On Deadline: Echoes of the 'Great Massage Parlor Raid' of 33 years ago
The current mini-controversy that pits Palo Alto's massage-parlor ordinance against the innocent-sounding "Happy Feet" massage business evokes some admittedly faint echoes of a major city confrontation a third of a century ago.
That traumatic civic experience may explain some of the sensitivity that today's city officials may have toward massage operations.
At that time there were 18 "massage parlors" in town and it was a major news story for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times, where I was the city-beat reporter. Repeatedly, when I wrote about the numerous parlors I would include the phrase: "... only one of which is considered legitimate."
The legitimate massage center was located on Waverley Street immediately north of Lytton Avenue. It was a training center for "sensual massage," and at the time would have been considered a "hippie" operation. And it truly was legitimate, even though I thought at the time that more real pleasure might be happening there than in any <0x2014)> perhaps all — of the other parlors in town.
The other 17 were staffed by young women who were known for being scantily clad, and there was growing community suspicion that more went on inside the massage rooms than allowed under anti-prostitution laws, in terms of which body parts were being massaged, at least.
The operators of the parlors denied that anything untoward was going on. Depends on one's definition of untoward, I suppose.
I interviewed one owner of several parlors, meeting him in his long-term motel room along El Camino Real, where several parlors were also located in south Palo Alto. Several, um, scantily clad young women wandered in and out of the room during the interview. I dutifully reported his comments and denials.
Citizen protests built, particularly when young women came outside to smoke or stand around in front of the parlors, along some routes where kids walked to school. Angry parents and offended residents berated the practice at City Council meetings and in letters to the editor.
Yet month after month city officials were unsure about how to respond, seemingly reluctant to act against what might be legitimate operations, and thus open the city to the threat of lawsuits.
Unbeknownst to the public and press at the time was that there was a quiet and careful <0x2104> and deeply confidential — investigation underway, involving police officers posing as customers in close coordination with the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office.
One official later called it an undercover investigation, and chuckled when I observed that "undercover" might be a misnomer, based on the evidence presented in the police reports.
The apparent stalemate came to an abrupt end before dawn on Dec. 3, 1976, with a large context of drama.
The detective division of the Palo Alto Police Department set up a carefully orchestrated raid for 5 a.m. in which officers would enter each of the suspect parlors simultaneously.
The secrecy was intense. Virtually no one outside the division was informed of the impending raid.
Officials even set up a decoy press conference for 7 a.m. in conjunction with the Stanford University police department, on another topic, during which they planned to announce the raid and its results.
But at about 11 p.m. the night before my home phone rang. The caller, whom I have never identified and never will, asked if I knew what the Palo Alto police were going to do in the pre-dawn hours. OK, thanks.
I called the department's watch commander, and asked the officer on duty — Capt. Bob Elliott — to ask about the raids and let him know we wanted to have people on hand. But he was unaware of the raids, as the patrol/uniform division hadn't even been told. I later learned that Elliot charged down the hall into the detective division and had a discussion about not being informed, although "discussion" wasn't how it was described to me.
I immediately called City Editor Bob Burgess, and by 5 a.m. we had two photographers and three reporters on hand to greet the officers as they arrived at the parlors.
The raids went smooth, mostly with no surprises — except in one case where police found a large cache of guns, for some still-unknown reason. In another parlor officers confiscated (for safe keeping) several tropical-fish aquariums. Officers also found a young woman sound asleep in the lobby of one parlor.
The 7 a.m. press conference went ahead as scheduled for other news organizations, chiefly the San Jose Mercury-News and TV news. But that afternoon the Times was filled with photos of guns and fish and officers closing down the parlors, a satisfying scoop.
The closures held up against legal scrutiny, and the great massage-parlor crisis and raid faded into local history. Some police officials were deeply distressed that I learned about the raids in advance, and were miffed that I wouldn't say how I knew.
The city adopted a restrictive massage-parlor ordinance, which remained in effect until enforcement was suspended in 1996 — in anticipation of a state preemption of parlor regulation. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it has taken 15 years and counting for that to occur.
Today's massage ordinance is under review by the City Council. A Feb. 14 council subcommittee meeting considered the matter and decided that the proposed city ordinance needs more massaging, as one reporter termed it.
Massage therapists would be required to get certified, either by a permit from the city or a certificate from the California Massage Therapy Council (CMTC), an organization formed by the state Legislature to regulate the industry.
Palo Alto currently has 195 massage therapists, of which 111 are certified by the CMTC. Businesses without permits are concentrated around California Avenue, which has about 24 unregulated therapists, Wagner said in a report.
Therapists would also be required to maintain a logbook of all clients, which has elicited protests from therapists and raised privacy concerns. The city modified its proposal to require a court order before police could review logbooks.
The proposed ordinance also requires criminal-history and fingerprint checks from the Department of Justice. Therapists would have to undergo at least 200 hours of education from accredited schools.
And there's a cost: The ordinance proposes annual permit fees ranging from $300 for a massage technician (renewable for $150) to $750 for a massage business (with a $450 renewal fee).
As for Happy Feet, officials say it falls under the ordinance despite its emphasis on foot massage because it also offers full-body massage, even though the clients remain fully dressed down to the knees.
But the era of pre-dawn raids is long gone.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson may be emailed at email@example.com with a cc: to firstname.lastname@example.org.