Private Eye | Oh, Those Pioneers: Navigating liquor laws like the Wild West 

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In 1984, I walked into the offices of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) to present my idea for a private club newsletter. No club owner would sign on with me if I didn’t have assurances (permission) that producing such a newsletter wouldn’t get them into trouble. Private-club advertising was verboten. Nada. Newsletters and phone-book listings only.

They said my idea—sending club members the same frame of a newspaper with commentary, sports, fashion, etc., but limiting the information on specific pages to just one specific club (by stopping the press and changing the printing plates to reflect news at a particular club) was copacetic as long as the members of Club A got no information about Club B. Nevermind that some members of multiple clubs got multiple issues of Private Eye anyway, it put me in the newspaper business.

Later, a trio of businesses—The Zephyr Club, Nino’s in the University Club Building and a comedy club in Arrow Press Square whose name escapes me—were given permission to print one newsletter but have information about all three locations in it. Its existence marked a cosmic shift in the way clubs could promote their businesses. Especially because the Zephyr—which was booking Class AAA musical acts into Salt Lake City but had no way to get the word out—was granted permission to publicly advertise, with restrictions, those shows in public media.

Once the Zephyr and friends got the ball rolling, I killed the newsletter and started a free distribution newspaper. But, not until I had “permission.”

I remember taking pre-press layout boards to the DABC building and having their contents approved to ensure that no one would get a violation for breaking Utah’s restrictive club- and alcohol-advertising regulations. I also remember thinking, distinctly, how distasteful and disgusting that practice was. I knew then, and believe to the soles of my feet today, that certain Utahns are committed to insuring that Utah never becomes a part of modern-day America. Constitution be damned, it’s the fireworks show that really matters in these parts.

The “rules” regarding club advertising were bogus from the start and changed all the time. Private clubs began being cited for all kinds of advertising infractions—no disclaimer, wrong disclaimer, mention of alcohol, mention of free appetizers, disclaimer not large enough. This newspaper was very careful and nearly pure of those infractions, so clubs trusted us to keep them out of trouble. They stuck by us. We stuck by them. One day, I met a DABC insider who told me to watch my ass since certain people at the DABC (I never learned who) were out to shut down the Private Eye, and cutting off our revenue stream by changing the advertising “rules” was the way to do it.

I listened to how I was basically screwed, because these were “rules,” not “laws” and fully within the rights of the DABC to keep or kill. Not really, I said, and pointed to an ad in the paper. “Is that an ad?” “Yes.” Next, I pointed to our club listings: “Are those ads?” “Uh, no.” “I can say and write whatever I want in those listings and anywhere else in the paper, right?” “Right.” “Good, then, in the next issue, I’ll put in those listings everything they won’t let a club advertise. You know, happy hour times, beer prices and all that.”

“If you sell listings instead of ads, they’ll bust the clubs,” I was told. I said there was no need to sell the clubs anything. “But, your paper is free,” came the retort, “so how will you make money?” “People will buy it,” I said, “because I’m going to put the naked Mormon girl of the week on each cover.” The message was relayed. For the record, I would never do that, but the point was understood. Stalemate.

The crappy advertising rules remained crappy for another several years. Like nearly everything else liquor in Utah, no club wanted to fight very hard because they feared reprisal from the DABC. In the late 1990s, attorney Brian Barnard filed a lawsuit against the State of Utah and the DABC commission members. The plaintiffs were the Utah Licensed Beverage Association, Catalyst magazine and Wayne Benson, a private citizen, each claiming that Utah’s advertising rules were unconstitutional. I’ve always believed the several lawyers on the DABC commission at the time knew Barnard would prevail. I equally believed they reveled in busting the chops of private clubs everywhere, especially for advertising. Judge David Sam, who also had to know Utah law was bogus (the case was so clear and had so much judicial precedent, even I understood it), spared his Utah masters that decision by allowing the suit to languish on his desk for several years. Other cases before Sam came and went. Nearing the eve of his retirement, he finally ruled against the plaintiffs.

Seven years ago this week, the 10th Circuit Court in Denver overturned and resoundingly rebuked Sam’s ruling. Decades of freedom of speech repression wrought by the DABC and the Utah Legislature ended. Naturally, certain advertising restrictions still apply. And naturally, Utah still wastes time on stupid liquor legislation like the invisible 1.5 ounce pour. But at the end of the day, a few things are constant: The sun still rises in the East. Utah is a better place to be, not worse. Clubs still fear the DABC. And some time on Thursday I will hoist a drink in honor of the Denver court. I’ll toast to all the cool places and good people that unfairly got busted out of the game before July 24, 2001.

They were pioneers, too.

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