Depending on your point of view on the liquor privatization Initiative 1183, what follows is either an example of the antiquated regulation of booze in Washington state or evidence of the flexibility in the current system.
It involves something most of us probably didn’t think twice about. I assumed members of the band, singers, DJs and comedians performing in clubs might be drinking before, during and after they perform. And I assumed it was all legal.
But the owner of a Richland nightclub that is part of the Atomic Bowl entertainment center was cited in March by a state liquor agent for serving beer to a comic.
“Comedian Joe Fontana was consuming Bud Light beer during his performance for Joker’s Comedy Club,” read the violation notice. That is against state rules that say license holders and their workers cannot “consume liquor of any kind while working on the licensed premises.”
I guess the state figures an intoxicated server might be less able and less willing to enforce liquor laws on others.
But because the same code considers entertainers to be employees, they aren’t allowed to imbibe either. In his report, the liquor agent noted that the owner of the place “was not aware” that entertainers couldn’t be served but that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”
The violation could have cost the comedy club owner $500 or a five-day suspension of liquor sales. A compromise agreement brought the fine down to $300 with no suspension. As part of the deal, the club owner promised to notify “all booking agents for entertainers that alcohol will no longer be provided while an entertainer/employee is working.”
Ignorance of the law may not be an excuse, but it is prevalent.
“In any green room in any comedy club in the state there’s always beer available for performers,” said my friend John Keister, who does standup around the Puget Sound region.
Some performers have a beer before they go on, a few drink on stage and nearly all drink afterward, “especially if they’ve done well. It’s considered a right to have a cold beer after a show,” Keister said.
The owners of Atomic Bowl asked the liquor board to reconsider the rule. After meeting with folks from the entertainment industry, board staff members suggested a change.
If adopted following a public hearing in Olympia next week, the new rules will allow entertainers to drink on stage as long as they are served by state-trained bartenders and servers, drink from nondescript cups, don’t promote any manufacturers and don’t promote drink specials.
Brian Smith, spokesman for the liquor control board, said agency staff concluded there is a difference between a bartender and a band member.
“There isn’t the same public safety risk from a guy playing guitar on stage as a bartender who is drinking and serving others,” Smith said.
So is this an example of bureaucracy or flexibility? What is more telling, the existence of the rule or the willingness to change it?
Bruce Beckett directs government affairs for the Washington Restaurant Association. He said the organization strongly supports I-1183. But Beckett said he finds liquor board staff and members to be helpful and “very open to changing the rules.”
Keister said that while it is considered bad form to be drunk on stage, every era has comedians who make drinking part of their act – think Dean Martin, Foster Brooks or, currently, Ron White.
While Martin and Brooks were said to be faking it, White will have a lit cigar and real scotch when he performs at the Emerald Queen next month. While the state’s smoking ban doesn’t cover tribal casinos, the liquor board does have jurisdiction there and the casino would be in violation if White drinks on stage, the board’s Smith said.
Good thing, then, that if the board approves the new rules Oct. 19 as expected, they will take effect 30 days later – just in time for White’s sold-out Nov. 19 show.