Sin City: A look at Newport’s risqué past

Kenton Hornbeck
Kenton Hornbeck
Kenton is a reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected]

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This story originally appeared in the Sept. 8 edition of the Weekly LINK Reader. To see these stories first, subscribe here. To listen to the Sunday Story podcast episode, click here.




In 1976, if you decided to take a lunchtime stroll to buy a few cheese coneys from a Monmouth Street chili parlor, it was a near guarantee you’d read one of those three messages plastered to a marquee in bold lettering on your way. Hiding in plain sight, blended into a streetscape full of banks, sandwich shops and jewelry stores, was an assortment of X-rated businesses.

“There were about 20 of them up and down Monmouth Street,” Newport Commissioner Ken Rechtin said. Today, there are only two strip bars in the entirety of Kenton, Campbell and Boone counties. 

While other Northern Kentucky cities like Covington had strip bars, no other city in the region had adult entertainment woven into the fabric of the community quite like Newport. 

During its “Sin City” era, Newport’s reputation preceded itself. The economic values of modern Las Vegas manifested in the small river town sitting at the confluence of the Licking and Ohio rivers.

Newport’s economic association with organized crime, gambling and adult entertainment was the subject of national intrigue and political conflicts. During the city’s gambling era, A-list celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sam Cooke and Marilyn Monroe frequented its bars, clubs and back rooms. 

Ultimately, the city’s gambling industry died on the vine after a concerted effort by local political, judicial and religious leaders, law enforcement, community organizers and concerned citizens. Then-United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy turned up the heat on organized crime that he said facilitated illegal gambling in the area.

In 1961, popular Campbell County Sheriff candidate George Ratterman was famously set up in a blackmail plot where he was drugged, then photographed in bed with an escort named April Flowers. Ratterman’s sex scandal sent shockwaves through the community.

The blackmail attempt backfired. It garnered local sympathy, and police dropped the charges after a blood test proved Ratterman was drugged. The publicity helped propel him into office; it also put the mob squarely in the cross hairs of the governor’s office and the Kentucky State Police. 

Casino proprietors and organized crime bosses packed up their cards and dice for the greener – or maybe sandier – pastures of the Nevada desert. Once the casinos along Monmouth Street closed, a vacuum in Newport’s commercial real estate market emerged.

The vacuum was filled, Rechtin said, with what some would call the ‘fleas’ leftover from the gaming industry. 

“And, we are told, the Newport economy, once thought to be so dependent on illegal gambling, has had a sharp up-turn,” Kennedy said in 1963. “Business, which once avoided the area, is now settling down in an atmosphere of safety.”

Little did Kennedy know that the businesses settling down on Monmouth Street would bring a different genre of problems.

A view of Monmouth Street in Newport on April 1, 1980. Cinema X, a popular adult entertainment theater, can be seen toward the end of the street. Photos provided | Kenton County Public Library

Businesses such as strip bars, adult bookstores and pornographic movie theaters moved into the buildings that formerly housed casinos. As with the casinos, these businesses attracted sizable amounts of customers.

“The strip bars, adult entertainment after gambling left just made the town sleazy,” Northern Kentucky attorney Michael Williams told LINK nky. “It did get business in here, but I often questioned who actually benefited.”

Williams, who practiced law in Newport in the ’70s and ’80s, wrote an academic thesis chronicling the time period for the University of Louisville. He also worked as an assistant attorney in Campbell County, so he has first-hand knowledge of significant events from inside and outside the courtroom.

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Back then, X-rated businesses peppered the Monmouth streetscape. LaMadame’s, Brass Ass, Chic’s, Trixie Delight, Mousetrap, Nite Life Lounge and Cinema X were just a few of the street’s explicit offerings. 

“People will tell me that you would go down on Monmouth Street and you would see people dressed up in tuxes, suits and nice outfits,” Williams said, chuckling. “That wasn’t the adult entertainment crowd.” 

Williams described Monmouth Street in the 1970s as “sleazy.”

“If you have family, you didn’t want to bring your kids down there during the day,” Williams said. “You certainly didn’t want to be there at dusk near closing time.” 

But during this period, Newport’s tourism economy was booming. Cars lined the streets into the late hours of the night. Patrons packed various clubs for entertainment and pleasure.

“When you drove down Monmouth Street on Friday nights and Saturday nights, there were no parking spots,” Williams said. “Any place you could park was filled. They brought the crowds in, no question about that.”

At the time, adult entertainment was a polarizing issue within the community. Some local politicians and community members supported it and, notably, former Mayor Johnny ‘TV’ Peluso fought hard to keep it in town. As mayor, Peluso headed a commission majority that was pro-adult entertainment.

Kentucky State Police carry out film from Cinema X on Sept. 28, 1981 during a raid of the theater. Photos provided | Kenton County Public Library

“If there had been another industry available to make the same revenue, according to Peluso, they might not have been so favorable toward the adult industry,” Williams said.

During that era, businesses in the city’s central business district were routinely busy. The high foot traffic created downstream benefits for other businesses like Dixie Chili, Pepper Pod and Crystal Chili. Night owls and barflies frequented these establishments late at night, or early in the morning, circulating their hard-earned dollars back to the local economy.

When the gambling left, so too did the jobs the industry provided, Williams said. 

From 1960 to 1970, Newport lost over 4,000 residents, or about 13.5% of its population. In the next decade, Newport lost another 4,000 people, which by then was a 17% decrease, according to U.S. Census data. Over a 20-year span, Newport shrunk from around 30,000 residents to approximately 21,000. Today, the city has around 14,000 people.

In his thesis, Williams surmised that many residents didn’t know a Newport without some semblance of an economy dependent on vice and corruption. 

“Pro-adult entertainment advocates assumed that Newport’s economy depended upon the sexually oriented adult attractions, especially nude dancing,” Williams wrote. “Supporters of live nude dancing had only to point out the crowds that came to bars featuring strippers. Nudity, they argued, brought the crowds, and the crowds brought money.”

On the other hand, the adult industry hung over the city like a dark cloud. Word about Newport’s reputation as a haven for scantily clad performers and sex work traveled around the region, much to the chagrin of many locals who cared about the city. Illegal practices such as in-bar prostitution were pervasive in many of the clubs, drawing local ire from some commissioners, churches and families in Newport.

Newport had a choice to make: Preserve Newport’s economy as it was, beholden to the adult entertainment industry, or reimagine it as a city welcoming to family-friendly small businesses. Past and present, tourism is an integral part of the Newport economy. The type of tourism, however, was still up for debate.

Changing Newport

Contemporary Monmouth Street is populated by coffee shops, small retailers, community grocers and family restaurants – a far cry from go-go dancers and adult-entertainment venues. Instead of focusing on X-rated cinema, residents are now looking ahead to when Margaritaville will open at Newport on the Levee. 

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Rechtin remembers Newport’s “Sin City” era well. As a resident, public official and later politician, he described himself as an instrumental player in shifting the city’s priorities away from adult entertainment and toward family-friendly tourism.

Rechtin told LINK nky that while the stories of that era should be told, he didn’t want to glamorize the violence or illegal activity that took place.

“There’s people that didn’t fare well,” Rechtin said of Newport’s past. “Were the streets clean? Yeah. But there was a lot of illegal activity going on, too. I don’t want to glamorize it or make it into anything more than what it was.”

In 1976, neighborhood councils from nine Newport neighborhoods joined together to form the Newport Citizens Advisory Council. The council’s representatives had a shared vision of improving the city’s reputation and quality of life. Rechtin shared that vision.

During the 1970s, Rechtin served as Newport’s ombudsman – the position acted as a middleman between the city’s politicians and citizens. Rechtin would often field concerns from citizens. 

He was also Newport’s liquor license administrator. His responsibilities included investigating liquor law violations, conducting hearings about those violations and assessing fines and suspensions.

Rechtin said he increased the pressure on regulation-breaking bar owners more than prior administrators had, which, along with the establishment of the Liquor Review Board created to monitor specific bars, heightened the scrutiny on some local bar owners.

This, naturally, ruffled some feathers. Some local bar owners said suspending their liquor licenses could hurt their business, damaging their livelihood. They found a friend in Peluso who, at one point, attempted to oust Rechtin from his role, but ultimately failed.

“It was my challenge to find the pain point,” Rechtin said. “How hard can you push? Probably the worst that I did was a $4,200 fine and maybe three months worth of suspension of the alcohol license. You know, those were pretty onerous. But it wasn’t such that the license holder was willing to go to Frankfort and fight it. And we did get compliance, so things began to move a little bit.”

While these efforts helped demonstrate to Newport residents that change was on the horizon, then came the local 1979 elections. 

A view of Monmouth Street in Newport looking North from Mousetrap Club. Photo provided | Kenton County Public Library

A pro-adult entertainment faction returned to power on the City Commission. Headed by Peluso, Tony Warndorf and Owen Deaton, the majority faction publicly supported the city’s adult entertainment industry on economic grounds. In 1980, Peluso fired Rechtin and City Manager Ralph Mussman.

In 1977, the City Commission had passed an adult zoning amendment that restricted future expansion and locations of adult businesses. The amendment prevented more adult book stores, theaters and lounges from opening in the city. When Peluso returned to office, he led a failed attempt to overturn the amendment.

Despite the setbacks, the criminal justice system was beginning to work against the adult entertainment industry in the city. Between April 1980 and February 1982, seven charges were filed in county court against adult movie theater Cinema X. Opened in 1970, the theater was known for showing films such as “Naked Under Leather,” “He And She” and “Deep Throat.”

Police eventually raided Cinema X, and its business license was revoked. The bar’s ownership was transferred to the state of Kentucky. State troopers raided other adult bars including Pink Panther, Body Shoppe, Mousetrap and the Delta Street Lounge, where officials said prostitution took place

In May 1981, a reform commission was elected back into power. The pro-adult entertainment faction of Peluso, Warndorf and Deaton was ousted, which significantly decreased the industry’s political power within the city. The year 1982 could be considered the symbolic end to the adult entertainment era in Newport.

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The reform commission passed an anti-nudity ordinance in 1982, legislation that Williams called “perhaps the most significant city ordinance” in the history of Newport. Starting at midnight on Oct.1 of that year, police began enforcing the policy, which banned nude dancing.

Other laws and efforts made against the industry later in the decade were effective in beginning to weed adult entertainment out of the city.

Moving forward

Today, the only operational strip bar in Newport is the Brass Ass. Its neon red electric sign featuring a martini glass and cartoon donkey is a remnant of a bygone era – an enduring reminder of Newport’s past. Across the street is its sister bar, the Brass Mule. It, too, has a picture of a cartoon donkey on its signage. Business isn’t quite what it used to be during the ’70s, a bartender told LINK nky. 

Inside the club is a raised catwalk where dancers perform for people huddled around the stage. It has a bar, booths and tables – plenty of places to sit and watch a show. In many ways, it still resembles a strip bar of yesteryear, one stuck in the time capsule of Newport’s Sin City era.

Somewhat prophetically, Cinema X is no longer standing. What was once The Strand Theater, a historic gathering spot for residents to enjoy movies, turned into a hub for pornography. The theater was razed in 1983. Today, it’s a parking lot.

Monmouth Street is now a popular destination for residents and tourists alike. In the ’70s, Williams said, he enjoyed frequenting Crystal Chili, which has since been renamed Gourmet Chili, for lunch. Now he ventures into Newport to buy coffee at Reser Bicycle Outfitters, one of his favorite spots in town.

“My favorite coffee place to go in Newport is the bike store on Seventh and Monmouth streets – Reser,” Williams said. “I have a couple bicycles. I try to ride as much as I can.”

Newport has always been friendly toward small businesses. Its main street is still populated by legacy family businesses that operated during the Sin City days: Peluso’s Market, Pepper Pod, Dixie Chili and Schlosser Gunsmithing Co. It’s just that those businesses aren’t being overshadowed by polarizing strip joints.

As someone who spent much of his life as a Newport resident, Rechtin said he welcomed the changes.

“The street now is a very eclectic mix of businesses,” Rechtin said. “I mean, one of the streets has a gun shop, normal greasy spoons, a lot of physical exercise places, which cater to those downtown residents.”

Overlooking Monmouth Street are two of Newport’s signature real estate developments: Newport on the Levee and Ovation, which is under construction. Both represent the city’s focus on reviving the tourism sector. 

The focus on designating different neighborhoods as historic districts has aided revitalization efforts. Specifically, Newport’s East Row neighborhood has been significantly improved since the 1980s, returning its once-dilapidated housing stock back to its former glory. This has helped improve home values in the neighborhood and has spurred historic revitalization efforts across the city. Earlier this year, Newport designated its Buena Vista neighborhood as the city’s next historic district.

Newport City Commission is exploring the idea of implementing an Entertainment District Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area, or DORA, which is a specific area where licensed liquor establishments are allowed to sell alcoholic beverages for outdoor consumption. 

In many ways, Rechtin views this effort as a “full-circle moment.”

“As we move forward, how do we envision our city?” Rechtin asked. “Do we envision ourselves to be a MainStrasse, or an Over-the-Rhine or a Fourth Street Live down in Louisville?”

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