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Ladies night bottled up

Heather Rodenhizer and Beth Schull left their boyfriends at home last Thursday night to visit an Arbutus bar.

The two twentysomethings from Pasadena found themselves girl-talking over drinks priced just for them. Every few minutes, the DJ announced why: It was ladies night at Fish Head Cantina.

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For many bar owners, such promotions are obvious: Free admission and discounted drinks will attract women. And a bar filled with women usually attracts men.

But while some view it as good marketing, others see it as a clear case of discrimination. This month, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights ruled that the ladies night concept is unfair because it does not treat men equally.

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Many who attend ladies nights around town call the whole thing silly.

"It's ridiculous," said Duane Loverde, 35, as he paused from his game of pool at Fish Head. "Guys know where we stand. Ladies night is to bring women into the bar. ... Guys are going to go anyway."

Few states seem to take the matter seriously, saying they'll enforce such rules only when someone complains.

But, when bar owners at Fish Head learned of the New Jersey ruling, they offered men their own drink specials on ladies night to address any discrimination concerns. What they didn't know was that a similar case in Maryland touched on the issue a decade ago.

On July 16, 1992, James Schwanebeck went to Tully's Restaurant in Baltimore County and was charged full price for his drink while women paid half-price.

He filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations alleging sex discrimination. An administrative law judge agreed, saying Tully's ladies night violated Maryland's anti-discrimination code.

The 1995 ruling was case-specific. Tully's was ordered to cancel its ladies night promotion and, among other penalties, told to refund Schwanebeck $4.50 (plus interest), according to the Sept. 20, 1995, ruling. Schwanebeck said he never saw the $4.50 refund, but he didn't go looking for it, either.

'An injustice'

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"I guess I'm a little bit of an activist, and I felt it was an injustice and wanted to set the record straight," said Schwanebeck, 53, who lives in Towson.

When Mike Hyle took over as Tully's owner soon after the case, he continued the ladies night tradition but arranged it so both men and women paid the $5 cover charge. Women received two free-drink coupons, and Hyle made sure his staff gave them to any man who wanted the same discount. Hyle, who sold the bar in March, said no man ever asked for the drink coupons.

"Certain nights we have free dessert for children under 10. Are we discriminating against a 12-year-old?" asked Diana Hamilton, who owns Tully's now and said she wouldn't fight over a scoop of ice cream.

There is no state law banning ladies nights in Maryland, and the Maryland Commission on Human Relations can't act unless someone files a complaint. A lawyer for the agency said it has not had to make a similar decision since the 1995 case.

In New Jersey, the decision was released June 1 after state officials finished their investigation - six years after a complaint was filed in 1998. A man said he paid a $5 cover charge to visit a bar while women weren't charged. The director of the New Jersey civil rights division agreed with the discrimination claim.

The decision has the weight of a superior court ruling, but it doesn't apply to other ladies night promotions. Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the New Jersey attorney general's office, said it could serve as a precedent in other cases, opening bar owners who hold ladies nights to legal action if someone complains.

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Similar rulings have been made in Iowa, California, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Even as the legality of ladies nights is being challenged, the changing dynamics of the club scene are making weekday promotional nights less appealing.

"Bars and clubs are competing with the home like they've never had to before," said Amy Lorton, executive editor of Nightclub & Bar Magazine in Oxford, Miss. "People are staying at home and watching DVDs and fixing drinks at home."

Today's generation of workaholics expect to be swept away by flashy lights, pumping music and trendy DJs, Lorton said. Many bars and clubs are seeing action only Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Some owners choose to open only those days, while others focus on their restaurant business during the off days.

As a result, Lorton said, the old gimmicks aren't working as well as they used to. Ladies night promotions typically are used on slower evenings, but that was when bars were filled most other nights of the week.

Tight competition

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"Competition is so incredibly tight right now because of the limited amount of time people are going out," Lorton said. "So some of those old standard promotions aren't working."

At the Fish Head Cantina in Arbutus, owner Scott Fisher acknowledged that his 2-week-old ladies night promotion hasn't done much to bring in the crowds. The poor turnouts are giving him second thoughts about the effort.

But Lorton said she doesn't believe all promotional events for women will disappear, even with the changing face of nightlife and a handful of discrimination cases.

"It's a proven fact, where women will go, men will follow," Lorton said. "It's an old thing - it's been around forever. But it works."


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