Not Quite Sin City

Salt Lake City mayor puts out an Olympic effort to promote his town as a place that doesn't sleep.

October 31, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY - It's Saturday night in the city that Brigham Young built, where the bright lights of downtown are more likely to be from the Mormon Temple than some hot nightspot.

But that doesn't deter Rocky Anderson, the city's Minister of Fun, who also happens to be Salt Lake's first-term mayor. Anderson swears the city of 170,000 has a pulse that quickens when the sun goes down and a soul that stirs when the tempo is upbeat. You just have to know where to look.

Like Diogenes in search of an honest man, Anderson is leading a one-man crusade for fun, an uphill battle against image. Want some action? Go to New York. Want a nice nap? Go to Salt Lake, the teetotaling city that always sleeps.

The stakes are high. In a little more than three months, Salt Lake will play host to the winter sports world - nearly 100,000 athletes, tourists and journalists - for the 2002 Olympics. Already, the outside world is snickering. Sniffed the Irish Times: "Winter is going to be one big drag."

But the 50-year-old mayor is undeterred. "Come with me," he says. "Just make sure you've had your rest."

Standing on the front steps of City Hall at the start of the evening, Anderson doesn't look like a party animal in his black cotton sweater, gray Dockers and oxfords. With neatly groomed gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Anderson looks like a cross between Dennis the Menace's dad and former Illinois congressman John Anderson. The political columnist for a local weekly has dubbed him "Mayor Sparky."

Looks are deceiving. Before the evening is over, Anderson will prance in black tights before 1,800 people, be goosed by a woman in a popular watering hole and watch with delight as two heavily pierced young people violate a city ordinance by dancing - in public - after 2 a.m.

Getting the party started

A minibus pulls up shortly before 5 p.m., and a small band of fun-seekers piles on: some staff members, a few friends and a handful of dubious journalists. An aide hands the driver a CD, and pretty soon the bus is rolling past the leftover tailgaters at a college football game, past the city zoo and up Emigration Canyon to the strains of the Eagles.

The first stop is dinner, but not before Anderson makes a point.

"You see? We walked in here and had a drink before dinner," Anderson says as he downs a salt-rimmed margarita on the deck of the Cactus Club. "We have a few oddities in our [liquor] laws, but by the time people outside the state hear about them, they've been blown way out of proportion."

Those "oddities" include the facts that wine and full-strength beer are considered hard liquor, that there is no such thing as a double (a shot is 1 oz., not 1 1/2 ounces), and that you must be a "member" to drink at a bar.

And then there's the one that prevents the mayor's date from leaving the bar for the dining room with cocktail in hand - a no-no in the eyes of the state liquor board, run by practicing Mormons who don't drink.

"That serves no purpose whatsoever except to inconvenience people," the mayor fumes as he waits for his date to finish her drink before heading to dinner.

Rocking with `Rocky'

Ross C. "Rocky" Anderson is a liberal Democrat in the conservative outpost that is Utah, a guy who relishes his image as a maverick and is quick to remind folks that the Rolling Stones played his city during their first U.S. tour and as recently as 1999.

He's hoping the Winter Olympics establish Salt Lake as a resort town with skiing in the mountains and good food and entertainment in the valley. Certainly the new light rail system, upscale hotels and a revitalized downtown should help people forget the city's square image.

The mayor is both a lapsed Mormon and lapsed rock guitarist. He seems more rueful about the latter.

"I almost never play," Anderson says, toying with his glass during dinner at his favorite Southwestern restaurant. "I wish I did. I get asked, but I don't practice or play often enough."

At Green Street, the second stop of the evening, Anderson greets the waitress with a mayoral pronouncement: "A round of herbal tea for the whole table!" The waitress knows better, and brings tea for the mayor, but a tray of alcoholic libations for his party.

Anderson, a lawyer by training, continues talking about his rock 'n' roll days, when he was lead guitarist for The Viscounts, a local group that won a battle-of-the-bands contest at an amusement park with a legendary reputation.

"We played The Lagoon," he says. "The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and the Viscounts - just not with the Stones, Hendrix and the Doors."

Nursing a steaming mug of orange and spice tea with a wedge of lemon, the mayor is clearly worried that Green Street isn't jumping. "On Friday night, this place rocks from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.," he in- sists. "With a band upstairs, this place pulsates."

But there's no time to wait for crowds. The mayor escorts his party to the next hand-picked stop on his tour.

An operatic moment

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