Time capsule: This is a recurring Floridian magazine feature that allows readers to re-experience some of the Tampa Bay Times' best stories with the wisdom of hindsight.
At the end of this meeting, which spilled into the early morning hours, the Tampa City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to make it illegal for an adult entertainer to work within 6 feet of a customer. The "six foot rule" is still on the books, but, says Times columnist Sue Carlton, "it's safe to say it has become very low on the police department's priority list."
This story takes us back to the late 1990s, a period of relative peace and prosperity, when Monica Lewinsky was our primary issue of national concern. "We didn't have Donald Trump running for president. We were in a relatively good spot economically. Maybe we had the luxury of worrying about moral issues," Carlton said. "It was very Footloose, where the preacher didn't want dancing in the town. I swear, it felt exactly like that."
In the "preacher's" role: Bob Buckhorn, now Tampa's progressive mayor and a name in the mix for the 2018 governor's race. "He is politically savvy enough to have, since then, acquiesced: This probably wasn't the biggest deal in the world and didn't deserve the amount of attention it got," Carlton says.
"Joe (Redner) thinks Bob is doing a good job running the town. They're friendly now. That's the kind of town this is."
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Published Dec. 3, 1999
TAMPA — When the founding fathers penned the Constitution by the light of their whale oil lamps, were they considering a nude dancer named Carmen Roman?
Were they even vaguely aware of a future phenomenon known as lap dancing?
And would they seek to protect Carmen Roman's right to give one?
At Thursday's public hearing to ban all body contact in Tampa's adult clubs, Roman took in the flow charts and flip charts of economic studies. She listened to invocations of God and Voltaire.
The Bible study circle was trying to save her. The cops were trying to bust her. The mayor thought she was a blight in the civic conscience.
Maybe her days of $400 nights were about to end. Maybe she would no longer lay her buttocks into the waiting lap of a paying customer at the Mons Venus, whispering the house rules as she moved on top of him:
"Pretend you are blind. You can touch. But you cannot play with the kitty cat."
Free speech has always collided with morality, but rarely has such a spectacle as Thursday's hearing — think Vegas before a Mike Tyson fight, think Perry Mason stomping on a Victoria's Secret catalog — been disguised as public discourse.
"This is crazy," said Roman, the 28-year-old dancer. "Men are lonely. What's the big deal?"
Six feet. That's all the proposed distance the ordinance sought to place between a dancer and a customer. But those six degrees of separation would bring an end to the wild frontier of Tampa's adult businesses, which until now have allowed physical contact.
The ordinance would effectively kill the lap dance, which is to Tampa what Rice-A-Roni is to San Francisco.
The soul of Tampa was at stake, and hundreds turned out for the fight Thursday.
Mayor Dick Greco came onscreen and told the crowd that the issue was not singly driven by conservative council member Bob Buckhorn. Several voices yelled back, "Bulls---!"
"What is going on in this town right now is wrong," Greco thundered, promising he would sign the ordinance five minutes after it was passed.
Thomas DiFiore came to support his girlfriend, a dancer. "I think she's more exploited working for $7-an-hour for a stockbroker who's grabbing her butt anyway," said DiFiore, an architectural photographer. "Why aren't these people out helping homeless kids in the Christmas season?"
But others wanted to fortify the City Council's momentum to ban physical contact in adult clubs.
"They say this is a privacy issue, this is about personal choice," said Craig Altman, a 41-year-old Tampa minister. "Did the wife make a choice if her husband goes to these places? Did the daughter? Did the child of the dancer?"
Spectators in the darkened auditorium treated the hearing like a wedding: supporters of lap dancing sat on the left, those opposed on the right.
On one side were the platform shoes and lacquered nails. The dancers nibbled on fruit cups from the snack bar and chatted and wondered aloud if they hadn't seen in the clubs some of the men who were speaking in favor of the ordinance.
One dancer got up for a bathroom break and left a pile of glitter behind in her chair. The women were bleary-eyed. It was the middle of the day. Some brought hand-written speeches to read. They began to look at their watches at the three-hour mark. When a Tampa police lieutenant's testimony included plastic sexual aids and masturbation, the dancers yawned, like farmers at a John Deere expo.
They leapt to their feet at the arrival of Joe Redner, owner of the Mons Venus and the undisputed king of adult clubs in Tampa. Redner wore a charcoal double-breasted suit. He looked like a city attorney. He had a fruit smoothie for breakfast and perused obscenity statutes. His face was tan and unworried. Redner pulled in roughly $20,000 in cover charges at the Mons Venus on the eve of the hearing. A slow night.
His appearance at the hearing brought his constituents into a rowdy froth, but he was there to calm them.
"We are right!" he told his side. "We are ladies. We are gentleman. We will not react. Do you understand?"
A man sitting on the other side shook his head at Redner. "He's the largest sexual predator there is," said Joseph Grem, 43, of Brandon. "For too long, the moral majority has been silent. All up and down Adamo Drive, it's either a Walgreens, an Eckerd's or a strip joint."
Grem sat on the opposing side. David Caton, president of the Florida Family Association, was in the second row. Ministers were out in full force. And plenty of citizens wore green badges: NO LAP DANCING.
Tedium set in as the hearing progressed into the late afternoon and evening — an anthropologist paid by Redner to testify told the audience that "touch is good." Even when the topic was VIP rooms and adult playpens and containers of hand lotion. One man leafed through a pornographic magazine. Another woman worked on her needlepoint.
On both sides of the ballroom, parents cradled restless toddlers.
Some might have been surprised to see Tom and Linda Kreger, in their battered black biker leather, boots and jeans, headed for seats on the right. The Kregers said they had been on the other side once, a lifetime ago when they ran porn theaters and strip joints in Michigan. The Lord changed all that, they said.
"We used to be in the business, the flesh scene," said Kreger, 54, who now makes fur animal costumes for a Clearwater company.
"We want to see these souls set free," said Mrs. Kreger, 50. "If they don't come to the Lord, they're going to die. They're already dead — they just don't know it."
Across the hall from the hearing, computer wonks from around the country were in town for a Microsoft-related technology expo. In their logo-emblazoned denim shirts and khakis, they gathered at the doorways during their breaks to take in the spectacle.
"How 'bout we put up our own sign that says 'No lap tops?' " one joked.
Even with out-of-towners, the issue sparked debate.
"So now you're going to say Tampa's going on to be a non-Sodom and Gomorrah?" said Lou Corey of Boca Raton. He allowed that he didn't like government making choices for people but seemed less convinced once he was given a detailed picture of what lap dancing entails.
"If they're actually dancing on people's laps and touching and smooching, that's no good," he said.
"Tampa's known for it," said Frank Vorias, who came to the conference from Sarasota. "Who are you to tell me, or them, what to do?"