91 years later, New York City looks to abolish its Cabaret Law
If all goes according to plan, New York City venues will no longer be subject to the Cabaret Law.
A bill that seeks to repeal the Cabaret Law, established 91 years ago in 1926, will be presented to the City Council on Tuesday by Rafael Espinal, a councilman from Brooklyn. Made possible only through the passing of Espinal’s new bill, the corresponding repeal of the Cabaret Law requires a total of 26 votes, but Espinal has already declared that he has the necessary number of votes needed to pass the new bill. “It’s over,” Espinal has said of the Cabaret Law.
An archaic remnant of a previous, more restrictive era, the Cabaret Law made it illegal for New York City public spaces to host “musical entertainment, singing, dancing or other forms of amusement” without a cabaret license. Performers and employees of cabarets alike were fingerprinted and forced to carry “cabaret cards” as proof of their licensure under the law from 1940 to 1967. The city reserved the ability to refuse the grant of such a license to applicants with police records, creating limitations for performers like Billie Holiday and Ray Charles. Holiday and Charles were both unable to book a club date for several years due to their respective narcotics records. Frank Sinatra notably avoided the New York City performance platform for several years, refusing to complete the fingerprinting that would serve as the prerequisite for the cabaret license.
The Cabaret Law has continued to fetter New York City’s nightlife arenas, despite the city’s claim to be a “nightlife capital.” Only 97 out of approximately 25,000 eating and drinking establishments currently hold a cabaret license, the sparseness of the licenses duly the product of the license’s expense, and venues’ limited eligibility. Only those businesses placed in areas zoned for commercial manufacturing are able to obtain a license. Yet even if a business is able to apply for a license based on its geographical position, acquiring the license can be a time consuming venture, as approval of the license for the given establishment must be submitted by numerous agencies.
While the law has not been enforced with the ardency that it had been prior to the Guiliani administration, the Cabaret Law has witnessed several failed attempts to repeal the law. Despite the Guiliani administration’s comparatively relaxed reception of the law, the Cabaret Law continues to be a point of concern for bar and club owners, who will continue to “[live] in fear,” so long as the law remains in place, as Espinal notes. If caught in violation with the Cabaret Law, owners can face large fines or complete closure.
Espinal emphasizes that the Cabaret Law is responsible not only for the installation of such fear in bar and club owners, but also for the increase in the popularity of underground or warehouse based dance spaces. Espinal views the restrictions imposed by the Cabaret Law as the catalysts for dancers’ departure from “safe, regulated spaces” into potentially unregulated or less regulated areas. “When we stop people from dancing, they go straight to these warehouses,” Mr. Barclay has stated, referencing Oakland, California’s Ghost Ship warehouse fire that would claim the lives of 36 people. “People haven’t stopped dancing,” Barclay continued, “they’re just dancing in these extremely unsafe, unregulated environments.”
The former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Norman Siegel has applauded Espinal’s drive to strike down the near century-old law. “Halleujah to that, it [the law] was used periodically to be very repressive on free expression.” Siegel is memorable for his effort to dethrone the Cabaret Law about a decade ago, on the grounds that the law violated dancers’ First Amendment rights.
If Espinal is successful in collecting the 26 votes needed to pass the new bill that will accordingly rescind the Cabaret Law, the context of New York City’s dance culture will be forever altered, the city receiving another opportunity to shed a law it outgrew long ago.
H/T: The New York Times