By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
On a cold Saturday night in February, Santa Fe Drive is swarming with teenage life. The Aztlan Theatre is hosting an event put on by Roofless Productions, a local promoter that specializes in electronic music and tends to draw young crowds. By 11 p.m., kids are convening from all directions, coming in colorful droves -- holding hands, laughing, skipping along in pastel baby Ts, sporting Manic Panic dye jobs.
Just inside the Aztlan's door, a young woman -- maybe fifteen, sixteen years old -- in glittery eye shadow and platform boots shouts to a friend above the lobby's rambunctious din. She's excited that four DJs are scheduled to spin -- even more than at the last party she attended -- and seems almost oblivious to the fact that her hands are raised high in the air as she's frisked from head to toe by a female security guard. But in the girl's bag, the guard finds something that could be a problem. There are a lot of rules she's supposed to follow, and she's not sure how this particular object fits into them.
"Hey, what do we do about birth control pills?" the guard asks her partner, who's conducting his own search of a young male at the front of the line. Eventually, they decide that because the package appears to be authentic -- it's sealed and has the girl's name on it -- she'll be allowed to bring it inside. Her candy necklace is a problem, however. It will have to go into The Box, which already holds an assortment of confiscated sundries: about a dozen Blow Pops, tubes of Chap Stick, candy rings, Tootsie Rolls, cough drops, a Swiss Army knife, some baby pacifiers and a couple of surgical-style dust masks.
On their own, the objects inside The Box seem pretty innocuous. But because tonight's event is a "rave," they're all viewed as potential carriers of illegal drugs, trip toys, high-sustainers. Contraband. And these days, smart promoters -- such as Roofless owner Ryan Rushing, a DJ who's been staging Colorado events since 1995 -- know better than to let anything slide through. Tonight's rave falls one day after high school student Brittney Chambers slipped into a coma after taking Ecstasy at a party for her sixteenth birthday; talk of the dangers of "club drugs" is all over the TV and newspapers. Although Brittney's party took place at home, not at a club, invariably the news reports allude to the very type of event Rushing is hosting, which only intensifies the challenges he faces. From a business standpoint, he has to throw a good party, entertain his audience, pay his staff and his performers -- DJs John Debo from Boston, Hardware from Florida, Thomas Michael from Los Angeles and G-Spot from Honolulu -- and, with any luck, walk off with a few dollars of his own. But he also has to prove something to the city of Denver: that he can throw a rave party where hundreds of kids show up, dance and stay up late -- without causing trouble.
"There is so much work that goes into removing the stigma that's attached to the word 'rave,'" Rushing says. "There are so many people opposed to raves in this city; it's a very fragile situation for a promoter. You can't afford to make too many mistakes."
Over 800 teenagers now fill the Aztlan. Most dance and socialize on the main floor; others chill out in the balcony, where they talk or just listen to the compulsive electronic music coming from the stage. Although raves are often characterized by their very late hours, tonight's event, like all of the parties booked at the Aztlan these days, will end at 2 a.m. After that, the more dance-happy members of the crowd will make their way to the Root in Boulder, one of the area's last legal bastions of after-hours dancing.
The shortened hours are among the changes that rave promoters understand to be the future of the industry, along with tightened security, restrictions on the age of party patrons, and the confiscation of candy contraband at the door. It's the price of legitimacy in volatile times, when law enforcement and municipal officials seem to view all raves, legal or not, as very real threats to their communities. And that's a perception many promoters aren't willing to fight.
"When you're trying to demonstrate that you have done everything in your power to minimize the presence of drugs, you really don't need some sheriff to see a grown man running around sucking on a pacifier," says Cris Campbell, a Denver attorney who's currently helping a loose coalition of about a dozen rave promoters, including Rushing, fight for the right to let kids party -- and for the promoter to make a living in the process. "You take their dust masks, their pacifiers. Anything that might be interpreted as paraphernalia.
"I prefer to take the focus away from the actual rave thing," he adds. "It needs to take a step forward. Police, city officials are afraid of the idea of the all-night party, and I'm really not equipped to fight them on that. The late-night thing kind of gives these events their uniqueness. But if people truly do come for the music and not for drugs, it won't matter if it closes at two or at five. The kids have to realize that things change.