Before Larry Flynt's Hustler Club opened in downtown Baltimore, the manager said he would run such a clean operation that it would be "just like you go to T.G.I. Friday's" restaurant, except for the nude women on stage.
"No touching," promised Jason C. Mohney, 30, trying to distinguish the huge new club from the nearly 20 other strip joints crammed onto The Block, steps from City Hall and police headquarters.
Today, the city liquor board is scheduled to hear police allegations that four days after the club's Nov. 12 gala opening, several people -- including Mohney's brother -- violated the city law barring sexual touching.
For The Block, long home to drugs and prostitution, the allegations are relatively minor and are likely to lead to a fine of several hundred dollars, at most. But police and liquor board officials say the case is a reminder that violations can occur even at "classy" places such as the Hustler Club.
They also say little has changed on The Block since the Hustler Club opened almost nine months ago. Hopes have faded for a surge in new patrons and a facelift for other clubs, but no clubs have been driven out of business by the newcomer to East Baltimore Street, as some people had predicted.
"It's just another club on The Block, and their innovative thing is the whole idea of cocktail waitresses," said Sgt. Craig Gentile of the Police Department's vice enforcement section. At most clubs, customers sit around a bar with a narrow stage directly behind it and are served drinks from a bartender.
"There have been prostitution cases made in other bars since the Hustler has come down," Gentile said. "Some of the other bars, it's still status quo."
Mohney, the club's manager, did not respond to phone messages this week. The club's lawyer, Peter Prevas, called the alleged violations "very technical" and "no big stuff."
The case scheduled for today stems from observations made Nov. 16 by police. Police say they saw illegal sexual contact between a dancer and a cocktail waitress, between a dancer and a patron, and between a dancer and another Hustler employee identified by Gentile as Mohney's brother, Justin, who helped provide club security. (Gentile blamed a "typo" in the police report for identifying the man as Jason Mohney.)
Five of the six people involved worked at the club, the police report said, and "all stated that they were not specifically told that sexual conduct or contact was prohibited."
The hearing has been postponed several times in recent months.
Nathan C. Irby Jr., executive secretary of the liquor board -- which regulates city adult entertainment licenses -- said he has never visited the club but hears good things. "I understand it's a classy place," he said.
While not condoning sexual touching, Irby seemed to sympathize with club operators who must watch over customers and dancers in a sexually charged atmosphere.
"I don't know how you are ever going to get around that [touching] in an adult entertainment facility," Irby said. "The temptation is too great."
Other strip club owners say the Hustler Club has been marginally good for them and for The Block.
"I kind of like them being up there. The more, the merrier," said Lou Hershey, longtime owner of the Mouse Trap, which is directly below the Hustler.
Hershey has gotten some spillover business, he said, especially from those put off by the Hustler's $15 evening cover charge. The mix of customers has changed, too.
"You see a lot more couples coming around, going up to the Hustler Club," he said.
Peter W. Ireland Sr., who owns Tiffany's and whose wife owns Norma Jean's, said the Hustler Club has not had much impact on his business or on the area. The Block "hasn't changed a whole lot," he said. "We got a lot of improvements to do."
The Hustler Club is far bigger than most other Block clubs, occupying two floors of the old Gayety theater. Part of Flynt's chain, which stretches from Honolulu to Paris, it has a more corporate feel. Tables have customer comment cards ("Which XXX film star would you like to see here?"), and patrons cannot leave without passing through a gift shop filled with sex toys, videos and T-shirts.
The main floor is a sea of red velour with a large oval stage. On that level, lap dances can be had on tucked-away, high-backed chairs for $25 a song.
A staircase leads up to Larry's VIP Lounge, home of the Honey Suites, denlike rooms with couches and televisions that rent for $300 per half-hour, with half off at certain times. A dancer who gave a tour recently said customers can dim the lights and touch their chosen dancers, and vice versa.
With $25 lap dances, she told a visitor, the dancer is permitted to touch the customer, who must keep both hands to the side. That is at odds with Mohney's promise and city law.
"You're hitting the nail on the head," Gentile said after hearing what the dancer said. "You went in there as Joe Schmo and that was explained to you. You think, 'She's saying I can touch her in that room.' The liquor board rule says there is absolutely no touching."