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Kirby: Saving Sundance film festivalgoers, one bar at a time

By Robert Kirby

Tribune columnist

First Published Jan 26 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Jan 26 2014 01:01 am

Park City •

On screen or off, the Sundance Film Festival is all about drama. Shoehorning thousands of people into a small mining town with narrow streets creates a lot of drama. Mobs of it.

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A main element of this overcrowding is public safety, or what to do when 500 people cram themselves into an old building designed for 50.

If something happens — fire, smoke, bomb threat, gunfire — it doesn’t matter where the exits are or how many because in the stampede for the outside they all instantly become the size of cat doors.

Saturday night, I tagged along with Park City police and code enforcement officers as they did bar checks up and down a freezing Main Street.

In the lead was Park City Police Chief Wade Carpenter, followed by emergency manager Hugh Daniels, then patrol Sgt. Vai Lealaitafea, and finally me.

The narrow order of march was the only way to get in and out of the clubs, most of which were packed lunchmeat cozy in a suffocating miasma of beer, sweat and perfume.

Hugh and I didn’t attract much notice or respect from club managers or bouncers. Our appearance was so benign that we might just as well have been invisible.

Chief Carpenter is a pleasant guy with a ready smile and a handshake. But he has zero tolerance for the death trap nature of overcrowding. The club managers knew this and became instantly ingratiating.

Sgt. Lealaitafea probably helped. As his surname suggests, he descends from someplace where people are naturally grown the size of emergency vehicles. He looks mean enough to twist the heads off puppies.

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NOTE: He wouldn’t do that. I’m just saying ... he looks ... you know. Hell, never mind.

Someone has to be conscious of public safety. It certainly isn’t the festivalgoers. They’re just looking for a good time.

By midnight most are somewhere on the good-time scale between pleasantly buzzed and barf-on-their-shoes hammered. Those that aren’t in that condition are outside waiting to get in so they can be.

Led by the chief we would cut through the mob and up to the doormen. People in the lines would boo. They knew that their chances of getting in anytime soon had suddenly decreased with the arrival of killjoys. The moat monsters would swing the doors open and in we’d go.

I don’t know if there’s an official antidote for claustrophobia, but it’s probably the equivalent of six shots of tequila. The only way human beings could stand being packed that tight is to get a little loose.

Then there was the noise. In one club the music was so loud I could hear it with my feet. It was rapper 2 Chainz yelling a gangsta ode to "mother truckers" and "ditches."

Chief Carpenter would make a quick estimate of the crowd. If it exceeded the occupancy level, he’d tell the manager to lose 50 people. Sometimes it was more.

The number would get passed down the line until it got to me. The bouncer who followed us in would tap my shoulder and demand to know.

BOUNCER: "How many did the chief say?"

ME: "Fifty-one point six people and two dogs!"

Off the bouncer would go to make it happen. Compliance was the only option other than being immediately shut down. It was already dangerous. There was no point in making it expensive as well.

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