Jeff Jardine

Downtown cabaret plan sure to rile Modesto’s morality police

Harry Kullijian addresses a crowd during a CLEAN rally on the steps of the Stanislaus County Library in 1995.
Harry Kullijian addresses a crowd during a CLEAN rally on the steps of the Stanislaus County Library in 1995. Modesto Bee

A cabaret in Modesto. Wow! Joel Grey … Liza Minnelli ... Quality, big-time Broadway entertainment!

Uh, hold on a second. It’s not going to be that kind of cabaret, if permitted at all. This one would be more like “Striptease” with Demi Moore – exotic, erotic strippers and whatever else – in the old St. Stan’s Brewery downtown. And not just anywhere downtown. The building is kitty-corner across Ninth Street to the city’s marquee hotel, the DoubleTree (or would it become the Double-D?).

Never fear. A spokesman for the company suing the city of Modesto for the right to open the establishment promised Bee city hall reporter Kevin Valine it will be a high-class place and that no booze will be sold in the cabaret. Yeah, right. No drugs, either. That’s comforting. And, of course, no prostitution, which – like skyrocket fireworks – is illegal. And besides, it would damage that sector of the local economy further south on Ninth Street.

So saunter on in, sit down, order a Dr. Pepper or a cup of hot tea and wait for a nice, wholesome lap dance to begin.

This legal challenge comes at a time when city leaders just drove off X-Fest – a one-night-a-year concert – and want to transform the downtown into a more sophisticated yet family friendly area. I can just hear the kitchen table talk in homes throughout Modesto: “Hey, honey, let’s take the kids to the Thursday night farmers’ market and then go catch a pole dance at the cabaret.”

That stated, the hotshot lawyers representing the Beverly Hills-based company intending to bring decadence to downtown would be mistaken to think they simply can drop legal brief after legal brief on the Valley rubes and get their way.

Modesto can point to a lengthy history of getting all riled up to fight such of places, dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. The late Harry Kullijian, a former Modesto councilman and future husband of Broadway entertainer and Tony Award winner Carol Channing, went on a crusade against pornography in the city. He and his First Baptist (now Crosspoint) Church friends formed a Modesto branch of an organization called Morality in Media and protested whenever a theater planned to show films depicting Jesus in ways Kullijian and his Christian group members found blasphemous and offensive.

They went to the City Council to demand that the city prohibit adult bookstores and theaters from displaying pornographic material in places where anyone could view it.

Then, in the late 1980s, Kullijian, Eleanor Lacore Currie and others formed Citizens Leading Effective Action Now (CLEAN) to protest shows at the Foxy Lady Theatre and other adult businesses, and forced adult entertainment owners to eliminate the rooms where sex acts occurred. They forced video stores to keep the porn tapes out of sight of underage visitors. (That must have involved some of those “Don’t tell you mother where we went today” chats between fathers and wide-eyed sons.)

They organized boycotts against stores that refused to comply.

CLEAN, which grew to a membership of 4,500, balked at sex therapist Dr. Ruth’s show airing on a local AM radio station. But the group’s activity slowed when the internet developed into the prime porn venue by the early 2000s.

In the 1990s and again in 2010, women’s rights advocates and church groups joined forces to oppose Hooters, which features waitresses in short, tight shorts and shirts showing cleavage, when the nationwide chain expressed interest in opening restaurants in Modesto. The chain backed off of its plans to locate here.

The police set about shutting down the nightclubbing on 10th Street a decade ago. In 2007, I went downtown to witness for myself the scene that so disturbed the council and law enforcement. One club had go-go dancers shaking their backsides in the front windows of a club called “Sin City Nights.” I got propositioned by a hooker with poor taste or perhaps a young woman with a great sense of humor who offered me a “Special tonight: $5” before laughing and walking away.

The street flooded with people from as far away as the East Bay. The entire scene reminded me of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when George Bailey got to see what Bedford Falls would have been like had he not been born, and he witnessed instead the decadence and honky-tonks of Pottersville.

Now, only a couple of clubs still operate.

And some folks protested after the fact when bikini-clad baristas began serving coffee when Bottoms Up Espresso opened locations in Modesto in 2011. Women e-mailed letters to the opinion page decrying the degradation of women, including one letter writer who wrote, “Bottoms Up Espresso makes Hooters look respectful.”

Wow. Maybe there still is hope for the hot wings …

But not for the cabaret, said Currie who, at 87, wants someone to step up to oppose the club just as she, Kullijian and CLEAN did decades ago.

“I just hope the City Council and the mayor and the police will fight it tooth and toenail,” she said.