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City Hall fighting for 18 years to close Chicago’s only topless bar

Perry Mandera

Perry Mandera

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Updated: July 20, 2011 5:37PM

For 18 years, the city of Chicago has been trying to shut down what’s now known as VIP’s A Gentlemen’s Club, whose politically connected owner, Perry Mandera, boasts that he runs “Chicago’s only full liquor & topless bar.”

City Hall’s position is this: The club’s dancers showed too much butt and too much breast.

The club’s take: No, they didn’t — and, besides, it argued, the city ordinance that makes it illegal for a club to sell liquor if it has performers exposing their buttocks or breasts is unconstitutional.

The courts keep rejecting the club’s arguments. Mandera hasn’t won a court ruling in the case in 10 years, going all the way at one point to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to take his appeal.

But VIP’s is still operating and still serving liquor. Even as Mandera has lost one ruling after another, the courts have stayed those rulings, allowing him to keep operating the club while his lawyers keep fighting the city.

Whatever legal bills Mandera may have piled up, the fight clearly has been worth the effort financially, court records show. Mandera has said in court documents that his club takes in $6 million a year with its mix of near nudity and liquor. That’s at least $4 million more than adult-entertainment venues make that don’t have a liquor license, according to Mandera.

The club isn’t just good for him, Mandera, who declines to be interviewed, has argued in court, but is also good for the economy, employing 180 people, including 100 performers. The women are paid to dance on stage, and they can make more money by doing private table dances.

“According to Mandera, the average dancer at the club was making ‘six figures a year’ by the year 2000,” according to a 2006 Illinois Supreme Court ruling. “Mandera reported his own take from the club to be $75,000 a month.”

VIP’s says it pays $480,000 a year in taxes to the city and state.

“They continue to pay taxes — a matter that one would think would be of some concern to the city,” says David A. Epstein, one of Mandera’s lawyers. “Here’s a pretty benign institution, largely serving out-of-town clients — and the city’s been trying to shut it down for [18] years. I don’t get it.”

The club now called VIP’s originally opened as a nightclub in August 1991. James Levin, then the president of Tru-Link Fence, opened what he named the 1531 Club, so named for its address — 1531 N. Kingsbury.

At first, the 1531 Club didn’t offer nude dancing and wasn’t making a profit, according to court records.

So Levin — who would plead guilty in 2006 to taking part in a minority contract fraud scheme involving fence contracts for the Chicago Public Schools — got a $300,000 loan from Mandera, the president of a trucking business called The Custom Companies. Mandera then became a 50 percent owner of Levin’s company, called Pooh Bah Enterprises Inc.

The club still wasn’t turning a profit, so Levin took a second loan from Mandera — this one for $500,000.

They changed the club’s name to Thee Dollhouse and reopened, with semi-nude dancing, on Feb. 10, 1993.

About two weeks later, undercover Chicago cops went to Thee Dollhouse and found that “dancers at times wore thongs that exposed their buttocks and wore latex . . . that exposed portions of their breasts” — the violations that the city has been fighting since then to close the club over.

As the city’s liquor commissioner, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley revoked Pooh Bah’s liquor licenses and tried to close the club.

Pooh Bah ended up going to court, arguing that the city ordinance banning nude and semi-nude dancing at liquor-serving establishments was unconstitutional — and that, even if the courts didn’t buy that argument, the club’s dancers had, in fact, appropriately covered their buttocks and breasts.

In August 1993, Mandera became Pooh Bah’s sole owner, after Levin couldn’t repay the loans, court records show.

And the dancing continued — with the dancers in thongs and wearing latex coverings over their areolas — as Mandera kept fighting in court to keep his club open.

In 1995, Mandera changed the club’s name to Crazy Horse Too under a deal that turned over its management to Frederick Rizzolo, the owner of the Crazy Horse Too strip club in Las Vegas. Rizzolo has since been barred from managing any strip clubs in the United States after pleading guilty to federal tax charges from his Las Vegas club.

In 2001, Mandera won a temporary legal victory, when then-Cook County Circuit Judge Aaron Jaffe ruled the city’s ordinance was unconstitutional — a ruling that was overturned on appeal.

In 2003, Mandera changed the club’s name to VIP’s.

His biggest loss in court came in 2006, when the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the city ordinance.

Now, his lawyers are fighting only to block City Hall from shutting him down. They say the club has changed its ways — with dancers now wearing bikini bottoms rather than thongs and covering the bottom half of their breasts, albeit with a skintight covering of flesh-colored latex — and that giving the club the “death penalty” would be unfair.

City Hall disagrees. Pooh Bah “flouted” the law “for more than a decade and reaped great financial benefits,” the city says in its appellate court brief. “Among other problems, as Pooh Bah no doubt realizes, it could have avoided any violation with minimal expense by putting a bit more clothing on its dancers, as it purportedly started doing in 2006. Alternatively, it could have refrained from the sale of alcohol.”

There has been no indication when the appellate court will rule.

Ultimately, says Epstein, Mandera’s lawyer, “If we lose the case, we might go back to the new administration and see if there’s any way of legalizing the club.”

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