The ABCs of Hassled Nightclubs
by Matt Baume
It’s hard enough to keep a bar open these days, but outdated laws and out-of-touch regulators are adding to the headaches facing your favorite nightspots. It’s a problem that’s put the squeeze many an LGBT space over the years, from the Eagle to Trannyshack to the Deco Lounge.
“I started to notice it around the dot-com era,” said Heklina. As lofts went up around SOMA, new residents moved in next to longtime nightclubs and then complained about the noise.
A constellation of agencies and organizations keeps tabs on nightlife. There’s the local police department. Then there’s the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, a state agency with roots dating back to Prohibition. And then there’s the San Francisco Entertainment Commission, which strives to broker peace.
“We’re not here for the clubs and we’re not here for the neighbors,” says Vajra Granelli, a sound inspector with the Commission. “We’re here to make sure everyone can co-exist.”
It’s more complex than a simple war on fun, says Entertainment Commissioner Jim Meko. “There are a lot of factors,” he said. “We’re in a horrible economy right now.” He added that changing demographics and less drinking are also hitting the industry hard.
But bogus noise complaints can turn a difficult situation into an impossible situation. “It only takes one person,” said Louis Caputo, manager of The Cafe. Caputo pointed out that some of the complaints about his bar originate from city residents who don’t even live in the vicinity.
Last month’s cautionary tale was Slim’s, which had its liquor license temporarily suspended by the ABC. A terse sign on the door explained that it was “due to noise complaints from one person, Jeanmarie Guenot [a resident of nearby Juniper Street] … The complaints were for noise and have nothing to do with alcohol.”
Indeed, public records show a track record of noise complaints to the ABC from Guenot, as well as from Jodi and Kirby Watson, residents of the same building.
Slim’s co-owner Dawn Holliday told the press that complaints arose even on nights when the club wasn’t open, and that the ABC moved to suspend their license even though the city verified that noise levels were within local limits.
There’s little love for the ABC within the nightlife industry. “It’s an organization that’s power-crazy,” said Heklina. “Their rules are stupid,” said Meko.
“I think the ABC need not exist,” said Barry Synoground, manager of the DNA Lounge.
After losing a fight with the DNA Lounge over an all-ages license, the ABC sent undercover inspectors to LGBT events. They caught a few glimpses of nudity, and that was all it took to demand a permanent end to the club. Eventually, that was argued down to a 25-day suspension and five years of probation.
So for the next five years, “we have to be very G-rated,” said DNA manager Barry Synoground. “I can’t book a lot of things.”
The venue is now very skittish about opening during the Folsom Street Fair. “If a person decides to drop their drawers, I’m out of business,” he said.
The Deco Lounge also experienced a regulatory crackdown. “Someone who had a personal vendetta about us started calling the fire department,” said manager Roger Klein.
A miscommunication about permissible uses of space had led to the venue unintentionally exceeding its allowed capacity. Klein corrected the mistake, but as a result, Deco Lounge lost Bearracuda and large drag performances. Sergio Fedasz’ party, Go Bang!, temporarily moved to the (now-closed) Paradise. The bar also had to let two bartenders go.
These days, they’ve bounced back with a more intimate setting, cabaret drag shows like Duplicity Presents, and amateur strip shows. For his part, Fedasz is glad to be back at the Deco Lounge. “The party would not be the same at any other location, and we’d never want to leave, and won’t,” he said.
But even as LGBT nightlife struggles to beat the economy, new proposals from the SFPD could create additional obstacles. In April, the police department suggested new regulations that could require more expensive security guards, cameras, and even metal detectors.
A little political muscle goes a long way in pushing back against onerous regulations, and lately the nightlife industry has found longtime allies in figures like mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty. Supervisors Scott Wiener, Jane Kim, and David Campos also took a strong stance in defense of The Eagle last month.
Meanwhile, Senator Leland Yee, another mayoral contender, is playing catch-up in courting the nightlife vote. Yee launched a series of meetings last month with venue owners, with help from Field Organizer Nate Allbee, formerly a promoter for Sucker Punch at The Transfer and other parties.
“We want to know the issues, how we can help,” Allbee said.
And entertainers like Heklina are happy to make the case for a vibrant nightlife.
“People don’t realize the amount of tourism and money that SF attracts as a nightlife hub,” she said. “When I moved to SF, I fell in love with the city and the colorful group of characters who lived here. It’s what inspired me to become an entertainer and a performer.”
But, she added, “nightlife itself has become not quite as colorful because you have so many rules put on it.”
“We do consider ourselves both a part of the local neighborhood, the queer community,” Fedasz said. “Part of the group of people like Honey Soundsystem and Bus Station John that keep the history of San Francisco and its gay, disco-based dance music evolution alive.”
While the ongoing struggle to keep the venerable Eagle Tavern open are based on different reasons, specifically financial ones, it’s become a focal point of activism. Despite meetings and protests in April, at BARtab’s press deadline, the landlord had allegedly sent an eviction notice to the leather bar.
For information, go to www.stopthewaronfun.org
For information and events on attempts to save the SF Eagle Tavern, go to: www.facebook.com/SaveTheEagleTavern