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License to Amuse

Sounds like it ought to be easier to come by, doesn't it?

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Rule number one: no creepy-looking dudes. Number two: no fat chicks. Otherwise, anything goes at Wicker Park's Jerkstore, HQ for Johnny Love's frivolous, slightly depraved parties.

For a little over a year, approximately once a month, Love's been throwing these events with his Opaque Project promotions posse, most of them with offensive themes, such as Bali Disco Bomb, a soiree marking the three-year anniversary of the 2002 terrorist bombing of two Bali nightclubs; Bela Lugosi Is Undead, a parody of goth culture; and Wet Hot American Slutbag, which requires no explanation. Every Jerkstore event I've been to has had more half-naked people than the last. The goal is to get people as undressed as possible, Love says, because "clothing is a tangible representation of uptightness"--when you shed your clothes you shed your inhibitions.

While walking to Daddy's Goodnight Blowjob last Saturday night (girls were required to wear pigtails, guys had to have mustaches, everyone in pajamas) my two girlfriends and I passed a woman with spiky black hair at the corner of Damen and Division. She looked us up and down and scoffed, "What, are you guys going to that supercool DJ party or something?" There seems to be a general disdain around town for the elitist tone of Love's parties, which are RSVP only--though not exactly exclusive, seeing as how anyone who finds out about one via Love's mailing list, his announcements on Friendster, or word of mouth can RSVP by e-mail and get on the guest list. But plenty of people not only go, they go and take their clothes off. And moreover, Love runs one of the last live/work/party spaces still standing proud in the city.

A few other such spaces and events have all but closed down. The hipster art extravaganzas that the artist Dirk Knibbe used to throw at the Mansion--a huge, ragged Victorian manor on Hoyne near North--are over because, says Knibbe, the owner wants to rehab the building and move in with his family. And Cesario Huerta's weekly disco party that started in August at Big Horse and moved in October to a West Town storefront just moved again, Huerta says, because the cops found it and started hanging around outside the front door. His new art/party space, Sol Star, at North and Clybourn, is RSVP only but open to the public.

Texas Ballroom and Hey Cadets!, which share a building in Bridgeport, are having bigger problems. One night in August a bunch of police officers and fire department officials came by at 8:30, long before any guests had shown up for that night's party. "There were more officers than people," says Texas Ballroom resident Jesse Batesole. The officials gave him a ticket for throwing a public event without a Public Place of Amusement license, which is required for venues providing any kind of public entertainment, including theater, live music, dancing, rodeos, two or more pool tables, or three or more arcade games. City inspectors showed up the next day and wrote up a list of violations, which they sent to the building's owner, Dan Jekic.

The whole building lay low--canceled some shows, kept others word-of-mouth--and city interference died down. Then a month ago, New City's Michael Workman interviewed Batesole about the building's participation in the Select Media Festival. At the end of a breezy Q and A about how Texas got started and who lives there, Workman dropped this bomb: "I hear the city has given you a hassle about hosting events here because you don't have a Public Place of Amusement license." Batesole took the bait, explaining, "Lately we've been running into some problems with the city because we are just a residence. . . . It basically has to be word of mouth, otherwise we've got a risk of getting busted."

During a Select movie screening at Texas three nights later, some men from the city showed up for an inspection, says resident Kate Fadden, and drew up another list of violations.

"The inspectors--it's their job to look out for everyone," says Jekic, who bought the building in 2000. "One of my violations is for having flammable materials--meaning paint. Maybe [the inspectors] can't tell the difference between paint that an artist uses and storage of flammable material. But I don't know how you ask artists not to have paint in their loft."

Two weekends ago I went to an opening at Nova, a West Loop arts space Workman runs and rents out to other gallerists, and asked him why he chose to call attention to Texas's lack of a PPA. After we'd talked for a while Workman retroactively took the entire conversation off the record, but his basic point was that he hadn't realized he'd be putting the space in danger. Then he invited me out for coffee to talk some more and ended up blowing me off.

According to the city's Web site, a PPA license costs only $385 for a space with a capacity of 350 people, but bringing a building up to code to pass the required electrical, plumbing, ventilation, and structural inspections often costs more money than landlords and the people who run spaces like this can afford. And even if some benefactor dropped a load of cash in someone's lap, actually getting the process started is a bitch, though the city is trying to make it easier, according to Rosa Escareno, a spokesperson for the Department of Business Affairs. Before her department was created late last year, a business owner would have to run from office to office--revenue, health, zoning, liquor, etc--to get everything required to open to the public. The DBA is supposed to be a one-stop shop for all that. "We are going to have a business consultant, which will now be able to not only provide licensing and help the person through the process," Escareno says, "but also assist with troubleshooting. So this becomes a single point of contact." Great idea, but Escareno admits things are less than organized at the moment. "We're still being formed," she says. "We're a little bit in limbo. That's why some functions are still kind of loose."

Fadden says the Texas/Cadets building will stay quiet for a while, but they'll start doing events again next year. "If we're gonna get closed, we're gonna get closed," she says. "The whole point of living in a place like this in the south side of Chicago is to throw events. If I wanted to stay in an apartment and do nothing I would live in Wicker Park."

Jekic says he's looking into turning his building into an official event space but in the meantime Texas Ballroom and Hey Cadets! are welcome to stay. "They sound so responsible when you talk to them," he says. "And they're so genuinely sorry about what happened. These weren't the kinds of parties where people get arrested or where there are drugs. As far as I'm concerned they're staying. But they're really on the edge. I don't want to kick them out. But I may be forced--literally."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.

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