In the two weeks since Denver announced that it was revoking its split-premises permit for local cabarets -- a ten-year-old policy that allowed patrons under 21 years of age to be in the same building as those of legal drinking age while alcohol was served -- small modules of music types have organized to explore what, if any, action might be taken to convince the city to change its mind. The all-ages debacle, as well as related (or unrelated, depending on whom you ask) topics such as Ecstasy use, will be a focal point of the next Colorado Music Association meeting, slated for Sunday, April 22, at the Soiled Dove. (Of course, if the meeting involves any live music -- i.e., the jams that sometimes follow official COMA business -- those under 21 will be asked to vacate the alcohol-ridden premises.)
But according to Helen Gonzales, director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, this kind of populist showing is too little, too late. The policy change, she says, has no chance of being reversed. Zero. Zilch.
"The only route anyone can go at this point, if they want to see a license where the ages can intermingle in a cabaret, is to work to get the law changed," Gonzales says. "I have been pushing for this particular law to be changed for quite some time now. That's the process that needs to be followed in this instance. There is no other avenue for these people to get what they are asking for."
Denver police detective Michael Patrick, who's familiar to most cabaret licensees as the DPD's main enforcement man within the Department of Excise and Licenses, says he has encouraged bar and club owners to form a lobby for years so that they could push through a licensing change that would legally allow for mixed-age crowds. But the owners ignored his suggestion, Patrick says. In his view, the split-premises permit was a temporary -- and flimsy -- solution to a more complex problem, a Band-Aid that was bound to wear thin.
"When we originally conceived of the permit, we did it because we knew we had to create some places where people under 21 could go," Patrick says. "We knew they needed social outlets and activities and all that. But it got to the point that there were more people operating under this permit than our staff could possibly monitor; we simply do not have the manpower to send vice squads out to all of these establishments to be sure that they are complying with the requirements. And what we found was that many of them were not doing a good enough job of policing themselves. At that point, it becomes a public safety issue, and that is what we have responded to."
Denver's policy change should not surprise any of the operators in his jurisdiction, Patrick adds. And while he acknowledges that recent drug stings by the DPD vice squad, which resulted in arrests at three nightclubs, sped things along, the department's decision was a long time coming. With or without Ecstasy, the city would have ended split-premises activity by June or July.
"I have had multiple conversations with all of the major bar and club owners in this city, and they have all been aware that this policy would not hold for long," Patrick continues. "The city cannot be responsible for the fact that they chose to ignore that. There is absolutely no way that any of them could look me in the eye and say that they did not see this coming."
But Regas Christou says he did not see this coming. His club, the Church, was the first to have its split-premises privileges revoked; it happened last month after a drug sting resulted in the arrests of two youths, both of whom were in the all-ages portion of the club when they unwittingly conducted an X transaction with vice officers. Since then, the Church has become a sort of rallying point for the anti-X contingent; its unmistakable gothic facade is in the background of Channel 7's X-bashing editorials. Christou also says his attendance numbers on Thursday night -- the one night of the week in which the venue is alcohol-free and all-ages -- have dropped ever since false reports were aired that the Church was no longer allowed to host clubbers under 21 years of age.
Patrick's statement that bar owners should have known what was coming is just as inaccurate, according to Christou.
"I am dumbfounded that Patrick would say that," he says. "When this happened, it was an absolute shock to me. I don't know why they are doing this to us. It is heartbreaking. I spoke to Patrick many times about a lot of things; I know him. But in every discussion we had about all-ages stuff, he would tell me what needed to be done, if anything, and we would do it. We don't have problems with our teen nights, as far as people intermingling and whatnot. It is impossible to mix. As far as drugs, we do our best as a club owner. We do as well as the police department could do. We have massive security. It's a safe place.
"The city was constantly changing the requirements of this split-venue license," he adds. "It's a big building; we can accommodate the law. But we have to know what the law is. Now, all of a sudden, they are taking away this right from everyone, and they are trying to say it doesn't have that much to do with Ecstasy? Bullshit. It has everything to do with it."
If the city's policy change wasn't originally intended as a reaction to Ecstasy hoopla, the two are now inextricably linked, at least in the public -- and political -- perception. Somehow, allowing kids to be in age-specific parts of rock and dance clubs while older people are drinking beers in a totally separate space is contributing to the Ecstasy "crisis." Um, okay. (Important warning: If a venue's capacity is over 2,000, as at Red Rocks, the Fillmore, the Buell, the Pepsi Center, the Ritchie Center and other facilities, people of all ages will still be allowed to intermingle in the audience, the lobby and at the snack stand, where a kid of twelve can stand right next to a person buying a beer. The reason, obviously, is that these places don't present any of the same safety hazards as, say, the Bluebird Theater, that bastion of crazed, drug-addled youth.) If Gonzales and Patrick are correct and it will take a new city ordinance to make mixed-crowd shows a reality again, then it might be a very long while before club and bar owners can expect to open their (age-specific) doors to mixed crowds while spirits are flowing inside the building.
Getting the law changed is not as simple as it may have appeared on Schoolhouse Rock, where drafting a bill, finding a city council person to sponsor it, hosting a couple of public hearings here and there and waiting for the day when a majority of the council members swiftly ushered it into the municipal code were so elementary a piece of cartoon paper could do it. According to Denver councilman and mayoral hopeful Ed Thomas, at this time -- when every suburban mother within earshot of the local TV news is convinced that today's youth are offered drugs in every club in the land -- you're not likely to find a politician who's willing to get behind something this volatile. To paraphrase, a softball-sized gallstone would pass more easily.
"This issue is absolutely toxic right now," Thomas says. "It's nuclear. There is no way that you are going to find seven councilmen or women who get behind this. You had that girl [Brittney Chambers] die, that other kid [Jared Snyder] out in the middle of the highway. People are worried about these issues. If I were to propose something that appears to make it easier for kids to have access to drugs and all that, it would be like hosting a gun rally at Columbine."
While Thomas's analogy is refreshing for its feistiness, something is amiss in its reasoning: There's a clear relationship between guns and Columbine. The connection between Ecstasy use and all-ages club nights and concerts is slightly less easy to divine.
"The problem with that argument is that it comes from a place of logic," says Thomas. "We are dealing with emotions; we're not dealing with logic. I know that it is a tragic situation for some of those bar owners and club owners who are getting caught up in this. I can see that. But we're in a climate where a couple of people might have to take a hit for the greater good."
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Last week Andrew Murphy, the twenty-year-old founder of Radio 1190's Local Shakedown, sent a rather lengthy letter to Mayor Wellington Webb, members of the Denver City Council and the media, wherein he implored the city to consider the possible negative impact of its decision to kill the split-premises permit. "Do you prefer to have kids watching a concert or walking around with nothing better to do?" his letter reads. "If there is nothing to do, then kids will break the rules."
Murphy's latest project is a historical magazine and companion CD, to be released this summer, that documents local music's evolution from the '60s to the present. But another project has already fallen victim to the all-ages mess. Last week, Murphy was forced to reschedule a two-day all-ages showcase of local bands originally slated for April 12-13 at the Cat when that club's operators decided to toss the towel into the litter box. (The Cat's Mike Barsch, who could not be reached for comment, has cited the expected decrease in business as a result of fewer mixed-age crowds, as well as a handful of separate issues between the city and the building's owners, as the cause of the closure.) Murphy has since moved the event, which will feature Shogun, Angels Never Answer, Eiffel and Deadlock Frequency, to the Bluebird Theater on Sunday, April 15.
That evening is -- you guessed it -- the very last night of legal, mixed-crowd fun. So you'd best enjoy it while it lasts.