STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 24, 2011….Happy Hour, when bars temporarily discount alcoholic drinks or give them out for free, has been banned in Massachusetts since December 1984, but House and Senate leaders will soon determine whether to reinstitute the policy, or one like it, as part of the casino bill.
The Happy Hour amendment was introduced this month by Sen. Robert Hedlund (R-Weymouth) who said it would put bars and restaurants on even competitive footing with the casinos, which will be allowed to give free drinks to patrons under expanded gambling proposals approved by the House and Senate.
If Beacon Hill passes the casino bill with the amendment it will weaken a regulation put in place more than 25 years ago. The beginning of the end of Happy Hour occurred in the parking lot of a Braintree mall on the hot, dry, night of Sept. 9, 1983, according to press reports.
On that Friday night, Kathleen Barry, 20, of Weymouth, met her friends at Ground Round, where they had won free pitchers of beer in a “name that tune” game, according to a Boston Herald story and George McCarthy, then chairman of the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.
After leaving the bar, Barry and a friend climbed on top of another friend’s 1975 Chevrolet sedan for a joy-ride around the King’s Plaza parking lot in Braintree, according to a Boston Herald account. Barry fell under the car and was dragged 50 feet, breaking her neck, arms and legs. The driver had consumed at least seven beers, according to the ABCC.
People on the South Shore were outraged about Barry’s death but the bar had broken no rules, and the local licensing board let it off with no violations, McCarthy said.
At that time, it was common for bars to offer bargain barrel drink specials and pitchers of beer as prizes for bar games, said Dan Matthews, who was then an associate ABCC commissioner, and is now a selectman in Needham.
After the public outcry, McCarthy held meetings, calling the restaurant’s waitresses as witnesses, to determine what led to the fatal incident.
“The kids wouldn’t have gotten drunk if they hadn’t won pitchers of beer,” McCarthy said in a recent interview. When he asked the representative from Ground Round to end the beer pitcher prizes, he was told, “Well, I’ll tell you, I’ll have to think about that,” McCarthy said.
So McCarthy, the former mayor of Everett, decided to look into banning discount drinks and drink prizes statewide through the ABCC.
McCarthy found support in Gov. Michael Dukakis, who had appointed him to the commission.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, drunk driving was an epidemic killing scores of people throughout the country every day.
According to a 2001 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 32,000 people died in drunk driving accidents in 1982. In Massachusetts, drunk driving was the “trigger” for at least two-thirds of all deaths on the highways, according to a special commission report in 1974.
The safety hazard had touched the Dukakis home, as well. In 1973, Dukakis’ brother Stelian was killed in a hit-and-run accident while he was riding his bike through Brookline.
But just as galvanizing for Dukakis was a drunk driving crash in Hyde Park that killed a family of four on Christmas Eve, just before his January inauguration, he told the News Service in an email.
“Another senseless tragedy because we weren't taking drunk driving seriously,” Dukakis wrote.
The Happy Hour ban was not the only alcohol regulation enacted under Dukakis. In 1984, right around the same time happy hours were banned, the state legislature raised the drinking age from 20 to 21 and Dukakis launched a designated driver campaign.
Dukakis said his administration’s tack on drinking, which included stiffer penalties for drunk drivers, had measurably improved safety on the roads.
“Right after my inauguration in 1983 we launched one of the toughest drunk driving prevention and enforcement efforts in the country and cut the alcohol-related fatality rate on the commonwealth's highways in half in eighteen months,” Dukakis said. “I guarantee you that if happy hours are restored, dozens of people will be killed or maimed on our highways because of it.”
During a series of ABCC hearings around the state before the ban, McCarthy said he was struck by the support from bar owners to enact a stricter regulation.
“Once the movement got started, the bars were saying, ‘Look it, we only do it because the guys up the street do it,” McCarthy said.
On Nov. 21, 1984, Dukakis approved a new ABCC regulation that banned bars from giving out free drinks, selling more than two drinks at a time to one person, offering discounted drinks or offering them as prizes.
Massachusetts was the first state to ban happy hours, but McCarthy said some 20 other states followed the example and he was “surprised as the devil” to see the State House is considering reversing the ban.
In the time since, the Metro Boston bar business has flourished.
A year before the regulations went into effect, a bar called Grendel’s Den opened in Harvard Square. In a twist on Happy Hour, Grendel’s gave away an all-you-can-eat appetizer buffet for anyone who ordered a drink from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. In 2000, the promotion changed to a half-off discount on menu items for anyone who orders a drink.
“We needed to do something to promote a new bar,” said Kari Kuelzer, whose parents opened the bar.
Kuelzer said that if Happy Hour was re-established, bars might abandon the live music, food and big-screen TVs as a means to draw customers and instead engage in a “price war.”
“It really doesn’t hurt business to have some rules in place,” Kuelzer said.
In an interview, State Treasurer Steve Grossman, who oversees the ABCC, deferred to lawmakers to decide whether to overrule the regulation, but said “they need to know the history of those '84 rules and regulations.”
Though Hedlund sponsored the bill, he said he would “prefer not to” have a Happy Hour at his establishment, Four Square, in Weymouth.
Barkeeps might have been glad to see Happy Hour go, but some customers were less pleased.
“I don’t like it,” a customer at Street Lights bar in South Boston told the New York Times the last night before the ban went into effect, during a $5 all-you-can-drink discount.