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November 08, 1999 12:00pm
PA Nude Dancing Case
Source: AP

(ERIE, PA) -- Surrounded by auto parts stores, gas stations and fast-food restaurants, Kandy's Dinner Theater stands out in this town -- not only for the naked, gyrating dancers inside, but for the lighted sign out front: "First Amendment Rights Headquarters."

The fate of Kandy's -- the only nude dance club left in Erie - rests with the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments Wednesday on whether to reinstate a local ordinance banning nudity in public places.

Since opening his club last year, Kandy's owner Joseph Cunningham has persisted despite a police raid and accusations he has violated a state law banning alcohol in nude dancing establishments. For now, his marquee stands as his only commentary on the hearing Wednesday.

"When they bring those TV cameras in here, it just cleans my place out. I won't talk to anyonem," he said.

The ordinance, enacted in 1994, in effect required dancers to wear at least pasties and a G-string. It was challenged in court by the owner of a nude dancing establishment called Kandyland.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the ordinance in 1998, saying it unconstitutionally burdened free expression.

City officials say the Pennsylvania court disregarded a 1991 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a similar law in Indiana. In that ruling, the justices allowed states and local governments to ban entertainers from appearing totally nude in bars and other adults-only establishments.

John Weston, a lawyer for Kandyland, has argued that Erie city officials were aiming solely at all-nude dancing clubs when they passed the ordinance. Kandyland was one of three nude clubs in the city at the time.

While Indiana's law banned all public nudity, court records say Erie policymakers assured officials at two theatrical production companies that the ordinance wouldn't apply to their 1994 productions of "Hair" and "Equus," both of which contained nudity.

Erie authorities "said they were doing this to go after three nude entertainment businesses in town," Weston said. "It was clearly adopted to go after nude dancing. That is subject to very intensive First Amendment scrutiny."

The former owner of Kandyland, 72-year-old Nick Panos, sued the city over the ordinance shortly after it was passed. He later sold Kandyland to Cunningham, who opened the new club in a different location, making only a slight change in the name.

Vince Straub, an 81-year-old retired steel salesman who lives near Kandy's, launched a picketing and petition campaign to try to block it from opening and continues to fight against the club's operation.

"We've got children here and this is very undesirable," Straub said. "I'm too old to put up with all this monkey business."

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