On the first night that Safari Sam's in Huntington Beach went dark after city officials deemed live entertainment at the club verboten , owners Sam Lanni and Gil Fuhrer were still in shock.
"I never thought something like this would actually happen," Fuhrer, 25, said Monday, heading back to the tiny club after taking a break for dinner and a movie with his partner.
"I'm stunned--I can't believe it," Lanni, 31, said, punctuating the remark with a slightly nervous and halfhearted laugh. "Maybe we should demonstrate outside of City Hall. Do people demonstrate anymore?"
As midnight neared, Lanni and Fuhrer still hadn't come up with a plan to resume the club's eclectic music, theater and poetry offerings that have earned Safari Sam's a reputation as one of the most adventurous concert clubs in the Southland.
(Tuesday morning, however, Lanni decided to proceed with a demonstration at 6 p.m. today between City Hall and the Police Department at 2000 Main St.)
In addition to showcasing significant new rock acts that had no other forums in Orange County, such as 10,000 Maniacs, the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen, Safari Sam's has presented weekly poetry readings, stagings of plays by Samuel Beckett and Christopher Durang and the premiere of a contemporary opera by composer William Houston.
But after police last week recommended denial of the club's recent application for a new entertainment permit, officers prevented a concert from taking place Sunday night and warned the owners that they would be cited or arrested if they staged any live entertainment without a valid permit. The club's attorney, Gene E. Dorney, said he will request a public hearing before the City Council on the issue.
When Lanni discusses the club's problems with the city, his voice remains calm, his manner always even tempered.
Fuhrer, sort of a new wave, good-humored Lou Costello to Lanni's straight-faced Bud Abbott, said during a concert last week: "I don't know how he does it. I always go wild when anything bad happens, but nothing seems to get to Sam."
The only sign of turmoil beneath Lanni's cool exterior is the incredulity in his voice, one that often seems to speak in italics.
"We're presenting music here, but we are being treated like criminals ," Lanni said. "I thought America was about freedom ." Lanni's notions of freedom and liberty are deeply felt. Born in Italy, Lanni was 4 when he and his mother sailed to the United States in 1958. Two years earlier, his father had made the trans-Atlantic voyage in pursuit of the American dream, which in Lanni's childhood memories was "the image that you could scoop the money up out of the street."
After a short stay in Detroit ("my mother hated it"), the Lannis moved to Anaheim in 1963, and Lanni has lived in or near Orange County since. An avid history student through school, Lanni is as likely to quote the Constitution or the Federalist Papers as the songs by any of the bands that perform at his club.
"We have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Lanni said. "The founding fathers' basic idea was that you can do anything, as long you don't infringe on someone else's rights. That is real freedom."
The owner of two properties near Safari Sam's, however, argues that the club's operation is infringing on his ability to rent apartments and lease building space because of the noise and vandalism that he attributes to club patrons.
The charges against Safari Sam's, along with wide-ranging allegations over numerous aspects of the city's downtown redevelopment plan, were contained in a lengthy letter that property owner Oscar Taylor circulated in August to other Huntington Beach business owners. City Atty. Gail C. Hutton said this week that officials are investigating Taylor's allegations.
Lanni and Fuhrer came together as friends and then business partners from dramatically diverse backgrounds. In contrast to Lanni's Old World heritage, Fuhrer is a Southern California native, born in Long Beach and raised since age 2 in Huntington Beach. In conversation, Fuhrer still occasionally expresses a lifelong resident's pride about his hometown.
Although they opened Safari Sam's in 1984 as a restaurant, it attracted few customers. After experimenting more successfully with booking fledgling local bands, the club shifted its focus to music. Safari Sam's rapidly gained a reputation as a club that treated musicians and fans fairly and subsequently attracted more prestigious and popular groups.
"Those guys are great," musician James Harman once said. "They call me up and get genuinely excited about us playing their club. It's so rare to find a club owner who really cares about the music."
Upon hearing about the termination of music at Sam's, veteran Orange County singer-songwriter Nick Pyzow said Tuesday: "I'm wearing a black armband today. Sam's had such a good, earthy feel to it. I can't believe it."
For the past two years, Lanni and Fuhrer have been trying--without success--to persuade the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to lift restrictions on entertainment that were attached to the location's liquor license under the previous owner.
The issue came to a head when Huntington Beach police terminated an oral agreement permitting live entertainment to continue while Lanni pursued the ABC appeal.
Lanni said that his months of dealing with bureaucracy have made him more cynical, less idealistic.
"It used to be that you could speak up for what was right and it didn't cause you to go broke," Lanni said. "But now with the court system the way it is, and all the attorneys' fees, most people can't afford to do that. We are guilty until proven innocent, and I don't know how long we can fight it."