PROVIDENCE — On any given weekend night, a parade of patrons can be found lined up outside the Colosseum, a multilevel nightclub downtown, waiting their turn to get inside as security scans IDs, checks bags, and collects the $10 cover charge. Lingering near a sign by the door that reads “18+,” they trickle in as staff wrap the night’s designated wristbands around each person’s arm — one color for the over-21 crowd, and another for those under the legal drinking age.
The distinction is important to make in a city like Providence, where there are 24 licensed nightclubs — 13 of which are 18-plus.
With thousands of students returning to the city this fall, establishments are once again getting ready for a boon in business, one that often comes from Rhode Island’s younger crowds. But while having 18-plus access has been seen as a benefit for both clubs and curious night revelers, it also poses some challenges for the city and business owners.
“For as long as I can remember, Rhode Island has been an 18+ state,” said Anthony Santurri, who owns the Colosseum and helped write the “Best Practices: Providence Nightlife” handbook, which is used by business owners across the city when it comes to rules about letting in underage patrons.
Rhode Island’s reputation for accommodating the under-21 clientele goes back decades. During the Reagan era, when states began changing their legal drinking age to 21 to comply with the National Minimum Drinking Age Act to avoid risking losing federal highway funds, Rhode Island followed suit.
But the 21-plus law prompted Providence nightclub owners to try something different to make up for the lost revenue the new drinking age introduced.
“Teenagers and nightclub owners were not exactly thrilled when the drinking age was raised to 21 this past spring,” said a Providence Journal article published on Dec. 5, 1985. “The change, however, has resulted in a new way to make a buck in the nightclub business without the sale of alcohol, and teens love it.”
The Journal said “‘Under 21 Clubs’ are new and they’re hot,” and, “they’re attracting crowds like no one expected, leaving owners screaming success and teens shouting approval.”
Decades later, 18-plus clubs have remained a critical part of Providence’s culture and economy — and a perk for those who want to explore the local nightlife scene but can’t yet purchase alcohol.
“I would say unless it was a level playing field across the state where every nightclub was 21-plus, it’s hard to go 21-plus in this state and do very well,” Santurri said. “You need [18-plus] in order to survive in this city and the state.”
But according to Santurri, “it’s an absolute challenge to handle.”
That’s because licensed 18-plus establishments face their fair share of hurdles: The likelihood of incidents happening is higher among a younger crowd, so insurance is higher; there’s increased liability; and establishments have to spend more on security.
Santurri said he shells out somewhere between $50,000 and $70,000 on police details every year.
“For me to afford that, I have to be pretty busy,” he said.
The Colosseum charges a $10 cover, and offers promotions like “ladies free on Fridays til 11″ to get more customers through the doors. On any given Friday or Saturday night, Santurri said there’s roughly 300 people in the club.
“For anyone to come to any venue, they want to hear the place is poppin’,” he said.
Rafael Sanchez owns EGO Providence, a club just a few blocks from the Colosseum that also welcomes 18-plus crowds on any weekend night. Sanchez also owns the nightclub promotion company Gay Mafia Boston, which caters events to the LGBTQ+ community at clubs in Boston and Providence.
“I enjoy the 18-plus clubs a little more,” Sanchez said. “There’s an energy that makes the party feel a lot more fun, for some reason. The crowd brings a very good vibe to the room ...I wish Boston were 18-plus.”
For college students who flock to Rhode Island each year when school begins, the city’s broader offerings on club nightlife puts them at an advantage over those who live in Boston, where there aren’t any licensed establishments that are fully 18-plus.
According to the City of Boston’s Entertainment Licensing Rules and Regulations, nightclubs can apply to be 18-plus for a one-time event, and have to do so at least seven days in advance.
“It is part of the promotional attraction for someone to go to college near or in Providence, because when you’re young, you want to know if there’s some level of associated nightlife,” Santurri said.
Both Santurri and Sanchez said they’ve only seen a few incidents at their clubs over the years, but when something happens, establishments have to “own it,” Santurri said. (A spokesperson from the Providence Board of Licenses said they see an average of about 25 underage drinking violations per year.)
Just last month, after an incident involving a patron who reportedly assaulted other clubgoers at Mezzo Lounge, and large crowds that gathered outside in the parking lot, the board temporarily closed the bar and handed down probationary restrictions. Seven people were arrested, including a minor who told police she was served alcohol inside the lounge, WPRI reported.
After a 30-to-45-day period where the club can only host private and ticketed events, it will reopen as a 25-plus nightclub for a 90-day period, and once those restrictions are lifted, Mezzo Lounge’s age restriction will permanently change to 21 and up, according to the August 3 hearing.
While not fool proof, there are best practices to avoid this, including ID scanners at the door, the wristband method, plus citywide rules that say individuals can’t be served more than one drink at a time, according to the city’s nightlife handbook.
“On top of that, we have floor hosts,” Santurri said, describing how security, sometimes undercover, monitors the floor looking for “handoffs,” a term used for when people of age buy drinks for younger patrons and then give it to them under the radar.
“We have to spot those,” Santurri said. “They’re challenging, but we’re all aware of them.”
Santurri admitted that today’s fake IDs are often “so good,” and can sometimes go undetected on his $6,000 scanners, adding to the difficulty of making sure no one is breaking the rules.
But if someone violates a rule at the Colosseum, they’re banned forever.
“It sounds terrible, but you’re risking people’s safety and you’re risking my livelihood, my license, and everyone who works for me here,” Santurri said. “We’re not going to let anyone get away with it.”