Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal
Monday, June 17, 1996
DANCERS DEFEND OWNER OF NUDE BAR CLOSED IN NORTON
WOMEN CONTEND HE ENFORCES STRICT NO-DRUGS POLICY; THEY BLAME ANY PROBLEMS ON PATRONS, FEW BAD WORKERS
By DAVID KNOX
The dancers who performed naked on the stages of the Nest Theater agree with Summit County Prosecutor Maureen O'Connor on at least one thing: That the county's oldest and best-known juice bar is one filthy place.
"It could use a good cleaning and some paint," one dancer said last week.
But the prosecutor and Norton police want far more than a good scrub down at the Nest. They want the place padlocked -- for being what O'Connor says is a "raunchy" public nuisance that breeds drug abuse and prostitution.
The dancers and other Nest employees say that's a crock.
"The only thing it draws are customers who want to watch naked women," said 29-year-old Jodi Rebovich of Peninsula, who has danced at the Nest for eight years.
While their profession may offend some and outrage others, these dancers say there's nothing illegal about it.
More importantly, they need the jobs -- for reasons that could shatter the fantasies of many of their ogling customers. Almost all of the dozen or so dancers who made their living at the Nest are single mothers. And while dancing naked may not be socially acceptable, they say, it sure beats welfare and the minimum wage.
"I can't support a kid on $5 an hour working as a waitress," said Vicki Artrip, 21, of Barberton, who started out as a bartender at the Nest but switched to dancing about a year ago. Artrip quit school after the eighth grade and has a 16-month-old daughter. She said she can't turn down the money.
Working three to six hours a day, four or five days a week, it was possible for Nest dancers to tuck $1,000 or more in tips into their garters -- their only on-stage attire -- every week. That's why they are angry about getting kicked out of the Nest last week by Prosecutor O'Connor, who along with about 25 law enforcement officers raided the bar at 3120 Wadsworth Road, near Interstate 76.
The search warrant justifying the June 7 raid was granted after undercover Norton Police officers, who had targeted the Nest since March, reported buying illegal drugs there: marijuana from a doorman, who had been arrested before the raid, and cocaine and other illicit drugs from several customers.
Hearing on nest is July 9
A hearing in Summit County Common Pleas Court will be held July 9 on a request for a permanent injunction barring the use of the building "for any purpose for a period of a year" and confiscating everything inside.
The hearing was originally set for today, but bar owner Eugene D. Fink asked for a delay until he returns from a three-week visit with his son in Germany.
The complaint charges that Fink operated a haven for drug trafficking. The document makes no mention of prostitution, despite assertions by officials that the Nest encouraged that activity as well. Because the complaint is a civil lawsuit and not a criminal charge, it doesn't matter whether Fink knew about the alleged drug sales, O'Connor said.
Four people were arrested during the raid. One dancer, Kimberly Kaiser, 34, of Akron, was charged with drug abuse after police found a crack pipe among her belongings. She has prior convictions on possession of criminal tools and trying to smuggle crack and pills into the Summit County Jail, records show. Two patrons were charged with possession of marijuana; another was accused of obstructing justice and resisting arrest.
One other regular customer, who allegedly sold marijuana to undercover police three times and cocaine once, turned himself in Wednesday on four drug trafficking charges, police said.
Dancers call closing unfair
But the dancers and several other ex-Nest employees say it's unfair for the authorities to hold Fink responsible for customers and a few bad-apple employees who violate what they say are the club's strict rules against drugs and alcohol.
"Any bar you go into, you can find drugs," said Rebovich.
She was one of a half-dozen former Nest dancers interviewed last week at the Treasure Chest -- another Fink-owned juice bar in Norton that features nude dancing -- and at the adjacent Rhonda's Toy Box, where because liquor is served, the law requires that dancers wear at least some clothing.
The women came to perform and make money. But on this evening at least, they had plenty of time to talk. The lone dancer on the Treasure Chest runway performed to an audience of one. Two other patrons sat at the bar, sipping sodas, their backs to the stage. It was about 6 p.m.
The dancers speculated that many of their patrons were staying away for fear of getting caught in another raid.
"We lost half our customers. They're all scared," said Caroline Rebovich of Barberton, Jodi's 27-year-old sister.
Connie Holt, manager of three Fink-owned establishments, said the June 7 raid and pending court action are just the latest skirmishes in a 13-year battle between Fink and area officials. "They've tried so hard to get him out of here," Holt said. "They want him out of Norton."
Holt accused O'Connor of jumping into the fray merely to gather votes for her upcoming election battle with Barberton Law Director Marty Bodnar.
"She posted her name so everybody will know she got us closed," Holt said. Holt was referring to several bright yellow, 30-by-18-inch plastic-covered placards -- about the size of political yard signs -- that the raiders nailed to the Nest building.
They read: "Closed by order of Norton Police Department and Summit Co. Prosecutor Maureen O'Connor."
OConnor said the signs were needed to inform customers of the court order padlocking the facility. She denied that politics had anything to do with her handling of the case. "Anytime an incumbent does their job during an election year, they're going to be considered political."
In the dressing room
Rock music boomed from stereo speakers despite the lack of customers, so Artrip and the Rebovich sisters crowded into the dressing room so they could be heard.
There are no stars painted on this door -- just a sign, with fluorescent lettering readable in the dark, warning the dancers that they would be fired if caught with drugs or alcohol. The decor inside is locker-room awful with a surrealistic touch. The room's walls, ceiling and floor are galvanized metal. The Treasure Chest was once a beverage drive-through; the dressing room occupies what once was the walk-in cooler.
The dancers say the room actually is a step up from smaller, dingier quarters at the Nest. And they insist the sign on the door is no decoration -- at least three dancers have been fired for using drugs in the last few years, they say. "He (Fink) fired me one time back when I was bar tending because he just thought I was doing drugs," said Artrip. "I convinced him I wasn't, and he hired me back."
Once, a group of dancers turned in one of their own for smoking crack in the bathroom, Rebovich said. "We told on her and got her fired."
Artrip said trying to follow the law actually got her in trouble with the police. While she was tending bar in the Nest in the spring of 1995, a customer was causing a disturbance. She recognized him and knew he was only 17. She called 911. The police came and charged the youth -- and Artrip.
"I got busted, and I'm the one that reported it," said Artrip, who was cited for "disseminating matter harmful to juveniles" because the youth was in the juice bar. Court records show that Artrip was found not guilty after a trial in Barberton Municipal Court.
Still, the incident was among several Nest-related police reports -- including several car break-ins and parking-lot vandalism -- that O'Connor cited in her request to close the facility down.
Not claiming to be saints
The dancers said they aren't trying to claim that juice bars are like church socials, only with fewer clothes.
"I don't think any of us want people to think they (dancers) are saints," said Artrip. "They're just people trying to get by the best they can."
Many of their stories include problems with drugs, alcohol, abusive husbands or boyfriends and other scrapes with the law.
Caroline Rebovich was convicted of aggravated assault in 1993 after stabbing her boyfriend in the face and back with a barbecue fork, records show. She said she did it in self-defense.
Rebovich, who quit high school during her senior year after becoming pregnant, supports her four children, ages 3 to 15, on her dance earnings. "The money I make goes to my kids," she said.
Dressed in a tube top and thong-cut bikini bottom, Denise joined her colleagues in the cooler to add her voice to the protest.
"...We aren't prostitutes or crack fiends the way we are made out in the newspaper stories," said Denise, 38, a recovering alcoholic who asked that her full name not be used.
Raised in Youngstown, Denise started performing in bars at 21. She credits Fink with helping her to get off alcohol when she started at the Nest six years ago.
"He made me go to a program or I had no job," she said. "Gene is totally against drugs. He's a health food nut."
She said Fink's worst fault was the poor upkeep at the Nest, resulting in the filthy conditions there.
"Gene likes to keep his money in his pocket," she said, smiling.
Fink made his money at the Nest from a $6 cover charge and $4 for the required minimum of two non-alcoholic drinks. The Nest was open from noon to 1 a.m., six days a week, and on a good day could draw 400 to 500 customers.
Fantasy box as "Safe Sex"
Last year, Fink added a Fantasy Box as an additional money-maker. For $20, a customer could sit in a booth for 10 minutes and watch a dancer close up through a glass partition. After the raid, police said they found what appeared to be semen stains on the glass.
"No kidding. It's better than chasing prostitutes," Denise said. "It's safe sex."
On the expenditure side, Fink paid the dancers a nominal $3 per hour for a three-hour shift. But most dancers didn't even bother to collect their salaries. They often just showed up to dance because the real money was in the tips. Money aside, however, performing brings other rewards for some dancers.
"You get addicted to the compliments," said one petite dancer in a red teddy who came into the cooler to change after working next door at the Toy Box. "I know some girls who have gone into the professions, like nursing, and they can't stop."
Tiffany is this dancer's stage name. She doesn't want her real name used because neither her parents nor her fiance knows she is a juice-bar dancer. "I come from a very good religious family with a strict father," she said.
Tiffany is the exception that proves the rule among bar dancers. The 25-year-old child of a middle class family, she has no children and sailed through high school with good grades. Dancing is financing her college education.
She said she graduated from the University of Akron last month with a bachelor's degree in business, and plans on continuing to graduate school.
She said she is saving money and planning a career in business, but will miss dancing. "I have a beautiful body and I like to show it," Tiffany said. "That's all there is to it."
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