A once rollicking city cleans up, while some disgruntled bar operators say it's a sin.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was Saturday night in Sin City, but you couldn't tell it from the crowd at the Nite Life Lounge.

The place was empty, except for two women in bikinis who sat chatting with the barmaid, a heavy-set woman in hot pants. She was so bored that she'd gone to look out the door a few minutes earlier to see where everybody was.

Times have changed. Newport used to be called the Sin City of the South. Gambling halls and brothels flourished on Monmouth Street, the main strip. Some of the biggest entertainers of the 1940s and 1950s, people like Pearl Bailey and Martha Raye, performed there. And folks are still around who'll tell you they know for a fact that Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin played blackjack at local tables. The joints were packed in those days.

All the barmaid saw that night, though, was a lone man shambling down the street in a heavy coat. His dark eyes caught her casting about for signs of life. Embarrassed, she burst into giggles and ducked back inside.

The man poked his head in the door after a while and she had a giggling fit again. "Come on in," she beckoned. But he turned away. The air inside was heavy with the scent of sadness and cheap perfume. He closed the door and moved on down the street.

Times have been hard for bar owners here since 1982, when a newly elected city commission banned nude dancing and then began strict enforcement of liquor and vice laws.

Officials in Newport and Covington, Newport's adjacent sister in sin, have since made an all-out effort to build their first substantial legal economies. Among the development projects the depressed Ohio River communities have attracted are a $120-million hotel-office complex being discussed for the Newport waterfront, an $80-million hotel-office complex under construction in Covington and a number of high-priced condominium developments.

"Our real estate property tax has gone down 11% over the last five years because of all the new development," said Laura L. Long, Newport's economic development director.

In addition, both cities say a rising number of professional people are moving there and repairing old homes. On weekdays, groups of people in business suits may be seen commuting to work by foot across the bridges that connect Cincinnati's downtown to the two Kentucky cities.

Amid the changes, remnants of the old order are slowly fading.

"I've been here for 25 years," said Nick Acabucci, the owner of the Talk of the Town, one of about a dozen go-go bars remaining. "I was here when all the town was wide open. It was like Las Vegas."

But now business is so bad, he said: "I had to cut my place in half. I closed the back room. . . . I ain't been full in eight years."

One recent night, the bar up front was packed with drinkers watching a woman in eyeglasses, pasties and a G-string gyrating on stage. A larger back room, though, was empty.

Vice once was northern Kentucky's biggest industry. In the 1950s, gambling was estimated to be an annual $10-million business, supplying between 2,500 and 5,000 jobs and bringing a steady stream of tourists into the two towns, which today have a combined population of 70,000.

"Gambling was so wide open . . . that the casual visitor would get the impression it was legal in Kentucky," the Kefauver Commission said in a report issued in the 1950s, after conducting a 16-month investigation of organized crime.

The inventor of the Tommy gun was born in Newport. And for 40 years, starting with Prohibition, the sort of gangsters who made John T. Thompson's invention a household word held this town in their grip. Old-timers still talk of mob hits they witnessed in the 1940s, and the area's reputation for public corruption continued unabated until the start of this decade.

In 1961, former Cleveland Browns quarterback George Ratterman ran for sheriff on a reform platform. His campaign was nearly derailed when he was arrested on vice charges. Five people, including the Newport police chief, were later charged with drugging him and propping him up in bed in a hotel room with a stripper known as April Flowers.

By the mid-1960s, the gambling halls and brothels all had been closed. They were replaced by a multitude of nudie bars.

Despite efforts to stamp out prostitution--the newspaper this year started publishing the photographs of men convicted of soliciting--the sex trade still flourishes.

In Newport's Kit Kat Club one recent night, two barely clad women sandwiched a man in a booth to explain what his money could buy. For a $60 drink, they said, he could move with one of them to a darkened corner of the room. "I'll be straight with you . . . we can't have sex in here," said one woman, who said her name was Jerra.

But with insinuating words and a deft touch of her hand she suggested that there were other things they could do. Later, the other woman, beseeching him to call her at home, assured him: "Don't worry, we're clean. We don't have diseases or anything."

Some bar owners contend that the cities should exploit their reputations for sin rather than fight them. They should turn Monmouth Street into a Kentucky version of New Orleans' Bourbon Street, they say. No one believes it will happen. "They're trying to run us out of business," groused Acabucci.

City officials won't say that outright, but they make no secret of their distaste for the area's sordid image, which they say makes it hard to attract new businesses.

"A lot of my friends who live in other cities say to me 'where will we go to have fun now?' " said Jim Parsons, Newport's city manager. "They don't want it in their communities, but they don't mind it being someplace else. . . . I don't think these are the things we need in this city."

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