I hauled my handcart across the salt flats into Salt Lake City and was fortunate to go to work for some great people at KALL. I knew nothing of Utah or its culture and got my first lesson from my new boss, Bennie Williams, when he drove me up to the Capitol to show me the valley. It was June, and I was stunned at the beauty of the valley framed by the Wasatch Range’s snowcapped peaks. Then, Bennie drove me down to KALL’s studios, located at the time on South Temple, and I noticed that nobody was out on the sidewalks—or in cars on the street, for that matter. I asked Bennie, “Where is everybody?” “In church,” he replied. “All of them?” I asked.
Bennie became my mentor and guide to all things Utah. He took me to a couple of private clubs, and I thought these must be very exclusive because you had to be a member to get in. I soon learned that the designation “private club” was far from an elite status and that they were more dens of iniquity only patronized by the dregs of society because members were “drinkers.”
At the time, restaurants didn’t serve cocktails, but rather, some had little liquor closets that one would have to walk over to in order to buy minibottles. Then you’d take them to your table and order a “set-up” from your server. You had to pour your own mini into the glass of ice; the server wasn’t allowed to touch it. I found this mysterious ritual laughable as well as annoying. I was told that this was an improvement from just a year before I got here, when private clubs had liquor lockers that you had to stock yourself so you’d have your own bottle of demon rum to could get a drink from.
Then, I was introduced to the practice of brownbagging. You could have a drink, but you had to bring your own bottle. My next question was, “Where is the liquor store?” There were only a few, and because it was against the law to advertise alcohol, the state stores were only recognizable by a very small yellow sign in the corner of a window indicating it as such. To this day, some of the stores have all the charm of detention centers with their junior-high school wood shelves.
The upside of all these bizarre rules, hoops, mysteries and quirks was a wealth of material for my radio show. When things were slow, I could always make fun of mini-bottles. All I had to do was say, “Utah liquor laws” and the laughs started immediately. What was so amazing is that the laws were written by people who knew nothing about consuming adult beverages and actually hated the idea that Prohibition was no longer in effect.
For a culture that—for the most part—abhorred the use of alcohol, the way the laws were crafted actually encouraged drinkers to consume more. Mini-bottles actually made every drink almost a double, and the law forbidding leaving an establishment with a partially consumed bottle of wine caused patrons to drink every last drop before going home.
Over the years, changes were made and restaurants were allowed to serve drinks as long as they didn’t constitute more than 30 percent of their sales. They also had to build some sort of barrier between the bottles and customers.
Some of the funniest stories come from the state needing to open another liquor store. The number of stores—as well as liquor licenses—was calculated by means of an arbitrary equation involving the state’s population.
I attended one such public meeting in a school auditorium involving locating a liquor store on 7200 South 2100 East. You would have thought they were proposing opening a toxic-waste dump. They railed about the increase in traffic, children being run over by booze customers, children’s minds being tainted by the presence of a liquor store in their neighborhood, and on and on. It was theater of the absurd at its best. End of the day: They opened the liquor store and none of the apocalyptic horror ever occurred.
Fast forward to Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr.’s first term of office. He realized that the liquor laws were a joke and made Utah a laughing stock. The laws also hampered economic development as well as hurt tourism and conventions. He called me and asked if I would serve on his transition team on the alcohol committee with three other prominent gentlemen. I was flattered and jumped at the chance. Our report was based on interviews, both pro and con, with various groups as well as restaurant, club and tavern owners. The conclusions were obvious that the biggest issue was private clubs. They served no purpose and were a constant source of frustration and puzzlement to visitors and citizens alike.
The most fun I had was with Dr. George Van Komen, who headed up the Alcohol Coalition. This was an anti-alcohol group that, in reality, consisted of Van Komen and his like-minded friends. I enjoyed sparring with Van Komen over the years, and we actually got along quite well despite our differences. To complete my work with the governor’s committee, I thought it would be fun to see just how much Van Komen actually knew about living under the private-club law. I invited him to go on a pub crawl.
First stop was the Oyster Bar. I told Van Komen that I was going to be his guest, and he would have to deal with memberships and the like. He coughed up the money for a temporary membership to the Oyster Bar; he had a Diet Coke, and I ordered Scotch on the rocks. With the 1 ounce rule in effect, I ordered a side car, another ounce. I asked the bartender how much my drink was, and he said “Seven dollars.” (I like good Scotch). I then asked him how much for the one-ounce side car. He said, “Seven dollars.” Van Komen’s eyes got big when I told him that he was looking at a glass that now cost $14.
Our next stop was the now-closed Port O’ Call. Again, I followed his lead and, this time, when he was asked to buy a membership, they asked for his driver license. He reluctantly gave it and was very disturbed when they entered his personal information into their computer. He expressed that this was very intrusive. All I could do was laugh and tell him that now he knows what everybody else has to go through just to get in, regardless of whether they drink or not.
By the end of the evening, he was quite willing to admit that the private-club law was stupid. My work was done. In 2009, after finally coaxing the Legislature, Gov. Huntsman accomplished what I thought impossible: He got rid of the private-club law as well as the silly Zion Curtains in restaurants (separating drinkers from where drinks are made), making my dream of legalizing adulthood in Utah a reality.