Palo Alto History. Org

The Massage Parlor Crackdown: Palo Alto's Prostitution Problem

According to the late newspaper editor and historian Ward Winslow, Palo Alto once had an “unwanted reputation as the Peninsula’s largest sex-shop center.”  These days that may seem a little hard to imagine, but in the mid 1970s, the El Camino Real strip through Barron Park was awash with massage parlors.  And as it turned out, they were offering a little more than just your basic stress-relieving rubdown.

The onslaught of adult fare came to Palo Alto in 1972 when a few mature bookstores moved in to empty properties along El Camino Real.  They were soon joined by the X-rated Copenhagen Theatre at 3898 El Camino Real, the same building that later held the Santa Clara County Democratic Headquarters. Before long, a number of massage parlors began to pop up throughout the city and by the winter of 1974, 10 massage parlors with names like “The Streaker” and “The Foxy Lady” blanketed an eight block stretch along the old King’s Highway.

Crime and blight soon followed.  Woman complained of being propositioned while walking down the street and more family-friendly businesses struggled to survive.  Crime reports in the area were up and sales were down.  And by 1974, questions were being raised about what was really going on inside those massage parlors.  

The Palo Alto police, at no small cost, organized a sting operation.  Using mostly undercover officers from cities nearby, police confirmed that most of the parlors were little more than prostitution houses.  They accumulated more than 100 sworn statements that they took to court.  As was later reported to the press, various sexual services were being offered as “extras” at the parlors with prices ranging between $30 and $100 (Police spokesmen were quick to add that undercover officers had turned down all such offers).  And many of the parlor owners were actually legal brothel owners in Las Vegas importing registered prostitutes from the Sin City to offer their services in Palo Alto.  

Following the precedent set the previous year in Fremont, the Palo Alto police sought to close the parlors under the Red Light Abatement Act --- an anti-prostitution law dusted off from 1913.  After more than a year of collecting evidence and armed with a court order from Judge Peter Arnello, the police acted quickly and decisively.  At dawn on Friday, December 3rd, 1976, teams of 50 police officers, locksmiths and movers closed down the whole bunch in the space of a few hours, padlocking all 17 illegitimate massage parlors in Palo Alto.

In so doing, further evidence was collected that essentially ended any real hopes for the parlors to reopen in the city. Massage parlor operators and masseuses were fined and in some cases, put in jail.  The police also went after some of the “Johns,” as well.  Current Police Chief Lynne Johnson even donned “appropriate clothing,” as she put it, and posed as a masseuse, catching men on record asking for services which were not quite legal.  One arrested attorney had intended to pay for the services with a check from his wife with a note that read “Happy Birthday.”  One way to celebrate, although perhaps not quite what his wife intended…

Following the raid, the Palo Alto City Council put heavy restrictions on adult businesses who wanted to set up shop in town.  A string of tight controls were also put on massage parlors – including bans on halter tops, tipping, and massages after 11pm.  While such rules have sometimes made business more difficult for legitimate relaxation centers in town, it’s been more than 30 years since the massage parlor crackdown and there hasn’t been a whole lot X-rated about the city since. []

 Our Reader's Memories:

"Palo Alto was being overrun by Massage Parlors that also brought crime with them.  The PD took a unique approach to the problem.  Instead of going after the problem using the criminal code, we used the civil code.  This allowed us to use a “Red Light Abatement” procedure.  After a long undercover investigation, all 26 of massage parlors were raided.  There were 26 separate teams, all with an accompanying moving van.  Everything that was not “nailed down” was removed from the buildings.  It took a few years for the legal process to play itself out, but none of the parlors reopened."

"It seemed like those places sprang up overnight in South Palo Alto. It was creepy walking along El Camino in those days; the whole area had a feeling of decline, hard to describe to someone who only knows how it as it now looks. Then, one day, we woke up and they were gone --- it all happened that fast!"

Send Us Your Memory!

An X-rated Bookstore on El Camino Real in the 1970s. (PAHA) 

Palo Alto Police Department's Lynne Johnson helped in the sting operation.

Police Chief Jim Zurcher orchestrated the crackdown. (PAHA)