Dance Lessons

With Club Hunan, city and state officials once again team up to destroy a local nightspot

No matter how fast Phoenix grows, there are times when living here can feel like being stuck in a sequence from Footloose. We all remember that hugely successful cinematic monstrosity, in which a conservative small town led by preacher John Lithgow bans dancing, creating a redneck teen population of ticking, sexually frustrated time bombs, until Kevin Bacon introduces the natives to the virtues of wiggling your butt to bad Kenny Loggins tunes.

For years now, the state liquor board and Valley city officials have demonstrated their own Lithgowesque fear of dance, either shutting down or harassing a number of clubs, particularly when hip-hop enters the picture, or minorities start to congregate in upscale areas. The litany of targeted clubs will be familiar to any veteran clubgoer: The Roxy, Zazoo, Electric Ballroom and the Jockey Club, just to scratch the surface.

But when a local dance promoter known as Disgo--and his partner, Steve Haworth--decided to take a 50-year-old building at 16th Street and Camelback that once housed a Chinese restaurant and turn it into a dance club called Club Hunan, it seemed that even the no-fun-allowed brigade would have no objections. Alcohol had been served at the location since 1949, and the restaurant had also featured a piano bar and dance floor. They didn't even plan to play hip-hop, possibly a wise business choice given what Disgo says he was told by a recently retired hearing officer for zoning adjustment, Ted Brookhart.

"He said he was not going to allow any gay cruising or any hip-hop clubs in Arizona anymore, and he's going to control what kind of clubs open up," Disgo says. Brookhart, who still hears zoning-adjustment cases, denies that he ever made the statement.

Disgo had already decided to opt for a club that would play what he calls "alternative lounge" music. He and Haworth assumed their application for the liquor license would be a mere formality, a slam dunk.

The city, however, had other ideas. Disgo and Haworth initially sought a use permit for dancing from the city zoning commission. At a hearing, they were told they could not have dancing without first obtaining a liquor permit. When they went to the city for the permit, they were confronted by a neighbor who mistook the club's stated "live entertainment" plan for a topless club, and protested their application. They were repeatedly put off by the city, forced to come back every couple of months to make their case. Eventually, their adversary came with a petition. Disgo and Haworth say the woman gathered only 36 of the required 40 names, and when they talked with area businessmen, they discovered that her "signatures" were actually obtained over the phone, with her signing for the concerned parties. Everyone contacted had been told that the club was going to be either a topless bar, a neo-Nazi establishment or a "hip-hop lingerie shop." But the city took the petition at face value, and forced Disgo and Haworth to take their case to the state liquor board.

Liquor board officials found no reason for alcohol to be served at the club, although liquor had flowed freely at the location for decades. Disgo and Haworth were finally allowed to open a coffee house, with dancing but no alcohol. The restrictions were tight and arbitrary (only a 16-by-16-foot area could be used as a dance floor, in a 10,000-square-foot building), but they tried to make the best of a problematic situation. When they debuted the club on September 5, an impressive crowd of more than 600 came through the doors. But among them was an unfamiliar city official and 13 police officers. Disgo says that while police officers searched in vain for alcohol and drugs, the city official told them that all dancing must be terminated immediately. They eventually learned that they were closed because they did not open within 60 days of obtaining a dance permit, a technicality made all the flimsier because the partners say city officials asked them to delay their opening until September.

When the dust cleared from the September fiasco, Disgo and Haworth decided to give up. A year of planning, and thousands of dollars, went up in smoke because the idea of preserving a unique old building and giving people a new place to dance was repugnant to people in power.

"In Phoenix, every club that I did had after-hours," Disgo says. "And each one, each year, they'd come in with a new law trying to stop it. And we'd find a loophole to keep it going. But if you look now, there's nowhere to go after one in the morning. In Phoenix they want you to go to basketball games, baseball games, play bingo, and be home by 10:30."

Days of Swine and Roses: Motley Crue can't get arrested on the charts, but the L.A. metal dinosaur is having considerably greater success in the police stations of America. The band's brazen publicity stunt at its sporadically attended December 10 America West Arena show was actually the second time this year the members have lashed out at security guards, although at least this time drummer Tommy Lee managed to avoid any racial epithets. People can argue for ages about whether security overreacted, and whether the Crue was merely looking out for its fans when Lee and bassist Nikki Sixx jumped on the security members. The bottom line, though, is that the band's two recent riotous incidents are the only two times it's generated any media attention in the last six months.

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