Burlesque shows banned at the Canal Club

A local burlesque group has been forced to discontinue their performances by the ABC because of what some call an “antiquated” law meant to regulate strip clubs.

Richmond Varietease, a local burlesque performing group, has been forbidden to perform at the Canal Club because of a law that prevents striptease performances in specific types of clubs that served mixed alcoholic beverages.

Jennifer Farinholt, a Public Relations Specialist at the Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC), said this in an email to RVANews yesterday evening: “ABC agents conducted an observation visit at the Canal Club on Friday evening and spoke to staff regarding striptease acts being prohibited on the premises of an establishment licensed to serve mixed beverages.” As a result, Richmond Varietease, who celebrated their two-year anniversary last month, is now forced to find a new venue for a show that had been scheduled at the Canal Club on August 13.

Richmond Varietease announced the sudden change in plans on their Facebook page yesterday afternoon. Dolli Holiday, creator and producer of the monthly burlesque stage show, says that ABC is “basing everything on an archaic law.”

The law in question makes distinctions between types of venues that can and cannot host burlesque-related events. Below is an official ABC summary of the provision that the Canal Club violated by hosting Richmond Varietease as a “mixed beverage” venue:

For a mixed beverage licensee, the Board may revoke or suspend the license if the licensee allows entertainment of an obscene nature, stripteasing, topless entertaining, or entertainment that has employees who are not clad both above and below the waist unless the licensee is operating a theatre, concert hall, art center, museum, or similar establishment that is devoted primarily to the arts or theatrical performances, when the performances are expressing matters of serious literary, artistic, scientific, or political value.

And here is the precise verbiage of the law which explicitly states that the following are prohibited at any venue that holds a mixed-beverage license:

  • Allow any obscene conduct, language, literature, pictures, performance or materials on the licensed premises;
  • Allow any striptease act on the licensed premises;
  • Allow persons connected with the licensed business to appear nude or partially nude;

However, it appears that ABC’s contention is not the substance of Richmond Varietease’s performances, but rather the venue in which they are carried out. Differentiating between the two ostensibly similar venues, an ABC statement sent to RVANews maintained: “‘artistic burlesque,’ as opposed to the average strip club performance may be performed at art centers, such as Gallery 5, but not at a mixed beverage restaurant, like the Canal Club. It has nothing to do with the licensing difference, but with the type of venue.” Although a venue known for concerts and performing arts events, and not a restaurant in a traditional understanding, ABC nonetheless considers the Canal Club as a different performance venue than Gallery5.

Burlseque dates back to the late 17th century. The word burlesque derives from the Italian burlesco, which, in turn, derives from the Italian burla – a joke, ridicule or mockery. Whereas strip club performances merely showcase nearly naked bodies (it is illegal for all-nude stripping in Virginia; performers are required to wear underwear and pasties). Burlesque shows are staged productions, replete with dialogue and even audience interaction, and requires proper training and rehearsals. “More emphasis on the tease than the strip,” says Holiday.

Last Friday evening, July 29th, students of the Richmond Institute of Burlesque, a school co-started by Holiday to “teach the next generation of burlesque performers,” held a showcase in which students made their stage debut. In the middle of the performance, Kathy Jacobs, the owner of The Canal Club, approached Holiday and asked her how much time remained in the performance. Holiday informed her that only about one hour remained. According to Holiday, Jacobs “looked worried.” Jacobs left, leaving Holiday and her students to finish the showcase.

Unbeknownst to Holiday and her students, two ABC agents (Allen Slonaker and another, unknown agent) were at The Canal Club to inform the club’s management that the burlesque performances were unlawful. In a statement, the state agency indicated that the agents “…visited the Canal Club Friday evening as a routine observation.” Jacobs asked the agents to allow the showcase to end, to which the agents eventually agreed.

The Canal Club consulted with lawyers on Monday to see if there would be any legal way to host future burlesque performances. Lawyers determined that doing so would severely risk punitive repercussions, namely that, according to an ABC statement on the matter, the “Bureau of Law Enforcement would issue an administrative violation.” As such, the club will indefinitely suspend all Richmond Varietease performances. Jacobs called Holiday to inform her of the club’s decision.

“Her voice was cracking,” says Holiday of Jacobs. “She was very upset,” a sentiment shared by the Richmond Varietease founder. “The Canal Club was so perfect,” says Holiday. “It’s ideal” because of its capacity: the best venue to accommodate the 150-300 people that regularly attend the monthly Richmond Varietease performances.

In addition to showcasing local talent, the burlesque company invites performers from around the country to participate in the monthly shows. The August event, still tentatively scheduled, is scheduled to have performers visiting from Minnesota and Baltimore.

When asked if she could find another location to host the upcoming performance, Holiday says, “I’m not going to throw in the towel,” although she is aware that finding a suitable replacement venue will be difficult.

Being that the law in question is a Virginia statute, the municipality of Richmond is virtually powerless to grant the appropriate status to the Canal Club for future burlesque performances–such legislative decisions can only be amended by the General Assembly. Virginia’s General Assembly outlawed nudity in mixed beverage restaurants in 1968, when liquor by-the-drink was made legal. In 2008, the Assembly added the exception for artistic performances in theaters and similar establishments.

It is notable, however, that New York City, Washington D.C., and other cities allow for a specific “cabaret license” that, among other things, distinguishes burlesque performances from that of strip clubs, and grants venues of varying existing beverage licenses legal means for hosting burlesque performances. No such license, however, exists within the state of Virginia, one that Holiday says, “I would be 100% for.”

Richmond Varietease took six months to get off the ground, and has built both a large and loyal fan base in the city in the two years its operated. “There’s not much live entertainment left,” laments Holiday, who created her burlesque show to connect Richmonders to an old form of stage art experiencing a renaissance throughout the country. All of that is now now threatened. When asked why agents only now discovered the illegal operation, an ABC statement said that, “Events can go undetected as agents have diverse responsibilities and hundreds of establishments to monitor, however, once issues or violations are observed they are addressed quickly.”

“It’s upsetting and disheartening,” says Holiday, who sees Richmond Varietease as a significant player in the continued conception and branding of Richmond as the “creative capital.” She plans to do all she can to fight the current ABC regulations. She knows, however, that she cannot do it alone.

“It’s going to take the support of the community to get this law changed.”


photo: Boo Boo Darlin’ at this year’s Richmond Varietease’s Valentine’s Day show, courtesy of Jamie Betts Photo

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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