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Toad Lake bar to allow smoking by letting patrons be 'actors' in play

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This weekend, smokers, visit Toad Lake Bar and Grill and "tread the boards" to enjoy the tobacco product of your choice from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.

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That's right, smoke inside, an activity not allowed in bars and restaurants since the Freedom to Breathe Act went into effect on Oct. 1.

According to a loophole in the law, smoking can occur in a play. Some bar owners are using that exception to revitalize business that took a hit since the smoking ban went into effect. They cast their patrons as actors and stage a performance in their bar.

In rural Frazee, Sue Rader of Sue's Toad Lake Bar and Grill, said Barnacle's Resort in Aitkin was the inspiration for her first theatre night last weekend.

More actors are expected this weekend at the bar and grill in rural Frazee, Sue Rader said, especially since word has spread about the weekend performances. Last weekend, "quite a few" people showed up for the event, with the theme of Northern Exposure, the sitcom about a doctor moving to Alaska that was on television in the 1990s.

"I think I had only two people at the bar that weren't smokers," Rader said about the first theatre night.

The bar, which Rader said was hit badly by the smoking ban, will be having theatre night every Friday and Saturday night, from 7 p.m. to close, with a different theme each week. "This weekend, it's going to be "Cheers,"" Rader said.

In order to participate, Rader said actors need to make a one-time purchase of a pin for $2.50. Actors are required to wear the pins at all times.

"We have a microphone we pass around," she said, "and a camera."

Costumes are optional. Last weekend, Rader said she wore a bomber hat, goggles and boots to fit the Northern Exposure theme. She's planning on dressing up this weekend, too, but she hadn't decided what to wear.

Customers aren't complaining, either. "They think it's a pretty good deal," Rader said. She said there were no complaints, at least not from people who were there.

She said the bar has to post 24 hours in advance that there will be some smoking at the bar and make sure folks are aware of who the actors are. If smokers don't purchase a button from her, "they can't smoke," Rader said.

Rader said the idea came from the success of a theatre night at Barnacle's Resort and Campground in Aitkin. The Web site for the resort (www.barnaclesresort.com, click on "Bar info for smoking") has samples of their posters and signs, as well as information on the law loophole.

The idea is growing as an option for other bars in Minnesota, though it might not have a long run.

Pauli Larson, the manager at the Audubon Liquor Store, had heard about the theatre loophole and asked about it at conference last week.

She said she was told it wouldn't be a good idea to go that route or spend the money on setting up a theatre night because the loophole was going to be shut down.

"That doesn't mean I'm giving up on the notion," she said. "But I'm certainly going to be doing some more digging before lighting up in here."

The Clay County attorney has criticized the growing movement to get around Minnesota's statewide smoking ban, and he says bar owners who join it risk legal trouble.

According to a story in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, a loophole in the ban allows performers to smoke during theatrical plays, so several bars have staged "theater nights" in recent weeks so patrons can smoke. The premise is that the patrons are actors, so their cigarettes are props.

Prosecutor Brian Melton calls that a "knucklehead move" and says bar owners who stage these events could be prosecuted.

A lawyer who first had the idea estimates that 50 to 100 bars around the state could hold theater nights on weekends.

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