She's Defending The Right To Bare Does The First Amendment Cover Naked Dancers? The "Proprietress" Of Fantasy Showbar Insists That It Does.

Posted: June 06, 1991

Running a nude go-go bar is hard enough, what with lining up jello wrestlers and making sure the ladies don't dodge their exotic-dance lessons. But defending the Bill of Rights at the same time requires, well, sacrifice.

A few months ago, Nicole St. John, who manages the Fantasy Showbar in Mount Ephraim, was still recovering from surgery to lift and enlarge her breasts when she was invited to appear on AM/Philadelphia. Despite her discomfort, she felt she couldn't decline. No way. She had a duty to alert America: The U.S. Supreme Court could soon force naked dancers to wear pasties and G-strings.

As she complained only the other day, "It will be like Russia pretty soon."

Tall, blond and almond-eyed, in a blue business suit that cannot conceal the success of her surgery, Nicole St. John, at 38, would like to be known as more than just the woman who brought "Texas-style couch dancing" to South Jersey.

Lately, much of her energy has been devoted to safeguarding freedom of expression (although one of the things she doesn't believe in freely expressing is her real name, only the stage moniker she made up when she used to boogie in the buff).

Her newspaper ads for the Fantasy Showbar, which shout "NUDE GO GO" in giant type, are followed by the somewhat smaller declaration: "Protected by the First Amendment."

Calling herself a "public champion," she has gotten booked on half a dozen local news and radio shows. All the big names - Oprah, Sally Jessy, Donahue - already are after her to appear, she says, when the high court's verdict comes in. And that could be any day.

St. John first unveiled herself, if you will, as a constitutional crusader back in January, when the Supreme Court heard arguments in Barnes v. Glen Theatre. In that case, the State of Indiana contended that nude dancing was conduct, not expression protected by the First Amendment. And as conduct, it could be restricted under Indiana's decency law.

Depending on the outcome, the case could shake up St. John's establishment. Unlike performers at many go-go bars around the region, her dancers wear no more than they did at birth. St. John considers what they do to be art - and around the Fantasy Showbar, the highest form is Texas-style couch dancing. "A status symbol here," St. John points out.

She describes it as "a more personalized dance for one customer."

That's putting it mildly.

There's nothing especially Texan about it. A patron sits on a couch, with his arms spread to the side, while a naked woman straddles him and - how shall we say? - expresses herself. She can tousle his hair, whisper in his ear, but he can't touch. Should he try, a human side of beef - one of several St. John hires from the gym where she works out - is a few feet away.

The price: $10 for four minutes.

Why is this constitutionally protected expression?

Here's how she explains it: "I love my body. I work out very hard. I like to show myself. I'm going to show him the art of dancing and I'm going to put a smile on his face.

"I guess that's the best way to put it."

*

The Fantasy Showbar sits smack in the middle of suburbia, along one of Camden County's busiest roads, the Black Horse Pike. Mount Ephraim Dodge is next door. The Black Horse shopping center, with Woolworth's and Bradlees, is on the other side. Before being reincarnated as the Fantasy Showbar a decade ago, the building was occupied by a Thom McAn shoe store. "We're a business just like Bradlee's," St. John likes to say. Instead of selling oil filters, she sells fantasy.

No one driving by can miss the 20-foot-high sign screaming "Nude Go-Go," ''22 showgirls," "free lunch," with a line welcoming the handicapped.

In the last few years, St. John has tried to fit in with her neighbors.

The Fantasy Showbar contributed $5,000 to the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America last fall. St. John presented the check during the annual golf tournament at the Woodbury Country Club. "We've never had anything like that" before, says Peter Damiri, an association spokesman. "I know that she cares for those who are handicapped. She said her boyfriend was in an auto accident, and from that he's handicapped."

This summer, St. John is sponsoring a team in the Charles Baker League, the famous summer basketball league in Philadelphia. This will cost about $3,500, and the Fantasy Showbar will join the company of an Oldsmobile dealership, a law firm, a podiatrist, a sporting goods store and a restaurant, among others.

She's even recruiting basketball legend Sonny Hill as a judge in a forthcoming bikini contest.

OFFERS TO CHARITIES

St. John has offered the use of the Fantasy Showbar, nude dancers and all, to any nonprofit or charitable outfit that would like to hold a fund-raising event.

"We've called dozens of organizations," she says, "but the secretary doesn't usually pass the message on. . . . The Vietnam veterans were going to hold a function one time, but one of the women with the organization didn't want it."

If the Supreme Court upholds the Indiana law, and the little Borough of Mount Ephraim, a community of 4,700, tries to crack down in the same manner, St. John could be forced to return to pasties and G-strings, making her place much like any other go-go bar - but without booze. And then she might be forced to start selling alcohol to compete for business - something she says she doesn't want to do.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania, like many other states, prohibit nudity at establishments where alcohol is sold. The Fantasy Showbar sells only soft drinks.

"When gentlemen come in here," she says, "they're in to see pretty women dance. They're here to see intoxicating beauty. Not to get drunk. If they leave here woozy, it's because they fell in love with one of our dancers, not

because they chug-a-lugged."

Indiana contends that total nudity inspires prostitution, abusive behavior, infidelity. St. John says this is nonsense, and furthermore, as a practical matter, "how much difference can pasties and a G-string make?"

The larger issue, which makes this case worthy of the Supreme Court, is the clash between community control and individual freedom. Today, according to community standards in Indiana, a G-string may suffice. But tomorrow, St. John contends, cleavage itself might be under attack. And then what?

"We can't let a bunch of old biddies control what we do."

Mount Ephraim tried to shut down the Fantasy Showbar 10 years ago, passing a zoning ordinance that prohibited all live entertainment in town. That case, too, went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The community spent $150,000 in legal fees - and lost, when the court held that the zoning ordinance was overly broad.

That happened before St. John arrived.

She says she grew up in a North Camden "ghetto" and, after high school, plucked chickens in a Pennsauken poultry factory, then wrapped meat at an Acme.

After a bad marriage, with a son to feed, she turned in desperation to nude dancing. She had it figured: Get some rent money, then put her shirt back on for good.

But you know what? She found out that she liked dancing - and she was good at it. "When you have a lot of men looking at you, you feel so good, kind of powerful," she explains. "At home, you're just washing dishes. Here you're a Greek goddess."

She also realized that "all the girls were like me - all-American girls who just wanted to make some money, and not be a boring secretary or meat wrapper."

It's fantasy they're peddling, she says. Not sex. In fact, a big part of her job, she says, is playing "second mother" to the dancers. She lets them talk out their problems - car trouble, boyfriend trouble, money trouble - "so they can then become their fantasy person."

After three years of dancing, she stopped performing and became the ''proprietress." What that means, she says, is that she runs the place and is in the process of buying it, although she is unwilling to divulge any details about the purchase arrangement.

"What's that got to do with the First Amendment?" she demands.

"We don't have much trouble there," says Capt. Nick Salamone of the Mount Ephraim police. "For the most part, the crowd they get is quiet. Once in a while, you get a rowdy." Officers enter incognito now and then to make sure that no hanky-panky is taking place. The outfit pays its taxes. St. John even lets folks from the Dodge dealership park in her lot. Downright neighborly.

St. John says she's buying the business from Juliet De Luciano, a.k.a. Toni Taylor, who also operated Winks Lounge, the go-go bar on the Admiral Wilson Boulevard that also offers couch dancing. De Luciano, according to St. John, now lives in Florida and is unavailable for comment.

Mount Ephraim tax records list James F. Schad of Cinnaminson as the owner of the Fantasy Showbar. He didn't return calls.

St. John describes herself as an honest, hard-working businesswoman, a single mother who lives alone, works a dozen hours a day, hits the Stairmaster at a local gym, eats only salad and is so tired when she finally gets home that "I can't wait to take my makeup off and relax with my two cats."

She curls up, she says, with Working Woman, Glamour. "I'm not into Forbes."

Her office, on the second floor of the Fantasy Showbar, seems miles from the dark, smoky dance floor just beneath it. It has new carpeting, paneled walls, comfortable chairs, plenty of lighting, artificial flowers. Moments before a recent interview, she was studying a brochure for a new AT&T phone system.

A picture of her son hangs on her office wall. The boy is now a ninth grader and a sergeant at Valley Forge Military Academy - "where General Schwarzkopf went," she points out. "He's very proud of me."

St. John didn't tell him exactly where she worked until two years ago. His reaction, she says, was, "No big deal, Mom."

Now, of course, "he'd love to come in here."

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