The Modern Dance
Photo by James Bunoan "Even if this was not a law, which it is, I'm afraid I would have a lot of difficulty endorsing an enterprise which is as fraught with genuine peril as I believe this one to be. These dances and this kind of music can be destructive, and, uh, Ren, I'm afraid you're going to find most of the people in our community are gonna agree with me on this."
First, the good news. Thanks in large part to a crowd of supporters that filled almost every seat in the Long Beach City Council chambers—not to mention a wave of e-mail—city officials turned Koo's temporary entertainment license into a short-term entertainment license on Jan. 6. That political benediction permits the live-music and performance events—a crucial source of revenue for the volunteer-run, all-ages art space—to continue for another year.
But the bad news? Koo's will have to cover reapplication fees when the year is up, taxing the nonprofit's already slight resources, says Koo's coordinator Dennis Lluy.
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And the worse news? After less than six months in Long Beach, Koo's already has a potential court date coming up in February, not for drugs, alcohol or teenage violence, not even for noise complaints. No, Koo's is in the crosshairs for allegedly hosting dancing without a permit.
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For the most part, it's a moot point. Thanks to years of ingrown adolescent insecurity, most kids attracted to harmlessly mopey indie-rock or pretentiously unrhythmic hardcore so often showcased at Koo's wouldn't defrost and dance if you squirted a glob of habanero into their too-tight panties. But at the Koo's Halloween fund-raiser, Long Beach vice cops reportedly witnessed illegal dancing.
And this is where the problems start. Yes, it's true: legally, there can't be dancing at Koo's—the venue's permit allows what Municipal Code 5.72.115 outlines as "live musical performances, instrumental or vocal, when carried on by more than two (2) persons or whenever amplified; musical entertainment provided by a disk jockey or karaoke, or any similar entertainment activity involving amplified, reproduced music," but no dancing. Adding dance to Koo's entertainment license would require another application, up to $2,000 in fees and the redesignation of Koo's as a nightclub.
But the city of Long Beach has no clear definition of what dancing is. "There's no specific definition," says city planner Lynette Ferenczy, as knowledgeable and helpful a city official as you'll ever run across. "But it's common sense. You know. Dancing."
And so we turn to the law books, where the only dance-specific municipal code dates back to August 1932 (Prohibition was repealed in February 1933, if that gives you any context) and criminalizes vulgarity, intoxication, boisterous conduct and the presence of any person under 17 years of age (without a parent present) inside a "public dancehall," defined as any nonprivate room or space where dancing is held or "carried on."
And that said, if there was in fact dancing at Koo's on Halloween—twists, mashed potatoes, boogaloos, what have you—Lluy says it would only have been because of miscommunication between city agencies about what Koo's was or was not permitted to do. The city planning department had the final say, Lluy says, overriding previous assurances to Lluy from police and the business license department that dancing would have been permissible.
Enforcement of dancing permits appears to be a little, er, irregular in Long Beach. There are clubs and bars in the city that make sure their dancing is strictly the nice and legal kind, and there are other nonpermitted bars and clubs that are so zealously law-abiding they've actually stopped people from shimmying alone in front of the jukebox. But there are also venues—venues we'd never ever name—where dancing, however you define it, is a regular event, venues where the person answering the phone will cheerfully say, "Yes, we have dancing," until you identify yourself as a reporter and ask if they have the proper permits, at which point a different, deeper voice will get on the line and say, "No, we have no dancing."
The potential problem here is that illegal-dancing citations offer the city of Long Beach a powerful way to harass or shut down venues they don't feel comfortable with.
Is that just paranoia? Eric Demby, co-founder of Legalize Dancing New York City, doesn't think so. New York has been dealing with similar regulations, he says, and under Rudi Giuliani's quality-of-nightlife initiatives, multiagency task forces conducted midnight raids on clubs they felt were undesirable, using violations of a jazz-age dance-prohibition law—or any violations they could find—to push venues out of business. "If you put something under a microscope," Demby says, "you'll find something."
Attach that to Koo's troubled history in its former Santa Ana location—most notably, the time Koo's volunteers caught Santa Ana undercover police sneaking around their building outside normal hours of operation, and a later court tussle over the legality of the door-admission donation (Koo's won). And then recall the history of the venue that last occupied the Koo's building on the corner of Broadway and Linden: the notorious Fender's International Ballroom, a hulking firetrap that saw punk-rock mini-riots, gunfire, even the bust-up of an alleged drug ring. Fender's came up pretty quickly at the council meeting, and it wasn't because anyone was reminiscing about how awesome TSOL used to be. The city finally closed Fender's in 1989.
So you can understand why some Long Beach officials might be nervous about Koo's—why the police (as some at Koo's allege) sent undercover agents into the Halloween crowd asking for "cocaine," and why police would recommend their entertainment permit be denied.
But you can also understand Lluy's frustration. This modest little art center—which has hosted works by 128 different artists since opening in September; which ran 12 nights of a children's holiday play called Girl of the Frozen North; which has had to back-burner more elaborate plans for community outreach until its permit status was decided; which doesn't permit drugs or alcohol anywhere near the premises (barring a special variance to serve alcohol at the Halloween fund-raiser); and, yes, which does feature live music and performance art—is from a whole different planet than Fender's, but for some reason doesn't quite look that different from the outside.
Somebody out there sees a bunch of weird-looking kids dressed in black nodding their heads in time and thinks it's a crime—that's an old story. And somebody out there seems to think Koo's is trying to pull a fast one—that Girl of the Frozen North is just a cover for sex, drugs and rock & roll dancing, that this art-gallery schtick is just a smokescreen for the squares.
"It did appear that they weren't offering very many arts-related courses or functions," says Ferenczy, echoing concerns raised at the council meeting that Koo's was all rock and no talk—and colliding with Lluy's arguments that music events pay the Koo's bills so the taxpayers don't have to, and, perhaps more philosophically, that music is an art, too. Isn't it?
Well, maybe. But until somebody writes some definitions into the municipal code, we're going to have to do this the old-fashioned way. Long Beach may not know art, but it knows what it likes!
"Art can be interpreted broadly," says Ferenczy. "But what we're looking for is an art studio and gallery. We primarily look to see classes, art receptions, the display of art—we really don't have a percentage, but that really should be the principal use."
Lluy sighs when he hears that. To him, the whole situation is really just a failure to communicate. When he meets with city officials, he hopes the illegal-dancing charges against Koo's are dropped. And he hopes that—as Koo's managed to do in Santa Ana—city ordinances could change, perhaps to something similar to proposed New York City legislation that drops the dancing/no-dancing distinction and regulates clubs simply on safety and noise issues. And he hopes the city comes to understand what Koo's is trying to do.
"They knew we'd have music from day one," says Lluy, recalling a July meeting with the city where variances for Koo's that would allow amplified music and adjusted capacity under certain circumstances were approved. "That's why we have an entertainment license. This is my point: with what we've gone through, we could have just [originally] gotten the [permit] to be a nightclub, but we didn't because we're not a nightclub. We never wanted to be a nightclub. We're a volunteer-run art center, and we always wanted to be an art center with music."
But Long Beach doesn't have a designation for that. Instead, it has a conditional-use permit process. It takes several months, causes all sorts of headaches, sucks 2,000 sorely needed dollars out of a cash-strapped community oriented nonprofit, offers no guarantee of approval, and finally makes it perfectly legal for some kid to shuffle his feet next time he hears some gloomy garage band rip off Joy Division. Nightclub or nothing—well, nothing but inanimate art? The code has spoken: "They could add [a classification] as a nightclub," says Ferenczy. "And that would resolve the issue."
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