The Founder of One of L.A.'s Earliest Gay Discos Isn't Crying Over its Destruction
The entrance to Circus Disco
Levan TK/L.A. Weekly
There's a movement to preserve Circus Disco, the Hollywood club that was an early sanctuary for gay people of color in Los Angeles.
The city's Cultural Heritage Commission could provide limited protection for the structure, but it seems unlikely. The body was expected to consider the fate of the venue at 6655 Santa Monica Blvd. this winter.
The Los Angeles Conservancy, which favors preserving the club, notes that the city has already opened the door to redevelopment:
In February 2015, the Los Angeles City Council certified the Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Lexington Project, paving the way for the project to proceed. The final EIR, which was released in August 2014, did not find the Circus Disco building to be significant or eligible for historic designation.
But the man who founded the venue in 1974 as a safe haven for gay Latinos and African-Americans who couldn't get into other clubs indicates that it's time to let it go.
"That's all it is, a warehouse," Gene La Pietra told us. "That's it. Take the sign off and the lights off and you have a warehouse built in 1973."
When asked point blank if he thought Circus should be saved, he said we should be asking the new owners of the property. The fact that he sold it, he said, is the bottom line when it comes to his nostalgia for the place. "That speaks to the whole issue," La Pietra said.
He sold the property, which also includes Arena nightclub, a former ice factory purchased in the late '80s, and another warehouse, in July, he said.
The new owner, AvalonBay Communities, plans a 786-unit housing complex (the aforementioned Lexington Project) with 22,200 square feet of shops and restaurants. We reached out to the company but didn't hear back.
The development would otherwise be an improvement for a pocket of Hollywood that once teemed with hustlers, homeless kids and transvestite prostitutes.
La Pietra did his part, including making close ties with police and hiring tough security guards who rode coplike motorcycles around the area, to try to clean up the neighborhood.
He bought the warehouse in 1974 with then-partner Ermilio "Ed" Lemos because they were tired of being turned away from white, gay establishments, La Pietra told us in previous interviews.
The two tapped credit cards and used cash to buy the place, he said. When the warehouse's owner found out La Pietra intended to turn the place into a gay club, he tried to pull out of the sale, but it was too late, he said.
Afterward, "There were many attempts to try to close us down," La Pietra, 67, said. "Hollywood wasn't ready for a couple thousand blacks and Latinos."
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He told us the final price of Circus was $1.8 million; La Pietra purchased Arena for $2.1 million before Lemos died in 1990.
Besides becoming a nearly 2,000-capacity gathering place for LGBT people of color (in the '00s La Pietra remodeled and expanded the club even further), it became L.A's premier weekly venue for electronic dance music.
Dave Dean brought his Giant "super club" concept there 2000, and a succession of EDM promoters followed.
In 2002 U.S. Drug Enforcement Agents and police, investigating the popularity of ecstasy in the EDM scene, raided Circus and arrested two employees. But La Pietra was never prosecuted.
He said the raid was payback for his part in a campaign to have Hollywood secede from Los Angeles and become its own city. La Pietra indicated at the time that he wanted to be mayor of Hollywood, too.
The raid came weeks after L.A. Weekly, then under different ownership, published a cover story critical of the nightlife mogul. It said, "He talks big, and can be loose with the facts." The raid, La Pietra said, "was about me."
His venues survived and even thrived, and by the late '00s La Pietra, known for standing at Circus' entrance nearly every night it was open, was making plans to sell and retire. The recession delayed his transition to armchair clubbing, but now it's here.
Levan TK/L.A. Weekly
Supporters of saving Circus say it's all about context. The Conservancy:
Circus Disco played an important role in the Latina/o LGBTQ community and in its history of political organizing and coalition building. In 1983, civil rights and labor leader César Chávez addressed roughly 100 members of the Project Just Business gay and lesbian coalition at the bar, where he offered strategies for organizing boycotts and coalition fundraising.
In an interview with us several years ago, La Pietra said the club's aim wasn't activism.
"We didn't start out to try to be social reformers," he said. "Clubs are strange vehicles to change social patterns. We were always very mixed clubs. You find less of a need for that now."