The legendary Los Angeles nightclub Dragstrip 66 opened its doors in January 1993 (just as Bill Clinton was sworn in), and soon became the communal home to creative revelers who needed to celebrate life together again after 12 long years of right-wing politics and so many friends lost during the AIDS crisis. For two decades, it was the all-inclusive safe space for all kinds of people – gay and straight – to feel completely welcomed and encouraged to express themselves without judgment. And yes, dance to some amazing cutting edge music and walk on stage during the drag “Promenade.” The club ended its unprecedented 20-year run in January 2013.
Now, to chronicle this remarkable era in the L.A. club scene, Dragstrip 66: The Frockumentary is currently being produced. I recently had the opportunity and pleasure to sit down with co-directors/producers Phil Scanlon and Paul Vitagliano (DJ Paul V., also a co-founder of Dragstrip 66) to discuss the phenomenon that was Dragstrip 66, the upcoming documentary, and their crowd-funding effort that launched on June 6 and is currently running.
l to r, Co-Directors/Producers Phil Scanlon and Paul Vitagliano
Poppy: What was the first inspiration for Dragstrip 66? How did it all start?
Paul: Well, the precursor to us doing a themed party was the very first club we ever did called “Mystery Date” – which was weekly – and we used TV themes; it was like TV Land of 1989 because we were exalting classic TV. We would make giant Xeroxes of all the minutiae related to the theme, and had little contests like “Dress Up Like Fred Flintstone” or “Marcia Brady Look-a-Like” contests – all these things. It was so much work, and we never got a good turn-out…it was in the wrong location…so we ended it. But we thought the “theme idea” was a great idea, and wondered how we could do something that was a little less work, but still draws people into a theme. So first we said let’s try something monthly – because that’s a lot easier to prepare and get ready – and [Dragstrip 66 Co-Founder] Mr. Dan said, “what if we just encourage people to dress in drag for the theme.” That was the concept – Dan came up with the name – and we just knew we were going to do a monthly theme night, scouted locations and came across Rudolpho’s. We then met with Robert Del Campo (son of Nina, who also owns Casita Del Campo) and they were wonderful and said, “sure, let’s try it.”
The first one we were flying blind, we didn’t really know what theme to do, so because it was the week that Bill Clinton was sworn in we did a Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore look-a-like contest; but nobody really came dressed like them…they just dressed in drag. And we did alright – it wasn’t a bang-up turnout but it was decent – and we were like “ok, this is really fun,” and carried on from there. Now the second one, which was February 1993, was “The Karen Black/Valentine Ball” –
Poppy: We’ll have to tell our readers to Google “Karen Valentine.”
Paul: It was “The Karen Black/Valentine Ball” and Karen Black showed up! Her hairdresser knew about it and took her, and we talked to her a long time and she was sort of flabbergasted and asked, “why me?” And Mr. Dan without missing a beat said, “Honey, why not?” You know, she kinda “got it.” And we had a six-hour loop of just the scenes from The Trilogy of Terror – you know, the doll attacking her. And we made a circular thing that had a TV inside and you could peek your head in and it was “KarenVision,” and you could watch this. It had audio and everything!
Poppy: So creative!
Paul: The third one is when it all exploded – it was “Night of a Zillion Jans,” as in Jan Brady, and everyone was some form of Jan. There was “Black Wig Jan,” there was “Catholic Schoolgirl Jan,” there was “Oompa Loompa Jan.” There was one queen – this was my most impressive queen – you know the episode where Jan rides her bike into the framed portrait? This queen came in a black wig, glasses, and had a broken portrait frame around his neck – and he took the handlebars off a bike and was walking around with them! That’s when we said, “we really have something here, the crowd gets it. They get that they’re the show. Their participation is what makes this club brilliant.” And it was packed. Literally from the third one onward for eleven years straight, it was packed to the gills.
Poppy: (to Phil) Now, were you involved with it from the very beginning as well?
Phil: I was just a patron, and I didn’t move to L.A. until ’94; but I had heard about Dragstrip – the people that I knew who lived in L.A. had bragged about it. So when I landed here, of course I was curious to check it out and I went the first time I could. Dragstrip is the reason I moved to this part of town and Dragstrip is the source of all my longer and more significant friendships in L.A. I keep telling people when I walked into Dragstrip, I didn’t understand what it was, but I felt at home immediately. I said to myself, “ok, I found it…this is where I need to be.”
Poppy: This is your “tribe.”
Phil: Exactly! It was incredibly exciting and fun, and friendly, and really different. It’s like…if you ever felt like an outsider wherever you happened to be, and then finally you’re in a space where you feel like you’re with other outsiders – it resonated with me immediately.
Paul: We actually had never met until just before the final event in 2013. He came to me and said, “I really want to do a documentary on your club.” And I had thought about it, but I probably would have never done it on my own, so it’s just another “kismet” moment where a fan and a patron wants to preserve what he experienced. Of course I agreed.
Poppy: (to Phil) Is your background in filmmaking?
Phil: Yes. It’s not what I do professionally but I worked at AFI for five years, I went to the Museum School and studied Film and Animation, and I worked as a film festival consultant for many years; so I do have a background in film and filmmaking, but this is my first long-form project.
Poppy: (to Paul) Did you have a drag name. I know Mr. Dan’s was “Gina Lotriman.”
Paul: Well, here’s a scoop! Mr. Dan’s first drag name was “Bella du Ball,” and I don’t know how long he did it…maybe the first three or four events…and I don’t know if I came up with “Gina Lotriman” or if he did. I guess he did, but I came up with her tag line, “Gina Lotriman – Always topical. Never an ointment.”
I never had ‘one’ drag name. The very first name I had was “Stigmata Hari” –
Poppy: Oh, that’s good…
Paul: – but I never got known by it. It’s weird, even though I was in drag at every Dragstrip I was just “DJ Paul V.” I was sometimes known by my character names in our soap opera called The Plush Life – which was “Dr. Lois Hymenstein” at first, and then I was “Tureena Soup”…but I was just usually called “DJ Paul V.”
Poppy: When I first moved to Los Angeles in 1993, I had come from the pageant culture in Alabama which was very well-established. Even though we weren’t in the mainstream at all, the drag culture in the South was and is very robust. I came here and – at that time – there wasn’t much more than The Queen Mary and the gal who did the hosting at Revolver on “Musical Theatre Mondays.” That was pretty much it. Now L.A. is one of the premier “drag cities” in the country. Do you think Dragstrip 66 helped contribute to that? Because I certainly think it did.
Paul: Well, absolutely. I’ve said to Phil that nothing exists in a vacuum. For us, we were pushing back against the drag that we had known up until that point, which was the lip-synching, pageant, “fish”, “pass”…
Poppy: What we call now, “serving realness.”
Paul: Exactly. We were way more into gender-fuck, messy drag, and punk. We were absolutely coming from a punk aesthetic. You know, punk is DIY – well, we wanted your drag to be DIY. We didn’t care if you beat your face and didn’t shave…if you wore a beautiful dress and wore Doc Marten boots…make your statement – there is no wrong way to make your drag statement. Every drag statement you make is right and perfect. That message resonated immediately, that anybody could do this, however they wanted to express themselves. I think that drew a lot of people who had never pondered drag to do it.
There were many years where the guys only wanted to come as guys, because they got laid at Dragstrip – you did. And they were fearful that if they were in drag, they wouldn’t meet a cute guy. But they soon figured out that the drag queens were the ones getting talked up, were the ones getting hit on, and there’s that whole element of “well, I know you’re a guy…what’s underneath your skirt is what I want…but there’s something oddly attractive about you as a woman.” So there was that going on. We had many, many actual trans women come who would mainly only go to the trans parties before – and we were trying to be very careful, because a trans woman is not a drag queen – but that was what we were trying to say to everyone…that all were welcome here. Whether it’s a messy, first-time drag queen, passable queen, actual trans woman, transvestite – we had a lot of straight, transvestite men who loved the club. So when you say how much of a hand we had in the furthering of drag in Los Angeles, I really think [Dragstrip] was a big impetus to put the idea into people’s heads.
Poppy: (to Phil) Now, when you would go to Dragstrip, would you go in drag?
Phil: No. You know, I always wanted to, but there were so many things going on and I thought if I did, I would really have to bring my best game; because everybody was doing such creative stuff. And believe me, it wasn’t the idea of “passing,” it was just about being very creative and you saw so many incredible examples that were based on the theme. And the theme was a challenge, but open-ended too, so it was amazing how many interpretations you would see. I always said I was really too lazy to do something like that, and when you’re young…you just want to go out there and hook up, so you just put on your traditional black t-shirt and dancing shoes and jeans. I actually regret not having done that…
Paul: It’s really a whole different experience, it really changes the experience. There was the experience when you came in your “day drag,” your regular drag, and when you came in “DRAG drag.” It really changed it for a lot of people in the room. So once people crossed that line, there was no turning back; they wanted to do it more and there was that snowball effect. You have to think about Halloween. Why is Halloween so much fun? You have people who do not have to be themselves. All their shyness and inhibitions, and self-consciousness and self-esteem – all those things that prevent us from being outgoing – get tossed. You’re inhabiting the role of someone else, so you can do anything you want, and anything that you’ve dreamt about or that you would never do as your ‘regular’ self – you can do that in drag! That creates that energy of “come talk to me, I’ll talk to you…I’m a little hidden…you don’t necessarily know who I am…I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Poppy: It’s interesting that when you put a mask on, you reveal who you truly are. It’s a paradox.
Phil: And not only that, you’re more approachable when you do that too because costume invites conversation and camaraderie. And I think Dragstrip was really less about what kind of plumbing you had or what your sexual preference was. It was really more about exploring your imagination and creativity and being child-like about it. Everybody who was there in that space understood that it was a safe area where you could explore, so wherever you happened to fall on the “masculine” scale, you could just switch it up and do whatever you’d want. Dragstrip was this fantastic experiment in cultural exploration which has come and gone, and I really think that’s part of the larger, deeper story of what we’re trying to share – there’s an element to our being human that attracts us to being child-like and imaginative. It’s part of our core being, it’s part of our soul. Dragstrip was this great invitation for anybody to explore other possibilities, and it was such a welcoming, safe, fun, high-spirited, freeing experience.
Poppy: And something very needed following the decade of the ‘80’s.
Paul: I’ve said this to Phil…when we were in the moment we didn’t really think about it, except that – again – we launched the week Bill Clinton was sworn in; and after ten years of Reagan and Bush and ten years of losing hundreds and hundreds of friends to AIDS…
We didn’t really know where Bill Clinton was headed as a President, but we knew he was a Democrat, we knew he progressive, and if the pendulum was going to swing back it was time. Three or four years after we started was when all the HIV medications started to happen, and started to keep people who thought they would be dead by 1996…kept them alive…that added an incredibly huge layer to the collective celebration. Everybody lost friends. I came out in 1981, and all my youth was the shadow of AIDS, and Dan is a few years older than me, so that was the age range – all those guys had lived through that plague. So it really was the perfect storm – it was the right time, it was the mood of our community needing to free itself from feeling oppressed and feeling like death was hanging over us…and we provided this celebratory gathering and it really resonated on that level.
Poppy: You know it’s interesting because throughout history whenever there’s a time of incredible trauma to society, following that there’s an explosion of art…an explosion of creativity…and to me that’s what Dragstrip was.
Phil: I think you’re right. It was an “eruption” of community and creativity, and Paul touches on something that when I think about it now it still gives me a shiver down my spine, because we were all living with the wolf at our door. After a decade of being demoralized and frightened – to have that slight turn in the situation was just the thing that “lit the bomb” that was Dragstrip. And I think it all happened in a subconscious way, but people really wanted to go out and be together and celebrate life again.
Paul: It was, in a weird way, almost an “exhale.” I also want to add that we – Dan and I – were very inspired by ACT UP, by Queer Nation; and that energy of “we’re not going to roll over and be passive gays, we’re going to shout, we’re going to protest, and we’re going to push whatever door open we have to.” For me, ACT UP, what they did – they did something that so many people were afraid to do. They were real warriors and we really latched onto that spirit, even in just creating the club. We wanted it to be an alternative.
That’s another layer of the story – we truly wanted to provide an alternative, gay event that I was not getting. Here’s the bottom line: Dan and I said, “can we make a club that we want to go to,” and that’s what we did. The music was super cool, the shows were funny and cutting-edge and brilliant, and the crowd was friendly and fun and no bullshit attitude. And those things you just weren’t getting at the time at most gay events. We knew that Dragstrip would only work on the East Side. You have to remember that in the early ‘90’s, Silver Lake was still…you know…scary…in some places. You didn’t go out at night on some streets, and it was thought of as a little grungy and dangerous.
Phil: Even Rudolpho’s was on a sketchy corner of nowhere, so if you wanted to put on your pumps and a wig and get on down there, you were making a big statement.
Poppy: What’s the wackiest moment that you remember from all the years of Dragstrip? What’s the craziest thing that happened?
Phil: Well, all the performances were just so memorable. We saw queens giving birth onstage, we saw guys getting married onstage, performers with incredible talent; and then add to that costuming, personas, humor, and original lyrics…it was very [memorable]. Gina customized the queens’ performances to that particular theme, and everybody shared that very special, tongue-in-cheek, “let’s ridicule and revere the people that we love at the same time” mentality. So it’s hard to say what one event was memorable, because there were so many high points that were memorable.
Paul: I have to say that a moment that I remember that was legendary was – well, first of all…the fact that Holly Woodlawn came to our club…and then we got to know her and that she decided to perform for us. She sang three or four times. We did something called “Big Bird’s Feather Boa Ball,” so it was a Sesame Street/feather boa theme…
Poppy: That sounds amazing!
Paul: Yeah! So we booked Holly, and she agreed to do something that was amazing. We created a foam-core trash can that was onstage the entire night in the corner, you know, for Oscar the Grouch. She was the last part of the show, and for her song Gina [Lotriman, Mr. Dan] walked over to the can, pulled the lid off, and Holly Woodlawn popped out and sang Oscar the Grouch’s “I Love Trash.” And you know – Holly Woodlawn was in [Andy Warhol’s] Trash. So it was a mash-up. That’s the thing – we were doing mash-ups before it had a name, really. Our themes were mash-ups – like “Victor/Victoria’s Secret.” But that was a pretty great moment – a Warhol superstar at our club, singing on our stage, and agreeing to do something as ridiculous as her version of an Oscar the Grouch song–
Phil: – in a garbage can –
Paul: – in a garbage can!
To be continued… (part 2 here)
Check back tomorrow for the second part of Poppy’s interview with DJ Paul V. and Phil Scanlon. In the meantime, you can check out their Tubestart page and help make “Dragstrip 66: A Frockumentary” a reality by contributing to this worthwhile project.
TubeStart campaign – http://tbe.st/7996