Memphis Strip Club Remains Open Despite Lawsuits

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Downtown Dolls, an exotic dance club located right down the road from the legendary Sun Studios where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and others once recorded, remains open for business despite a number of pending lawsuits involving alleged permit violations and other charges.

Downtown Dolls owner Charles G. Westlund Jr. has fought the city since 2005 for his right to operate the club. According to The Commercial Appeal, Westlund is running Downtown Dolls in blatant disregard of local zoning ordinances.

Westlund was issued a compensated dance permit by the city on Sept. 16, 2005, granting him clearance to open a business in that location where alcohol is sold and dancers are paid to perform. The permit was revoked only a few weeks later, however, on the grounds that it had been issued in error.

Westlund sued the city for violating his constitutional rights, and the case remains tied up in U.S. district court. Westlund petitioned presiding Judge Bernice Donald early in the proceedings to allow him to remain open as a strip club while the case was in litigation, but Donald denied the request. In August 2006, Westlund was finally re-issued a compensated dance permit, and allowed to open.

But the type of club he was allowed to open was another matter. At issue is whether topless dancing can be featured. At nearby Coyote Ugly, which is also required to hold a compensated dance permit, girls dance on the bar in skimpy outfits ... but not nude. At Downtown Dolls, no alcohol is served, and the dancers do remove their tops, but only for paying patrons who go with them to private, curtained-off areas.

City zoning regulations forbid adult entertainment establishments from operating in that area, but those regulations only went into effect in 1993, and Westlund contends that Downtown Dolls should be exempt because the location has housed clubs continuously for over 30 years. The city counters that prior to 1993, a special permit was required to operate an adult business, and nobody in that spot ever had one.

Meanwhile, The Commercial Appeal reported that dancers at Downtown Dolls regularly violate city restrictions, ignoring the prohibition against contact with customers and sometimes taking things much further. One dancer, the report said, offered to perform oral sex for $200.

Westlund said through his attorney that the club does not tolerate prostitution, and that if the reporter's claim was found to be true, the dancer would be terminated. But this is not the first time such claims have surfaced in connection with the club.

On Sept. 15, 2006, Memphis police conducting an undercover sting arrested five dancers, four of them for soliciting and one for the sale of narcotics. The club was fined $26,250 by the Alcohol Commission, and had its license suspended for 10 days. Westlund has an appeal in to Chancery Court. Two of the dancers arrested still await trial, while two pleaded guilty and one had her case dismissed.

There are also two citations from the Office of Construction Code Enforcement against the club, one for "uncertified use of property" as a sexually oriented business rather than a nightclub, and the other for installing exterior signs without permits. Both are scheduled for hearing in January.

The code enforcement office is also investigating the installation of doors on the backside of the building that are cordoned off by a razor wire fence, and serve an unclear purpose.

Will McGown, president of the area's community association, told The Commercial Appeal he feels Westlund "has gone in and done what he wants and asks for apologies later. It's something we don't want in our neighborhood."