Longform

Dry Society

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."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer