Is Claremont Prude, or Just Way Into Semantics?

Posted December 18, 2008 in News

A little over five years ago Tonia Bodley was sitting on the porch of her Claremont apartment with her boyfriend Johnny, playing the ukulele. A neighbor of hers came by to introduce a friend named Annie Knight. Bodley and Knight both shared a passionate interest in burlesque, and both had attended the Tease-O-Rama, an annual burlesque festival that had just played in Los Angeles.


Burlesque dominated the conversation and by the time it was over, Bodley and Knight had formulated the blueprint of a plan that would eventually lead to a show called Buckingham Burlesque, which in its five years has played to enthusiastic standing-room only crowds and sparked a revival of the uniquely American song and dance art in the Inland Empire.  


Buckingham Burlesque however, despite its success, has had problems finding a permanent base for its operations. It keeps seeing venues, like Robbies in Pomona, shut down or sold. But when Nancy Tessier opened the Hip Kitty in Claremont during the summer of 2007, there was hope that Buckingham Burlesque could ply its playfully racy trade in a tasteful and sophisticated environment.


Not so fast, said the city of Claremont. The college town has rules, and it’s putting the kabosh on such theatrical parody—which it sees as plainly adult. Furthermore, Hip Kitty committed the ultimate sin of putting on its marquee the bald-face truth—Buckingham Burlesque every week. 


“The Hip Kitty’s conditional use permit does not allow them to do a burlesque show,” says Lisa Prasse, Claremont’s city planner. “If they want to do burlesque, they have to apply for an adult business permit. So far, the proprietors do not want to go that route.”


The popular Claremont nightspot is allowed to showcase a variety of entertainment within its doors, including live music, spoken word, comedy and song & dance. Burlesque, which is associative to many things but is commonly lumped into the primary category of strip-tease, is being interpreted by the city as such. The more literal question is—can burlesque be interpreted as “song & dance?”


Not under Claremont’s definition of adult live entertainment. 


Chapter 5.48 of the Claremont Municipal Code, which defines adult businesses, has burlesque categorized with adult arcades, adult book stores, adult hotels and sex supermarkets. Specifically, under article 5.48.20(U), adult “live entertainment” includes burlesque, although it does not define what burlesque is.  


In light of the continued mainstream public embrace of the art, Claremont’s version of burlesque seems harsh. From Gypsy Rose Lee to Dita Von Teese; the Velvet Hammer to Lucha Va Voom; Madonna to the Pussycat Dolls, the celebration of histrionic strip-tease—once considered taboo and relegated to smoky back rooms—has caught on in a big way in America. 


It’s not an interpretation shared by neighboring cities. Both Pomona and Upland, which also have adult business ordinances, make no mention of burlesque in their codes.  


The Hip Kitty got in trouble late last summer when they started offering weekly burlesque shows. Though they didn’t advertise, they did put burlesque on their marquee. “That was a mistake,” said Tessier. “[The city] saw it and sent us a letter telling us to stop doing the shows.”


Tessier is naturally hesitant to rock the boat any further, and is adamant in her desire to work out an agreement with the city. But unless she wants to register her business with the chief of police and subject all of her employees and performers to fingerprinting—two of the numerous requirements for an adult business license—there is little the Hip Kitty can do outside of changing the language of the ordinance.  


It’s a slippery slope. There are no exclusions for an adult business license, but there are exceptions. If the Claremont Colleges want to stage a performance of the musical “Hair,” which contains nudity, or Laemmle Theatre screens Lust/Caution, a film with graphic sexual content, they are not in violation of the ordinance, according to Plasse. 


What if the Pussycat Dolls came to Bridges Auditorium?  


“That’s an interesting question,” says Plasse. “I don’t know what the answer to that would be.” 


However, Plasse says, city ordinances are not set in stone. If enough public clamor develops to induce the city council to act, there is a process to change the wording of the municipal code.


This would be a relief to Bodley, who has seen her career as a burlesque performer soar to great heights in the last five years. And, she says, the Hip Kitty is the perfect venue for her show.


“It has the best set-up of any place we have been.”

–Kevin Ausmus















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