What's Fort Lauderdale's nightlife going to look like when we kick out all the underage kids? Skip Murray of the Chili Pepper sees it turning into a "faceless condo hotel earlybird special" kind of place now that the city commission has resurrected -- and appears ready to push through -- a proposal to ban under-21 patrons from any establishment featuring both entertainment and alcohol.
The last time the issue came up, back in early July, the Roxy nightclub and its beleaguered Coral Ridge neighbors took the spotlight. Now, thanks to police reports and articles in the Sun-Sentinel, Atlantis on A1A is taking the heat. Had Atlantis owner Michael Kent showed up at a public hearing on the measure last Wednesday, he may well have fallen victim to a celebrity roast.
"I find myself again in the position of defending my business," continued Murray, calling the Chili Pepper "one of the most respected live-music venues in the entire country. And we didn't get this reputation by encouraging out-of-control behavior like some of our brethren. Don't destroy good, successful, and respected neighbors because of a few bad apples. Why should we be held accountable for the behavior of our competition?" asked Murray. "Why do we deserve this wrath? Penalize the troublemakers; don't hurt us," he told the commission. "If you pass this proposal we will not have another national act at your venue, you might as well bulldoze us."
Even after commissioners vote on September 19, the story will be far from over, Murray contends. Predicting lawsuits aplenty if the ban is approved, he says the Chili Pepper will sit back and watch, even though there will be collateral damage to the club.
"It's going to be a prolonged battle, and unfortunately a lot of people are going to be dragged through the crap. I really don't see us getting too involved other than letting the community know what's being done to us."
That injustice, Murray feels, may win some public support. With eyes and anger focused on the beach and specifically Atlantis, he has a good babybath water case to generate sympathy.
"They're the ones who caused all the problems," he says. "Why in the hell should we spend money on a lawyer? To hurt a successful club that has had no problems in four years just because of what our competition is doing is just asinine to me. If [the commission] isn't going to differentiate, it doesn't matter if they like us or don't like us. They only want to push out one club, and that's their sole focus, and if anyone else gets trampled, so be it."
In the two months since the original proposal was tabled, Murray says the Chili Pepper has taken steps -- including a beefed-up dress code and a revamped weekend music format -- to encourage over-21 audiences. But Atlantis, he charges, has gone in the opposite direction.
"We were given a reprieve, and what kills me is that, instead of heeding that like we did, they're still having teenage girls take their clothes off and having the battle of the lesbians. They know that isn't appreciated."
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Certainly there's some appreciation, judging by the enthusiastic crowds at Atlantis. But no one was willing to lend the troubled nightspot any support during discussions at city hall. The nicest label the notorious venue received was "Not a family place where you'd like to go and have fun with your family." Vice Mayor Tim Smith went as far as to call Atlantis a place stained by all the "rapes and sodomies and larcenies and rapes." Maybe Atlantis should be renamed Caligula's Closet?
Another issue Murray addressed is how the vote would impact national concerts at the Chili Pepper. Without all-ages shows, he claims, many acts won't play there. "So, yes, it's going to hurt," he admits. "I don't think it's going to close us, but it's certainly going to hurt our business. I think it's real unfair, when we go out of our way to be good neighbors and the kids behave themselves and they have a good time, that we're jeopardized by owners of clubs who really don't care about their communities. And if they did, we wouldn't be in this mess."
And Murray expects things to get even messier. "I told the mayor it's a shame we have to have all these lawsuits," he says. "It's expensive and ridiculous for the city. And he said, "Well, that's all right -- our lawyers don't have anything to do anyway.' That is a direct, verbatim quote. So they're actually looking for a lawsuit."
And while that's being sorted out, Murray paints a bleak picture of what Lauderdale's nightlife will be like if the mayor's office has its way. "If you were 18, 19, or 20 years old," he asks, "where would you want to hang out? In Plantation? Or would you go to the beach in Fort Lauderdale? Most of these people who are pushing this probably can't remember when they were 18. It's just ridiculous."