A Lawsuit Against an Old Town Nightclub Owner Brings Forth Incendiary Allegations of Racism

Former employees say in sworn statements that their boss went to elaborate lengths to limit the number of black patrons in his clubs. He denies it.

(Laurel Kadas)

A racial discrimination lawsuit that settled in Portland on the eve of a scheduled June 17 trial contained allegations that an Old Town nightclub operator went to elaborate lengths to limit the number of black patrons in his clubs.

Prior to the settlement, lawyers for the plaintiff, Samuel Thompson, entered into the record at Multnomah County Circuit Court eye-catching allegations from former employees of nightclubs partly owned by Chris Lenahan.

"Lenahan would use the term 'flamingo' over the radios to signal each other and talk about black and African American people," Artie Haws, a former bartender for Lenahan said in a sworn statement. "For example, Chris Lenahan would radio to security: 'No more flamingos. We're at capacity.'"

In the lawsuit, Samuel Thompson, a Portland nightclub promoter who is black, sued Lenahan and his company Vegasstars, alleging that Thompson was refused entry to the Dirty Nightlife on May 25, 2017, because of his race.

Lenahan, 49, is a big deal in Old Town. He is a part owner of four Old Town clubs, according to court records: Dirty Nightlife, Shake Bar, the Paris Theatre and Splash Bar. He previously ran numerous other clubs in Old Town, including the Barrel Room. According to his website, he's owned or managed clubs across the West and has written a book and made more than 100 YouTube videos about successful bar management.

Paris Theatre (Thomas Teal)

For years, advocates for black Portlanders have alleged that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and the Portland Police Bureau unfairly target establishments with black clientele for scrutiny and discipline. The effect of Thompson's lawsuit is an argument that one of the city's biggest nightclub impresarios does the same. (The lawsuit was previously reported by High Country News.)

Lenahan said in pretrial filings that not only was Thompson's lawsuit groundless but the assertions that Lenahan or his clubs have racist policies was "without merit" and "nonsensical."

In a sworn statement, Lenahan acknowledged Dirty Lightlife enforced a dress code, "which states in part: No excessive matching red, blue, green and orange." He said Thompson knew about the code, and Lenahan's security staff told Thompson he could enter if he donned another shirt they offered him.

Lenahan says the dress code at Dirty Nightlife was purely a measure to keep people safe. "There have been 41 shootings in licensed establishments since 2016," he says. "Most of them were gang-related."

Thompson said in his lawsuit that the dress code was merely a pretext for excluding him, not because of the color of his shirt and shoes but because of the color of his skin.

Paris Theatre (Thomas Teal)

Lenahan says the allegations made by former employees are "complete bullshit." He says he has never used the N-word or any derogatory terms about patrons or potential patrons.

"My bars of full of people of color and many of my employees are people of color," he says. "Why would I say or do anything that could turn away people who are my customer base?"

Thompson's attorneys, Tim Volpert and Noah Horst, say as part of the settlement, however, Lenahan dropped Dirty's dress code.

"This settlement should place Portland nightclubs, bars and restaurants on notice that it is unlawful to use dress codes to discriminate against African Americans, that victims of racial discrimination have a voice, and that those voices will be heard in the city of Portland," the attorneys said in a statement.

Here is what former employees allege:

Artie Haws
Manager at Splash, 2011-14
Bartender at Shake and the Barrel Room, 2016-17

"Chris Lenahan instructed me and his management to limit the ratio of black and African American people at his clubs by notify[ing] the door. He made his instruction clear to us by telling us to imagine a pie chart. He called this 'bar science' and said 'we don't want it to get too dark.' He said we need to keep the black and African American customers to no more than 30 percent of the total crowd. He said he didn't want people coming in and seeing more than 30 percent black and African American people because he didn't want a 'black bar.'

"Lenahan always directed his staff to keep his clubs majority white. His code for having too many Asians was 'No more red dragons.' Lenahan would also use the term 'squirrels' to refer to attractive females. If Dirty needed more 'squirrels,' Lenahan would direct me to give out fliers and drink tickets."

Read Haws' full statement.

Kenan Powell
Security guard at Dirty Nightlife, 2010-11

"I was told that Chris had a policy of excluding gentlemen of color from his club and that he had made it clear that everyone who worked for him from the top down knew his policy that 'I don't want too many chocolate chips in my bowl of milk, just a few.'"

[Powell said he saw that policy in action one night when two then-Portland Trail Blazers visited the club.]

"LeMarcus Aldridge and Dante Cunningham tried to get into Dirty. They were wearing expensive European shoes, designer jeans, button-up shirts and sports jackets. They were the best-dressed people I saw all night and they were complying with the dress code, yet they were sent to me at the side door. When they were told they would have to pay an additional cover for violating the dress code, they left."

Read Powell's full statement.

Carmen Gilberts
Bartender at Shake, 2015-16

"In approximately October of 2015, I needed help when I was working at the bar in the Hip Hop room, so I put my headset in my ear and turned the radio up to full volume. I was not able to ask for help because I immediately heard a voice I recognized distinctly as Chris Lenahan yelling and screaming over the radio. Mr. Lenahan was yelling at security in an angry voice screaming, 'Get these n—–s out of here!' over the radio. I talked with my colleague about Mr. Lenahan using the N-word on the radio, and we were horrified. Shortly after this incident, Mr. Lenahan took the radios away from the bartenders and instructed us to have the bar backs radio for help if needed."

Read Gilberts' full statement.

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