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Burlesque troupe's studio plan gets heave-ho

Alex 'Scratch' Newman in the doorway of the Boston Babydolls burlesque troupe's proposed Quincy studio. Alex "Scratch" Newman in the doorway of the Boston Babydolls burlesque troupe's proposed Quincy studio. (Boston Globe Photo / Tom Herde)
By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / May 24, 2009
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It's not every day that a local Zoning Board of Appeals discusses exotic dancing, feathered boas, and pasties.

But those were among the topics talked about Tuesday when the Quincy Zoning Board of Appeals quashed a burlesque troupe's plan to open a dance and fitness studio in North Quincy.

The board voted unanimously against the proposal before a standing-room only crowd in a second-floor conference room at Quincy City Hall. More than 50 people showed up at the public hearing for the Boston Babydolls, who have sought permission to open their studio at 37 Billings Road since last year. They had wanted to use the space as a place to hold rehearsals and offer dance lessons and yoga classes.

But Tuesday night, as the troupe's manager, Alex "Scratch'' Newman, presented the plan, members of the zoning board did not hide their skepticism.

"Who knows where this is going to go . . . Are you going to, somewhere down the road, start teaching something weird?'' asked board chairman Martin Aikens, who later said, "If there's ever a fire, God forbid what comes out of that place.''

The troupe had initially applied to operate a business at 37 Billings Road last fall, and withdrew the application after the zoning board did not approve the plan at a November hearing. By December, the city had revoked the group's occupancy permit, and the troupe submitted a new application for the studio.

Newman said the troupe had planned to use the studio as a place to rehearse and store stage gear. They also wanted to hire part-time instructors to offer lessons in swing dancing, bellydancing, yoga, stage combat, tap dancing, juggling, hula-hooping, Indian classical dance, and other forms of dance. Classes in burlesque dancing would only be open to adults, according to Newman.

But dozens of residents who attended Tuesday night's hearing weren't impressed with the idea. Several expressed concern about the impact the dance studio would have.

The Rev. John Swanson, pastor of the Union Congregational Church in Wollaston, was one of 10 attendees who spoke against the plan.

"I don't see how this benefits the city of Quincy,'' said Swanson. "This is a very townie community. Everyone knows each other. This is our home.''

One woman said she feared that the studio would attract seedy establishments; several parents said they didn't want their children walking by a dance studio that offered burlesque classes; some were offended by the Boston Babydolls website, http://www.bostonbabydolls.net, which advertises classes like "Instant Burlesque Queen,'' a three-hour course that promises to teach "classic burlesque dance moves, graceful clothing removal, and an entire routine. Pasties provided!''

Others said they were uncomfortable with the studio's proximity to schools and churches, and felt it didn't fit in with the character of the neighborhood.

Members of the Zoning Board of Appeals also questioned Newman's past. They referred to a 2002 Providence Journal article that reported Newman was the co-owner of the Black Key Club, a private sex club in Rhode Island. Newman said he had not been involved with that club since 2005.

Several people spoke in favor of Newman and the troupe, including Frank Stevens, who manages the theater at the Cambridge YMCA, where the troupe has performed in the past.

The Boston Babydolls "have been in our space several times,'' said Stevens. "My experience with that group is that they conduct themselves in an appropriate, professional, cordial way. They're wonderful people.''

But the zoning board members ultimately concluded that the proposed studio was a significant change from its previous use as a women's fitness center, and that the new use would be detrimental to the neighborhood, and could cause traffic and parking problems.

"I'm worried about what's going to happen to that section of the city,'' said Aikens. "Boston got rid of their red light district. We do not want that in Quincy.''

The board voted 5-0 against the troupe's plan.

Ward 6 City Councilor Brian F. McNamee, who had been critical of the proposal from the beginning, said he was pleased with the outcome. The group's business plan, he said, was too vague and underwent a "dramatic metamorphosis'' recently.

"This isn't a witch hunt,'' he said. "You have people here who are very concerned. People have a right to know what it is coming into their neighborhood.''

While the Boston Babydolls continue to perform, mostly in the Boston area, their empty studio's future is uncertain.

"We're talking with our attorney on how best to proceed from here,'' said Newman.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.