Peering through a window of Thousand Oaks' Red Onion just after 1 a.m., manager Michael Catanzarite smiled tolerantly at the teen-age girls in bustiers and tight shorts dancing under purple disco lights.
"People perceive this place as a pit of sin, but really the kids are mainly jacked up on dancing and being around the opposite sex," he said. "If you look, it's pretty innocent--just kids dancing and sweating."
But local politicians aren't convinced.
Disturbed by reports of underage drinking, bloody fistfights and booming rock 'n' roll, the City Council has drawn up a new ordinance designed to cool the hot spot with a slew of regulations.
The Planning Commission will review the proposed ordinance tonight, the first step toward codifying it as city law. The City Council is scheduled to take final action on the measure Aug. 3.
If approved, the ordinance would limit one of the Red Onion's most popular features: the "Over 18 Night," which attracts about 500 revelers every Sunday and Monday, two-thirds of them under the legal drinking age of 21. The new law would permit minors in nightclubs only if the bar were shut down, to prevent teen-agers from mingling with alcohol-imbibing patrons.
"As a police officer, I think you're asking for trouble if you serve alcohol in a nightclub atmosphere with juveniles present," said Sgt. Bruce Hansen, a crime-prevention specialist who helped draft the regulation.
Councilman Frank Schillo added: "The temptation's just too great."
Police and neighbors credit the Red Onion with improving its image tremendously over the last few weeks, due to stepped-up security and a sound engineer's efforts to keep the noise down. But they want assurance that the club will remain safe and quiet--and they see the ordinance as one guarantee.
Eliminating alcohol sales during Over 18 Night "will put a real lid on things," said Bob Hemstreet, manager of the nearby Best Western Oaks Lodge. Many of his hotel's rooms look out onto the Red Onion parking lot, and the noise and violence has "cost us so much business over the years that we're not going to put up with it any more," Hemstreet said.
But the ordinance enrages Red Onion managers, who say the club depends on alcohol sales to turn a profit during nighttime hours.
The $6 cover charge for minors doesn't begin to cover the cost of security guards on Over 18 Night, they said. Fully half the club's gross take on Sundays and Mondays comes from selling drinks to patrons 21 and older, who wear plastic bracelets to indicate their identification has passed the bouncer's scrutiny.
"We don't make the kind of money they think we're making," said general manager Jim Camuso, who has won praise from city officials and police for cracking down on furtive underage drinking in the club's parking lot.
"If their intent is to close us down, it's ludicrous," Camuso said. "This is a community service. We're providing a safe environment for more than 500 kids. If they weren't here, they'd go to the mall parking lot and down a six-pack or do drugs."
Banning alcohol sales during Over 18 Night would probably force the club to shut down Sundays and Mondays for financial reasons, Red Onion managers said. And that would disappoint a lot of teen-agers, who insist they come to the nightclub for dance and romance--and not to get drunk.
"I come here all the time because this is where the ladies are," said Simi Valley resident Jeremy MacLean, 20, as he strutted down the sidewalk outside the Red Onion, located on West Hillcrest Drive.
With his gel-slicked hair, baggy black jeans and thick silver cross, MacLean was ready for action. "What else are we going to do, stay home and watch 'Jeopardy!' ?" he scoffed. "This is awesome."
His only gripe: The Red Onion hadn't yet brought in any female strip-teasers to match the "California Hunks," who rip off their clothes every Monday night and pose for pictures with adoring fans.
Clutching one of those photographs--of herself surrounded by muscle-bound men in colorful bikinis--Kathy DeWeese, 18, dashed out of the Red Onion just after midnight for an impromptu gossip session with some friends.
Only one of her friends was old enough to drink. But even so, everyone in the group considered herself a hardcore Red Onion fan.
"I just love to dance, and it never gets too rowdy here," said DeWeese, a Ventura resident. "If this closes down, what would we resort to?"
Technically, the ordinance could apply only to new nightclubs, not existing hot spots.
But city staffers said they would be able to impose the conditions on the Red Onion--including the ban on selling alcohol during minors' nights--because the restaurant's permits are due for review by the Planning Department.
"As far as being a panacea for existing problems, I don't think so," said Planning Commission Chairman Forrest Frields. "But (the ordinance) does give us some tools to better react to problems."