Acrobats swing in the air, hanging by silk ropes attached to the ceiling. Burlesque performers dance the can-can inside enormous champagne glasses. Some women show off their body paintings. Others engage in lip-syncing to popular tunes.
It’s not what you often see at a strip club, because these women are clothed. Instead, it’s a novel tactic employed by Oasis Goodtime Emporium in a long-running bid to obtain an alcohol license from the city of Doraville. Because it now features “regular performances of artistic value,” the club contends it qualifies under the city’s exemption that permits alcohol sales and displays of nudity at “serious” arts venues, like museums, theaters and concert halls.
A lawyer for Oasis, a Peachtree Industrial Boulevard landmark for more than a quarter-century, argued that point Tuesday before Georgia's highest court. The club is fighting a DeKalb County judge's injunction that bars Oasis from violating Doraville ordinances that regulate the sale of alcohol and the operation of nude entertainment clubs.
Even saddled with that injunction, the club continues to serve alcohol and provide nude dancing, with occasional performances by artists recruited from local venues.
"We really have changed," Oasis lawyer Alan Begner said Tuesday after the club argued its case before the state Supreme Court. "We still have nude dancing because we're allowed to. We just want to come into compliance with the law."
Scott Bergthold, a lawyer representing Doraville, wasn’t buying it.
“If ever there was a case where a recalcitrant litigant should be subject to an injunction, this is one,” Bergthold told the justices.
“This argument about artistic expression is a complete red herring,” he said. “It’s a sexually oriented business, (not) a theater or high-brow arts production.”
The city’s exception for artistic performance venues specifically states it is not to be construed with a nude entertainment establishment, he said.
Oasis has been involved in seemingly unending litigation over an alcohol license. It was one of a number of clubs to enter into an agreement with DeKalb County, which allowed the club to keep operating, provided it paid the county licensing fees of up to $100,000 a year. In 2012, however, the Legislature placed Oasis inside of Doraville when it expanded the city’s boundaries.
Doraville soon adopted a “sexually oriented business code.” It allows semi-nude dancing but prohibits nude dancing and alcohol consumption on such premises. Oasis challenged that ordinance, contending it stripped away its free speech protections. But the state Supreme Court upheld the ordinance as constitutional in 2015.
After the high court’s ruling, Doraville sent an investigator and police officers inside Oasis, where on a number of occasions they saw dancers exposing their breasts and genital areas and observed patrons drinking alcohol.
The city filed suit and, in March 2016, obtained the injunction that prohibits Oasis from continuing to engage in such practices.
Eric Coffelt, another Oasis lawyer, told the justices that the club’s decision to regularly provide artistic performances changes the posture of the case.
“The next step isn’t to go out of business,” he said. “The next step is to comply with the city’s codes.”
But Justice Britt Grant wondered when the litigation would end.
If Oasis loses this round, “it could give dancers tap shoes” and pursue this new wrinkle, allowing the case to go “on and on and on,” Grant said.
Oasis now features burlesque shows twice a day, seven days a week, Jill Chambers, a former state lawmaker who now works for the club, said after the arguments. “It’s investing thousands of dollars into costumes, stage sets, props, training and rehearsals. … We bring in the same people who perform in venues all over the city.”
Begner, the Oasis attorney who's also a noted First Amendment lawyer, said the club is eager to go to trial to fight for its right to continue operating the way it does under the so-called mainstream performance exception.
“We believe we’ll be open for good,” Begner said.