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Playskool Is Closed After ABCs of Liquor Laws Spell Trouble

December 10, 1987|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

SAN DIEGO — Todd Zweig will always remember Nov. 17 as the day the music died.

That's when Hotel San Diego management informed him that his makeshift underground "nightclub," Playskool, was no longer a welcome tenant due to complaints from guests and neighbors.

"Our contract doesn't expire until the end of this year," said Zweig, who every second or third Friday night since October, 1986, had turned the downtown hotel's basement into a disco.

"But they canceled our lease, with no warning, just 10 days before our next date," he said. "That wasn't nearly enough time to find a new home, so the only thing we could do was close down."

Ted Telano, the Hotel San Diego's general manager, said the abrupt eviction of Playskool was prompted by a mandate from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Department.

"They essentially told us that if we didn't cease and desist, we would lose our liquor license. It's really a most-confusing thing because while the ABC said some of the patrons of the club were causing disturbances, there are no official complaints on record.

"So we were caught in the middle. The organizers of Playskool are very professional and responsible people, and we would have liked to have honored our contract.

"But if an official agency tells us to do otherwise, we really don't have a choice. About 25% of our business is based on alcohol sales, and we simply can't give that up."

Zweig, however, is not placated.

"The least they (hotel management) could have done was to give us one final night to throw a send-off party for all the people who came to Playskool during the last year. I even offered to hire additional security at my own expense, but they still said no, so I guess that's it," Zweig said.

Zweig styled Playskool after the underground clubs he frequented in Los Angeles before moving to San Diego four years ago to study business at San Diego State University.

In two of the Hotel San Diego's basement banquet rooms, deejays spun an eclectic mix of new music, techno-pop, heavy metal, soul and reggae dance tunes.

There were selections by popular bands such as Depeche Mode and Motley Crue as well as more obscure outfits, including Cabaret Voltaire and Severed Heads. "It was all dance music," Zweig said, "but not the Top 40 stuff you'd hear at Confetti."

Throughout the night, the music was augmented by a varying roster of go-go dancers, female impersonators, performance artists and fashion shows.

The decor at Playskool was always different. One night, Zweig and his associates covered every wall, every table, every fixture in the place with aluminum foil; another time, they suspended 200 tiny toy parachutists from the ceiling.

"We wanted to give people something to remember us by, not just musically, but visually," Zweig said.

From the start, Playskool was a grand success--drawing as many as 700 young adults, 18 and up, and employing a staff of 36, including deejays, technicians and security guards.

On Oct. 9--the first anniversary of the occasional "club"--Zweig took over two additional banquet rooms. In one, there were more deejays and a full bar; in the other, continuous showings of music, comedy, and campy film videos.

In retrospect, adding a bar wasn't a good thing.

Leslie (Pete) Case, administrator of the ABC's San Diego office, said, "We just became involved in the last 30 or 40 days, apparently when they began serving alcohol.

"We got complaints from some of the people living in the area about noise and other stuff, and we traced it down to this room in the hotel, where some of the patrons were raising hell on the streets."

Underground nightclubs aren't new to San Diego. Club ID has been bringing trendy dance music to several other local discos, on a weekly basis, since the early 1980s.

But Playskool was the only one that didn't cater exclusively to the 21-and-up crowd.

"Regular nightclubs are open all the time, and people tend to get bored rather quickly. But Playskool was a periodic thing, which made it a special event," Zweig said.

Because of this uniqueness, Zweig added, he seldom found a need to advertise. Instead, he relied primarily on word of mouth and on mailers he sent out to 950 regulars.

The few weekly Reader ads he did run, he said, gave only a date, not a location or a time.

"That way, people who wanted to find out about Playskool had to make an effort--they had to ask around, or know someone who was already familiar with us," Zweig said.

"That created a sense of mystery, and it also helped us avoid some of the problems that other nightclubs have. After going to this much trouble, people weren't about to fight or get rowdy; they only wanted to dance and have a good time."

Zweig said he eventually would like to reopen Playskool in a new location. But for now, he's planning to start three weekly, scaled-down underground nightclubs elsewhere: at a downtown warehouse on Market and Union streets, for teens, and at Club Mirage in Mission Valley and Winter's in the college area for adults.

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