The recent one-night closures of several local rock clubs by the Los Angeles Fire Department have been branded by one of the affected club owners as "Gestapo-like tactics," but Fire Department spokesmen insist it's just "business as usual."
The latest incidents involved the shutting down of shows at the Palace in Hollywood and the Palomino in North Hollywood. But other clubs--including the Lingerie in Hollywood--are also part of a debate with Fire Department officials over what constitutes overcrowded conditions.
Palace owner Dennis Lidtke said the Fire Department's stopping a March 26 concert by the Golden Palominos "truly shocked me."
"They treated my guests terribly and used Gestapo-like tactics to scare up a violation on me," he went on. "I've had nothing but regard for the police and fire departments, and I appreciate the difficulty of their jobs, but I think the Fire Department created the unsafe conditions at the club that night themselves."
Lidtke also alleged that the department's operatives herded customers from other parts of the club in order to inflate the crowd totals for the Palace's main room, which has a rated capacity of 881 and was cited for having 892 people in it.
Spokesmen for the department denied these actions or any unusual treatment for any of the clubs, saying that the Palace in particular had been previously warned of violations.
"The field inspector responsible for the (Palace) area has been trying to tell them the occupancy rating was outdated--that the management added tables, chairs, extra seats and more stage area, all of which changes that rating," said Roy Olsen, commander of the department's public safety section. "So we've been warning them that the occupancy rating was going to have to change, but they weren't listening."
"Certain clubs become popular and overcrowding happens from time to time," Assistant Chief Jim Young added. "There's no particular season or quota involved. We just have to keep a high profile, and we do it completely at random or on the basis of complaints we get from nearby residents or club patrons."
Billy Thomas, owner of the Palomino, said his club was closed by "more or less a case of bad timing." He said Palomino employees had cleared the audience off the dance floor of the club (which is rated at 299 capacity) and onto its outdoor patio (rated to hold 150), thereby clearing the fire exits.
"Then the Rave-Ups' singer tells everybody to come on down in front of the stage. Just then, the Fire Department battalion commander walks in and says, 'You guys are a bit overcrowded, aren't you?' "
Club owners acknowledged occasionally filling their rooms close to and even over the official capacity ratings, but complained that those figures are "incredibly conservative."
"I have been guilty of letting too many people in, but some kind of compromise has to be found," said Kurt Fisher, owner of the Lingerie, which is rated to hold 205 people. "The limits are incredibly conservative. The inspectors are like those engineers who say a bridge can only hold 50 cars, when they know damn well it can really hold 500."
"We're slightly overbooked all the time," the Palomino's Thomas agreed. "But now that I got written up for it, I feel like I'm being watched--so I'm gonna be watching this real close myself."
Chief Young said a city regulation passed last year empowers the department to permanently revoke a club's license if it habitually overcrowds its space.
"Some new clubs--and some established ones--don't realize the weight of this new code, so they tend to overcrowd at the beginning. But now they really have to be careful. The review procedure towards revocation of a club's operation license hasn't happened yet, but it could."
And Chief Olsen said his people are constantly kept on the alert. "We'd rather have inspectors being too zealous than being negligent in this. Public safety is the issue here, and we're here to enforce it."
Club owners insist they're not being unmindful of their customers' safety. "It has nothing to do with greed," said Brendan Mullen, the Lingerie's talent booker.
"We're not overstuffing the place. We just want to make sure the most people have the most fun. The Fire Department will maintain they're just 'good ole boys' doing their jobs, protecting the public's lives from nasty, greedy club owners. But that's just ridiculous, you know? We're talking fun here."