Exotic dance club is still open despite lawsuits

'Dolls' operates as neighbor of Sun Studio

Behind Downtown Dolls, the club appears to have built a mini-motel connected to it. It is surrounded by a razor wire fence and last week, one of the doors had a Christmas wreath hanging from it. Inspectors are still trying to determine what the building is.

Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal

Behind Downtown Dolls, the club appears to have built a mini-motel connected to it. It is surrounded by a razor wire fence and last week, one of the doors had a Christmas wreath hanging from it. Inspectors are still trying to determine what the building is.

A stone's throw from where a young, hip-shaking Elvis Presley launched his recording career, a different breed of entertainer is working the stage.

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Behind Downtown Dolls, the club appears to have built a mini-motel connected to it. It is surrounded by a razor wire fence and last week, one of the doors had a Christmas wreath hanging from it. Inspectors are still trying to determine what the building is.

Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal

Behind Downtown Dolls, the club appears to have built a mini-motel connected to it. It is surrounded by a razor wire fence and last week, one of the doors had a Christmas wreath hanging from it. Inspectors are still trying to determine what the building is.

Cristal, a petite dancer with blond hair extensions, is suspended in midair in a smoky bar a few doors down from the famed Sun Studio.

Her legs are wrapped tightly around a floor-to-ceiling pole as she thrusts her pelvis to the hip-hop beat.

On a table near the bar, a thin woman who calls herself Brooke is finishing a dance that earns her 10 dollar bills in tips.

She bends forward, keeping her legs straight, and shows her backside to the man seated at the table. Her tiny G-string bottom doesn't fully cover the area between her legs.

Welcome to Downtown Dolls, Memphis' only exotic dance club that, technically, doesn't operate as a strip club under city law.

Over the past several weeks, Memphis and Shelby County governments engaged in a political struggle over the right to more-strictly regulate the city's notorious adult-entertainment industry. The city backed down, and for at least a while, a new county ordinance will rule.

Since 2005, the city has been locked in a different battle with Downtown Dolls, one set against the backdrop of a courthouse.

The bar, owned by California businessman and strip-club operator Charles G. "Jerry" Westlund Jr., has sued the city to determine whether a topless club can lawfully operate at 600 Marshall between Union and Madison. Westlund bought the property from fellow strip-club owner Ralph Lunati in 2005 for $640,000.

Lunati has since been sentenced to 18 months in prison and agreed to forfeit clubs Platinum Plus and Tunica Cabaret & Resort after pleading guilty to federal charges involving promoting prostitution.

For now, Downtown Dolls, once the site of the popular dance and music venue Club Six-1-Six, is being allowed to operate as a bar featuring bikini-clad dancers.

But while management requires its entertainers to wear bikinis on stage, their tops are quick to come off in a VIP area behind a curtain.

On the main floor, where dancers plead for customers to come with them to the back room for a $40 private lap dance, they'll grab a customer's crotch, sit on his lap or discreetly flash their breasts as motivation.

"There are a lot of restrictions," Brooke tells a reporter from The Commercial Appeal. "But we don't follow those damn rules no ways."

In two recent visits to the adult establishment nestled in The Edge neighborhood near Downtown, a reporter found the club in frequent violation of city ordinances, which don't allow contact between dancers and customers.

One night, a reporter was offered oral sex for $200 by a dancer who called herself Star.

Her overture echoed what police allege they heard from Downtown Dolls dancers back in September 2006 when the club was the site of an undercover sting that produced four prostitution arrests and one drug arrest.

Westlund did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story. His attorney, Edward Bearman, said Westlund would not talk about Downtown Dolls.

"I have told him, and it is our general rule, that we don't comment on ongoing litigation," Bearman said

But Westlund said through his attorney that the club does not tolerate prostitution and would deal with employees who break the law, including the dancer who solicited the reporter.

"We take that seriously, and we will terminate that person if it is true," he said.

A pair of neon signs affixed to the outside of Downtown Dolls makes it clear this is no neighborhood bar.

On the side of the building, a go-go dancer in red boots beckons customers to come in for a peek. Above the front door are a pair of legs sprouting from red panties, ending in red heels.

Most people who turn onto Marshall are headed to a different destination. About 140,000 people will visit Sun Studio this year, where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash helped give birth to rock and roll.

The landmark is the premier attraction in The Edge neighborhood, situated between AutoZone Park and the Medical Center District.

The funky, eclectic community is almost a microcosm of Memphis: auto body shops, aging storefronts and vacant buildings mixed with restaurants, apartments and even some new residential development.

The motto of the neighborhood? The Heart of Memphis at The Edge of Downtown.

"We want to build upon that. We don't want it to become a homogenous environment," said Will McGown, who designs and builds custom furniture and serves as president of The Edge Community Association. "But we don't want sexually oriented businesses encroaching."

So when the city Permit Office issued Westlund a compensated dance permit on Sept. 16, 2005, allowing him to move ahead with his plans to open a strip club at the location, a storm of protest followed.

Dance permits are required whenever beer is sold at a business and someone is being paid to dance. The office revoked Westlund's permit a few weeks later, saying it may have been issued in error. City attorneys were building a case about why a topless club should not be allowed.

Claiming his constitutional rights were violated, Westlund sued the city, and the case is still tied up in federal court. U.S. Dist. Judge Bernice Donald recently ordered the parties to enter mediation.

The city contends the club is in a zoning area -- the Central Business District -- where "adult entertainment" is not permissible.

Westlund says that despite the prohibition on topless dancing in the district, his club should be grandfathered in because a club has operated in that spot for more than 30 years and the zoning district did not outlaw adult businesses until 1993.

City attorneys counter that prior to 1993, adult entertainment was allowed only with a special permit, something the Dolls location never had.

Early on, Westlund petitioned the court to allow him to operate a strip club while the case was in litigation, but Donald denied the request.

According to J. Michael Fletcher, a deputy city attorney handling the lawsuit for the city, Westlund was later granted a compensated dance permit that allowed him to finally open a club in August 2006.

But with zoning laws in effect, Downtown Dolls can't feature topless dancing. It can operate similar to Coyote Ugly, a Beale Street club where female bartenders in skimpy tops dance on the bar. That nightclub also has a compensated dance permit.

"They can't have nudity of any sort to any degree. Topless, bottomless, total nudity -- they cannot have that," Fletcher said.

When asked what rules Downtown Dolls dancers must follow, Westlund's attorney compared it to the more tame Beale Street establishment.

"Mr. Westlund says that what goes on at Downtown Dolls is the same thing that goes on at Coyote Ugly," Bearman said, adding: "Except there's no liquor at Downtown Dolls."

Within a month of opening, Downtown Dolls was busted.

On the night of Sept. 15, 2006, Memphis police officers, posing as decoy customers, found the club's dancers to be quite accommodating.

Four dancers offered sex to officers at prices ranging from $150 to $800, according to a police memo to the Memphis Alcohol Commission. One dancer, who went by the stage name of Autumn, agreed to meet a cop at his imaginary room at The Peabody.

A fifth dancer at the club told an officer she could deliver Ecstasy to him at Downtown Dolls, and ultimately sold him four pills of the narcotic Lortab.

Of the five resulting arrests, one case was dismissed, two dancers pleaded guilty and two await trial.

The Alcohol Commission fined Downtown Dolls $26,250 and suspended its license for 10 days after the police raid, a city attorney said. Westlund has appealed to Chancery Court.

While Shelby County Dist. Atty. Gen. Bill Gibbons has never tried to shut down the club by filing a nuisance action, the bar has had other legal troubles.

The city-county Office of Construction Code Enforcement has issued two citations against Downtown Dolls, one of which alleges an "uncertified use of property," meaning it's operating as a sexually oriented business and not the acceptable use as a nightclub.

A second citation accuses the club of installing exterior signs without permits.

Both citations are scheduled to be heard in January by General Sessions Judge Larry Potter, said code enforcement administrator Allen Medlock.

The code enforcement office also has taken notice of another aspect of the club.

On the back side of Downtown Dolls, where a narrow part of the building stretches to Madison, doors with knockers have been constructed behind a razor wire fence.

Where the doors lead is unclear. But the area looks like a mini-motel attached to the adult club, or maybe office space. One door was adorned last week with a wreath, and a grill and patio furniture are just outside.

According to property records, the building is a warehouse built in 1938, though its facade looks much newer.

In March, a suspicious citizen complained to the code enforcement office about the doors. The inspector who went out the next day did not find construction under way but was not able to get behind the fence to check it out, Medlock said.

No building permits have been filed in the past few years for any construction work on that part of the Downtown Dolls complex, which has a separate address listed at 631 Madison.

Medlock said last week inspectors were still trying to get behind the fence to check it out.

Jerry Westlund had grand plans for Downtown Dolls.

"It's not going to be some dirty little strip club. It's going to be a high-end gentlemen's club catering not only to locals, but to tourists," Westlund told a reporter in September 2005.

The businessman, who operates a number of adult clubs across the nation, including The Pony in Memphis, said the Downtown Dolls complex would also offer a restaurant and live music. He was investing about $1 million in the venture.

On buildings adjoining Downtown Dolls, there are neon signs touting a steakhouse, The Tenderloin, and a nightclub, Off Beale Live.

There's no sign of activity in either. At the entrance to the steakhouse, there isn't even a handle on the door.

Inside Downtown Dolls, business is slow. There were no more than 15 customers there at any one time on a recent Wednesday night; no more than 25 on a Friday.

George Kuykendall, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Community Values, said if the club becomes profitable and is successful in its lawsuit, it could spell trouble for Downtown. More adult businesses would be sure to follow.

"People are really returning to Downtown and are proud of it. Do you really want it to become like Brooks Road?" Kuykendall asked, referring to one of the city's more seedy roadways.

McGown, one of Dolls' reluctant neighbors, said it seems Westlund "has gone in and done what he wants and asks for apologies later."

"It's something we don't want in our neighborhood."

-- Michael Erskine: 529-5857

© 2007 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 9

easygoer00#214005 writes:

Sounds like the reporters had fun doing this one.

BogeyMan writes:

Yeah. I have three questions:

1. Did "the reporter" put the $200 on his expense account?

2. Did he get his/the CA's moneys worth?

3. Where do I go to sign up for this beat?


DY writes:

I will be happy to do the follow up investigation for the CA.

Parzinger (Inactive) writes:

What kind of Inspectors do they have? The fenced in/suspicious property is obviously a "doll house!!!!"

nsites writes:

Each day, we, as a community, have to decide what kind of community we want to be. It's an important decision, going to the heart of who we are.

Certainly, in the past, we have made mistakes. For example, we practiced segregation in a way that repressed the lives of many wonderful people in our community.

And, today, we certainly would not, as a community, want to repress Jerry Westlund and his employees, preventing him from operating a business and preventing employees from earning a living.

We want to be careful.

We especially want to be careful with our downtown, which has been in decline since the late 1950s. After work by many people and the investment of millions, we are beginning to see something wonderful there, a turnaround that many of us thought would never happen.

And we want to be careful with the lives of people involved, Jerry Westlund, his employees, the people who have worked for downtown, and this wider community.

Being mindful of these considerations after reading this story, I cannot help but think that we, as a community, would be jeopardizing all that we have worked for in downtown and would be abandoning those employees to exploitation by allowing Downtown Dolls to operate. I cannot help but think that the only people who benefit from Downtown Dolls are Jerry Westlund, a California businessman, and his Memphis attorney, Edward Bearman.

I especially think we would be abandoning those employees to exploitation. What kind of a community would we be where we encourage young women to trade her twenties for groping strangers and exposing her crotch? Maybe Jerry Westlund and his attorney, Edward Bearman, don't care about this. But I think we, as a community, should care. Our long term interests are here.

talkingrock#297395 writes:

Several downtown streets are named for the earliest presidents in our nation. Were we to get more contemporary with that idea, I would nominate Brooks Rd. to be re-named Bill Clinton Ave.-for the obvious reasons!

amandaWA writes:

LOL at Bill Clinton Ave.

Anyway, my take on strip clubs and the like-if ya don't like 'em, stay outta 'em! Live and let live. I don't look at the count of strip clubs in a city and say, oh that's a bad/good city.

Stewtenn2 writes:

Next time I see Bill Gibbions or Michael Fletcher in there I will by them a beer and a LAPDANCE, maybe they will chill out with there BULLS**T

Puddleglumm writes:

A similar club just got closed down close to my hometown. ALL of these places need to be shut down and permanently!!

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