Dancing in Oakland could get you in trouble. So can having a DJ without a permit under the city's Prohibition-era rules.
More than two dozen bars and clubs got a surprise visit from the city's so-called "party police" during a sweep to enforce Oakland's cabaret permit requirements. No dancing, no DJs and no live music without the permit, which costs $2,210.36, not including the health and fire safety inspections.
The smoking bans that went into effect in 2007 were bad enough. But now dancing and DJs?
Two members of the Alcohol Beverage Action Team set out Aug. 30 with a list of all the venues that hold (41), are waiting for (16) or lost (23) their cabaret permits. I am guessing the team was not exactly welcome.
They hit 28 locations in 12 hours, giving notices to five venues, including the hip Easy lounge on Lakeshore, Lara's Bar and the Bird Kage in East Oakland, records show. They also cited Eli's Mile High Club in West Oakland as well as Mama Buzz Cafe that is part of the popular Uptown District art circle near West Grand Avenue.
San Francisco and even New York require similar permits (and people thought the movie "Footloose" was far-fetched).
But those cities have far more venues than Oakland, and the Big Apple's entertainment industry has a voice through the New York Nightlife Association. In Oakland, there is no appeal, no nightlife lobbyist. On the other hand, the penalty in Oakland is mild. Violators either get a permit or else pay a $200 fine for each reinspection ABAT has to make until the place has complied.
"Usually one notice is enough," said Jacob Graef, the civilian administrative analyst who was part of the ABAT crackdown duo.
The ABAT team happened upon Mama Buzz, a cafe and art gallery that was hosting an acoustic music session that night, because they were checking out the newly opened Vibe Lounge next door at 2272 Telegraph Avenue.
Four other venues were cited because they combined dancing and music without a cabaret permit.
Live music, however, is what got Mama Buzz in trouble because the cafe has a liquor license but not the cabaret permit that the state requires for real musicians playing on scene for alcohol-serving establishments.
Mama Buzz owner Jade Benetatos said the cafe lost about a third of its revenue because she had to cancel 90 shows booked up to three months in advance. And the necessary inspections and fees that can run into thousands of dollars is too expensive for the small arts collective.
Mama Buzz is a community space for artists and musicians, Benetatos said. Why, she asked, would the city want to get in the way of that?
It doesn't make sense, she added, that a small space like Mama Buzz needs the same license as a large club.
To keep businesses in Oakland, the process, criteria and cost should be more equitable for small projects, particularly nonprofits, said Lori Zook, the temporary chairwoman of the Oakland Cultural Affairs Commission, who encountered ABAT when she was co-founder of the Oakland Metro cabaret in its original 201 Broadway location. She left in 2005 before the Metro moved to its current Third Street location.
On one hand, ABAT enforces the city's smoking laws, checking bars to make sure no one is lighting up inside or too close to the entrance outside. Minors act as decoys to help ABAT fetter out liquor stores selling booze to underage customers.
The team of six, plus a part-time city attorney, plan sweeps like the Labor Day weekend action when there is enough staff available.
A portion of ABAT's costs are paid out of the city's general fund, Alameda County grants and the $1,500 fees paid to the city by liquor stores, bars and, beginning January 2009, tobacco retailers. Revenues for the 2006-07 fiscal year reached $503,220 compared to costs that totaled $907,636.
On the other hand, they gave what critics said was their unnecessary attention to venues like nonprofit artistic collectives such as Oaklandish and 21 Grand.
Is enforcing the entertainment ordinances worthy of OPD overtime when the homicide rate continues to climb and, at the time of the raids, the restaurant robbers were still on the loose?
Yes, said Barbara Killey, the city's administrative hearing officer in charge of the cabaret permits. Downtown and the area around Jack London Square particularly are better for their efforts, which have reduced sideshow activity and closed several problem clubs, Killey said.
That's not to say the ordinances couldn't stand an upgrade, though, something that Killey and Graef agree with.
"Times have changed in Oakland," Graef said.
In other words, the city's entertainment laws, which prohibit showing bare breasts where booze is served and condemn pinball machines, might also need to change.