At precisely 10:15 p.m., 75 fashionably late minutes from the start of her annual Halloween party, Dottie Grisby parts the orange and black crepe-paper streamers and glides into her dream. Dottie's Social Club is starting to hop.
Dottie is gotten up as a French maid: short black dress, white apron, dark fishnet stockings. Her wide, dark face is framed by a white lace hat. She has a huge smile.
She takes off her coat and hands it to her husband, Cleotis, who has been working since the party officially began, at nine. Cleotis fades back behind the bar. He is a tall man who appears to walk with a limp, although a closer look will show he does not; he's just stiff. Dottie begins a wide, counterclockwise sweep of the room.
"Hiiiii!" she says to Dracula. "How ya doin'?" She smiles at a monster. "Nice to see you!" "Thanks for coming." She stops at the bar to grab another glass of beer and wades back into the middle of the room, alighting next to a pair of cowboys. Her laugh, a contagious sing-song shout, climbs above the mellow voice of Luther Jackson. The music seems to pick up. Maybe the dance floor is just a little busier.
"In 1992 Dottie gave a party; I was invited by a friend of a friend of hers," recalls Richard, who is collecting tickets at the door. He is wearing a gray monster mask, a black fedora, a black turtleneck and a gray suit jacket with a gold Elk's Club service pin on it. Richard follows Dottie with his eyes as she works the room.
"The first time I came here I had a hard time finding it, because there was no sign," he continues. "And from looking at the outside, I had no idea of what it would look like on the inside."
Cleotis recalls, "She would keep me here, working on her ideas until two or three in the morning--and I had to go to work the next day. At first some things she wanted I thought were ridiculous. Until I saw them.
"Oh, she's got ideas," he says. "She's got her ideas."
Tony, the Grisbys' youngest son, arrives about a half-hour after Dottie. He works at the new airport. With his purple dinosaur mask, he looks just like Barney, if Barney were a tall, skinny 34-year-old black man with leather pants and a leather vest--and if Barney were slightly tipsy.
"Mom goes wa-a-a-a-y out on anything she does," he says, tipping his head back, eyes slits, grinning. "This has been a dream of hers. And it's beautiful. It's just beautiful. I mean, look at it."
Here is what Dottie's Social Club looks like from the outside, when you drive by on Fairfax Street:
It is a small, homely box. The kind of shades-drawn, door-barred, single-story building that always turns out to be a cheap porn shop. Or one of those bars that opens at seven in the morning, offering you a chance to begin the day with a two-for-one drink special. The only inviting thing about it is the wording sprawled across a red awning: Dottie's Social Club and Restaurant.
"Social club." That has a nice, pleasant ring, doesn't it?
Not if you're the Greater Park Hill Community, Inc., which is opposed to Dottie getting a liquor license and which happens to have offices kitty-corner from her club at 28th Avenue and Fairfax, in north Park Hill. Members of this neighborhood association have demonstrated tremendous endurance: Dottie has been trying to win a license to sell booze in her place for fourteen years now. She is determined, though, and she may yet outlast the organization.
But that part can wait.
Here is what Dottie's Social Club looks like when you pull open the heavy, windowless door and step inside: like Dorothy must have felt when she woke up in Oz, in color, after leaving black-and-white Kansas.
Or like one of those duck-in-the-alley places in a bad neighborhood in a big city, which you and two or three friends stumbled into late one night, marveling at your luck in finding such an amazing spot.
Mostly, though, it looks exactly like the picture of a nightclub that Dottie has carried in her head for two decades.
The doorway opens into a foyer that expands to the left, where a big, red-leather booth loosely encircles much of a table. Straight ahead is a round aquarium, set into the wall about five feet off the floor, as though someone threw it there and it stuck. "I went to the tropical-fish store on East Colfax, and I saw the aquarium and I knew what I wanted," Dottie recalls. "The owner said, 'You want what?' But I knew that's what I wanted."
What kind of fish are in there?
"I don't know. I'm afraid of fish," she says dismissively.
A big mirrored wall is next in sight. "DOTTIE," says a string of Gothic letters in the middle, set over a rose. Next to that is a small, tasteful bronze plaque, which recognizes the vision of Dottie Grisby for founding Dottie's Social Club.
The room opens up. It is a fantasy in dark, elegant red. Red, cloth-covered walls striped with mirrors. A line of red-leather booths bought at a 1984 liquidation sale. Small, red-topped tables and an L-shaped bar upholstered in thick red-leather tuck-and-roll. Behind it, a splash of water trickles down a faux stone fountain. Over the bar is an arch.
"She wanted an arch," says Cleotis. "She really wanted an arch."
"I knew what I wanted it to look like, so I drew a picture for a carpenter and told him to build it," says Dottie.
She drew another picture designing her DJ's booth, which features a built-in seat next to it. "That way, if his lady wants to sit there next to him while he's working and have a drink and talk to him, she can," says Dottie. And while he's on break, they both can listen to the nearby jukebox, which began its career at the His 'n Hers nightclub, at 38th Avenue and Newport Street.
Several columns in the middle of the room are sheathed in mirrors. "I thought the mirrors would look awful," says Cleotis. "But now I think they look real nice."
"It's unreal to see the things I come up with," concedes Dottie. "It's just that things come into my mind, and I got to do them. My husband says, 'Please don't do anything else.' But I got to."
Disco balls whirl under the ceiling, which sparkles. Tiny, pointillistic lights wink from all directions. Beyond the dance floor, a wall mural shows an elegant, sloe-eyed black woman in a pink antebellum dress sitting with her back to a bar. A half-open umbrella rests on the bar stool to her left. To her right, a stylishly dressed man gazes at her appreciatively. An admiring bartender looks over her shoulder.
"That's supposed to be me and Cle," Dottie says. "You can see how he holds his head to one side, just like Cle does. He's supposed to be asking me for a dance."
Separating the dance floor from the dining area is a wrought-iron fence. In the middle, about two feet off the floor, a welder has interrupted the vertical bars to write a word in metal at a low-left-to-high-right diagonal.
"DOTTIE," it says.
Four decades after she moved to Denver from Louisiana, Dottie's Cajun accent has nearly disappeared. She still says "jerj" for "judge" and "tamater" for tomato and "boint" for burnt. But that is all of the bayou left in her voice.
"We're both from Shreveport," says Cleotis. "I met her in high school. I was a senior, she was a freshman. We lived on different sides of town. She was taking a cooking class, and she used to bring me pieces of pie she made."
"I was sixteen when we got married," says Dottie. "Cleotis was visiting some friend across the street. He just started watchin' and talkin'. When he asked me to marry him, I said yeah. But I didn't really mean it. I was just ready to get away from home."
Cleotis had played some good football in high school and then for one year at a junior college. He had a vague notion of someday becoming a pro, but instead went to Korea. He returned to Shreveport after serving sixteen months, but he knew he couldn't stay. "After seeing the world, I thought that I could better my condition in other parts of the country than Louisiana," he says. His sister lived in Denver, so after marrying Dottie in 1957, he moved here and began working at a meat-packing plant in north Denver.
In the forty years since he and Dottie married, Cleotis has been a model of stability. When he was laid off after sixteen years at the meat-packing plant, within days he'd signed on with General Motors. He has worked there ever since, nearly 23 years.
Dottie joined Cleotis in Denver between her junior and senior years in high school. She was ready to leave home but not ready to be so far away. She was lonely. "Every day Cleotis would come home from work and I'd be sitting outside crying," she says. "One day I called my mom and said, 'I don't want to be married anymore.' And she said, 'Baby, it don't work that way.'"
Cleotis worried about his young wife, and he would take Dottie on drives to make her happy. "I wasn't old enough to go in the clubs," she remembers. "So we'd get into his 1951 Chevy and go to Five Points. I'd get me a hotdog, and we'd just sit and watch people."
Dottie eventually was able to settle into Denver, but life moved so fast! Cleotis, Jr., was born in 1959; Tony was born in 1961. Dottie's brother moved to Denver in 1960; a year later he was stabbed to death.
In 1966 Dottie started working for the Veteran's Administration. Her boys were still young, but life without a paying job seemed strange and unnatural. "I always felt like I had to have work," she says. "I began working when I was nine years old, cleaning people's houses and babysitting. I would work and earn money--about $5 a week--and put it into a sock and bury it in the backyard and mark it with a stick. I bought all my own clothes; I was almost voted best-dressed in high school."
Dottie's first job at the VA was as a clerk, then as a lab tech assistant, then as a supervisor. She retired in 1991, after open-heart surgery to repair a heart murmur she'd had since childhood.
Since then, her routine has changed. These days Dottie gets up late and lounges in a long print gown, sitting at the kitchen table in her small, neat Park Hill home and smoking one Winston after another. She indulges in daytime TV. Sometimes the reason she gets up so late is because she is resting from another decorating tear.
The evidence is all around the house. She tiled behind the kitchen counter while Cleotis was away on a business trip. She designed the bedroom, with its big, round red bed, purple carpet and antique chair. She redid the bathroom to her own bold tastes, with a gilded mirror and gold-framed shower stall.
It was Dottie's idea to install a hot tub in the small room behind the bathroom, and she also thought up the special kitchen counter, with the cubbyhole for a television on the opposite side so people at the dining table could watch TV and talk to the chef at the same time. "You ain't never gonna see anything like that anyplace else," she says. "I just get something in my mind and do it."
No matter what she is doing, though, Dottie stops a little before 2 p.m. and waits for the phone to ring. It will be Cleotis, who checks up on his young wife every day at two.
"Dottie used to go out a bit, and eventually she got it in her head that she wanted to open a club," Cleotis says.
Dottie says, "I've never been a drinker. Now, I drink beer, I won't lie to you; I drink plenty of beer. And I never go to clubs alone--I always go with my husband or a girlfriend. But I got to thinking that I wanted a place."
In the early Eighties, Dottie was friends with a real estate agent named Henrietta Davis. Dottie told her that if she found a nice, cozy spot, she'd like to look at it. "One day," Dottie recalls, "she calls me and says, 'Dottie, I found a nice place you could fix up.' But she was afraid to show me, because it was full of cats."
"When we first looked at this place, there were cats and dogs, strays, running all over the place," Cleotis says. "The doors were hanging off the frames."
"There was a cement floor and a burnt mattress on it," Dottie says. "The back door was burnt down, too. But I went in and looked at it, and I said, 'I want this.'"
The building was an old 7-Eleven store. Dottie and Cleotis worked on it what seemed like nonstop--nights, weekends, taking their cues from a detailed blueprint that Dottie carried in her head.
"Now, I'm not putting any other club down," she says. "But if you go around to other clubs and see what they got--it's a bar, right? But I'm thinking, I could fix this up real right.
"I wanted a place where people could just come and be free and relax," she adds. "And there's no cursing. The place is always nice. There's no young people comin' in and making you feel scared, no kids with their pants hangin' down."
So Dottie devised her own club rules: "You gotta be thirty or older. You gotta be a nice, clean person. And I don't like nothin' with all women. Uh-uh. Nope. I don't like that. No. No way. I like the men here."
By 1984, Dottie and Cleotis had Dottie's Lounge and Restaurant looking just so. They applied for a tavern liquor license, filling out all the forms, answering questions about their personal histories and supplying copies of their fingerprints.
At their November 14, 1984, hearing, Manuel Martinez, Denver's director of Excise and Licenses, agreed that the Grisbys were possessed of satisfactory character and reputation and that the building was in fine shape.
Dottie testified that while two other taverns were in the vicinity, her place would be different. "Ms. Grisby asserted such were not serving the needs of the neighborhood since those establishments catered to a primarily younger clientele," said a summary of the proceedings. "There was a need in the neighborhood for a tavern which would serve middle-aged individuals." Dottie and Cleotis had collected 424 signatures of people who recognized that need, owned or managed businesses in the area and approved of the application.
But Greater Park Hill Community, Inc., disagreed about the need for another tavern in the neighborhood. The association had collected 157 signatures from people opposed to Dottie's Lounge and Restaurant. At the hearing, twenty people testified that they didn't want another liquor license granted in the area. (Six were teetotalers, however, so their opinions were disqualified.)
On December 18, 1984, Martinez denied the Grisbys' application. Sure that there must have been some kind of mistake--they had three times as many signatures!--they hired a lawyer and appealed. A district court judge ordered the case back to the Excise and Licenses department. Unbelievably, his order was never delivered to the department, which had no way of knowing it was under orders to reconsider its decision, and didn't.
Since an unsuccessful liquor-license applicant must wait two years before reapplying, Dottie and Cleotis next requested a tavern license in 1986. Martinez turned them down a second time.
It was depressing, but at least there was hope. After their second denial, Dottie and Cleotis had written to Mayor Federico Pena, asking what they were doing wrong. The mayor's response was upbeat and inspirational.
"Mr. and Mrs. Grisby, as strongly as you feel about providing this type of entertainment and service to your community, I encourage you to continue your efforts to secure licensure," he wrote back in October 1987.
In November 1988 the Grisbys took the mayor's advice and tried again. Another hearing was held in January 1989; Dottie and Cleotis lost a third time. Confused and angry, they wrote to Pena again. His letters made him seem like an understanding man, and reading between the lines, Dottie and Cleotis felt sure the mayor was on their side.
"I admire your tenacity and wish you good luck in the future," Pena wrote to the Grisbys in July 1990. "Please keep in mind that because of the latest denial, application for a liquor license may not be made for these premises for two years. Because of the time that has elapsed since your last application, however, you may reapply in November of this year."
The fourth hearing on a liquor license for Dottie's Lounge (this time she threw in a request for a dance cabaret license, too) was held on June 4, 1991. The application drew a lot of attention.
Dottie and Cleotis collected 947 signatures in favor of their license; the neighborhood association submitted 548 opposed. Councilwoman Happy Haynes, who said she'd received numerous calls from constituents opposed to Dottie's Lounge, spoke against the Grisbys.
But this time the tide seemed to be turning in the Grisbys' favor. Now the neighborhood had but one other tavern. The hearing officer, Raymond Lee Payne, seemed impressed that Dottie and Cleotis planned to play only "non-amplified" music. He also appeared pleased that, even though the space was permitted to hold 200 people under the city's building code, the Grisbys had voluntarily accepted a 100-person limit "to ensure the peace and tranquility of the neighborhood."
Even more promising, the hearing officer did not seem particularly impressed with Greater Park Hill Community, Inc., and other opponents. "In this case," he wrote, "the neighborhood associations relied on their traditional opposition to any alcoholic beverage license for this location without what this hearing officer believes was more than perfunctory review."
Two weeks later Payne recommended that Dottie's Lounge be granted a liquor license. It seemed they were finally in business.
When she got the news, Dottie threw open the doors of her club. "We had the biggest party," she recalls. "I cooked food, and everybody celebrated. We had seventy or eighty people come by the club. Oh, I was so excited!"
But wait. On July 16, 1991, Susan Duncan, then director of Excise and Licenses, rejected Payne's recommendation. "There is nothing in the law that states that every neighborhood must have liquor and/or cabaret licensed establishments," she lectured in her decision. "It appears to this director that the designated neighborhood has spoken loudly and clearly in its opposition."
Dottie and Cleotis fought this fourth denial, too. They lost again, but at least other people were beginning to wonder why the Grisbys were having such a difficult time getting their place open.
"I am not normally concerned about this area of our business community," Reverend Acen Phillips, pastor of the Mt. Gilead Baptist Church, wrote in an angry letter to the director of Excise and Licenses. "But I am always concerned when it appears that the majority of the spoken voice of our community is overruled in favor of a minority voice."
By now, Dottie had gotten to know the liquor-licensing rules pretty well. So she decided on a compromise: Dottie's Lounge would now be known as Dottie's Social Club. That way she couldn't sell alcohol to the public, but she could hold parties for members and guests of her club at which liquor was served.
She filed papers with the secretary of state establishing Dottie's Social Club on February 4, 1994. Colorado laws state that a club must be in existence for at least three years before it may be granted a liquor license, though, so Dottie waited.
Cleotis, meanwhile, had one last idea. He was a member in good standing of the Masons Mount Evans Lodge No. 7: What if he and Dottie applied for the liquor license through the Masons?
In March 1996 Cleotis and Dottie registered with the state under the trade name 3-5-7 Club, No. 7 Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge. The purpose of the new organization was "lodge fund-raising, socializing and club parties"; the location was to be Dottie's Social Club. That May, the 3-5-7 Club applied for a liquor license.
The Denver Department of Excise and Licenses seemed inclined to give the Masons' club the go-ahead. The Masons, however, did not.
"The original intent of '3-5-7 Clubs' (Square and Compass Clubs) was to allow socialization of Masonic Brothers--in moderation--outside the Lodge Hall," advised a stern Cecil O. Owens, Sr., Ph.D., Grand Legal Advisor/ Parliamentarian. "Care must always be taken to assure that moderation does not evolve into excess (e.g., associating the Grand Lodge and or Subordinate Lodge with the purchase of a 'liquor license' is tantamount to selling liquor!) Authorizing the 'selling of liquor by Masons' is an illegal act, and borders on the unthinkable--or absurd."
Dottie's Social Club applied for its own club liquor license on March 26, 1997. In an odd twist, Dottie and Cleotis were now paying thousands of dollars to be represented by attorney Manuel Martinez--the same man who had denied their license twice before when he was director of Excise and Licenses. Before their May 8 hearing, the Grisbys met with Martinez to plan strategy at his downtown office at the prestigious and powerful law firm of Holme Roberts & Owen. "That's the most beautiful office you'd ever want to see," Dottie remembers. (Martinez did not return Westword's calls.)
Once again, Dottie and Cleotis had collected many signatures from people who said they wouldn't mind seeing Dottie's Social Club serve alcohol--815 people, to be exact. But four local neighborhood associations protesting the application had collected 689 signatures.
At the hearing, Dottie herself testified as to the purpose of the club. Over the past three years, she said, members had "held fundraisers, held wedding celebrations, birthday parties, donated some holiday baskets and made a contribution to a police organization.
"The club as a group has fun together," she added.
On May 28, another director of Excise and Licenses, Elizabeth McCann, denied the application.
A week later Dottie and Cleotis filed another objection, but they lost again. In turning them down, McCann seemed particularly offended by Dottie's inexact description of her social club.
"The applicant's testimony was extremely vague about how this club operates and how it would operate if the license is issued," the director wrote. "She stated that the qualifications to become a member are that people are over 30, like to socialize and are nice people. The dues are $5 a month and $25 to join. When asked how many members there are, she stated 'about twenty.' When asked if they all had paid dues, she stated that about 14 were current on dues. Yet when asked whether any member had been current on dues for three years, she stated that there were some, but that they might be behind in their payments."
In Denver, the odds of being denied a liquor license are very small. Last year 74 people or businesses applied for one of the half-dozen types of alcohol licenses the city administers. Only five were disallowed (four other applicants withdrew before a final decision had been made). That means that close to 90 percent of those who wanted a liquor license got it.
So why not the Grisbys? Greater Park Hill Community, Inc., says its opposition is nothing personal against Dottie and Cleotis.
"We have sort of an unwritten policy against liquor licenses in the core residential neighborhoods," explains Kathy Cheevers, vice-chair of the association. Dottie's pursuit of a liquor license has also been hampered by the fact that a package store sells liquor a block away, and its customers often disrupt the neighborhood. "One liquor license has been a problem, so we thought two would be worse," Cheevers says.
Cheevers concedes that Dottie and Cleotis have been persistent over the past fourteen years. But, she adds, "I think they have found that we are equally persistent."
Dottie is still appealing the last denial, this time in Denver District Court. But she is getting tired of being awakened from her dream every two years, and she's been trying to figure out what she really has left to call her own.
This is what she has concluded: The city can withhold a liquor license, but it cannot take away her club.
"Everything in there was my idea. I designed all of this. Fixed it up," she says. "Everything in here belongs to me. I paid for it, from the sink, the booths, the jukebox, the icemaker. It's paid for."
Although Dottie's Social Club cannot sell alcohol, it can host gatherings at which people bring their own. And so, over the years, Dottie has organized several private parties, including a big one in 1984 after the first license denial.
"I don't know me one liquor from another, but I got behind the bar and I got everyone drunk on orange juice and vodka," she recalls. "People was eatin' it up. I was stupid and I nearly went broke, but I wanted to see what it could be like."
Since then, she has occasionally rented the building out for particular events--a wedding reception, say, or a birthday party. The members of Dottie's Social Club also meet there the first Saturday of every month to discuss business and what they will do the next time they get together.
Mostly, though, the club is empty. Cleotis goes over every other day to check on the fish and to make sure the place is still standing. He will look around for a few minutes, then turn off the lights, lock the door behind him and drive the ten blocks back to his and Dottie's home.
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Dottie estimates that so far, she has spent about $40,000 on five different attorneys working on her liquor-license applications, and that's not counting the cost of her application fees. In fact, tonight's Halloween party is a fundraiser to help pay for the current appeal and, if necessary, the next application.
At midnight Dottie pulls the plastic wrap off the food: greens, pigs' feet, spaghetti, salad, hot links and barbecued chicken. She will stay until 2:30 a.m., talking, laughing, working the room, seeing guests off, cleaning up and, finally, counting the proceeds that net her a few hundred dollars for her next legal fight.
The next day, Cleotis, as he always does after a big party, will walk around the neighborhood and ask anyone if the music was too loud or if the gathering caused any disruption. Chances are good that no one will complain. In late 1995 Dottie paid $11.50 for the Denver Police Department to search its records for any evidence of bad behavior at her establishment. "At your request, we have completed a data search for any calls for police service at your business address," a detective wrote back. "No entries were located."
For now, though, Dottie Grisby can relax. She leans back against her red-leather bar with a big grin and looks out over the room. "This club, it was my dream," she says, blowing a stream of smoke that drifts up toward her arch. "It's still my dream.