FORT COLLINS – For major U.S. cities, it has meant topless rallies. For New Hampshire, activist arrests. In Fort Collins, the “topfreedom” movement materialized in the form of a public protest and ongoing legal battle.
The crusade seeks to “decriminalize” the public display of the female breast and change laws to allow women to go topless in the same public places men can. The Free the Nipple campaign in Fort Collins began in August 2015, when topfreedom advocates brought attention to the city’s public nudity ordinance. Advocates have since sued the city, asking a judge to allow women to go topless in Fort Collins.
As residents filled Fort Collins City Council chambers to weigh in on the issue last October, standing at lecterns and pleading with area leaders to keep women covered, memories stirred. This had – albeit in a different form and many years ago – happened before.
The same scrutiny once centered on Debbie Duz Donuts, a topless doughnut shop that opened on the edge of Fort Collins in the summer of 1989, reported The Coloradoan. On its opening day, news cameras descended on the shop and panned its dusty parking lot, cutting to a small woman with cropped brown curls and big owlish glasses – one of the few females in a sea of men in tank tops and trucker hats.
Why had she chosen to be part of the day’s crowd?
“Because it’s only right!” she boomed. “Men can run around topless. Women should have the right, too.”
At the center of the divisive doughnut shop that made international headlines was an air conditioning specialist-turned inventive entrepreneur who – even after all this time, the news stories, the lawyers, the lawsuit and Geraldo Rivera – swears that most people still don’t know the whole story.
The ownerAt 69, Dennis Cortese is known mostly around town as “the Debbie’s guy.” He’ll be the first to tell you that his fight to open a topless doughnut shop in Larimer County had nothing to do with women’s liberation.
“It wasn’t like it was going to be a big slam,” Cortese said.
Decked out in a Debbie Duz Donuts jacket with “Dennis” embroidered on the front and a white trucker hat from the famed shop on his head, Cortese spoke with the Coloradoan in September about his unusual idea, which was born out of a Christmas Day chat with his three truck driver brothers-in-law.
“We started getting some people talking when we mentioned that we were going to have topless waitresses,” Cortese added. “I mean, truck drivers. What are you going to have? A giraffe inside? Come on.”
The plans Cortese submitted for Debbie Duz Donuts, tucked just off of Interstate 25 on Mulberry Street, included topless waitresses and the sale of adult movies, magazines and toys.
Barbara Trevarton, the manager of a neighboring mobile home park, immediately circulated a petition, which received thousands of signatures opposing Cortese’s plan. Soon she was fielding hundreds of phone calls as opposition mounted.
“At least over 100 a day,” she recalled.
The oppositionAlmost immediately, concerned community members pleaded with county commissioners to stop the shop.
In June 1989, more than 600 opponents flooded the Fort Collins High School gym for a rally, at which Larimer County Sheriff Jim Black, now 71, referred to the doughnut shop as a “front for prostitution” and told the crowd, “I will do everything I can under the law to see that Debbie does not survive Fort Collins.”
What Black could do, it turned out, wasn’t much. Since doughnuts and coffee would be served, instead of alcohol, Debbie Duz Donuts couldn’t be regulated under the state’s liquor code.
The waitressThe news coverage was beyond anything Cortese said he could have dreamed, and word quickly spread to the shop’s target audience: truck drivers.
For $25, they could have their pictures taken with Debbie’s “debutantes.” Now collected in Cortese’s apartment, the faded Polaroids show images of semi-trucks lining Debbie’s parking lot, two “token” male waiters in underwear posing with female customers, and 18-year-old waitress Connie Casey topless and sandwiched between a group of truckers.
Casey, 44, is open about her days at Debbie Duz Donuts. She’ll even tell you about the little tattoo on her chest: a small C and a J with a heart in the middle showing off her then-initials.
“When people would ask me whatever my name was, I would tell them that my name was C.J. and that I was the only topless waitress there with a name tag,” Casey said in a southern drawl, over the phone from her native North Carolina.
The endToplessness wasn’t ultimately Debbie’s undoing.
When Black took over as sheriff, he said the sheriff’s office shut down 15 massage parlors that were fronts for prostitution.
“And when this (Debbie Duz Donuts) came in, we said, ‘boy, we’re going to have problems,’” Black said, adding that Cortese’s original plan for Debbie’s included a strip show, which concerned him.
“We didn’t have the problems that we thought we were going to have,” he said.
The sheriff’s office instead received a tip that drugs were being sold on the property. Cortese was arrested on April 4, 1990, after the sheriff’s office said he was involved in two undercover drug buys, which Cortese denies. That night Black and a handful of deputies marched through Debbie’s and closed its doors. An outstanding tax debt with the Colorado Department of Revenue kept them shuttered.
In August 1990, a judge ordered that the Debbie Duz Donuts property be returned to its previous owners, J. Richard and Leola M. Naylor of Fort Collins, and granted the business’ remaining assets to the Colorado Department of Revenue. An auction later brought in enough money to satisfy the business’s $9,382 tax debt.
Cortese was sentenced to two years’ probation for obtaining a controlled substance through fraud or deceit. He filed a lawsuit, which stretched on for years and accused corruption within the Sheriff’s Office. It was dismissed in 1995.
Debbie’s never sold another doughnut after its 1990 closure. Its total run was a little more than eight months.
Where are they now?Now, with 27 years between him and the unlikely, yet defining, issue of his career, Black chuckles a bit when asked about Debbie’s rise and fall.
“One of the guys who worked for me, Jim Alderden, became sheriff eight years after I left, and he’s known for the ‘balloon boy,’” said Black, who served as sheriff from 1979 to 1991.
“I look at all the really great things we did as sheriff and people always bring up Debbie Duz Donuts,” he said.