By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
La Pietra tells of how he came to Hollywood in his teens with $40 in his pocket, and how he slept on the streets behind dumpsters when he couldn't afford a hotel. Some of his supporters roll their eyes when they hear the story. Maybe it's true, maybe it's not. But it makes a great story.
La Pietra, born and raised in Rhode Island, says he struck out on his own at 14 and went to work waiting tables, washing dishes and selling oil changes for a commission, discovering early on his knack as a salesman. He also knew he was gay. He says he had no struggle coming out.
At 19, he moved to L.A. "I always wanted to come to Hollywood. I remember seeing it in the movies -- the palm trees, the wealth, the opportunity." Soon after arriving, he met the man he would spend his next 22 years with, Ermilio Lemos. In 1971, he bought his first business in town, the 10-stool Hasty Tasty Coffee Shop on Hollywood Boulevard. La Pietra was the cook, Lemos the waiter. They later had a bookstore that also sold incense, some jewelry . . . and porn tapes. That last item of merchandise led to what La Pietra calls a misunderstanding: He faced obscenity charges related to the sale of sexually explicit materials in the early 1970s. He says he's not embarrassed by the incident and learned from it. "Everything in my life is an open book," he says.
They eventually opened the first nightclub in town to cater to black heterosexuals, and named it Disco 1985. Lemos died in 1990 of a heart attack.
La Pietra's current dance clubs are two of Hollywood's hottest, and attract both gays and straights. Nearly every night, he's at Club Circus until 3 a.m., often out front wearing a hat and accompanied by his cat, Baby.
Like most huge venues, Circus, which employs 52 security guards and 150 staffers, has had its fair share of lawsuits, most of them alleging that bouncers used excessive force or that unsafe conditions led to patrons getting hurt. Last month, La Pietra was sued by the family of Marcello "Nino" Maurizio, a 27-year-old executive recruiter and U.S. Army veteran who died on September 2, 2001, from an Ecstasy overdose, which he allegedly received while he was at the club that evening with friends. The wrongful-death suit claims that Circus Disco failed to control the sale and distribution of the drug and was negligent in not providing medical assistance or an ambulance for Maurizio, who was convulsing on the floor. His friends took him to the hospital, where he died a few hours later. La Pietra said the club did nothing wrong and that he cracks down on drug use. "We don't condone it, and we hope you don't see a lot of it."
La PIETRA AND I ARE DRIVING THROUGH THE STREETS OF Hollywood in his Lexus on a hot summer day. By the tenor of his spiel, I know he's done this a dozen times. We're on one of La Pietra's famous "couch tours," drive-bys in Hollywood during which he points out the incredible number of discarded couches and mattresses decorating the sidewalks of his famous city.
The array of discards really is impressive. Councilmen Garcetti and Tom LaBonge have both claimed major victories in the Couch War, telling reporters that they have special units on patrol assigned to collect the unsightly furniture. But today we count five abandoned sofas, all within just a 20-minute drive.
"Look at this," he says. He sounds disgusted. It's hard not to be. Within close view are dozens of garbage bags, split open and disgorging their contents: old tires; busted-up shopping carts; boxes of fast-food chicken filled with bones and greasy napkins; milk cartons; lots of newspapers; more fast-food bags with who knows what in them; empty oilcans. And the place stinks. "The city knows I'm giving these tours to reporters," La Pietra explains. "They know I've been driving around showing all these couches and the garbage. You'd think they'd clean it up, at least for the sake of appearances." Hard to argue with that.
He waves his hand over the garbage. I know where he's going with this. How can the city of L.A. argue that a new city of Hollywood wouldn't be able to take better care of itself? City Hall has done less than a stellar job so far.
La Pietra's largess and support are well-known in the gay community. To the folks who run gay community centers and AIDS health-care organizations, La Pietra is their patron saint. One group even gives out an annual Gene La Pietra Leadership Award.
"As a friend, a member of 'the community,' he's very generous," says Michael Weinstein, executive director of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. "The majority of what he does, he does quietly. And he's a very good person to have as a friend."
If garbage pickup or clean streets or even the proliferation of couches were the main issue, La Pietra would have a strong argument for Hollywood independence. But, of course, it's more complicated than that. Even among the staunchest anti-Hollywood-secession players, it's hard to get someone to cheer about the way L.A. has taken care of Hollywood. But that's another story. Hollywood may indeed be better off on its own. What concerns many people is whether La Pietra is the man to lead the city if it does secede.