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Club presents naked truth on D.C. culture

Except for the part about nude dancing, the address of the 1720 Club just about says it all. Down the block, at 1700 H Street NW, is the Metropolitan Club, where those who consider themselves the most elite of Washington's many elite gather, and the receptionist signs off, "right-o."

Across the street, at 1717, the World Bank has offices, as does the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., or FDIC. There's also the Editors Building, home of the Kiplinger newsletters, and the kind of law firms usually described as prestigious.

In other words H Street, about 100 yards from the White House, is one of Washington's more credible, powerful blocks. And it's summoning all its clout to prevent issuance of a liquor license to Benham Zanganeh's latest investment in live, nude entertainment.

"This," wrote the administrator of former cabinet member Joseph Califano's law firm, in a letter to the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, "is an office neighborhood."

But to some eyes, the fight over 1720 H Street NW involves more than whether Washington should have one less takeout delicatessen and one more nude bar. It's about the culture of a capital city.

"We have not had this situation in the past," said control board spokeswoman Janet McCormick.

Usually, McCormick explained, it's people who live nearby that protest the arrival of a nude bar; in fact a majority of residents can prevent one from obtaining a liquor license. That's why D.C. law is written to encourage their placement downtown.

"The folks that are there are usually gone home by the time the bar really starts to roll," McCormick said.

But the businesses of H Street have swamped the control board with protest letters.

A real estate developer, noting the proximity of the World Bank and FDIC, warned nude dancing would be "detrimental to their prestigious images."

The World Bank cautioned that visitors to its offices include many "from cultures which regard public nudity as shameful."

And more than one letter mentioned the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the nearby museum that sparked another controversy when it refused to hang the homoerotic Mapplethorpe photography exhibit. (The Corcoran, once bitten, has no comment on the 1720 Club.)

But most letters not only repeated identical concerns _ about parking, crime, property values and atmosphere _ they repeated them in identical order and using identical language. Read one after another, in fact, the letters suggest the repetition and corporate sameness that characterizes most of downtown Washington.

And that is the problem, according to Will McLain.

Though his own law firm has offices a couple of blocks away, McLain felt compelled to weigh in against the "gaggle of bankers, lawyers and stuffed shirts" trying to keep out the 1720 Club.

"It is exactly this sort of puritanical humorlessness that is rapidly making late-twentieth century America such a dreary and tedious place to live," McLain wrote in his own letter to the board.

A reply came above the signature of Whit Hill, identified only as a member of the Metropolitan Club.

The club's original letter of protest had been formal, even stiff. "In addition to nude dancing," it noted, "the establishment is to feature jukebox music."

Hill's rebuttal was more personal. "Is Mr. McLain a naive frustrated mama's boy?" he asked, below a zesty description of businessmen who tip nude dancers "and then, without a thought of washing their hands, continue to eat, drink and leer."

McLain's reply to "Mr. Hill's overwrought diatribe" was dated May 7. "I know pecksniffery when I see it," he said.

Pecksniffery? A Dickensian allusion, McLain explained. And one not lost on Hill, who, 12 days later, wrote:

" "Fun' says he? Is it really "fun' to participate in the humiliation and debasement of young women as they parade nude before an assembly of caterwauling, catcalling, lecherous "Cratchets?' "

On it went, the two men never meeting or even addressing one another directly. For all these letters were addressed to Marlene Johnson, the chair of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

"Really, Marlene Johnson," Hill concluded in his May 19 retort, "wouldn't a bowling alley or some other alternative . . . be more appropriate than the nude boob bar Mr. McLain supports?"

"And in the spirit of compromise," McLain replied, "I suggest an accommodation that may satisfy both sides: Topless pinsetters."

By now, two weeks before the board is scheduled to decide the case, its city file weighs several pounds. In addition to the voluminous McLain-Hill correspondence, it includes three even more voluminous petitions, all favoring a liquor license. (Among the 3,400 signatures appear the names of as many as a dozen women.)

Dimitri P. Mallios, attorney for the club's owner, acknowledged a strategy of casting the dispute as The Powerful against The People. These clubs exist painlessly throughout downtown Washington, he maintained. Its staid neighbors will find The 1720 Club no more disruptive than the place his client owns over on Wisconsin Avenue, Mallios said.

That club, called Good Guys, stands inconspicuously along a row of restaurants, stores and taverns above Georgetown. No signage betrays the nature of the dancing inside, and many who work in the area appear oblivious to it.

"I must go by it daily and I don't even notice it," said Sandra Jordan, who works at the Girls Scouts district office down the street.

"Whatever happens, happens behind closed doors. I don't see men lurching into the street at night, tearing the little green uniforms off Girl Scouts."

Inside, though, the scene is plenty revealing _ and in even more ways than expected. Thursday noon hour finds the vast majority of the patrons wearing white shirts and neckties. A waitress explained these men work in the area, many at the nearby Naval Observatory, where the vice president lives.

And that, Mallios said, is the whole idea of putting the 1720 Club on H Street: It aims to draw customers from the very businesses that are trying to keep it away.

His client, Mallios said, anticipates a strong lunch trade.

"He caters to the neighborhood."