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Published: Sunday, 6/30/2002

Put-in-Bay provides a perfect place for partying

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

PUT-IN-BAY - For Steve Kelen, this summer evening is almost perfect.

The sun is out, the beer is cold, and he's got a comfy seat in the back of his 30-foot cabin cruiser, docked off South Bass Island.

It's Friday, and he's hanging out with his dad and a boisterous group of friends from the Detroit suburbs, talking and laughing. The jazzy, funk-tinged sound of the Dave Matthews Band floats from a CD player on the boat next door.

Then, from across the dock, a heavy-metal blast disturbs his groove. “Oh no, not Creed again,” Mr. Kelen moans, shaking his head in mock disgust. “This guy and Creed. It's like the only CD he owns. I've been hearing this since 8 this morning.”

To console himself, he grabs another beer from the cooler at his feet. Even with dueling stereos, there's no place he'd rather be. “I come down here any chance I get,” he says. “Every minute I can.”

Thousands of other people feel the same way. The village of Put-in-Bay, which has 128 year-round residents, attracts up to 10,000 visitors a day on summer weekends.

The island is home to a state park, a winery, Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial, and a rollicking party scene.

Put-in-Bay has more than a dozen bars, and many more restaurants that serve alcohol. They're a mainstay of the island's economy, but the bars - and their customers - have drawn complaints from some residents about noise, underage drinking, and public drunkenness.

Late last summer, then-Mayor John Blatt asked state liquor control agents to come to Put-in-Bay. In two weekends, they arrested more than 60 people and cited several bars for permit violations.

Mr. Blatt has since quit amid claims that he slandered some residents. Some islanders speculated that the crackdown led angry business owners to force him out.

The new mayor, Mack McCann, owns several island bars.

Shortly after Mr. Blatt resigned May 9, so did police Chief James Lang. Mayor McCann named Sgt. Ric Lampela, a three-year department veteran, as acting chief.

The turmoil hasn't kept the crowds away.

Mr. Kelen, 31, of Wyandotte, Mich., and his father, Larry, have been parked at C Dock since Thursday night. That's the only way, he says, to get a good spot for the weekend. Next door are Chris and Kevin Duncan, friends of Mr. Kelen's from Michigan.

As the sun begins to descend, the Duncans and their father, Skip, prepare to hit the bars.

Kevin, 24, trades his striped polo shirt and floppy yellow hat for a dark blue Hawaiian shirt. Chris, 30, swaps a light green tank top for a shiny silver button-up shirt.

“Wait till the lights come down, the radios go up, and the clothes come off,” Chris says.

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Put-in-Bay's tourist roots go back to the 19th century. The island's first hotel, the White House, was built in 1834, barely 20 years after Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's naval victory in the War of 1812 opened Ohio to American settlement.

By 1888, the island had five luxury hotels. The most famous, Hotel Victory, burned in 1919.

On the dock, police officers Jamison Rose, foreground, and Phil Howell help to make sure the law and fun don't clash. On the dock, police officers Jamison Rose, foreground, and Phil Howell help to make sure the law and fun don't clash.
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Regular ferry service from Catawba Island Township began in 1945, boosting the tourist trade. But the island's nightlife really took off after the Jet Express, the first high-speed, late-night ferry line, began operations in 1989.

Before that, “There wasn't a Jet Express. There wasn't a way people could get home after dark,” says Lois Jellison, a resident who has spent summers on the island since the 1950s. “Now you can go home at midnight.”

Besides the Jet Express, the Island Rocket runs late into the night from Put-in-Bay to Port Clinton and Sandusky.

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A complaint brings four police officers to the waterfront. It's 9:50 p.m., and someone has caught a whiff of marijuana on C Dock.

A bike patrolman explains the situation to Officer Phil Howell, a veteran of several summers.

“Phil, the people that stopped us said they could smell it all up and down the dock,” the officer says.

A police cruiser pulls up at the foot of the dock, and a patrolman inside says, “There's some dope over by the Dairy Queen.”

The cruiser takes off down Bay View Avenue, lights flashing, as the two bike officers pedal furiously behind. They pass the restaurant and speed toward the Perry memorial, stopping two men along a concrete breakwall.

One of the bike officers jumps off the wall and fishes in the muddy bay water with his hand. He soon pulls out a homemade cigarette.

A 40-something man with a bushy blond mustache, dressed in a yellow Hawaiian shirt and khaki slacks, leans glumly against the wall, watching Officer Rob Bailey write out a ticket by flashlight. His companion, a younger man in a blue sport shirt, watches silently.

The man gives Officer Bailey his address, phone number, and employer. The officer gives him and his friend a lecture.

“I know you guys are here to have a good time, but next time please leave the pot at home,” Officer Bailey tells them.

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It's 10:45 p.m., and the Boat House is rocking.

A cover band's booming version of the Commodores' funk hit Brick House reverberates onto the sidewalk. Dressed in T-shirts, shorts, and flip flops, visitors wait in line to pay a $3 cover charge and have their ID's checked.

In the back of the club, they party as if it were 1979.

The dance floor is jammed with people bumping and grinding as the band, Disco Inferno, breaks into A Taste of Honey's Boogie Oogie Oogie. The group's bassist, wearing a leopard-print shirt and a fuzzy, oversized white top hat, launches into the song's thumping bass solo.

“C'mon, people!” the lead singer shouts, and the crowd sings the chorus: “Get down, boogie oogie oogie!”

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They come in twos and threes, running and stumbling down the dock in the dark. It's a few minutes to midnight, and the Jet Express is about to leave for Port Clinton.

Louis Trzaska from Poland, who is working on the island for the summer, cooks chicken at the Chicken Patio to help feed visitors to the island who wait at the counter for their orders. Louis Trzaska from Poland, who is working on the island for the summer, cooks chicken at the Chicken Patio to help feed visitors to the island who wait at the counter for their orders.
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“They'll run another one,” a young man shouts to his friend, but they don't break stride.

The crew finishes loading, and the boat leaves the dock. The riders cheer as the horn blares.

But not everyone feels like celebrating. Curses fill the muggy midnight air as several young men and a woman run up to the dock, just in time to see the boat pull away.

“It's 12:03,” one man wails. “Give me a [bleeping] break!”

“We've got to get a hotel room,” another man says.

“The Islander Inn had two rooms left an hour ago,” another says. “There's no way we'll find a room here.”

The mood is desperate and angry on the dark, deserted dock. Then a voice calls out: “Hey, guys, the Rocket's running!”

The group scampers up the dock, around the Dairy Queen, and back toward the water.

Fumbling for their wallets, the latecomers swarm the ferry's ticket booth, relieved but still furious. “It's the Rocket from now on!” bellows a beefy, bearded man in a white muscle shirt and shades.

“Port Clinton, let's go!” a Rocket employee shouts. “Port Clinton boat's out of here!”

Two panting men run up. “We're here! We're here!” one yells.

The pair get on the boat, and it drifts from the dock. “If anybody's going to Port Clinton, tell 'em ... it's a 121/2-mile swim,'' a Rocket employee says.

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Chris Duncan has the munchies. After several hours in the bars, he and his father, Skip, stop by Mikey's Eatery, a walk-up restaurant, for hot dogs and pop.

After finishing his hot dog, Skip decides to head back to the boat to sleep. Chris finds his brother and some of their friends at Mr. Ed's, a club next door that's pulsating with electronic dance music.

It's almost 1 a.m., closing time for the bars on Delaware Avenue. The group heads for the Brewery, a small club next to the town hall on Catawba Avenue. The Brewery is open until 2:30 a.m.

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The next morning, Chief Lampela reviews his officers' work: four open-container violations, two citations for possession of marijuana, two disorderly conduct cases, a drug paraphernalia charge, and an assault.

“A very nonbusy night,” the police chief declares. “Usually we have a little more going on.”

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Skip Duncan and his sons stroll past the Beer Barrel Saloon, which is mostly empty as lunchtime approaches on an overcast Saturday. After a night of partying, they're ready to take it easy.

“We're doing the family activities today,” Chris Duncan says. “We're going to head over to the Heineman Winery, the caves, the monument. We're doing the touristy stuff. But after dark,” he adds, “this place changes.”



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