Clubs for teens - wave of the future? Young patrons enjoy an alcohol-free place to dance, but they can be fickle

The music is loud. The lights are low.

The liquor is locked up.

It is young-adult night at Biarritz nightclub, and on a steamy Monday evening 600 teen-agers have paid $7.50 each to crowd into the cool semidarkness for five hours of nonstop dancing and non-alcoholic drinking.

On the multilevel dance floor, lights flash and sound systems throb as dancers wriggle to the beat of ``Show me, show me you really love me.'' Elsewhere, other 15- to 20-year-olds mingle with friends, watch MTV on a giant screen, and drink soda and juice at the club's five bars.

``It's great, I love it,'' says Stephanie Scourtas, a dark-haired 18-year-old who is here with her boyfriend. ``We're at the age where we're too old for some things and too young for others, so it's nice to have someplace like this.''

For a growing number of teen-agers around the country, ``someplace like this'' - either an all-teen dance club or teen night at an adult club - provides a new answer to old adolescent complaints of ``nothing to do and nowhere to go.'' It also offers an appealing alternative to movies, parties, ``cruising,'' and ``hanging out.''

``These clubs help kids to realize they can have fun without drinking,'' says Kelley Hubbard as she and her friends gather outside Biarritz. ``My parents are all for this.''

Joanne Sweinsberger, general manager of Biarritz, explains: ``Parents love it because it's someplace for kids to go. A lot of parents drop their children off, then come back at 11 or 12 and pick them up.''

In theory, the clubs are a promising and profitable venture, tapping an age group that has time, money - and a steady desire to be entertained.

Many teens can recite horror stories of home parties where too much liquor, too many uninvited guests, and too little supervision led to vandalism or violence. In addition, as states raise the legal drinking age to 21 and crack down on drunken driving, the need for alcohol-free activities grows.

Yet the mortality rate of clubs is high. Teen-agers are notoriously fickle consumers, and initial enthusiasm for a club can quickly turn into yawns, complaints, and a lack of support.

Jeff Fisher, co-owner of Lasers, a teen club in Rockford, Ill., explains:

``With no liquor, kids get bored. You don't just walk in here, open the doors at 7, put the lights on, and expect kids to keep coming back. You're dealing with an age group raised on TV and MTV. Entertainment has to be quick and hot. You've got to keep up with modern trends.''

To do that, he says, managers have to find out what young customers want. ``They're the ones who pay the bills.'' Clubs must also provide varied entertainment, such as video games, MTV, and what Mr. Fisher calls mechanical ``toys'' - fog machines, mirror balls, ``helicopters'' with flashing multicolored lights, and egg strobes that pop like flash bulbs.

But even sophisticated gimmicks can't overcome legal obstacles. Some communities oppose clubs, fearing noise, litter, and loitering.

``Local governments are roadblocking entertainment for kids,'' says Bill Buck, one of Biarritz's investors, explaining that in Albuquerque, N.M., where he owns another club, a local ordinance forbids teen clubs.

``They make it hard for kids to have an organized social gathering. So what the kids end up doing is finding a secluded parking lot where they can drink. When they're here, they're dancing, not drinking.''

Yet it is the lack of drinking - the very premise on which teen clubs operate - that often represents the biggest threat to a club's financial success.

``It's a tough business,'' Fisher admits, noting that rent, insurance, sound and light systems, disc jockeys, and security keep overhead high.

``If a businessman is looking to make a lot of money, he's not going to go into this. There's a lot more possible profit in a liquor establishment. It's tough to compete against liquor.''

He cites other persistent problems.

``Security has to be kept up at all costs,'' he says. ``If it isn't, kids know and parents know. Then nobody comes, and you're out of business.''

Fisher keeps several employees at the door at all times, and he and his staff check restrooms every five minutes. ``If something's going to happen, that's where it will be.''

Janis Markuson, who with her husband, Scott, operated Checkers, a now-defunct teen club in Rockford, echoes that sentiment.

``It takes a lot of supervision,'' she says. ``A lot of these kids have never had parents who cared what they did, so it's difficult for them to accept supervision. They'd say, `You're not my mother.'

I'd tell them, `I'm not your mother, but this is my place, and you're going to have to abide by our rules.' Some didn't come back.''

Dress codes, too, can be crucial. Many managers ban tank tops, cutoff shirts and shorts, low-cut clothes, and jackets or caps that signal gang affiliations. Some require young patrons to check purses and coats to prevent them from bringing in liquor or drugs.

At Biarritz, doormen in white shorts and aqua shirts verify ages as customers enter.

Although two or three teens a night try to get past security personnel with liquor, Mr. Buck says, ``I just can't get over how good this crowd has been. They make the rest of the week [with adult patrons] seem like a zoo.''

Fights and racial problems have also been a problem at some clubs. At Lasers, Fisher tries to preserve an egalitarian atmosphere by including both blacks and whites on his security staff.

``At the start we were tested a bit,'' he recalls. ``Blacks wanted to see if there was a place for them. But when they walk in and see a black bouncer, they know they're not going to be treated any differently. We give kids a good time, and we treat everybody with respect.''

That attitude pays off. On a Saturday night, many teens relaxing in Lasers' rustic quarters speak enthusiastically about the club.

``I work all week, and this is the best time I have,'' says Judy Kitchen, a high school graduate. ``It's a good place to unwind.''

Still, she wishes the age range - 15 to 25 - were narrower. ``There's a big difference between even 15 and 18,'' she says, ``a big difference.'' And a 19-year-old who is here for the first time grumbles, ``They need a different DJ.''

Despite the challenges, Fisher, Buck, and others believe well-run clubs can provide what Buck calls ``a community service'' and still be profitable.

``An alcohol-free environment is more attractive now to a lot of people,'' says Blue Pressley, manager of Medusa's, a popular ``juice bar'' in Chicago.

The concept of a non-alcoholic club pleases both parents and teens, but in practice, it has not yet proved itself. The operators who lay their money on the line mix caution with optimism.

``Non-alcoholic clubs are the wave of the future,'' Fisher says, like an idealist quoting his manifesto. Then he adds in the sober voice of a bookkeeper: ``We hope it's not a fad. If it's a fad, we're in big trouble.''

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