This is the second part of an interview that Not Safe 4 Werk contributor Poppy Fields conducted with Dragstrip 66: The Frockumentary co-directors/producers Paul Vitagliano and Phil Scanlon. Part One of the interview can be found here, and their crowd-funding effort that launched on June 6 is currently running here – http://tbe.st/7996 .
Poppy: Now, over the years, you had lots of celebrities both appear and attend Dragstrip, right?
Paul: The interesting thing is that we had no VIP celebrity guest-list, and we certainly had no VIP celebrity area. The only private area that was away from everything was the kitchen. Our backstage was Rudolpho’s kitchen, because the doorway from the kitchen led to the stage. So when celebrities came, they had to jump right in, too. They couldn’t sequester themselves away from the “unwashed masses.”
Phil: No velvet ropes.
Paul: Nope, no velvet ropes. And that was pretty brilliant, because we didn’t treat them any differently. Many of us worked in the industry, so seeing famous people didn’t really impress us, unless it was someone like Pedro Almodóvar. He came and that was big. But celebrities were in the mix like everyone else. Drew Barrymore came about three times, and she danced on stage and hung out with Sharon Needles backstage. But it wasn’t “Let’s rope them off like zoo animals, so the general public can gawk at them.”
Poppy: And this was the original “Sharon Needles”?
Paul: Yes. Our “Sharon Needles” – Stephen Vara – created that name in 1993. And listen, I love the new Sharon Needles – I think she’s great – but we malign her for not doing a damn Google search before she decided to take that name! There is also a “Sharon Needles” – a real girl – who was in an LA band called “Betty Blowtorch” in 1998. A Google search would have turned up either one. It’s a great name, but our “Sharon Needles” had it first.
Stephen Vara, “Sharon Needles”
Poppy: Where did you get all the footage for the documentary, because Dragstrip mostly happened during the years before everyone had a video camera in their phone.
Paul: I had a direct-to-VHS camcorder, and I would grab the camcorder and put it on my shoulder and film walking through the bar, the lounge, the patio, record the shows, and film some of the backstage action. And I filmed from 1993 till around 2002. I guess subconsciously I knew that we needed to document everything, that one day we would want to look back on it. So the majority of what we have was all filmed at Rudolpho’s, so that’s the golden archival footage.
Poppy: And the two locations were Rudolpho’s and…?
Phil: The Echoplex, predominately.
Paul: Yeah, it was Rudolpho’s for 11 years, then The Echo for about 2 years waiting for The Echoplex to open, because they had just bought it and had to literally gut it, so it took a really long time. We did nomadically go to other places, but it was mainly Rudolpho’s, The Echo, and The Echoplex.
Poppy: Have there been challenges putting the documentary together?
Paul: Too much footage to choose from!
Phil: The VHS quality itself is not always there, but it’s archival, so the content is there. It’s really colorful, exciting, intriguing footage of a very historical period, so I think what you will see in the documentary is this hotspot of talent that flourished for a while and disappeared. It was like Brigadoon in Silver Lake – it landed, it offered something fantastic, and it disappeared as quickly as it arrived. It was a self-contained, incredible experience. Some of the VHS tapes were dusty and damaged, so we only got little slivers of tape that contained amazing footage, like the cops raiding the club, or Holly Woodlawn performing. And there were some nail-biting moments when we looked through the tapes and said, “Please don’t deteriorate at this point!” But I think there’s plenty of great content, and we’re fortunate that we can take different roads in the story we want to share. There are so many fantastic personalities that we can focus on. There’s the historical context related to Silver Lake, there’s the staff, there is Paul and Mr. Dan’s story, the AIDS crisis – and we need to cover them all. But we want people to walk away from seeing this film with the experience of being there. Because I always recall that when I left the club each night, I felt that I had been given something wonderful. It was almost like going to a revival meeting. I’ve never been to one, but I would go to Dragstrip and get filled up with the spirit and just want to go out and sing. I had never experienced that at a nightclub before!
l to r, DJ Paul V. and Gina Lotriman (Mr. Dan)
Poppy: Personally, this sounds to me as if it’s going to be just as important – especially with regard to the West Coast and our history here – as Paris is Burning, for example. That, too, was a window into a specific culture and time; and this feels just as important as that – though completely different and its own thing.
Phil: You’re definitely right. And there’s another aspect to Dragstrip 66 that we haven’t touched upon and that’s the dancing and the music. The music that Paul and Tom Walker put on was unlike anything that you would ever find anywhere else. That’s why when I went, I was on the dance floor all the time, loving every minute of it. Everybody who was dancing was in such a great mood and you’d see great costumes, but the music kept switching back and forth and you really had to follow it and listen to it and get completely into it. You had to respond to what the DJs were calling out. And it wasn’t always a smooth flow. It was “contrast-y” on purpose. It was a provocation and a challenge if you were on the dance floor. And we loved all of it, because it would take you through different styles and eras. It was all great, but it was designed to make you really pay attention and listen.
Paul: What Tommy and I have always done as DJs – is now the “iPod” concept. If you put your iPod on shuffle, all your favorite songs are going to play, and you don’t usually have them sorted by genre. They’re just your favorite songs, and that’s how we DJ’d. One minute it could be Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” and the next could be the “Dope Show” by Marilyn Manson. Then “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. Then “Super Model” by RuPaul. Then Parliament, “One Nation Under a Groove”. Then The Smiths or The Cure into Donna Summer or Cher!
Phil: And you would be so surprised by it. You would get totally into it. You know when you’re driving somewhere and you hear music from way back? That’s what it was like on the Dragstrip dance floor. You would get that “revival” spirit of “I totally get this! Thank you! Now watch me do my thing!”
Paul: We drew upon every genre from the ’60’s onward to whatever was hot at that moment. We drew from whatever was the greatest music. Classic rock, funk, soul, new wave, industrial – and not every song we played was “alternative,” but the juxtaposition was, in the fact that you would hear Nancy Sinatra followed by Marilyn Manson. Yet it wasn’t a car crash, and there was a method to how it all flowed. We would play three songs that were similar, and then we would play Hole! And when we would play Hole or The Ramones or Green Day, there was this sort of circular “moshing pit” and where do you see that at a gay club?
Poppy: You don’t.
Phil: And this was the real thing too. Everyone thrashing about, but having a great time.
Poppy: You know, everything is cyclical, and I think now we are seeing some of the echoes of what you did at Dragstrip; because there are people around the city who are now doing something akin to what you did – like the Boulet Brothers, for example, with their theme nights at the various clubs, such as “Dragula.” It’s a completely different thing, but you can absolutely see the influence of Dragstrip 66.
Paul: Very true, and here’s the thing: every generation stands on somebody else’s shoulders. We always acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of The Cockettes, and John Waters and Sylvester and Paris is Burning to a certain extent. Flip Wilson as “Geraldine” even. And everyone stands on Divine’s shoulders!
Paul: RuPaul, yes. Dragstrip 66 came at a time where we stood on certain shoulders and said, “This is our version, this is our presentation.” And now it’s 20 years later, a generation later, and I’m thrilled that our torch has been passed to the Boulet Brothers, to “Moustache Mondays,” or to “A Club Called Rhonda.”
Poppy: “Full Frontal Disco” and all those that are happening…
Paul: Absolutely. I feel like the tentacles of Dragstrip’s influence have traveled to a whole crop of new, current promoters doing their own take on what we did. And that’s how things work. That’s how art gets passed on and how gay culture survives. We will always encourage the next generation to keep that torch lit.
Phil: It’s also that – and not to sound too grandiose – each iteration of that expands human consciousness. So if you wore a dress 20 years ago, you’d most likely be demonized by not only the larger culture, but also the smaller culture.
Paul: The gay community still demonizes drag to a certain extent.
Phil: But look where we are today, where drag is mainstream entertainment. Your sexual preference is not that big of an issue now, and that’s the way it should be. So Dragstrip was a small step in that evolution, and is part of a larger story. And this chapter should be told. It’s one step after another, always moving forward.
Poppy: So what is the status of the documentary now, and what is your TubeStart funding supporting?
Phil: We raised our first funds on Kickstarter about two years ago, but we kept the funding small because we wanted to reach our goal. And we decided to do something small with an amount we felt confident we could reach. So we used those funds frugally and shot some great interviews. We digitized a lot of the video, and we did a lot of housekeeping things so the larger documentary can happen. Now we’re asking for a much larger amount of money, but now that we are at a stage where people are aware of what we’re doing and they’ve had a taste of what we’re planning to create, we feel confident that we’ll reach this higher goal. The funding that we receive will determine what kind of film we’ll create, so we feel if we reach that goal, we’ll be able to do something really terrific. We’re going to do something great no matter what the budget is, but reaching the goal will give us more latitude and allow us to have really great production values.
Paul: Because there is music licensing, costs for motion graphics, etc. The new funding will give us the ability to make it really spectacular, and that’s what we want. The earlier funding enabled us to put the “Featurette” together and say, “We’ve got something great, and here’s what we’re headed toward.” We hope that it will inspire people to help us go all the way.
Poppy: Are you aiming to submit to film festivals?
Paul: We’ll submit it everywhere. We will be happy if just our friends and patrons see it, because it will be a living document of the time. But our true goal is that the “Frockumentary” is seen by millions of eyes.
Phil: We want mainstream festival exposure. We love and welcome LGBT festival exposure, but our goal is to tell this story to the world. That’s the mission, I think.
Paul: And I think we’re in a bit of a perfect storm now because ’90’s nostalgia has kicked in. RuPaul’s Drag Race is one of the biggest shows on television all over the world and drag culture is now in everyone’s living rooms. And again, the idea of sexuality – those barriers are being knocked down. I think there’s an interest in our era, and what we were all about. And we’re in a zeitgeist moment, at a tipping point. We’ve been pushing this boulder of LGBT equality up a hill, and that boulder is now at the precipice ready to roll down the hill and crush all those who oppose us. The boulder is not going to wipe out homophobia – but we’ve worked so hard to get to this place and it really is a new, incredible, positive moment that far outweighs the bullhorns of the people who hate us. So it’s the perfect opportunity to get Dragstrip’s story out there.
Poppy: Well, I thank you both for your time, I wish you nothing but the absolute best of luck with the fundraising campaign and the documentary, and I cannot wait to see the finished product!
Please visit the Tubestart page (link below) and help make “Dragstrip 66: A Frockumentary” a reality
by contributing to this worthwhile project.
Tubestart campaign – http://tbe.st/7996