Entertainment for all ages

Janna Smallwood

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Underage wannabe bar patrons always have faced closed doors in DeKalb – until now.

A carefully-constructed arrangement at Otto’s Niteclub, 118 E. Lincoln Highway, will allow patrons ages 18 and older to enter the two-level club’s upstairs for two shows. Mike and Joe will play Sunday night and Rearview Mirror will perform on Wednesday, Jan. 30.

Otto’s co-owner Duff Rice described the arrangement and what he said are air-tight safeguards against underage drinking.

“We’re removing every drop of alcohol from the bars upstairs, we’re locking it all up,” he said. “We’re removing tap handles. Essentially we’re turning the upstairs into your basic live music theater or venue without alcohol.”

Alcohol will not even be accessible to bartenders upstairs, he added.

Alcoholic beverages still will be served in the underground, but to prevent patrons from bringing drinks upstairs, not even empty cups will be allowed past bouncers.

“I can’t see anybody having a problem with it,” Rice said. “I can understand the concern if there was alcohol available to some people and not others. But that’s not even the case here.”

At least one city official does have a problem with the arrangement, however.

“The mayor has found a way to do what I see as compromising the current ordinance,” said 4th ward Ald. Kris Povlsen.

“I think to bend the rules and find a loophole where we expose underaged people to alcohol is a slap in the face to the community,” he added.

Povlsen said the plan defies a decision made 16 months ago, which turned down a similar proposal by another establishment. Though he is displeased with the arrangement, believing that it could lead to more leniency with liquor laws in the future, Povlsen said some part of the arrangement must be in accordance with the law, or it would not be allowed.

Mayor Greg Sparrow said as DeKalb’s liquor commissioner, he thinks the arrangement rests safely under the law and will benefit the city.

“This goes back to the whole liquor commission/liquor commissioner issue when I came into office,” Sparrow said.

Police Chief Bill Feithen and City Attorney Margo Ely advised Sparrow on the decision. Previously, such decisions had to pass through a liquor commission appointed by former mayor Bessie Chronopoulos, which Sparrow said was comprised of “lay people.” Sparrow said he doesn’t need a commission to advise him.

“I am the liquor commission,” he said. “What I have in place is more than adequate.”

Sparrow said that if Otto’s was willing to temporarily forfeit its liquor license in the upstairs for the purpose of entertainment, then he could see no harm, given the unique structure of the establishment.

“He’s trying to explore every avenue possible,” Sparrow said, speaking of Rice’s efforts to accommodate different crowds. “My feeling was, ‘Hey, go ahead and try it.'”

Feithen agreed that the Otto’s building affords it a secure arrangement that other establishments could not offer without renovating. He said proposals in the past by businesses such as Amnesia, 1000 W. Lincoln Highway, involving fence-type barriers and bracelets, could not offer the complete separation of the Otto’s building. Separate bathroom facilities on Otto’s two levels also are a factor which makes that separation possible.

Feithen added that businesses must face changes in market demands. Otto’s is trying to better serve the DeKalb market.

“It’s important for government not to automatically say ‘no’ to businesses and citizens,” he said. “If we can work together on proposals, it’s being responsive to the community. But of course, there are certain times when you have to draw the line.”

Junior marketing major Bob Craycraft, who is 21 years old and occasionally goes to bars, tended to agree with Povlsen.

“It’s a 21-and-older-type place – they shouldn’t be allowed in there, considering the laws in this country,” he said, though he admitted he had tried to sneak into bars underaged.

Craycraft added that the arrangement could lead to tightened rules on the bars if problems arise.

Another student disagreed. Junior accounting major Joe True, 20, likes the idea.

“It’s OK as long as Otto’s regulates it and makes sure something like what happened at Arcade Dreams (an establishment with a long history of underage admission problems) doesn’t happen,” he said. “I think students have the right to enjoy themselves while in college, as long as it’s done legally.”

Rice said entertaining students and DeKalb residents is the owners’ main goal in the arrangement, not profit.

“We’ll definitely not make as much money doing an 18-and-older show,” said Rice. “But we’re in this business for live music, and to bring live music to DeKalb for the local population and the students at NIU.”Nicole billadeau photo

The Violet Femmes performed at Otto’s in April 2001. It was one of the few high-profile performances in DeKalb over the last few years.