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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Naked Boys Singing, sure...but burlesque?

Posted By on Thu, Apr 17, 2014 at 11:01 AM

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Here's a question I didn't fully answer in my piece on the city's decision that only "adult entertainment venues" (strip clubs, adult bookstores, adult cabarets) can present performances by Angel Burlesque - or, perhaps typical burlesque shows - on a "regular" basis:

What about theaters that present shows featuring performers in a state of nudity or "semi-nudity"? Have they run afoul of code enforcement?

Our test case might be Naked Boys Singing, an accurately-titled musical featuring a cast entirely in the buff. It's played here at Phoenix Theatre and Theatre on the Square, most recently in a month-long run at TOTS. And without a hitch, as it turns out.

Ron Spencer, the long-time artistic director at Theatre on the Square, explains: "We did not get a variance of any type. I don't believe there is such a thing. Perhaps it is because we are a 'theatre' as opposed to a traveling type burlesque show. Phoenix has had no problems with nudity either."

Not that other cities haven't felt the need to shut down Naked Boys Singing, regardless of the venue. Here's more from a piece on nudity and the arts from the First Amendment Center that I quoted in my original piece:

In addition to being able to determine whether certain material is obscene, state and local authorities have some leeway to decide whether an artistic production featuring nudity will be allowed to occur in a particular public gallery or other venue. Private galleries receiving no government money would not be affected unless obscenity were alleged or some sort of law was being broken. An example of this occurred in Provincetown, Mass., in 2001, where a production of the musical Naked Boys Singing was shut down because of a bylaw in the town's zoning laws. The show is an all-male revue which, as the title implies, features full frontal nudity. Town Building Commissioner Warren Alexander issued multiple cease-and-desist orders stating that the bylaw prohibited "adult entertainment" within 500 feet of schools, churches or other municipal buildings.

According to Provincetown Banner, Judge Gordon Piper found that the town could not prohibit the owners of the Crown & Anchor Inn, a privately owned hotel and "entertainment center," from staging live nude performances. The judge noted a footnote in the bylaw that attaches adult entertainment to the category of retail use and ruled that the inn did not fall under the town's definition of a retail establishment.

Naked Boys Singing has run into trouble in a number of venues, including Atlanta and Milwaukee. The show was raided and closed down in both cities because there were questions about whether the venues had the proper permits to stage "adult entertainment." The Milwaukee Gay Arts Center filed a federal lawsuit in 2005 against the city alleging constitutional violations of free speech and due process. The suit was dismissed by the U.S. District Court because the center had failed to identify any connection between its allegations and an express policy enforced by the city. In all three cities the show was, eventually, allowed to go on.

So why does the city view Angel Burlesque's "semi-nude" show differently than the fully-nude (and advertised as such!) Naked Boys Singing? Maybe no one complained? A spokesperson for code enforcement did emphasize to me that he works for a "reactive agency," which responds only to community complaints and doesn't seek out violations.

Or maybe Spencer is right in saying that the difference is that TOTS and Phoenix are labeled as theaters. But it if seems absurd on its face to say that an ordinary bar or rock club (Kat's Pub or Deluxe) could transform just about overnight into an "adult entertainment business" by "regularly" presenting burlesque shows, is it any more absurd to say that a theater like TOTS or Phoenix could similarly transform in the eyes of the law by putting on a month's worth of shows featuring nude singers? After all, the cities that shut down Naked Boys Singing referenced the same kind of zoning laws that the city referenced when issuing a citation to Kat's Pub.

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