Repealing NYC’s 91-Year-Old Cabaret Law Is a First Step, Not the End of an Error

Steve Lewis Repealing NYC’s 91-Year-Old Cabaret Law Is a First Step, Not the End of an Error

Crowds were dancing in the streets Tuesday as NYC lifted a 91-year-old law that prevented dancing in most bars, lounges, restaurants, and nightclubs. Revelers saw this as a victory of the young and woke over the forces of old and evil.

The law seemed racist when it was first launched in 1926 and used against jazz clubs and speakeasies. It required that venues have a license and performers get a cabaret card, the fee for which included fingerprinting and background checks. The latter prohibited Ray Charles and Billie Holiday from NYC engagements. It was lifted in large part because Frank Sinatra, the most popular act in America, refused to get fingerprinted and wasn’t going to perform in NYC until that gaffe was corrected.

But the cabaret law remained. Giuliani, New York’s former quality-of-life Mayor, used it to shut down places that didn’t bootstep to his concept of proper behavior. The thing about clubs, though, is they aren’t places where proper behavior should be expected or curated. Mayor Bloomberg declared that he wouldn’t police dancing and for the most part called off the dogs. This week Mayor de Blasio made it official.

Amid all the hoopla and celebration over legalizing the freedom of expression that most people see dance to be, I can’t help but see cause for concern. Is this action all that it’s cracked up to be? Or, as one source who chose to remain anonymous lamented, is it “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”? This source told me that “like any city law or action it will be open to interpretation by city agencies and most of the old rules still remain.”

For instance, zoning regulations, fire suppression and exit regulations still exist and must still be adhered to. “So a bar with one exit door and no sprinkler system still cannot have dancing?” I asked. He answered with an emphatic “Correct.” I pushed on: “Will this mean that warehouse parties and underground events could be targeted?” He answered, “These parties are usually not zoned for dancing nor are they compliant with safety laws, and they could easily be shut down by the police depending on whether they have pissed off the cops.” In other words, he said, “little has changed.”

I asked Robert Bookman of Pesetsky & Bookman, pretty much the preeminent attorney dealing with liquor and cabaret licensing, what the reality was. Is the repeal of this 91-year-old law really the greatest thing that ever happened to our dance and club community?

“The cabaret law is old and outdated, to be sure,” Bookman said. “But it is misleading to say that it determines which businesses can allow patron dancing.” He listed other laws pertaining to zoning, fire safety codes, and SLA rules that come into play.

“After repeal, any place where it it currently illegal to allow dancing will still be illegal to have dancing,” Bookman said. “The only thing that will have changed is the end of the process, the cabaret license, which was not difficult to obtain, will no longer be needed. Everything else will still be needed.”

If Bookman is correct, and my experience tells me he is, then not much will change under this repeal. Some club owners pointed out that, in order to obtain their cabaret licenses, they spent money on lawyers, installing panels that automatically notified the Fire Department in an emergency, sprinklers, strobe lights and many other safety features, and had trained staff.  These requirements seem to still be in effect.

“It is as if they are getting rid of the checklist, but keeping all the items on the checklist,” Bookman said. “We do need to review all these laws, which are still enforced by the NYPD and the Fire Department, to see how we can allow for more places to permit dancing while not sacrificing safety.”

I personally was in a club fire at the Great Gildersleeves on the Bowery in April 1979. There were no sprinklers. Everyone ran out the way they came in and many were crushed.  I used a payphone to call the NYFD. A lot of people were badly burned, many in critical condition. It all happened so fast. In a flash, patrons were running around with hair and clothes on fire. Curtains, chairs, and tablecloths were aflame. Bartenders armed with fire extinguishers put most of it out until the firemen rescued all.

Happy Land, an unlicensed Bronx club, was torched by an arsonist in 1990 and 87 people perished. Duran Duran wrote a song about it. After that there was a no-nonsense approach to safety in nightclubs.

A person sitting at a bar is more aware of their surroundings, most of the time, than a person on a packed dance floor. In a club you might not be able to tell a fire is happening quickly enough. Without required sprinkler systems and the checklist stuff required under the cabaret law, a disaster could — god forbid — kill and injure again.

“Mark my words, someday there will be a fire in some bar without two means of egress,” Bookman added, “Without the needed fire alarm or sprinkler that cabarets are required to have, it will be a tragedy and the business will say, ‘But you repealed the cabaret license. I thought it was now legal for me to bring in a deejay, push the tables aside, and have a dance club on the weekend.’”

It’s not. “You still need to be zoned for dancing, you still need to the fire safety systems,” Bookman said, as well as Service Level Approval (SLA) approval and C of O and PA permits. “None of that has changed.”

That said, the nightlife community and its advocates are celebrating this as a victory.

“The repeal of the cabaret law is breathing new life into New York nightlife,” said Ariel Palitz, a former operator and community board member and a leading candidate for head of the new Office of Nightlife. She believes that this, plus the announcement of the nightlife DON appointment, demonstrate how “a common sense and supportive approach to the hospitality industry is replacing the over-regulation and criminalization of nightlife, which never benefited anyone.”

Of the 25,000 liquor-licensed establishments in New York City, approximately 100 have a cabaret license, Palitz said. “Reality-based regulation, which aims to genuinely improve quality of life and nightlife for residents and revelers, is mutually beneficial to the betterment of our city as a whole.“

Gerard McNamee, former general manager at Webster Hall and also a candidate for the head of the Office of Nightlife, was ecstatic. “The cabaret laws have been the bane of Gotham proprietors and revelers alike since the days of Prohibition,” he said. ” It’s a long time coming, let’s dance!  Congratulations New York City.”

I asked Greg Brier, the owner and operator of Good Room in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, whether he felt the repeal would create new competition for his venue. Greg replied, “Hallelujah! It’s just natural. How do you play music and tell people they can’t dance… Music is freeing, beautiful.” He added, “Best thing to happen to nightlife in 91 years. Music is the answer.”

“It is a message that New York is truly beginning to recognize and respect the industry that brings so much to its culture, economy and identity,” Palitz said. “It is also a testimony of the power of the people who never gave up on what New York is and can be.”

Ok we did! Lol #HouseCoalition

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But I worry the repeal is ultimately misunderstood. An anonymous source told me, “It’s a Trojan Horse, like most things in city politics. It all depends on how it is interpreted and acted upon.”

On the plus side, the repeal should result in increased work for up-and-coming deejays, a more vibrant and diverse nightlife scene, and additional revenue for small bars and restaurants. Those who believe they now have the right (or even the obligation) to allow dancing, however, are likely unaware that the checklist that precedes a cabaret license hasn’t gone anywhere.

Bookman calls the repeal “a good first step, but that’s all it is.” “So is it still illegal to dance?” I asked him. “I’m not sure people are aware of this.”

“Unfortunately that is correct,” Bookman replied. “People are not aware of this, which is what concerns me about this repeal. It’s being presented as a great liberation that it’s not … And every time I explain this to someone they go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.’”

In other words, New Yorkers may hear the music louder than ever before, but we still have to check ourselves while dancing in the streets.

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