The year was 1971, and I had just accepted a
job offer from KALL 700 radio station in Salt
Lake City. I was working in San Jose, Calif.,
at the time and thought KALL offered me an
opportunity to hone my skills in a different format
of radio. My plan was to do that for a couple of years
and then move back to the Bay Area.
I hauled my handcart across the salt flats into
Salt Lake City and was fortunate to go to work for
some great people at KALL. I knew nothing of Utah
or its culture and got my first lesson from my new
boss, Bennie Williams, when he drove me up to the
Capitol to show me the valley. It was June, and I was
stunned at the beauty of the valley framed by the
Wasatch Range’s snowcapped peaks. Then, Bennie
drove me down to KALL’s studios, located at the time
on South Temple, and I noticed that nobody was out
on the sidewalks—or in cars on the street, for that
matter. I asked Bennie, “Where is everybody?” “In
church,” he replied. “All of them?” I asked.
Bennie became my mentor and guide to all things
Utah. He took me to a couple of private clubs, and I
thought these must be very exclusive because you
had to be a member to get in. I soon learned that
the designation “private club” was far from an elite
status and that they were more dens of iniquity
only patronized by the dregs of society because
members were “drinkers.”
At the time, restaurants didn’t serve cocktails,
but rather, some had little liquor closets that one
would have to walk over to in order to buy minibottles.
Then you’d take them to your table and
order a “set-up” from your server. You had to pour
your own mini into the glass of ice; the server
wasn’t allowed to touch it. I found this mysterious
ritual laughable as well as annoying. I was told that
this was an improvement from just a year before I
got here, when private clubs had liquor lockers that
you had to stock yourself so you’d have your own
bottle of demon rum to could get a drink from.
Then, I was introduced to the practice of brownbagging.
You could have a drink, but you had to
bring your own bottle. My next question was,
“Where is the liquor store?” There were only a few,
and because it was against the law to advertise
alcohol, the state stores were only recognizable by
a very small yellow sign in the corner of a window
indicating it as such. To this day, some of the stores
have all the charm of detention centers with their
junior-high school wood shelves.
The upside of all these bizarre rules, hoops,
mysteries and quirks was a wealth of material for
my radio show. When things were slow, I could
always make fun of mini-bottles. All I had to do
was say, “Utah liquor laws” and the laughs started
immediately. What was so amazing is that the laws
were written by people who knew nothing about
consuming adult beverages and actually hated the
idea that Prohibition was no longer in effect.
For a culture that—for the most part—abhorred
the use of alcohol, the way the laws were crafted
actually encouraged drinkers to consume more.
Mini-bottles actually made every drink almost
a double, and the law forbidding leaving an
establishment with a partially consumed bottle of
wine caused patrons to drink every last drop before
Over the years, changes were made and
restaurants were allowed to serve drinks as long as
they didn’t constitute more than 30 percent of their
sales. They also had to build some sort of barrier
between the bottles and customers.
Some of the funniest stories come from the state
needing to open another liquor store. The number of
stores—as well as liquor licenses—was calculated
by means of an arbitrary equation involving the
I attended one such public meeting in a school
auditorium involving locating a liquor store on
7200 South 2100 East. You would have thought
they were proposing opening a toxic-waste dump.
They railed about the increase in traffic, children
being run over by booze customers, children’s
minds being tainted by the presence of a liquor
store in their neighborhood, and on and on. It
was theater of the absurd at its best. End of the
day: They opened the liquor store and none of the
apocalyptic horror ever occurred.
Fast forward to Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr.’s first
term of office. He realized that the liquor laws were a
joke and made Utah a laughing stock. The laws also
hampered economic development as well as hurt
tourism and conventions. He called me and asked if
I would serve on his transition team on the alcohol
committee with three other prominent gentlemen. I
was flattered and jumped at the chance. Our report
was based on interviews, both pro and con, with
various groups as well as restaurant, club and
tavern owners. The conclusions were obvious that
the biggest issue was private clubs. They served no
purpose and were a constant source of frustration
and puzzlement to visitors and citizens alike.
The most fun I had was with Dr. George Van
Komen, who headed up the Alcohol Coalition. This
was an anti-alcohol group that, in reality, consisted
of Van Komen and his like-minded friends. I
enjoyed sparring with Van Komen over the years,
and we actually got along quite well despite
our differences. To complete my work with the
governor’s committee, I thought it would be fun to
see just how much Van Komen actually knew about
living under the private-club law. I invited him to go
on a pub crawl.
First stop was the Oyster Bar. I told Van
Komen that I was going to be his guest, and he
would have to deal with memberships and the
like. He coughed up the money for a temporary
membership to the Oyster Bar; he had a Diet Coke,
and I ordered Scotch on the rocks. With the 1 ounce
rule in effect, I ordered a side car, another ounce. I
asked the bartender how much my drink was, and
he said “Seven dollars.” (I like good Scotch). I then
asked him how much for the one-ounce side car.
He said, “Seven dollars.” Van Komen’s eyes got big
when I told him that he was looking at a glass that
now cost $14.
Our next stop was the now-closed Port O’ Call.
Again, I followed his lead and, this time, when he
was asked to buy a membership, they asked for
his driver license. He reluctantly gave it and was
very disturbed when they entered his personal
information into their computer. He expressed that
this was very intrusive. All I could do was laugh
and tell him that now he knows what everybody
else has to go through just to get in, regardless of
whether they drink or not.
By the end of the evening, he was quite willing
to admit that the private-club law was stupid. My
work was done. In 2009, after finally coaxing the
Legislature, Gov. Huntsman accomplished what I
thought impossible: He got rid of the private-club
law as well as the silly Zion Curtains in restaurants
(separating drinkers from where drinks are made),
making my dream of legalizing adulthood in Utah
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