NYC's Antiquated "Cabaret Law" Was Just Repealed
A nearly century-old law that turned New York bars into no-dancing zones, prevented singers like Billie Holiday and Ray Charles from performing and drew protest from Frank Sinatra, is finally set to be struck down.
The Cabaret Law was created during Prohibition to patrol speakeasies, and while its restrictions on musicians came and went, the ban on social dancing has remained — leaving generations of club owners flicking the lights or playing “Eleanor Rigby” to still the crowd, lest they be fined or padlocked by the police in midnight raids. It is an odd and archaic regulation in a city that thinks of itself as a night life capital, but one that has resisted multiple attempts at repeal.
That is expected to end on Tuesday, when a bill introduced by Rafael Espinal, a councilman from Brooklyn, comes before the City Council. Mr. Espinal, who embraced an effort by advocates in his district, which includes Bushwick, where bars and D.I.Y. venues have proliferated in recent years, says he has the 26 votes needed to pass it.
“It’s over,” he said of the law.
In New York City, only 97 out of roughly 25,000 eating and drinking establishments have a cabaret license. Obtaining one is costly and time-consuming, requiring the approval of several agencies, and only businesses in areas zoned for commercial manufacturing are eligible. Though the law has not been aggressively enforced since the Giuliani administration, it keeps bar and club owners “living in fear,” said Mr. Espinal, and pushes dancers from safe, regulated spaces into potentially hazardous underground ones.
The dance floor at the Bossa Nova Civic Club in Bushwick, Brooklyn. John Barclay, who runs the club, is part of a group of advocates who have fought to overturn the Cabaret Law.
A spokesman for the mayor, Ben Sarle, said in an email, “The mayor strongly supports repealing the law,” though he emphasized the need to retain some of its security requirements, such as mandatory security cameras and certified security guards at larger venues, which were added to the existing law in the last 15 years.
Norman Siegel, the former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, tried unsuccessfully to strike down the Cabaret Law, filing a lawsuit in state court around a decade ago alongside Paul Chevigny, a civil rights lawyer, arguing it violated dancers’ free speech rights. Mr. Siegel reacted with joy to the possibility that it could be repealed. “Hallelujah to that,” he said. “It was used periodically to be very repressive on free expression.”
The Cabaret Law was enacted in 1926. It made it illegal to host “musical entertainment, singing, dancing or other form of amusement” without a license. The law is widely believed to have originally been used to target racially mixed jazz clubs in Harlem, but it was broadly applied. Music was not permitted at unlicensed bars at all until 1936, when the law was amended to allow radio- and piano-playing. The same year, operators of a ship that had taken men from the Bowery Mission on a day cruise were fined for running an unlicensed cabaret because a tap dancer was on board.
From 1940 to 1967, the city required performers and employees of cabarets to be fingerprinted and carry “cabaret cards,” which could be denied if the applicant had a police record. The star-studded list of musicians who were denied cards or had them revoked includes Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. “Billie Holiday could not get a club date for many years before her death because she had a narcotics record. Ray Charles the blind blues singer cannot work here for the same reason,” an article in The Times noted in 1966. Frank Sinatra refused to sing in New York for years rather than submit to the indignity of the required fingerprinting.
Around the same time, Greenwich Village coffeehouses were fined for operating as unlicensed cabarets after hosting musicians. Clubs were shut down if they violated a so-called three-musician rule, which, until it was challenged by Mr. Chevigny in the late 1980s, permitted unlicensed venues to host no more than three musicians, who, for a long time, were also barred from playing wind and percussion instruments.
New York Times headlines from the 1960s, when the city required performers to be fingerprinted and carry “cabaret cards.”
In the 1990s, under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the city revived the Cabaret Law, using it to shut down dance clubs as part of its quality-of-life initiatives. As rave culture bloomed around the world, New Yorkers learned their city had a no-dancing law, sometimes only when a task force — known as March, for Multi Agency Response to Community Hotspots — swooped in.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has issued relatively few citations, but Mr. Espinal said he found a groundswell of support for a repeal in Bushwick this year. At a town-hall meeting about night life initiatives at Market Hotel this spring, advocates immediately steered the conversation toward the Cabaret Law. “We came in sort of as a flash mob,” said John Barclay, who runs Bossa Nova Civic Club in Bushwick, which does not have a cabaret license.
Andrew Muchmore, a lawyer and bar owner, filed a still-pending lawsuit against the city after his bar, Muchmore’s, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was slapped with a cabaret violation in 2013 by a police officer who spotted people “swaying” at a rock show while investigating a noise complaint, Mr. Muchmore said. His legal argument focused on how the law limits the type of music venues can feature, infringing freedom of expression, and a decision by the judge early in the case indicated a possibility that the law could be invalidated on First Amendment grounds.
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