Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Sex on the Run

By Jacqueline Marino

APRIL 6, 1998:  As the night wears on, the men in this dimly lit East Memphis nightclub get drunker and the women get bolder. From a college-aged man leaning against the main stage, a blond woman grasps a bill of unknown denomination between her disproportionately large breasts. Across the club, another woman, this one full-figured and sassy, almost punk, slinks against bars that separate her from her gawkers. On another side stage, a tired, saggy-breasted woman rolls around on the floor to the insatiable stares of onlookers.

The clean-cut, middle-aged man watches all three women. He has strategically backed himself into a shadowy corner against the wall where he can see as much of the dancing as possible without the dancers seeing him. It’s his first visit to a strip club, or so he says. He’s been to Memphis a few times on business without his wife and several people have suggested this club to him. Tonight the curiosity finally conquered him.

Maybe it’s the guilt or just plain old modesty, but he isn’t the type of man who feels comfortable shoving $5 bills into dancers’ G-strings. He just wants to be left alone to drink beer and watch nearly naked women dance, shake, and strip for him on three stages.

What this topless club debutante doesn’t realize is that it just doesn’t work that way. He hasn’t finished his first beer before the women on the floor begin to seek him out. One takes him by the hand and tries to persuade him to go to the back room with her. For $40, she tells him, he can have a private dance. He turns down an intoxicating, green-eyed black woman in a rhinestone-studded bikini top, a perky, nearly adolescent brunette, and a tall, Slavic-looking woman dressed like the Swiss Miss girl sans the braids and skirt.

Every time he says no, he seems to mean it a little less. It won’t be much longer until he’s worn down. “Every woman’s got a million dollars between her legs,” he says with a sincerity that makes me cringe.

The persistent dancer who wins him over takes a huge swig of wine before she leads him to the back room, past the other fully dressed middle-aged men clutching the couch cushions while dancers gyrate on their laps.

It’s just another scene from another Friday night at another Memphis topless club. Not much has changed since July 11, 1996, when law-enforcement officers raided the clubs and shut them down for two weeks. Much to the disappointment of private citizens who lent unprecedented financial support to a legal effort that tried to close the clubs for good, business is booming once again.

It’s business as usual too. Women still dance naked on stage and perform lap dances. Men who no longer fear being caught in police raids are drawn in by local advertising and porn stars. Lately it’s been hard to miss Tiffany’s fearlessly promotional billboards, another indication that the clubs aren’t afraid of the state or the donors who want to shut them down.

By all appearances, it seems as if no one cares about purging Memphis of topless clubs anymore. But nothing could be further from the truth. Those who want to close the clubs have used the downtime to raise more money. And it won’t be long before they launch another full-scale offensive on the local sex industry.

The Mission: Operation Bust

The state kicked off its topless-club ambush two years ago when Chancellor D.J. Alissandratos issued a restraining order that temporarily shut down the Memphis clubs as nuisances. The judge signed the order after considering more than 2,000 pages of strongly worded testimony from former dancers and undercover agents who had spent 18 months on an investigation that cost the district attorney’s office more than $100,000. The complaints submitted by the DA referred to the clubs as “houses of prostitution” rife with criminal activities, including drug use, racketeering, prostitution, and obscenity violations.

The prosecution included in its graphic testimony topless-club advertisements that appeared in local media, Polaroid snapshots of undercover law-enforcement officers posing with naked dancers, and pornographic materials distributed at the clubs, including explicit sex video and pictures of featured performers who regularly travel the strip-club circuit.

Many associated with the clubs, as well as the general public, seemed stunned by the comprehensiveness of the attack and the painstakingly detailed testimony. But several local attorneys weren’t surprised by it at all, not once they realized who was spearheading the effort as an appointed special prosecutor.

At the helm was none other than Larry Parrish, the man who led the U.S. attorney’s office on a crusade to topple the porn industry 20 years ago.

At that time, Parrish pursued just about everyone on the totem pole of porn, from producers to distributors to actors like Harry Reems, who earned only $100 for his notorious role in Deep Throat. Parrish’s efforts were so exhaustive, in fact, that Hollywood worried the aftershocks of the prosecution would rock the entire film industry.

To attorneys who represented defendants in those trials, the topless-club cases were deja vu. Typical Larry Parrish.

“I’d say he sure causes a lot of trouble for people,” says Michael Pleasants, who now represents topless-club owner Steve Cooper. “He’s a very determined opponent.”

Parrish’s legal strategies are like him – direct and dogmatic. In the pornography cases from the Seventies, he won several hard-fought convictions (Harry Reems’ and others were later overturned). Although he handled some smaller-scale obscenity cases after that, it was the topless-club cases that put him in the spotlight once again.

There’s no doubt that Parrish brought a wealth of obscenity-law experience to the cases, but he also brought controversy. Some of his methods, as well as the terms of his involvement, have been questioned and criticized. Several days after this newspaper filed a Freedom of Information request in July 1996, District Attorney General John Pierotti revealed that a group of private individuals, many of whom belonged to Parrish’s evangelical church, were paying him to prosecute the clubs on behalf of the state.
Larry Parrish says the media “often leaves any literate reader with the impression that I am a firebrand anti-intellectual flippantly using brawn to trample constitutional rights and impose censorship. This paints as opposite a view of me as could be.”

From then on, Parrish and the DA’s office have had to defend themselves in the media and in the courtroom, shooting down accusations that the state solicited funds and catered to special interests with deep pockets. Club attorneys are anxiously awaiting a decision from Criminal Court Judge L. Terry Lafferty, who is expected to respond this week to their motion to disqualify the DA’s office for allegedly engaging in those strictly prohibited activities.

While the DA’s office works to overcome setbacks stemming from Parrish’s involvement, his supporters have been hard at work raising more money. What began as a small campaign initiated by a handful of Parrish’s fellow churchgoers has snowballed into a national effort supported by foundations such as the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, which has given Parrish $283,104, and the Phoenix-based Alliance Defense Fund, which has contributed $30,000 so far.

While Memphis isn’t the first city to rail against the sex industry and the DA’s office isn’t the first to hire a special prosecutor, no precedent exists for the way Parrish is going about it. So far, $540,155 has been raised for 7,475 hours of work billed by his office, and the cases haven’t even gone to trial yet. Parrish regularly updates the list of contributors and sends it to the state attorney general. Some contributors, however, still manage to remain anonymous by making donations through a special fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis.

In the coming weeks, some of Parrish’s local contributors will unfurl yet another fund-raising campaign for the topless-club prosecution and for other anti-porn offensives in Memphis. Carolyn McKenzie, executive director of Citizens for Community Values, the group that raises funds for Parrish, says a goal of $1.8 million has been set for the new effort. In just two and a half months, a half-million dollars has already been raised.

Sitting in a friend’s East Memphis living room accompanied by four former topless dancers, McKenzie says Parrish’s supporters haven’t been discouraged by the lack of progress being made in the topless-club cases.

“He can only do what the DA asks him to do,” she says. “If the community cares about this, they have to tell him [District Attorney General Bill Gibbons] they’re behind him and they have to show they’ll do whatever they can to get it done. We’ve raised half a million dollars in two and a half months. What does that tell you?”

Still, opinions on Parrish and his methods vary, even among those who sympathize with his ideology.

Memphis attorney John Smith says he has declined to contribute to the cause mainly because of Parrish’s “methodology.”

“Philosophically I’m opposed to porn, but I’m not going to join forces with Parrish,” he says. “There’s some real questions about how he’s conducted these cases.”

Problems for the prosecution began shortly after the clubs were closed. The cases were moved to U.S. District Court because federal questions were at issue. It was there that Judge Jon McCalla refused to extend the temporary restraining order, which he labeled “substantially deficient.”

Then U.S. Magistrate Diane Vescovo penalized prosecutors for violating rules of procedure. She ruled invalid hundreds of subpoenas issued to club patrons and employees whom they detained during the raid.

The day after that ruling, Pierotti announced that he was ending his term two years early and retiring from politics. Despite speculation to the contrary, he insisted his resignation had nothing to do with the troubled topless-club prosecution. His successor, Bill Gibbons, avoided taking the hot seat himself by removing the cases from civil court, obtaining more than 200 criminal indictments against owners and managers, and essentially shielding the cases from the public eye. Unlike Pierotti, who let Parrish run the show initially, Gibbons has kept the special prosecutor in the wings, almost in an advisory role.

Gibbons’ own “No Deals” campaign took the limelight. While its hardline anti-crime message assured the public that criminals were “doing all the time,” the topless-club initiative faded to the inside pages of the daily newspaper’s metro section where, every couple of weeks, a story would appear about the clubs getting busted for featuring naked dancers or underage drinking.

In the meantime, Parrish distanced himself as well. He applied to replace Charles Burson as Tennessee’s attorney general and later for nomination to the state Supreme Court. He was passed up for the attorney general’s position. The Supreme Court nominees had not been selected before this story’s deadline, but for various reasons it looks doubtful that Parrish will be nominated.

Early this year, Circuit Court Judge George Brown dealt a potentially major setback to the cases when he ruled that the state could not permanently shut down one topless club, the King of Clubs, using the nuisance statute. Since then the ruling has been applied to three other clubs, and a higher court declined to hear the state’s appeal. The state plans to appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

In a recent interview, Parrish expressed seemingly contradictory predictions about the future of the topless-club prosecution. He made it clear that he is not in charge of the prosecution and that he and Gibbons have disagreed about the direction the cases should take. When asked how he answers to his local and national donors, he says, “It’s a little embarrassing in this way: that I think their [his financiers] expectations were much greater and I think I probably contributed to their expectations being much greater and I think there was a basis for much greater expectations. But somewhere the air went out of the balloon.”

Still, he says he expects Gibbons to follow the cases through to the end and hints that the topless-club prosecution is about to enter a new phase. Gibbons deferred comment to Assistant District Attorney Amy Weirich, who declined to discuss whether there would be a change in strategy.

Weirich affirms that the DA’s office remains strongly committed to shutting down the topless clubs as nuisances.

“What we’re doing is new and unlike anything tried in any other city before,” she says. “If the DA’s office is successful, it’s going to be a pretty big deal.”

She says she has been fielding calls from other DA’s offices across the country interested in pursuing the topless clubs in the same manner. Prosecutors aren’t the only ones watching this case, however. Parrish knows Christian activists across the country are watching him and the case closely.

“It could be quite the model to follow,” says Bruce W. Green, chief counsel for the Tupelo-based American Family Association Law Center, of Parrish’s privately funded involvement. “Government is so limited in its finances and resources.”

Because of Parrish, the Cincinnati-based National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, which is heading up the new large-scale anti-porn effort in Memphis, is donating more to legal fees here than in San Diego, South Bend, or Atlanta, the other three cities being targeted.

“One of the reasons we’re so interested is because it would have precedent-setting implications on the rest of Tennessee,” says Rick Schatz, chief operation officer. “It would be possible for other cities in Tennessee to apply the state statute. And it would allow for similar statutes to be developed in other states.”

The Number-One Contributor

Steve Cooper, owner of Tiffany’s Cabaret and the Gold Club, owns 13 other clubs across the country. He says he’s had more trouble in Memphis than in all the other cities combined.

“I don’t think Parrish is going to be successful,” he says. “He’s only going to be successful making a lot of money for himself.”

That’s not how Parrish sees it. He sees himself as the number-one contributor. “I have forgiven now hundreds of thousands of dollars in earned legal fees,” he says. “I figured out the amount of money I had received and the number of hours I had put in and the number of out-of-pocket dollars I had advanced for depositions and all and it came out to $39 a hour.”

So why does he do it then? If you know Parrish, you understand. If not, you just have to ask him. He’s more than willing to explain his philosophy of obscenity law, which has evolved from more than 20 years of study and experience.

It all started on a day in 1969 when Parrish, then a young attorney at the Federal Trade Commission, stopped by a Washington, D.C., bookstore on his way to work.

“There were a bunch of men in suits gathered around in the back,” Parrish recalls. “I thought somebody had a heart attack so I just wandered back there to see what the commotion was about and I looked over their shoulders and they all had these magazines open and I mean animal sex, it was the grossest stuff I had ever seen and then I realized these are my fellow government bureaucrats on their way to work, stopping by here getting filled up on this stuff. I absolutely was shocked out of my mind. Here I stood halfway between the White House and the capitol and here this was openly going on. I was infuriated. I just really was infuriated and so I went to the library at the Federal Trade Commission and I looked up the laws on obscenity. I just knew this couldn’t be the law no matter what. I didn’t know much about it, but I knew it couldn’t be this. So I moved to Memphis and became a prosecutor.”

Although he was born in Nashville, Parrish, 55, has spent the last 28 years living in Memphis. Focused and intense, he attributes his dedication to fighting the sex industry to a dedication in the law, which he believes clearly prohibits certain kinds of expression. Although he doesn’t divorce his commitment to fighting obscenity from his personal moral and religious convictions, he insists those convictions have little to do with his motivation.

In his 95-page application for nomination to judicial office, Parrish expresses dissatisfaction with the way the media has shaped his public image. He argues in the application that the media’s animosity toward him has resulted because of their own bias that obscenity law “ought not be law at all.”

“As much objective evidence can attest, calling me a ‘crusader’ in the introductory paragraph of news stories is usually the first of other punches which follow,” he writes in a personal letter to me, in which he initially declined to be interviewed.

“Often, articles are crafted by skilled writers who build in plausible deniability and, when challenged, can always point to some other statement made in the article, isolated from its context, as evidence of lack of bias.

“However, a consideration of the entire article often leaves any literate reader with the impression that I am a firebrand anti-intellectual flippantly using brawn to trample constitutional rights and impose censorship. This paints as opposite a view of me as could be.”

After leaving the U.S. attorney’s office in 1977, Parrish says he turned down opportunities with Morality in Media and Citizens for Decency Through Law, which would have enabled him to do anti-obscenity work full-time. He started a private practice in Memphis instead, where he worked in many different areas of the law, representing a wide range of clients from banks and corporations to individuals contesting adoptions.

His interest in obscenity law, which he says has constituted a very small portion of his work, stems from his belief that the law protects the “traditional, original Judeo-Christian view of sex.”

“I figured out the amount of money I had received and the number of hours I had put in and the number of out-of-pocket dollars I had advanced for depositions and all and it came out to $39 a hour.” – Larry Parrish
“You don’t have to be or you don’t need to be a Christian or a religious person to have to conform to the ethic,” he says. “I think the ethic is the one you don’t have to agree to but you have to march to, or you should have to march to.”

To Bruce Kramer, who represented Harry Reems during the Deep Throat trials, Parrish is simply attempting to legislate morality.

“The price you pay for zealotry is that you start to bend the laws to achieve your own objectives,” says Kramer, who now acts as general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “I have a problem from both a constitutional and a public-policy standpoint. I’m opposed to using quasi-attorneys from religious or political organizations to act in the name of the state.”

Parrish says he’s never actually been to a topless club in Memphis, but he’s seen a lot of video documenting what goes on there. And he’s experienced it on another level as well: He believes he’s been harmed by it.

“I’m human and it has done nothing positive for me,” he says. “I’d rather be anywhere in the world but looking at it and I’m seeing on that screen just human tragedy unfold.…

“I’ve had to sit down and talk to them [people working in the sex industry] in a private room and watch them break down in tears and I know that I’m watching people who no matter how hard they’re giggling and how fun they’re playing it, their guts are being ripped out inside, so it’s a sad thing for me. So it doesn’t affect me like some voyeur who’s out there for sexual pleasure, but it still has done me no good. I still have vivid memories that I have to deal with occasionally and I’m a normal, red-blooded American boy.”

Some Girls Enjoy It

Most large cities have strip clubs, and with the exception of a few, most don’t fight them. Memphis is the exception. Why? Carolyn McKenzie lives here.

At a fund-raising event for the prosecution, Pierotti, who fielded many calls from her throughout his term, once called her the “squeakiest wheel” (the one that got the grease). Brash, opinionated, and unflappable, McKenzie is probably the topless clubs’ loudest critic. Several years ago, McKenzie, a former army nurse, became so incensed by sexually oriented businesses (who she calls SOBs) and the public health threats she believes they pose that she started her own crusade against them.

Since then she’s visited topless clubs and peep shows alike to collect evidence herself, started a refuge for former sex-industry workers, and been to Nashville to lobby for more regulation.

It’s early evening and McKenzie has asked four former topless dancers to share their stories with a newspaper she considers very unsympathetic to her cause. (“I hated the first article you did,” she told me when I called to ask for an interview.)

Throughout the women’s detailed, sometimes tearful testimony, she smiles in support, nods, and often provides her own anecdotes. She gives the impression that she could probably provide enough ideas for Jerry Springer to keep the sensationalist TV host busy for months.

Since 1994, McKenzie’s Citizens for Community Values has made it financially possible for 27 former topless dancers to leave jobs in the sex industry. The organization provides for medical care, housing, child care, counseling, college tuition, and whatever else the women need to become self-sufficient. Yet, despite the generous benefit package extended to these women, three have gone back to the clubs and are working there today.

“It’s sort of like a drug or an alcohol addiction,” one former topless dancer explains. “We’re addicted to the money and then there’s sexual addictions we have to deal with.”

The women’s stories from the clubs coincide with much of the testimony turned over to Chancery Court two years ago. Each confirms reports of prostitution, drug use, and obscene behavior. One former waitress says she was offered $900 to urinate on a patron. Another woman reports being grabbed, burned with cigarettes, and otherwise physically abused by patrons. Most say they used marijuana and cocaine just to block out the self-loathing and degradation they felt. But when asked whether the clubs should all be shut down, surprisingly, the answer is not a resounding yes.

Two say they think it would never happen. One, who still has friends working in the clubs, says she thinks they should just be more regulated.

“Some girls enjoy this,” she says. “Just as long as they’re not breaking the law, I’m cool with it.”

Setting a Precedent

Both defense attorneys and prosecutors agree the topless-club cases pose some interesting legal questions. Parrish feels certain the cases will end up in the Supreme Court, which will ultimately decide how much involvement private citizens should be able to have in state prosecutions.

The clubs’ defense attorneys maintain that “checkbook justice” prevails when private citizens have any hand in paying for state prosecutions. If a wealthy enough group of citizens banded together to fight environmental law breakers, would that suddenly become a priority for the state? If Parrish succeeds in closing down the topless clubs as nuisances, what’s next? Gay clubs? Adult bookstores?

Fighting for obscenity convictions is difficult and almost never lucrative for attorneys. But this is what scares the adult-entertainment industry: If a $200-an-hour private attorney like Parrish can make money doing it, other activist-lawyers are more likely to follow in his footsteps.

Given his history, it’s surprising to hear Parrish say he never set out to be a trailblazer, or even an obscenity lawyer at all.

“I’d much rather do this with a sack over my head,” he says, “and everybody trying to guess who’s wearing the sack.”

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