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The Way the Music Died

[whitespace] Oliver Brown
George Sakkestad

Music Man: Ukulele-wielding local musician Oliver Brown vows to fight for changes to the city's entertainment ordinance with his newly formed Performance Artists' Guild.

Is the city muzzling the local entertainment scene?

By Mary Spicuzza

WHEN OLIVER BROWN led a march to City Hall the night of May 25, the bespectacled musician wasn't waving signs or shouting chants, nor did he storm the council chambers.

Brown's medium of protest was the ukulele.

He strummed and sang to draw attention to how the city's entertainment ordinance is stifling local musicians and artists and hamstringing small performance venues with an expensive and unreasonable permit policy.

Stopping in the courtyard, he picked up his four-stringed instrument and launched into the show he'd hoped to perform at So Say We restaurant that same night, until being told such a performance was illegal.

"Police harassment threatens a unique, small, Santa Cruz performance venue (Again)," that night's Oliver Brown Ukulele Recital Souvenir Program reads. "The police cannot silence the ukulele."

Song-and-Dance Act

DAVID JACKMAN, owner and chef of So Say We, has periodically hosted Brown since the eatery opened three years ago. Jackman canceled the Tuesday evening show at the last minute after receiving a letter from Lt. Patricia Sapone of the Santa Cruz PD's community services section.

"Continuing to have live entertainment without proper permits in your business will subject you and your staff to citation for violation of the municipal code," Sapone wrote.

The determined ukulele maestro quickly formed a new Performance Artists' Guild. The group went to City Hall that night, where fans lounged around the fountain as Brown strummed his songs about Santa Cruz.

"It was a beautiful form of social protest," marvels Councilmember Christopher Krohn.

Brown is one of many performers who say that Sapone has gone on some kind of crusade. As a result, they've gotten a crash course on Section 5.44 of the municipal code, which states that any "person conducting entertainment in the City of Santa Cruz must first obtain approval of an Entertainment Permit from the Chief of Police."

The permits cost $732, renewable annually for $339. If performers use amplification, the city requires additional permits ranging from $500 to $1,100, depending on the business location and whether alcohol is sold.

Neither permit considers factors like whether the venues charge admission, have limited seating or pay the performers.

"We don't make any distinctions. We don't have the authority to do so," says city principal planner Meredith Marquez. "That would have to come from City Council."

The code doesn't affect only musicians.

"The City of Santa Cruz defines entertainment as: Any act, play, review, pantomime, scene, dance, or song and dance act. Any form of live music, bands, live vocal or instrumental sound. Any form of dancing. Any fashion or style show," the police department's permit application states.

Although not a new policy, the 37-year-old ordinance is no longer a municipal code wallflower. Sapone says she sent letters to five businesses in late May after seeing them in the club listings of a local paper and noting they didn't have entertainment permits on file.

"Being a member of the community, I was concerned about a group of businesses advertising entertainment without obtaining permits," Sapone says. "There is a fairness issue. It's also a public safety issue."

So Say We canceled Oliver Brown's show, while blues man Robert Lowery was notified he can't play at Espresso Royale Caffe until the coffee shop obtains permits. Espresso Royale manager Kiri Nielsen says that she may have to wait until December before applying because of the high permit fees.

"Royale is no jail-house club. It's no rock & roll juke joint," Lowery says. "These rules are totally ridiculous. If I were on the City Council, I'd try to find another way to get money than taking it from small businesses."

In addition, the Poet & Patriot Irish Pub can no longer use microphones for performances, and Robert Holdridge can't play his keyboard at Positively Front Street until both venues obtain amplification permits.

The Piano Man

HOLDRIDGE's flip-flops gracefully tap the pedals of his 1901 mahogany cabinet grand piano as he plays the opening chords of "Around Midnight." Diners sitting under the toy train tracks lining the walls watch the blond musician sitting atop the restaurant's raised performance platform.

Holdridge, who has played piano locally for 11 years, performed with an electric keyboard and sang into a microphone at Positively Front Street until last month.

Manager Heidi Bishop recently learned that live music performances were illegal because Positively Front Street didn't have the proper permits. She obtained a permit from the police department, but Holdridge's amplification resulted in another warning.

"We're being called a nightclub now," Bishop says. "But we're not going to be having huge shows, just a little blues band or piano music for atmosphere."

To keep playing, Holdridge moved his antique Schiller piano to the restaurant and paid out of his pocket to have it tuned. But the microphone is still a code violation.

"I can sit up there and play and shout my lyrics, but it would be nice if I didn't have to," Holdridge says. "We've never had a complaint about my playing; it's just against the law. Only I don't know who they're trying to protect."

Holdridge describes Santa Cruz as a town with a wealth of local musicians and artists. He says that rather than exploit the resource, the city is tangled in excessive bureaucracy that harms local businesses and artists alike.

Both Brown and Holdridge are steamed that the police crackdown seems to be based on overzealous enforcement rather than actual complaints. But Mayor Katherine Beiers suggests that it's not any added permit regulations causing the uproar but rather new business owners learning old rules.

"It's come up quite a bit over the past few years," Beiers says. "I think it's because so many new businesses have opened."

Broken Mic

CHRIS MATTHEWS pours Guinness over a spoon, creating a masterfully separated half-and-half. Passing his bumper-sticker-covered wall, he props himself on one of the Poet and Patriot's bar stools. The longtime local pub owner wrinkles his brow, staring down at his entertainment permit.

"I've been in this community for 17 years," Matthews says. "We're not a threat to the community--we're part of it. Especially local Irish culture."

The Poet's permit only allows acoustic music, and the bar was busted for using a microphone during its Saturday "Open Mic," which was held from 4 to 7pm. Sapone sent Matthews a warning letter explaining that someone had complained about amplifiers, and notified him that providing live entertainment before 5pm on Saturdays was also a violation of his permit.

Matthews says he wants to provide a venue for local musicians and visiting speakers but hasn't decided whether he can afford more money for additional amplification permits. "All this stuff costs money," he says. "Just for me to apply it's nearly $1000. And that's just to ask."

Tiya Louis, a Poet regular and local singer who performs at the Poet's "Open Mic," says the first event without a microphone was held last Saturday.

"It's so hard to yell and sing," Louis says. "I had a sore throat by the first song." She says musicians now call Saturday Poet shows "Broken Mic."

"We're going to be having Katherine Beiers speak soon," Matthews says. "And when the mayor speaks here, I'd like to be able to amplify her voice so people can hear her."

United Artists

WHILE SOME QUESTION why the city pays Sapone to promote a "Play a Ukulele, Go to Jail" agenda by busting small-time entertainment, others are looking beyond enforcement and calling for a change in the ordinance.

"The police enforce the law; that's their job," Jackman says. "But we are a small business. The music is free. I would like to see the ordinance take those factors into account."

For now, Jackman and Sapone have resolved the problem at So Say We, which will be allowed to piggyback on the performance permit for the adjoining Santa Cruz Dance Gallery. But questions about the code remain.

"I've been speaking with other councilmembers about bringing people together to address the relationship between police, local business owners and the community," Krohn says.

Vice mayor Keith Sugar, who is now drafting a letter about amending permit fees, says he'd like to see some flexibility built into the ordinance. "I think it would be wise to convert the system into a sliding-scale instead of a one-size-fits-all approach," Sugar says.

Some local business owners decline to discuss the issue, expressing a fear of retaliation if they speak against the police department. Many say both the crackdown on permits and the new alcohol tax indicate a building of prohibitionary and anti-entertainment attitudes among city law enforcement personnel.

"I absolutely do support the ordinance," says Sapone in defense of her enforcement policy. "You have to look at the potential for harm, like the tragic nightclub fires throughout history. There are concerns about safety, as well as garbage and graffiti."

Oliver Brown believes organizing his Performance Artists' Guild is needed to protect small venues from excessive bureaucracy. The ordinance should be changed, he argues, to take the arts into account.

"We need to present a united front," Brown says, peering through his thick-rimmed classes. "I just want to play a ukulele and sing my songs. It's not a threat to anyone."

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From the June 16-23, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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