In 1988, young Karen Toshima was gunned down by crossfire between rival gangs in the affluent area of Westwood Village, CA. In the subsequent weeks, L.A.P.D. flooded the district, known for its proximity to UCLA and as a hotspot for Los Angeles nightlife. So began the downfall of Westwood. Over the next 15 years, this prime location for Hollywood movie premieres, bars, and restaurants transformed into a moribund, decaying relic of the go-go 80’s.
There were many reasons for the Village’s deterioration, but one of the contributing factors was that Westwood suddenly transformed into a real-life version of the town in Footloose. A knee-jerk reaction to the shooting by the City Council resulted in a ban on the issuance of cabaret licenses in the Village. And if you wanted your patrons to dance in your establishment, you had to have a cabaret license.
Ergo, no dancing. Let’s hear it for the boys.
Twenty-two years have gone by. I’ve lived in Los Angeles that entire time. I’ve seen the decline of Westwood and its recent resurgence, albeit without most of the primo movie theatres that had peppered the area. The stars had long ago shifted the glittery premieres elsewhere. A few legendary storefronts survived.
But to this day, there is no dancing in Westwood.
In the film, the town’s collective feet were held in cement by religious rigidity. In Westwood, it’s because an inept City Council is too concerned with its own image and bankrupt coffers to take up “old business”. Unfortunately, this old business is killing current business at the W Hotel on Hilgard Avenue. Like most in the W chain, its design is joyously hip – from the lighted frosted glass stairway leading to the front doors, to the Post-Cubist bar, right on down to the sleek woods and upscale ambience.
While enjoying drinks in aforementioned bar, staff members told me how the hotel had openly flaunted the ban on dancing. On many nights, a DJ would groove from the far end of the bar while guests and locals busted their respective moves. Quality liquor, a solid menu from a terrific chef, and simple old-fashioned fun, ruled.
Until the night a fire marshal unexpectedly appeared. No cabaret license meant no dancing. He shut the party down. The W fought bitterly, taking its case to court, losing, and paying a hefty fine in the process.
Today, the young staffer tells me, the bar is dead. The dance ban killed them. I looked over my shoulder. It was 6 PM on a Tuesday. The hotel wasn’t far from an enormous business district. It should be packed with the after-work crowd, recession or not. Yeah, a pocket of businessmen sat quietly in a corner. Other than that, I had the 40-foot-bar to myself.
“Most of us have had to take a second job,” she said, “because no business means no tips. And on the weekends, there’s a big banner up on the wall where the DJ used to be. It says ‘No Dancing'”.
“What if someone just can’t help themselves, and they pull a Ren McCormack?” I asked.
“We have to ask them to stop”, she replied glumly, and poured me a martini. All I could think of was the opening to the movie’s title song:
I been working so hard
Keep punching my card
Eight hours, for what?
And so the curse of an obsolete ordinance, passed in a moment of fear 22 years ago, impacts working folks today. The sheer stupidity of government – stemming from a bizarre insistence on paternalism – always has the same effect.
The people aren’t helped. The people suffer.
So if you live in Los Angeles, sweep on over to the W in Westwood. Stride into the bar and hand a copy of this article to the staff. Tell them Larry sent you. Order a drink, have a cheese plate with fig paste, and pass the time. You’ll drop some dough, but you’ll feel good about it. Tip your servers. Glance around. If you don’t see a fire marshal, do a little jig, then quickly return to your seat.
Then write the City Council, wake the Rip Van Winkles out of their ignorant slumbers, and tell them it’s 2010, for Heaven’s sake.
It’s time to cut loose, Footloose.