MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Unemployment rising, banks disappearing - it may feel like 1929 all over again. But there's a crucial difference between the Great Depression and our tough times: We can legally drown our sorrows in alcohol. Today is the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, and NPR's Robert Smith was out in the wee hours this morning, appreciating that act of legislative largess.
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ROBERT SMITH: So, it's just past the stroke of midnight here at the Royale Bar in Brooklyn, December 5th, Repeal Day. Trevor Bataglia holds his shot glass of whiskey high in the air.
Mr. TREVOR BATAGLIA (Patron, Royale Bar, Brooklyn, New York): The end of the Prohibition, let's do it. To the end of it.
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SMITH: How does one properly celebrate Repeal Day?
Mr. BATAGLIA: You know St. Patrick's Day? Take it a step further. Take it a step further.
SMITH: It may seem odd that drunken revelers can actually remember the date that the 21st Amendment was ratified back in 1933, but the end of Prohibition is being heavily promoted this year by bars and alcohol manufacturers as another excuse to go out and drink. Think of it as Cinco de December. Much of the hype is the work of Jeffrey Morgenthaler. He's a bartender and blogger in Eugene, Oregon, who's been pushing Repeal Day as a new tipsy holiday. And this year, it's taken off.
Mr. JEFFREY MORGENTHALER (Blogger, Bartender): We've got a lot of bars putting on speakeasy-style events, where you need a password to get in. We've got a lot of people dressing up in period costume. People all over the country are coming together and putting on these Repeal Day parties.
SMITH: For some, it's a kind of Independence Day, when Americans stood up and took back their booze from those evil teetotalers in the government. But sociologist David Hanson says we have to remember that Prohibition was passed by popular demand.
Dr. DAVID HANSON (Sociology, State University of New York College at Potsdam): It was commonly believed that alcohol was the - really the cause of most societal problems. And when Prohibition came into effect, some cities and towns actually sold their jails because they assumed that there would be no more crime.
SMITH: Prohibition was also pushed heavily by religious groups like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, an organization which - believe it or not - still exists.
Ms. RITA KAYE WERT (President, Woman's Christian Temperance Union): We've not done a very a good job at our public relations, I suppose.
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SMITH: Rita Kaye Wert is the president of the group. And no, she says doesn't wield an ax and bust up barrooms like Carrie Nation. These days, the Temperance Union encourages people to make the personal choice to give up alcohol and tries to spread the message that Prohibition wasn't all that bad. Domestic violence went down.
Ms. WERT: Savings accounts tripled, and real-estate values went up, because people were able to have funds to make home improvements because the funds weren't being used to buy alcohol. So, I would debunk the myth that it was a failure.
SMITH: If it wasn't for the organized crime, the political corruption and the general ineffectiveness, it might just have worked. Instead, sociologist David Hanson says the experiment of abstinence really transformed the way the nation dealt with alcohol. Binge drinking started to become popular.
Dr. HANSON: Because people did not go to speakeasy to have a drink leisurely over their meal; they went there to get drunk, typically, and to drink in a rebellious way.
SMITH: A tradition continued on just about every college campus. And Prohibition is when Americans started to drink those overly sugared syrupy cocktails, developed to hide the taste of that cheap, bootleg liquor. Yet somehow, the era retains this elicit romance. Here in New York City, there has been a trend to open fake speakeasies - little, hidden bars with no signs and a password at the door. Here, I tell you what. I'll take you to one on a side street in the East Village.
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SMITH: OK. In order to get to this bar, you have to walk through the hot-dog restaurant. You open a phone booth in back. Here, let me get inside.
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SMITH: And then you pick up this secret phone, and the back door of the phone booth opens up, and here we are. Where are we?
Mr. JIM MEEHAN (Manager, Please Don't Tell, New York): The bar is called PDT. It stands for Please Don't Tell.
SMITH: Jim Meehan is the manager and cocktail guru at this bar. They are not planning a big blowout party for tonight. In fact, for Meehan, the Repeal anniversary has - dare I say it? - a sobering message.
Mr. MEEHAN: We can never take our rights for granted, you know, and I think that the most responsible way to celebrate this event is to celebrate the right to sell and consume spirits and alcohol in public places responsibly.
SMITH: So raise a glass.
Mr. MEEHAN: Cheers.
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SMITH: Cheers. Robert Smith, NPR News, at an undisclosed location in Manhattan.