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U-City revokes Social House II liquor license

A bartender who did not want to be identified (center),informs customers at Social House II in the Loop that she can no longer serve alcohol on Friday, March 11, 2016, after the University City City Council earlier voted to revoke the bar's liquor license. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

CLAYTON • University City officials were caught unaware when an establishment featuring young women with body-painted torsos began serving drinks and food in the Delmar Loop in March.

The realization that there were no ordinances on the books to stop sexually oriented businesses from operating in the city was, in a way, even more disconcerting.

City Council members belatedly corrected the oversight in mid-March with a unanimous vote to enact a decency ordinance to ensure that Social House II was the first, and last, enterprise to employ workers in various states of undress within the city limits.

The events that unfolded in University City over a few weeks in February and March did not escape the notice of nearby municipal officials.

And as the unified but so far unsuccessful effort by University City leaders, residents and business owners to prevent a topless bar from operating in the Loop played out in the media, it sent leaders elsewhere scrambling to check their own decency statutes.

“The Clayton aldermen immediately brought up the question of what does our ordinance look like,” Clayton Mayor Harold Sanger said. “And the answer was, it needs adjustment.”

Acting quickly, the Clayton board adopted last month an ordinance banning businesses that sell alcohol from turning to nudity as a marketing tool.

Des Peres has enacted similar legislation while Maryland Heights tightened its statutes to bar the use of body paint by establishments seeking to circumvent current decency ordinances.

University City “is plowing the earth and the rest of us are following behind,” Sanger said.

An official with the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis says the organization has fielded calls from other communities seeking information about legislative action in University City, Clayton, Des Peres and Maryland Heights.

“Most communities consider themselves family-oriented and don’t believe (a Social House II) is an appropriate venue,” Executive Director Pat Kelly said. “People find the whole concept objectionable.”

A court ruling that temporarily reinstated its liquor license is meanwhile permitting a topless Social House II wait staff to continue serving customers at 6655 Delmar Boulevard.

The order, issued March 18 by St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Michael D. Burton, voided a University City Council vote to revoke the establishment’s business and liquor licenses.

The council and city officials contend that the licenses issued to the business that previously occupied the Delmar Boulevard address are no longer valid.

“There is no change, they are operating in violation of our ordinances and we are proceeding with legal action,” University City Manager Lehman Walker said last week.

The next hearing on the matter is scheduled for Wednesday.

Walker said the city had received no indication that the owner of Social House II, John Racanelli, planned to challenge the municipality’s new anti-nudity code.

Albert Watkins, the high-profile attorney who in March presented a flamboyant defense of Social House II in appearances before the City Council and a St. Louis County Circuit Court judge, no longer represents Racanelli.

The fallout from Social House II has shifted the language in municipal corridors beyond arcane matters such as zoning, infrastructure and municipal budgets.

In Maryland Heights, the planning department was careful to include the phrase “opaque fabric covering” in the legislation it drafted for the council.

“Opaque” is interpreted by the dictionary as “not transparent or translucent; impenetrable to light.”

But used in combination with “fabric covering,” the context for the purposes of Maryland Heights means that the use of paint to cover the female body above the waist will not be tolerated in venues frequented by the public.

It was important, noted Planner Michael Zeek, that the city spell out the rules without getting “into semantics over this.”

Yet, as Maplewood can attest, opaque can’t — so to speak — cover everything.

The Maplewood City Council signed off Monday on a liquor license for a Twin Peaks franchise in the Maplewood Commons shopping center.

The uniforms worn by the female wait staff at Twin Peaks — a Texas-based national bar and restaurant chain that follows the “Hooters” business model — would not meet Victorian standards. But the outfits cover enough skin to skirt the Maplewood decency statutes.

“Personally, I don’t really like that image for our community, but we don’t really have grounds to keep them out,” Maplewood councilwoman Karen Wood said.

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Steve Giegerich is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Kristen Taketa is the K-12 education reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.