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O.C. club to face music in permit quest

The Doll Hut's new owner was stunned to learn it had operated illegally for years. Anaheim could decide the venue's fate next week.

July 29, 2007|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

When Juan Reynoso purchased the Doll Hut in Anaheim six months ago, he thought he was getting a storied club known nationally for nurturing upstart Southern California rock bands to prominence.

But shortly after taking over, he discovered his historical haunt had been operating illegally -- for two decades.

City officials told Reynoso that unless he met conditions to obtain a $250 "public dance hall" license, he would be unable to charge customers to see live music.

At the risk of being fined for violating a city ordinance, Reynoso dropped his cover charge and stopped paying the local punk, rockabilly and alternative bands that had been filling the tiny former truck stop almost nightly.

Seven nights a week of live music deteriorated to two or three, and Reynoso began wondering what he had gotten himself into.

"Without the bands, I don't have the customers," he said. "Most nights, this place is dead."

Within a week, the Doll Hut's fate could be decided. The city's planning commission is expected to rule Aug. 6 whether the Doll Hut qualifies for the permit that allows bars to charge for live music.

As word of the club's struggles spread, the Doll Hut's close-knit community rallied around it. Local bands who have a history with the place volunteered to fill vacant dates and bring in crowds to keep the bar afloat.

"Fortunately, there are bands who've had a history with the Doll Hut who don't care if they make a dime," said manager Dirk Belling. "We toyed with the idea of not charging for admission, but asking customers for a donation to give to the band. But we decided those waters were going to be too murky to navigate."

E-mails pleading for city officials to show the Doll Hut mercy came from as far away as Amsterdam and Australia.

"It always smelled of stale beer, cigarettes and sweat," a devotee from Colorado Springs wrote, "but for over 12 years you could see and hear talented folk like: The Offspring; Blink-182, Weezer, Social Distortion and Brian Setzer."

Blues artist Candye Kane, on tour in Milwaukee, wrote: "In this day and age, with live music played by human beings being replaced with DJs playing electronic music, it is more important than ever for live music venues to exist and to receive community support. The Doll Hut represents an era of music that will be wiped out entirely, if the city of Anaheim doesn't recognize its cultural significance."

Linda Jemison, who owned the business from 1989 to 2001, said she was surprised to learn that the Doll Hut's lifeblood -- charging admission to hear live music -- had been against city code all these years.

"I had no idea.... how punk rock is that?" said Jemison, who transformed the bar from a seedy dive into a folksy hangout for local bands in the early '90s. "Of course, I would have abided had I known."

Anaheim officials say they were unaware that the Doll Hut was charging admission until Reynoso mentioned it while reapplying for an entertainment permit.

"I've been around here 32 years and I've never known they've had prominent bands that played there," said planning department official Bill Sell. "During our inspections, we were never there when they were charging a fee. If we were, they'd have been required to have the proper permit."

Jemison said it was widely known that her club charged admission -- ads and listings in The Times, OC Weekly, and the Orange County Register listed cover charges ranging from $5 to $10.

"We didn't charge a cover for the first three or four years," said Jemison. "But we were getting the dregs of society. We found if we charged a cover we could afford better talent and get better clientele."

At a time when many local music venues required fledgling bands to pre-sell tickets before they played, the Doll Hut took a different approach. The bands received the entire take from the door; the bar got everything else.

"We never played into the pay-to-play policy," Jemison said. "We figured people are paying to see the band, they deserve the money."

The club has changed hands several times since Jemison sold it, and every owner has continued to advertise its admission charge in fliers and newspapers. Jemison said it's possible unauthorized shows were overlooked because the bar was tucked away in an industrial area near Interstate 5.

"We did fly under the radar, probably because we took care of our own issues," she said. "We didn't have a lot of problems or fights. All those years, we only had one (liquor license) violation and that was for a video game that had too much nudity."

But now that the Doll Hut is on the spot, new owner Reynoso is doing everything he can to comply with the city's requirements. He has spent thousands of dollars sprucing up the outside by striping the parking lot, adding plants and painting the building's exterior. Inside, a new air conditioning system and a carpeted stage have been installed and a new sound system is coming.

Sell, the Anaheim planning department official, said his staff is recommending that city planners approve the public dance hall permit.

But Belling, the club's manager, is taking no chances. He says he will be at the planning commission meeting to argue that the Doll Hut is a musical landmark the city can't live without.

"We've got a piece of undeniable Orange County rock history," Belling said. "The list of bands that have gone through the Doll Hut and gone on to greater things is significant. We want to make it clear that it will be really hard for the Doll Hut to survive if the owner can't charge admission. Quality entertainment comes at a price."

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dave.mckibben@latimes.com

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