Nightclub brews up controversy with nude ‘Macbeth’

Monday, June 21, 1999

Is something rotten in the state of Florida?

Three dancers and the owner of an adult nightclub in Seminole County were arrested earlier this month after the dancers performed a scene from Shakespeare's Macbeth in the nude.

Although the dancers were challenging a November 1998 county public decency ordinance that requires dancers to wear at least G-strings and pasties, they were charged with violating a city law prohibiting nudity at establishments which serve alcohol.

Steven Mason, lawyer for the owner of Club Juana and the three dancers, says this is unconstitutional.

“No court has ever held that you can restrict nude theater where alcohol is served,” he said. “There is nothing to show that theater, in and of itself, can ever harm anyone.”

Calls made to three attorneys for the county and the city were not returned for comment.

Mason said the performance, billed by the club as “Les Femmes Fatale,” was “a combination of burlesque and vaudeville” that included several different skits. The Macbeth scene featured three dancers, “Christie,” “Ray” and “Scarlett,” wearing nothing but black, pointy witches' hats as they peered into a cauldron billowing with dry ice gas.

“If they ran this downtown at a traditional theater it would sell out,” Mason said, adding that people hold many stereotypes about nude dancing clubs that “don't apply.”

He cited one act in particular that featured “Ray” using a samurai sword in a choreographed, ballet-like dance. “The place was stunned silent,” Mason said. “When she was done it just erupted with people screaming and clapping.”

Lt. Sammy Gibson, commander of the City/County Investigative Bureau, acknowledged that the show was not typical adult entertainment, but questioned its theatrical legitimacy.

“There was some choreography to it and some reading parts and speech parts and literature parts,” he said. “I feel comfortable enough in saying that they were not professional theater-type performers. They had not been or excelled in any theatrical school.”

Mason said that one county commissioner called the performance “lewd.”

According to reports in the May 29 Orlando Sentinel, “the crowd seemed lost in the verbiage” at times, although there was one especially large burst of applause when the women bent over to stir the contents of the cauldron.

Between skits, the women returned to dancing in G-string and pasties.

Club owner Mike Pinter said the performance was partly an attempt to increase business which recently had been slow. But according to Pinter and his attorney, the performance primarily was to challenge the Seminole County Public Decency Ordinance, which prohibits nudity while exempting “bona fide performances.”

While representatives for the county did not return phone calls, the Associated Press reports that local officials have defined “bona fide performances” as “legitimate theater.”

Mason disagrees. Arguing that the phrase “bona fide performance” is too vague, he said the phrase was “opening up [the law] to subjective interpretation.”

The city ordinance that bans nudity where alcohol is served is also too broad, he says, observing, “they don't even exempt the restroom.”

The performance occurred on May 28, although no arrests were made until June 4.

Supreme Court precedent is unclear in the relationship between nudity and the First Amendment. In the 1991 decision Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc., the court upheld an Indiana public decency law that banned nude dancing and required performers to wear at least G-strings and pasties. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote, “the public indecency statute furthers a substantial government interest in protecting order and morality.”

But Rehnquist conceded that “nude dancing of the kind sought to be performed here is expressive conduct within the outer perimeters of the First Amendment, though only marginally so.”

Furthermore, some people believe that a 1996 Supreme Court decision, 44 Liquormart, Inc. v. Rhode Island draws into question the constitutionality of laws that would ban nudity where alcohol is served, although these laws have repeatedly been found acceptable by the court.

The Florida dancers and club owner are also challenging the city and county ordinances in four separate lawsuits, contending that the ordinances violate free-speech rights. All four are still pending.

What might Shakespeare have had to say about all this? Although we'll never know, perhaps the witches of Macbeth foresaw the heated debate over freedom of expression when they said that “fair is foul and foul is fair.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.