Judge Issues Injunction That Orders Chippendales to Halt Overcrowding

Times Staff Writer

About halfway through the show, when the man in the fireman's helmet and jacket walked on stage, the women-only audience began whistling and shrieking, "Take it off! Take it off!"

From the best spots they could find--standing on tables and chairs, perched on railings--the women had already seen several costumed strippers disrobe down to their G-strings.

But the helmeted man on stage at Chippendales nightclub in West Los Angeles was a real fireman. And when the shrieking died down, he ordered patrons and employees to leave the building. It was too crowded--a fire hazard.

Said the Rowland Heights woman who recalled the February, 1983, incident: "We knew it was going to be crowded, but this was insane."

Cleared Out 13 Times

On 13 nights since then, officials say, Los Angeles fire inspectors--sometimes summoned by angry neighbors or dismayed patrons--have cleared out the popular but jammed club, once counting 435 people inside a nightspot with a legal limit of 299.

On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Diane L. Wayne signed a permanent injunction, settling a 1984 unfair business practices lawsuit against Chippendales. In the injunction, requested by the city attorney's office, Chippendales and its owner-president, Somen (Steve) Banerjee, agreed to prevent overcrowding, and to devise a plan to limit crowds.

The club, City Atty. James K. Hahn said in a statement, has "repeatedly shown a callous disregard for the safety of patrons."

"They (the patrons) have been pushed around and stepped on and there's just so many people it's ridiculous," says Fire Capt. Geoffrey Schroeder, of the department's legal liaison unit, who calls Chippendales "one of the major offenders" in Los Angeles.

The injunction is the latest tactic for handling what fire officials call serious crowding problems at the club. According to Sue L. Frauens, supervising attorney for the consumer protection section, under the injunction, any new violation of the court order means that Banerjee could face five days in jail as well as a $2,500 fine.

"If there are future violations, it allows me a very quick avenue to go into court to initiate contempt proceedings against them that could subject (Banerjee) to jail," Frauens said.

"I am really looking forward to it doing some good," Schroeder said. "If there's one thing the Fire Department wants ultimately, it's for that club to quit overcrowding. He's jeopardizing the lives of the citizens every night that he does this."

Despite its hugely successful male revue--which has spun off a product line including calendars, playing cards, T-shirts and coffee mugs as well as a host of imitators--Chippendales' 10-year history has been fraught with difficulties.

Its parent company, Easebe Enterprises, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year, after a flood of lawsuits and legal expenses. Complaints by several black UCLA law students prompted an agreement to hire and admit blacks. And in 1984, police attempted to revoke its entertainment permit for overcrowding, a battle Chippendales won at a state appeals court.

When founder Banerjee marketed his pinup calendar in 1984, he said he "had to do it to pay the legal fees. . . . Every time I get cited, I come up with a new product."

Trial Scheduled Next Month

The end of those difficulties is not in sight.

Chippendales is facing trial next month on three criminal counts stemming from overcrowding citations. In 1986, Chippendales paid $12,750 in fines and penalties after pleaded no contest to charges of severe overcrowding and blocking aisles and exits.

There are "more cases emanating out of Chippendales than any other adult establishment in town," says Assistant City Atty. Michael Guarino.

Next month, Chippendales faces an administrative hearing on its fire permit, before a fire department examiner. Assistant City Atty. Byron Boeckman said the "unusual" proceedings could mean "anywhere from nothing to suspension for a period of time up to a year, (to) revocation of the fire permit, without which you can't do business in this city."

Ralph Saltsman, a partner in the law firm representing Chippendales, called the permanent injunction "a complete standoff."

"What the city has settled for is simply an injunction that states that Chippendales must obey laws relative to fire code violations. This injunction didn't ask Chippendales to do anything it wasn't required to do already, so how could you refuse that?"

Banerjee has contended that Chippendales is singled out--something fire officials deny. He said in 1984 that the issue wasn't overcrowding, "It's that they (the fire officials) think a male revue for women is immoral--they're saying what people should and should not watch."

"If you take into consideration how many nightclubs are out there and how many fire code violations (on them) were filed in the last five years," Saltsman said, "I'd say statistically he's being singled out."

The Fire Department "can turn any club into the single worst violator, just by being there every night," he added.

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