On a Friday night in late October, it's a scene outside downtown's Belasco Theater. Women wearing studded leather harnesses chatter about who is and is not on the list. Security guards organize the fashionable crowd into VIP and general-admission lines as a 6-foot tall drag queen acts as gatekeeper.
Inside, house DJ Seth Troxler is presiding over the dance floor, P. Diddy is hanging backstage, and leggy men in short shorts are gyrating on an elevated platform.
“Is this gay night?” a man in the crowd earnestly asks the person next to him.
It is, but only sort of. Tonight, A Club Called Rhonda — the pansexual grande dame of Los Angeles nightlife — is hosting party people of every orientation, so long as they're fabulous enough to get through the door.
In its roughly seven years of existence, Rhonda has been a playground for hard-partying cool kids who would cringe at the idea of attending bottle-service clubs. Though it remains focused on underground dance music that recalls the golden ages of disco, house and techno, Rhonda's popularity among trendsetters in L.A. and beyond has pushed it ever further into the mainstream.
Tonight's party at the Belasco is being presented as part of Red Bull Music Academy's This City Belongs to Me series. Organizers from both sides say Red Bull gives Rhonda the space to be who she is. (While Rhonda is not actually a flesh-and-blood person, those in the know refer to the party with the feminine pronoun.) In return, Red Bull gets the Rhonda cool bump.
Rhonda has hosted club nights all over North America. Its Queen of the Desert events have graced the Coachella party circuit for the past four years, and on New Year's Eve, Rhonda will take over the Standard Downtown L.A. hotel for its second annual holiday blowout, Rhondapolis, featuring DJ sets by Peanut Butter Wolf, Etienne de Crecy, Derrick May and Hot Chip, among others.
Rhonda co-founder, host and creative director Gregory Alexander, 29, grew up in Fullerton and began hitting underground parties in L.A. when he was 14. “For me being gay,” he says, “I immediately needed that outlet, someplace where I was allowed to be me.”
Alexander's fellow co-founder, Loren Granic, who is 30 and straight, grew up in Hacienda Heights, surrounded by the 30,000 vinyl albums owned by his father, a Power 106 DJ in the '80s. Granic and his brother Ryan act as Rhonda's resident DJs, spinning under the respective names Goddollars and Paradise.
The founders, both dark-featured and handsome, met after high school when Alexander dated Granic's best friend. They hosted the first Rhonda at East Hollywood club Guatelinda in early 2008.
“It was like a dream club for a Miami drug lord,” Granic says. “The owner would order us strippers.” But the party created a buzz, even winning L.A. Weekly's 2008 Best of L.A. award for “Best Poly Party.”
This polysexual aspect is a pillar of the Rhonda ethos. Coming from different sexual spheres, the founders were intent on creating a space where their gay and straight social circles could mingle.
“It's a melting pot,” Alexander says. “You're straight, you're gay, you're bi, you're just experimenting — everything sort of comes together in this club, and a lot of inhibitions are left behind.”
Drag queen Phyllis Navidad began working the door in those early days. “I got stuck in this little box of a ticket booth on Hollywood and Vermont that usually smelled of urine,” she recalls. “It was intense every night, because there were so many people showing up.”
Navidad takes care of the guest list and lets in people with good attitudes and creative outfits. “If I see a group of kids who have fashioned sequins into burkas, that's amazing,” she says.
Rhonda moved to Silver Lake's El Cid in 2009. Then owned by L.A. nightlife impresario Steve Edelson, the venue didn't have a strict capacity. Rhonda slammed the place every week.
“They would do a flamenco show at 8:30 p.m.,” Granic says, “and right after we'd be in there clearing all the tables out, like, 'OK, we need to decorate, bye!”
Rather than putting their own names on the flyers, the guys made the fictional Rhonda the headliner and spiritual figurehead. Rhonda is their ideal woman, a dance-music maven who has been part of history's legendary nightlife scenes, from The Loft to Paradise Garage to Studio 54. She is fearless, ageless, confident, sexy, boundary-pushing and classy. She is thus aspirational, a concept more than a character.
“That's why we've never actually shown a Rhonda face,” Alexander says. “We wanted every person to put their own face on it.”
When El Cid was sold, Rhonda began doing a higher-capacity incarnation, Rhondavous, at downtown's 333 Live in 2011. It found a permanent home when Edelson purchased Silver Lake's Los Globos that same year. Rhonda now hosts roughly 1,000 people throughout two floors once a month.
“Rhonda,” Edelson says, “is the heart and soul of Los Globos.”
Rhonda has never done bottle service; admission has always been five bucks (or free) before 10 p.m., and the guys have turned down lucrative sponsorships that conflicted with their values. They laugh when Rhonda, a full-time job for them both, is referred to as profitable.
Still, she has persevered. “We're super proud of our longevity,” Granic says. “[Rhonda] is like the sum of our personalities, our hopes and what we wish for dance music and culture to look like. If we sold out, we would be frauds.”
The guys say working with Red Bull Music Academy wasn't a compromise, as the organization works with many artists they respect and allowed them to stay true to their vision. “It would be hard to think of another company we'd do this with,” Granic says.
Their next step is Rhonda International, a record label showcasing artists who have come up through the scene, set to launch in the spring of 2015. Rhonda's cred has been built largely through musical bookings that are a celebrated alternative to commercial EDM, and the guys hope their label can become an extension of that.
“When you go to play ACCR,” says British DJ/producer David Wolstencroft, who has played Rhonda twice as DJ Trus'Me, “it's to have fun. Gregory and Loren are the party that makes the party.”
Because Los Globos stays open until 4 a.m., Rhonda now functions as an afterhours club, which fosters the debauchery that the organizers encourage.
“We want people to treat nightlife as an important institution in culture, and I don't think that comes from half-assing it,” Granic says. “If you go to a club and you mean it and you party like you want to get something out of it, that's when transformative experiences start happening.”
While on the surface it might look like mere hedonism, for many, Rhonda is a party with a purpose. The guys have gotten emails from patrons who realized they were gay after attending Rhonda, and from couples who have fallen in love on the dance floor.
Others simply find Rhonda an opportunity to play maximum dress-up. Out-there fashion incorporating leather, sparkles, masks and loads of skin are all captured in the party pics taken every month by scene photographer Rony's Photobooth. Anonymity is possible, sexual experimentation is applauded, and it's not unheard of for patrons to strip and dance naked.
“It's an anything-goes place,” Alexander says, “and I think people leave with a better understanding of each other because of that.”