Karen Heller: A naked ploy for city tax dollars?

Posted: July 29, 2013

Philadelphia, in its constant search for revenue, wants to draw bucks from a G-string.

The city's Tax Review Board is trying to decide whether a lap dance is an amusement or legitimate theater. Is a performance over a lap a luxury or an art?

The hearings, scheduled to continue this week, involve sex, shrimp, champagne, sequins, and footwear, but mostly money, about $1.5 million the city is trying to collect from three strip clubs in amusement taxes on heretofore untaxed lap dances.

The five-member board heard disquisitions on "multifocal, immersive theater," as one expert noted, filled with "manifestly skilled artists, conveying an expressive message through their performance artists."

George Bochetto, attorney for Club Risqué and Cheerleaders, posed the philosophical question: "Is there more to a lap dance than just a lap?"

Deputy City Solicitor Marissa O'Connell, who studied ballet, wondered, "Does choreography have to be expressive to be narrative?"

The answers, in case you're wondering, are yes and no.

The city's pursuit of new revenue fits with the Nutter administration's Bloombergian quest to tax "sin" wherever it might be found - drinks, cigarettes, sugary beverages, and now danced laps. I would dearly like to know which city employee came up with this latest strategy.

On top of business taxes, "gentleman's clubs" - which is unfair to both gentlemen and clubs - pay plenty of taxes, on liquor, food, and an amusement tax on the entrance fee of about $10. Bochetto and the lawyer for Delilah's argue the city is trying to tax patrons twice, at the door, then at the lap.

The city is not a fool. There is serious revenue in lap dances, which range in price from $20 to $600 for an hour in the "champagne court." That's where the shrimp come in. Shrimp cocktail is big in the court. (Shellfish is a theme in city controversies. Crustaceans had a cameo during the Traffic Court debacle, as well as in the Joey Merlino mob trial, but I digress.)

The hearing is a primer in strip economics. Dancers are independent contractors, who earn 75 percent of the charge on lap dances - excuse me, "semiprivate performances." Each shift, dancers pay the club a $15 performance fee, as well as a $1 pole tax. I am not making this up. For a while, the Club Risqué manager said she kept binders full of the women, which immediately brought to mind Mitt Romney.

Witnesses have included two "manifestly skilled artists," a Yale-trained professor and dramaturge, a choreographer, a private investigator, accountants, and club impresarios.

Indeed, it may be the first tax hearing where strippers and accountants shared equal billing.

Also, where a strip club was compared to a piano bar, Broadway, Dave & Buster's, Isadora Duncan, Japanese Kabuki, and English Restoration drama. Constitutional law was invoked. Six-figure tax bills will do that.

Cruel shoes were discussed at length on two occasions, the challenges of ballet pointe shoes vs. vertiginous platform stilettos, and how they both have a tendency to cause bloody feet. As an investigative shoe reporter, I observed that the manifestly skilled artists opted for more sensible shoes than O'Connell, ballerina flats and flip-flops over her towering wedges. Modesty was the order of the hearing. At one point, "Katalina" - creative orthography a hallmark of the nom de strip - demurely tucked a bra strap inside her blouse.

Bochetto objected vigorously after O'Connell asked one witness about the state of his business taxes, and suggested revoking the clubs' smoking exemption if they were truly providing "legitimate" theater.

"This is an attempt to intimidate the witnesses!" Bochetto railed, rising to his feet. "It is obnoxious! It is sanctionable!" He said: "It is obvious and clear that these clubs are being persecuted!"

Who knew an audit could entertain? In its search for more revenue, the city might charge admission for the hearings. It could impose an amusement tax!

Unless, of course, the hearings are more a form of legitimate theater.


Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com. Follow her at @kheller on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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