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'Jail House' Gala Has Lock on Uniqueness

June 29, 1989|David Nelson

SAN DIEGO — More than 500 North County residents paid up to $100 each Saturday to gain admission to a place that just about everyone would pay much more to avoid.

"Unique" may be one of the most overused words in the lexicon, but it seemed a wild understatement when employed by the sponsors of "Jail House Rock." The term unquestionably did describe the gala (!) opening of the new County Jail in Vista, which--and you may take this as etched in granite--would be a finalist in any competition to name the most unusual social event in county history.

The event combined elements of the surreal, of Dadaism and of the Twilight Zone. Yet the crowd, many in jeans and T-shirts in response to the 1950s dress code, was as comfortably Middle American as Dagwood and Blondie, and it kept a cheerful countenance while touring the sparkling new but inherently dreary cells, watching clips of Elvis Presley in his "Jailhouse Rock" film in the TV room and dancing (under the stars and secure steel mesh) in an outdoor recreation yard. The jail will begin booking prisoners July 15, and will accept them for housing on Sept. 1; the inmate population is expected eventually to number nearly 1,000 men and women.

The Sheriff's Department presented the fund-raiser as a benefit for six youth- and crime victim-related organizations, including the Vista Boys and Girls Clubs, the Women's Resource Center, Crime Stoppers and the Crime Victims Fund. Advance publicity provoked a number of negative responses from North County residents angered by reports of brutality in the jail or by the fact that beer and wine would be for sale at the fund-raiser, but there were no demonstrators at the event.

Sheriff's Capt. Jim Marmack, chief administrator of the jail, dismissed the protesters as a noisy minority.

"I think some of the discontent has been generated by individuals who have it in for the sheriff (John Duffy) or the Sheriff's Department, and I think they're using this event as a vehicle to express their displeasure," Marmack said.

Several of the beneficiaries received complaints from members of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) when it was learned that beer and wine would be available. Event organizers responded with elaborate measures to ensure against the chance of any inebriates taking the wheel.

"We're breaking our backs over the drunk-driver issue," Lt. Scott McClintock said. "We're offering free soft drinks to nondrinking 'designated drivers,' there are three breath-analysis machines available to all and free taxi rides for anyone who wants one." McClintock expressed the doubt that few guests, if any, would require these services. These precautions seemed even more appropriate when considered in terms of the peculiar California numerology that might have prompted home-bound party-goers in 501s to fear being issued 502s while doing 65 on the 78, 5 or 15.

"We stole the idea for 'Jail House Rock' from other counties that have held benefit openings at their new jails," said Sgt. Craig Beery, one of the key event organizers. "For most people, this will be the only opportunity they'll ever have to enjoy themselves at a jail, and the whole thrust of it is the charities we're benefiting. It's a unique opportunity to help them." Both San Bernardino and Sonoma counties, which will soon open new detention facilities, had observers on the scene to pick up possible fund-raising ideas.

Few guests seemed concerned with serious issues. They were there to party, and, as everyone said, it was a unique , once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in spaces where revelry will not be the norm.

It seemed more than a little odd to pass through barred portals decorated with bouquets of orange, blue and white balloons, but that is exactly the experience encountered by the guests who crossed the Vista version of the Bridge of Sighs. First stop was the holding area, where guests could be booked, fingerprinted, photographed, arraigned before one of 10 robed judges and tossed into a holding cell, where they remained until bail was posted (it only seemed fair when the judges demanded higher-than-average bail for attorneys). It was estimated that proceeds from these interesting escapades and from ticket sales would produce a net take of $15,000.

The stark setting continually clashed with the lighthearted mood. The royal blue, Bozo orange and concrete gray color scheme made the premises look less grim than those in a Jimmy Cagney penitentiary film, but nor were the spare steel furnishings and high, narrow window slits copied from Architectural Digest. Even so, about 40 guests paid $100 apiece (regular tickets cost $35 each) to enjoy the ultimate experience, "Slumber in the Slammer," which entitled them to stay overnight in a cell. Among those who took the full American plan, as it were, was Duffy.

Cells are designed to hold one inmate only, but McClintock said that spouses who could not bear to be parted from the old ball-and-chain were welcome to drag mattresses into their mates' accommodations.

Guests danced to a 50s-style rock 'n' roll band called the Immortals, competed in a Hula Hoop contest and dined on roast beef and turkey at linen-draped steel tables in the cell modules.

The hit dance song of the evening was, unsurprisingly, "Jail House Rock," but some guests did not wait to hear it. One who left the party early paused just outside the entrance to peer at the stars and swallow a bellyful of fresh air. Turning to her companions, she said, "It was fun to come here, but the best part of seeing this place is looking at it over your shoulder as you leave."

The event committee included Nancy Maes, Trudy Miller, Ted Snoddy, Alan Truitt, Kelly Carrier, David Vinegrad, Vicki McDonald, Howard Amend, Molly Cartmill, Judith Ross, Denise Frye and John Falconer.

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