Teen spirit (without the spirits)

A tale of two alcohol-free clubs on New Year's Eve. One is struggling. The other is thriving. What do fickle teens want?

On any given Saturday, as teenagers the country over shrug off the school week and slip into their weekends, they'll chew over a perennial question: What to do?

Alyssa Ratell, just 15, will prepare to hit the nightclub scene. She'll spend at least a half hour on her clothes.

"They have to be comfortable, and they can't be too revealing or too tight that you can't move," she says.

Here in Escondido, as many as 500 teenagers like Alyssa will primp and preen. Folded into their finest low slung or baggy jeans, they'll walk a red carpet, pass grim-faced bouncers, and enter Inferno. They know the nightclub drill and are ready to show IDs. But here, if you're over 20, you'll be turned away at the door. Inferno has nearly all the attractions of adult clubs: loud music, flashing neon and laser lights, and plenty of space for dancing. The main difference: There's not a drop of alcohol; the bar is stocked with water and soda.

More than 2,500 miles away, at another Inferno - no relation - in Depew, N.Y., the local teenagers will perform a similar ritual. But there, fewer than 350 will show up at the cavernous club, open just one night a week.

This is a tale of these two teen nightclubs. They share a name, but beyond that their stories diverge. The longevity of the first, near balmy San Diego, makes it an anomaly among under-21 clubs; in some incarnation its been thriving since the early 1980s. The other, not far from the frigid climes of Buffalo, N.Y., opened in September and is already struggling. With New Year's Eve - one of the biggest nights in the business - tomorrow, a comparison of the two venues offers insight into why teen nightclubs are few and far between.

In many ways it's counterintuitive. Parents are desperate for safe places for their children, free of alcohol and drugs. Teenagers have more disposable income than ever. Meanwhile they're discouraged from what can be viewed as loitering at popular hangouts, like malls. And fewer are participating in traditional types of entertainment, such as going to the movies. Still, the country is littered with failed under-21 clubs. The reason lies in the formidable confluence of a volatile industry and the overwhelming array of entertainment options available to young people today.

But for tonight, at least, to the sounds of hip-hop and reggaeton - Latin-flavored dance music that blends rap and reggae - hundreds are grooving at Escondido's Inferno Young Adult Nightclub.

Alyssa says she knows a simple "no" should keep away any boys she doesn't want to dance with. And if there's trouble, Inferno has plenty of security people ready to step in.

'We're struggling'

It was the early '80s when an under-21 nightclub called Distillery East first opened in a building that a century earlier had been used to store ice. A few years later, it was bought by Stojan Mitich, still a teenager himself. His parents, immigrants from Macedonia, were in the restaurant business, and they helped their son make a go of it. In a nod to the building's past, it became the Ice House. Next Fusion. And finally, in July, Inferno. All have proved successful under Mr. Mitich's ownership.

Around the same time that Distillery East opened its doors in Escondido, Depew's original Inferno Club opened a block from where the current Inferno Teen Dance Club now stands. The cover charge was $10, and, back then, the club drew up to 1,000 kids a night. Twenty-five years later, the new Inferno charges 14- to 18-year-olds just $2 more. But despite a capacity of 1,800 in a 15,000-sq. ft. space with five raised dance floors, state-of-the-art sound equipment, VIP booths, pool tables, and two glass-block bars, on a good night they only pull in about 350 young people.

Peggy Davies, the sister of owner Keith Schillo, for one, is baffled. "These kids have nothing around here," she says. "Nothing." She estimates there are five high schools in the area, totaling about 10,000 kids. And if they're not at her brother's club, she doesn't understand what they're doing. Or rather, she imagines they're doing what they've always done - spending time at the mall, the movies, and friends' house parties.

"We're struggling now," she says, "and if these kids don't pick up their support in the next two months, we won't be here." The club couldn't sustain a Friday and Saturday schedule, so, for now, it's only open Saturdays from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.

People familiar with the business say that it's typical for an under-21 club to be able to support just one night a week. During the school year, young people have only two free nights, and most won't go to the same place two nights in a row. Plus, liability insurance for these clubs is extremely expensive. And the clincher: there's no money from alcohol sales.

Taylor Rau, editor of Nightclub & Bar Magazine, says that newcomers stand just a 1 in 8 chance of seeing their club last six months. For under-21 clubs, things are grimmer. Sam Baris, who consults with nightclub owners, including Escondido's Mitich, tells clients it's possible to make a go of a teen club, but notes that an over-21 club can make three times as much money. Because of this, many regular nightclubs host teen nights over school holidays or on slow summer nights, but few are devoted exclusively to teenagers.

"To tell you the truth, it was a lot easier running these places in the '70s and '80s," says Mr. Baris, whose company, The Cookhouse, is based in Las Vegas. "We didn't have the plethora of entertainment that we have now," he says, reeling off a list that includes the Internet, MP3 players, and cable and satellite TV. And with cellphones, the ability to orchestrate an impromptu gathering makes the venue less important to young people than it once was.

Clubs must 'wow' teens

Teens are a tough crowd, fickle and savvy, with higher expectations than most adults. One of the places teen clubs go wrong, says Baris, is that they don't "wow" their patrons, many of whom have fake IDs and have already been to the real thing. Most teen clubs "look more like a high school dance than Studio 54," he says.

Here, in this renovated icehouse in an industrial district near San Diego, the crowd bounces to the music in groups of three or more. Only a handful of couples are entwined. A few engage in provocative dancing. Teenagers may want their own version of Studio 54, but tonight, in a reminder of the eternal shyness of adolescence, many prefer to stand with arms folded, silently watching.

What some teen clubs are doing on New Year's Eve

Inferno Teen Dance Club
Depew, N.Y.
(716) 444-0116
(Open until 1 a.m. New Year's Eve; $12 cover)

Club Millennium Anchorage, Alaska
(907) 277-1428
(Closed New Year's Eve)

Inferno Young Adult Nightclub
Escondido, Calif.
(760) 741-1271
($15 cover for New Year's Eve Jam 2006)

Nashville, Tenn.
(Open until 1 a.m. on New Year's Eve; $7 cover)

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