July 01, 2000 09:00am
You Would Not Want to be Strip Club Owner Bill Gammoh
Source: Private Dancer Magazine
(LA HABRA, CA) -- However, upon meeting him you might wonder why. Tall, dark and roguishly handsome, the 37-year-old entrepreneur seems the very picture of youth and success.
As the owner of the Pelican Theater, arguably one of the most tastefully run Gentleman's Clubs in southern California, beautiful women surround Bill on a nightly basis. He exudes edgy confidence and puckish charm; qualities likely to serve him well in any number of business endeavors. It is only upon hearing Bill's story, a shocking tale of harassment, racism and debauchery of the First Amendment that one may glimpse the incubus that continues to ravage his life. If you believe that America is the land of free enterprise and expression, as Bill did when he left his native Jordan, perhaps you should think again.
Formerly a bank, the Pelican Theater sits unassumingly along Imperial Highway in La Habra, and could easily be mistaken for a movie theater. There are no signs or banners to indicate the adult entertainment taking place within, and the club's interior is twice removed from a discreetly placed entryway. It seems a perfect place for adults seeking upscale, erotic entertainment to relax in a safe and genial atmosphere. However, on this Saturday night the club remains all but empty, a testament to the stigma imposed upon it by city officials and local law enforcement.
"The only thing that's keeping me here is just that I don't want to give up," Bill explains. "It's not for the money -- there is no profit being made. But if I close down, they can do this to every other club. As long as my door is open they cannot implement new laws without a fight."
The "new laws" Bill refers to are hard to keep up with. When he originally purchased the building in 1995, Bill was confident that he could abide by any ordinance relating to adult entertainment in La Habra. He chose a location surrounded by commercial businesses and consistent with zoning requirements. Still, the city would not grant him a business license, citing the "negative secondary effects" they insisted his club would promote. When the city Court refused to intervene, Bill appealed to the Ninth Circuit and won. A restraining order was placed on the city of La Habra, and Bill was granted a license to build his theater. However, when it came time to open for business, he found that the rules had changed yet again.
Unbeknownst to Bill, an ordinance had been implemented stating that adult entertainment employees must remain six feet away from patrons AT ALL TIMES. (This is not to be confused with the "Six Foot Law" that prohibits nude dancers from performing within six feet of patrons.) Under this ordinance Bill's employees, including fully clothed waitresses, would be ordered to stay at least six feet from customers, PERIOD. Bill refused to abide by the ordinance, explaining that it would prevent him from running his business.
"According to this ordinance, even waitressing is prostitution. I told the judge 'I would have to build a place as big as Anaheim Stadium to abide by this law. My waitresses would have to serve drinks from the end of a six-foot tray!' But the judge wouldn't listen."
Citing Bill's refusal to observe the ordinance, La Habra declared the Pelican theater a "public nuisance" and accused Bill of running a house of prostitution. The presiding judge held Bill in contempt of Court and ordered him to serve a jail sentence of 21 days.
"They put me in a one-man cell, solitary confinement," Bill recalls with a mixture of outrage and disbelief. "I didn't see the sun for 17 days. It was like a freezer, they give you no pillow, no blanket, nothing." His meals were passed to him through a small window in the cell's door. On one occasion, the guard assigned to serve Bill his evening meal attempted a bit of friendly conversation.
"He said, 'What are you doing here?' Bill recalls, his eyes darkening at the memory. "I said, 'I am here for contempt of court." The guard smirked, sensing that Bill had not properly understood the question.
"He said to me, 'No asshole, what are you doing IN THIS COUNTRY?' Bill pauses and looks away, clearly pained by the memory. "I am an American citizen," he offers quietly, shaking off the recollection. "and I am proud to be an American."
Bill has become accustomed to encountering racism in La Habra. While attending a City Council meeting, which commenced with an opening prayer, Bill quickly became the target of an onslaught of colorful racial insults.
"They called us camel jockeys, sand niggers, told us to 'fly our magic carpets back home." Bill recalls. He requested an audio transcript of the meeting, only to find that all derogatory comments had been erased. "They said there must have been a technical problem with the recording equipment," he laughs, adding that his lawyer was present at this meeting and witnessed the remarks.
Bill is passionate in his belief that he has done nothing wrong, and has brought no harm to the city of La Habra. Crime rates have not increased. Local property values have not fallen. There have been no fights on the Pelican's grounds, no incidents of solicitation for prostitution in or around the club. The city's fears have consistently been proven unfounded and alarmist. Still, La Habra is certain that Bill Gammoh must be stopped.
Bill is understandably puzzled by the city's relentless harassment. He claims to have video taped local police intimidating his customers in the parking lot, questioning innocent patrons and documenting their license plate numbers. Bill was also recently cited for failing to provide wheelchair access to the stage for "disabled dancers." Unsure of the validity of such requirements, he called several Handicapped associations and was told that they were unaware of any such necessity.
Still, it seems clear that the city has no intention of backing off. Bill struggles to understand the logic that drives the city to such extreme measures, and searches for ways to understand the vicious assaults that have all but destroyed his business. The answers do not come easily.
"Let me explain it this way," Bill says, eager to illustrate his point. "You're walking down the street and you see a naked guy being examined by a woman. Yes, this is lewd conduct, yes it is indecent exposure. But what if you see the same guy in a doctor's office, being examined by a female doctor?" he sighs, frustrated by the city's refusal to consider issues of context. "If we are licensed to have this business, which we are, then where is the lewd conduct? This is the point I'm trying to make."
One is struck by the irony that it is club owners such as Bill Gammoh who might reinvent the adult nightclub industry and help eradicate its salacious reputation. He brings to mind a foregone era, when club owners exhibited elegance and style, and understood the importance of running a respectable business. The city of La Habra might be surprised to learn that Bill Gammoh is not their enemy at all. He is committed to keeping his establishment clean, and has little patience for club owners who tolerate employee or patron misconduct.
"Many club owners don't care, they're greedy," Bill says angrily. "They don't care about the dancer, only how much they can collect off her. They don't care if a customer insults a dancer. Here we run a clean club. If anyone insults a dancer, we ask him to leave. Other clubs tell the girls 'you're not in a church, this is what you're here for.' But no, she is NOT here for that. She's here to dance, and to be treated with respect."
Despite his outrage toward the city of La Habra, Bill reserves a special disdain for his fellow club owners. He has tried several times to create an organization that would unite clubs in a combined effort to keep the industry clean, and lend support in times of need. Curiously, his efforts have been met with a lack of interest, a fact that Bill finds deeply disturbing.
"I don't think the industry is interested in helping each other," he admits sadly. "Each club only worries about themselves. If all clubs would come together and fight a clean fight, we would all be in a better situation." Clearly agitated, he attempts to analyze the indifference of his peers.
"They see what I'm going through, but they don't think it will affect them," he explains. "They think that because their club is in another city, they are safe. They don't realize that if I go down, other cities can use my case to do the same thing to them." He shakes his head, daunted by the lack of support. "It's hard for one guy to fight this alone."
One cannot help but have faith that Bill Gammoh will prevail. Armed with unbridled, raw integrity, Bill continues to fight for his beliefs, regardless of the financial or emotional cost. His plight may yet be a classic American tale; the underdog who succeeds against insurmountable odds, the 'little guy' who won't go down. For all of his admitted anger and frustration, despite the daily harassment he continues to endure, Bill maintains a touching optimism that justice will yet prevail. He holds tight to the ideals that brought him to this country in search of the proverbial land of freedom and equality. Even as he watches it slowly crumbling around him, Bill Gammoh is not ready to give up the American dream.