Harlan Ellison Reports from the Front Lines


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September 1, 1960, Vol. V, No. 45

Coffee Houses Are Cabarets, Police Say; Owners Deny It

By Harlan Ellison

Though far from ended, the recent police action against Village espresso houses and their employees was brought into sharp focus last week by a three-day hearing in the Upper Manhattan Magistrate’s Court.

The coffee house’s difficulties are the direct result of a contention by the cabaret division of the New York City Police Department that these establishments are “cabarets” because they serve food, beverages, and put on entertainment. A flurry of summonses, issued by the police in the past month or two, brought the situation to a boiling point. The recipients of the legal papers ranged from bus boys to cashiers.

Assuming legal responsibility, the owners of the cited coffee houses – Cafe Wha?, Phase 2, Bizarre, and The Commons – were represented in court [by] attorney Maxwell T. Cohen.

Basing his case in part on historical precedent, Cohen insisted that references to “cabarets” had been introduced into local legislation in the 1920’s to control the flood of speakeasies. From that time on, he said, the term has come to refer to those establishments where entertainment, food, and alcoholic beverages are present. Since espresso houses do not serve liquor, Cohen’s contention was that the police had extended their authority without cause…

“Police control over an area of culture and entertainment carries with it an odorous connotation of censorship and taste-control,” Cohen warned…

Pending a decision due September 30, the espresso situation remains unchanged, unstable, and unsatisfactory.

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