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For This Guy, Club-Hopping's a Job

L.A. STORIES: A slice of life in Southern California

April 20, 1993|MARK EHRMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's 8:30 on a Saturday night and Alan Higginbotham is getting ready to make his rounds.

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At 47, Higginbotham knows more about L.A.'s night life than scenesters half his age. Topless joints, gay bars, grungy dives and shimmering ballrooms, "Higgy" hits them all, five or six a night.

He parks right in front. Doormen part their velvet ropes. Owners give him carte blanche to wander their VIP rooms, but he usually just scans the crowd and heads for the exit.

As a fire inspector for the Los Angeles Fire Department, Higginbotham isn't going out to drink and dance.

If the exits are unobstructed and the crowd is under capacity, few will notice him.

If not . . .

"Our mission is not to close clubs down," Higginbotham insists, responding to the antipathy with which the club-going public seems to view his work. "That's the last resort." Usually, Higginbotham will get the owner or manager to correct fire-safety problems.

If a club is found to be overcrowded, however, Higginbotham shuts it for the night. "They don't have the option of reducing that occupant load. It's like being on the freeway, doing 180 m.p.h., and telling the CHP that you'll slow down to 55. It doesn't work that way."

Higginbotham's day started at 2 p.m. He went to a wedding that needed a permit for open flame devices (candles) and inspected the San Pedro Yacht Club. His Central Public Assemblage Unit covers the area stretching from San Pedro, to downtown and Hollywood. Others cover the Westside and Valley.

"We don't just go to nightclubs," Higginbotham says. "We go to hotels, churches, weddings, swap meets and sporting events." Once, a 12-hour sale at the Beverly Center had to be shut when too many shoppers showed up.

Weekends, though, it's bars and clubs. At 9:15 p.m., Higginbotham parks his red LAFD Ford Tempo outside the Hollywood Tropicana, cuts the line and is ushered inside the mud-wrestling establishment.

"Now, that's what I like to see," he says of the cocktail hostesses cruising around the ring. "If the waitresses can't get through, that's when we have a problem.

"We look at the aisles, we look at the exits, maybe take 25% of the room and count those people if we feel there's overcrowding."

The Tropicana's fire-safety record, says Higginbotham, is excellent. Even so, inspections usually turn up potential trouble spots. Tonight, it's a pile of chairs behind an exit. Higginbotham stays until they're cleared out. "I like to straighten out any potential hazards on the spot," he says.

By 10, Higginbotham is back in the car checking his list. "Saturdays we have set places that we hit," he says, "so the owners know that, sooner or later, we'll be back."

The fire department also works from tips to unearth illegal parties and clubs. Often, Higginbotham says, the caller is a club owner.

"A lot of the legal clubs spend lots of money to make their facilities up to par," he says. "They hear of these nightclubs, they give us an anonymous phone call."

The fire inspectors also scan newspaper entertainment listings and call the hot lines on flyers for underground raves and parties.

So far this evening, the tip line has been quiet. At 10:10, Higginbotham pulls up in front of the Florentine Gardens.

As he makes his inspection, the under-21 club begins to fill but remains under its capacity--1,484--according to Higginbotham's list.

Flashlight in hand, he checks exits, making sure the "panic hardware," the bar that runs the width of the door, is operational. Fire-exit doors must open by pushing with any part of the body and swing outward into an unobstructed space.

A common serious violation, Higginbotham says, is locked exits. "To save money, (club owners) will not hire a security guard to maintain those three or four exits in the back. What they will do is put a chain and a lock on the door so one person cannot come in, pay $20, and run out there and open the door and let 20 of his buddies in."

An unlighted exit lamp at the Florentine gets Higginbotham's attention. He fills out a notice. Before he leaves, employees are changing the bulb.

Higginbotham heads to the Continental Club on Cahuenga Boulevard.

"Hey, where you been?" General Manager Tony Keymeplian jovially asks him. Keymeplian shows Higginbotham an unobstructed back exit, behind which, on a previous visit, a valet had unwittingly parked a car. Soon, Keymeplian promises, there will be a concrete pole blocking the space.

By 11:30, Higginbotham is finished with Hollywood. His next stop is Al's Bar, a rock 'n' roll haunt downtown on Hewitt Street. Al's has been shut down once by the fire department.

Rock clubs don't fill up until about midnight, so Higginbotham cruises the warehouse district, looking for clusters of well-dressed young people.

Lately, because of the recession as well as a concerted effort by the police and fire departments, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Higginbotham believes a lot of illegal partying has died down or moved out of Los Angeles.

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