouri's strip clubs are already among the state's most regulated businesses, and available statistics don't paint the picture of a trouble-causing industry. At all licensed clubs, security cameras keep close watch on the floor, on the exits and on the private rooms. Located on the city's higher-crime East Side, the Shady Lady had just one police call in the past month, when someone tried to rob the place.
Club owners were the ones who came up with the idea of licensing dancers. Now, once a year, every performer must apply for an adult-entertainer license, which can be revoked if the dancer is convicted of a crime. A spokesman at the Regulated Industries Division, which is part of the city department that grants licenses, says no license has been revoked "since at least 2007."
Besides, how are community standards determined in a city that has used millions of tax dollars to finance businesses in the Power & Light District, where Tengo Sed Cantina has a house stripper pole and where, at Angel's Rock Bar, booking a XXX porn star for a meet-and-greet is just innocent fun?
Missouri's adult-club owners might be paying for Rod Jetton's sins.
"The only thing different between 2005 and now is what happened with Jetton," says Curt Dougherty, a Democratic state representative from Independence who opposed Bartle's legislation.
In 2005, House Speaker Rod Jetton, a Republican, assigned Bartle's first anti-nudity bill to an unreceptive Local Government Committee, where it died before it could get a House vote.
Bartle didn't forget. This February, after nearly three years of an FBI investigation into allegations that politicians had exchanged political favors for contributions, Bartle told a federal grand jury that Jetton was paid to kill the 2005 bill. Bartle cited a $35,000 donation from the People of Private Enterprise (a PAC made up of ACE members) to a campaign committee run by the general counsel of the House, Don Lograsso (a Jetton ally), shortly before that bill died. (Jetton later admitted that he killed the bill on purpose but said it was because he disliked it, not because he had received money.)
Meanwhile, in December 2009, Jetton was charged with second-degree assault after the House Speaker allegedly met an unnamed woman for sadomasochistic sex, choked her and beat her until she was unconscious. For months after the scandal broke, Jetton's reported safe phrase, "green balloons," was a punch line in political columns and around the Statehouse.
Dougherty is convinced that Bartle owes his 2010 bill's success to Jetton's kinky downward spiral. Two days after Bartle's grand-jury testimony, his bill was on the Senate floor. In any event, Bartle's final legislative session was a bad time for Jefferson City to appear soft on corruption and vice. The FBI investigation — though it resulted in no felony indictments — sparked debate about ethics reform and accusations of campaign-finance violations. After spending most of the session arguing over an ethics bill, the Missouri General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to send Nixon a final version giving greater powers to the Missouri Ethics Commission. The commission would be able to investigate its own actions and require that donations of $500 or more during a legislative session be reported within 48 hours.
"Yeah, the industry gave money to a campaign committee, but you know what? We gave money on both sides of the aisle," Spinello says. "It wasn't some bullshit bribe. It's giving money to people you think are going to be better for your business if they're in office. Which is what every single industry in the country does, whether it's us or H&R Block."
Dougherty recalls returning from lunch and being surprised to see Bartle's supporters holding a committee meeting on the bill. Bartle spent at least an hour arguing his case, then introduced several supporters who were convinced that Missouri's divorce and crime rates would decline significantly if the state's exotic dancers and video stores ceased to exist.
Opponents pointed out that, in order to lower prostitution rates or regulate sex, legislators should focus on businesses where sex actually occurs. "They wouldn't address regulating commerce on the Internet, where people actually get hookers. We held up a copy of The Pitch, which has sexual ads, and they wouldn't discuss that," Dougherty says. "We couldn't talk about mail-order [pornography]. They just wanted to take a sticks-and-mortar building, blow it up and say, 'Everything's going to be OK now.'"
Spinello says he didn't have a chance to argue his case. "We had guys ask if we could just sit down and talk to him [Bartle]," he says. "But he wouldn't even speak to our lobbyist. He said he absolutely wouldn't talk to any of us. Being politically motivated is one thing, but now I think he's just a vindictive son of a bitch."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri testified in opposition to the bill, arguing that it violated the First Amendment. Hoping to save jobs in her district, state Sen. Jolie Justus tried to amend the bill with an exemption for Kansas City. She was shot down when St. Joseph Republican Charlie Shields, president pro tem, said it would make Kansas City the "porn center of the Midwest."
A dollars-and-cents argument might have been more effective than citing the First Amendment. Part of Bartle's triumph was selling his regulations as a way to save people from themselves at no cost to the state's tax rolls. Dougherty says that suggestion was stupid at best, an outright lie at worst.
"When you have an establishment that has a liquor license and, according to the bill, can no longer sell liquor, then you can see that they lose sales and we lose taxes," he says. The bill's supporters insist that enforcement of Bartle's regulations wouldn't affect the state budget because it would cost no more than $100,000 in the first year. "How can you tell me that it's going to be zero impact? Who's going to see a stripper who doesn't strip, drink a 7UP and pay $10 for it? You can't tell me that's going to have zero impact."
Club owners estimate that the bill would cost Missouri millions in lost tax revenues per year, at a time when Missouri's projected budget shortfall for the next fiscal year is $730 million. In Kansas City, 12 licensed businesses, 47 licensed adult-entertainment managers and 875 adult entertainers pay into the system. In 2009, that added up to $275,000 in state withholding taxes, $70,000 in Kansas City earnings taxes, $2 million in sales taxes, $50,250 in licensing fees and $125,000 in liquor sales taxes.
Critics argue that club owners have an interest in putting out good numbers. But for now, the only revenue estimates are from the industry — Dougherty says the bill's supporters refused to allow a fiscal review. "Even on a tax-free day for school supplies, the state takes the figures and plugs them in using available data and comes to a reasonable idea of what the loss is," he says. "There's no reason we can't do that here."
By the last day of the session, when Dougherty says he was still asking for a fiscal review, Republican leaders weren't bothering to hide their contempt, rolling their eyes and grinning as he repeated his requests. If the industry does go to court, part of its argument will be that denying the review violated legislative law.
"Normally you have to halt the bill and give me a hearing," Dougherty says. "There was plenty of time to do it, even if it was just going to be a sham hearing. They should've at least had the courtesy to publicly screw me the right way.
"They cried corruption when they said Jetton was the one who killed it. No one cries corruption when they use the same measures to push the thing through. This was Matt's last hurrah, so he was going to pull out every stop to pass this bill. He didn't care how he did it. He didn't care if it was ethical. He was going to do it."
Legislation like Bartle's has been introduced in Kansas, Tennessee, Colorado, Minnesota, Kentucky, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Georgia and Florida. It has failed in all of those statehouses except Ohio's, where a variation finally passed in 2007 without restrictions on nudity or alcohol sales but with a mandated midnight closing time.
The man responsible for the template is Scott Bergthold, a lawyer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Bergthold didn't return The Pitch's calls, but his practice, according to his website, is the "nation's only law firm focused exclusively on drafting and defense of municipal adult business regulations." He has made a lot of money closing small businesses, and his history suggests how much Missouri might have to pour into a courtroom fight. City officials in Johns Creek, Georgia, paid Bergthold $238,000 ($250 an hour) to litigate its attempt to shut down the city's sole adult business, a video and novelty store called the Love Shack. Including fees paid to another firm, the effort ate up more than a third of Johns Creek's annual legal budget.
Bergthold is nothing if not thorough. He drafts his rules to cover every inch of a business, including sales percentages, zoning and the amount of floor space taken up by dirty movies and rubber assholes.
As recently as this week, Bergthold told The Wall Street Journal that Missouri's legislation was on solid constitutional ground. But he has said that before and been wrong. Five years ago, Sioux City, Iowa, shelled out more than half a million dollars to an adult bookstore after hired-gun Bergthold failed to put it out of business. According to court records, "Because of the City's ill-conceived, illegal, and unconstitutional actions in targeting and attempting to trample the plaintiff's First Amendment rights, the taxpayers have already paid dearly, to the tune of over $600,000."
That's pocket change to the people who are paid to fight the adult industry. Besides his law practice, Bergthold runs the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit that defends the legislation he has written when the adult industry mounts lawsuits against it. Last year, Bergthold's group counted $30 million in donations. Because of the ADF's 501(c)3 status, it doesn't have to disclose who donated the money.
Bergthold has also been the executive director and general counsel of the National Family Legal Foundation, testifying around the country about the perceived negative effects of strip joints. The group now calls itself the Community Defense Council and is funded by donations from Bergthold's ADF. Every link in his long, incestuous chain of anti-porn groups stands to make money off a protracted legal fight over breasts in the Show Me State.
As the night goes on, Sally serves more customers. Bartle is still the subject of conversation.
"I won't stop dancing, but I'll go out of state," one of Sally's co-workers says. "I'll go to Iowa, maybe. It's good money up there, and they don't have any girls that look like me, so I'll get more customers." (The dancer is black.) "You'll see some really nasty stuff go on here if this goes through. I've been invited to work houses before, after hours, and I won't do that. You'll see ghetto shit going down you thought you'd never see."
"When they found out I was related to Bartle, they were like, 'Why does he want to take away my job?'" she says. "I was like, 'I don't know. I've almost never spoken with him.' But it doesn't surprise me. It's just the way he sees things, being raised in the church."
Unlike a lot of the women she works with, Sally is not a single mother. But at a time when money is tight all around, she says, she wishes that the Missouri General Assembly wasn't trying to make life harder.
"I just wish they'd fix the roads or something that would actually help people."