View more photos in the “Dragstrip 66 Retrospective” slideshow.
The early ’90s were heady times for drag. RuPaul went mainstream, hitting the charts with “Supermodel,” and soon thereafter got her own talk show on VH1. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert became a sleeper hit in theaters, and in L.A., the poly-sexual party scene was bubbling. John Waters’ favorite diva Divine was already a legend, and men in garish makeup and glam dress could be found lip-synching to the requisite Donna Summer and Cher tracks in certain West Hollywood clubs. But there was a definite lack of rock & roll ’tude to these proceedings. Mixed crowds who wanted to partake in the fun had few options.
Then, at the perfect moment, DJ Paul V. and Mr. Dan (aka Gina Lotrimin) arrived to transform the venerable Latin restaurant Rudolpho’s (now Home restaurant on Riverside Drive) into a haven for self-expression and unbridled revelry. Boasting midnight shows in which the queens actually had chops — only real singing allowed — Paul V. and Mr. Dan dubbed the night Dragstrip 66. Mini-skirted man-mobs in Technicolor wigs, sky-high heels and falsies (lashes and otherwise) practically mauled each other to get in — and often mauled each other once inside, too. The most wonderfully outrageous mix of gay, bi, straight, curious clubsters converged on the dance floor, moving to equally indiscriminate sounds from, as Paul V. describes it, “Marilyn Manson to Madonna, Nirvana to Nancy Sinatra, Duran Duran to Dr. Dre, ABBA to Ziggy Stardust.” Dragstrip 66 helped pioneer the theme night, an evening geared, both musically and stylistically, around a clever premise (“Pajamarama,” “Turban Renewal,” “Jocks & Frocks,” “Hooray for Bollywood,” “Tranny Get Your Gun”). But almost two decades after it first raced into Silver Lake (after capacity problems forced Rudolpho’s to close as nightclub in ’04, 66 moved to the Echo, then to the Echoplex), Dragstrip 66, the monthly event that unabashedly brought cross-dressing and clubbing together in L.A. is — as RuPaul would say — sashaying away with its grand finale gathering, “Hat’s All, Folks,” this Saturday. Get your party chapeaus ready, chickadees.
“The name Dragstrip 66 was an amalgamation of Drag, 77 Sunset Strip, Route 66,” recalls Mr. Dan. “What eventually happened was the club turned into a community-identified event. One could see a drag show elsewhere, but at Dragstrip 66 the patrons were a big part of the show.”
This interactive quality, in which the participants and their getups are part of the spectacle itself, is the norm in L.A. nightlife these days, as evidenced by clubs like Mustache Mondays, Shits & Giggles, Miss Kitty’s Parlour, A Club Called Rhonda and Mr. Black (and Cherry and Club Makeup before them). But Dragstrip was the first to take what was happening in NYC and downtown L.A.’s underground a decade earlier (we fuzzily remember queens at Egg Salad, Plastic Passion and random raves) and distill it into something more inclusive and enjoyable for everyone, from rock stars (Marilyn Manson, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and Anthony Kiedis, and more recently Adam Lambert) to celebs (Drew Barrymore, Alan Cumming, Roseanne Barr) to straights (looking back, it may have been this writer’s first dip into the drag world — outside of John Waters’ films anyway — begetting our long-standing respect and fascination with the flamboyant side of nightlife).
“It was like Stonewall meeting Warhol meeting the Sunset Strip meeting Haight-Ashbury,” says Scott Craig, co-owner of Akbar in Silver Lake. “Paul V. and Mr. Dan’s success with this alternative gay club definitely gave me the confidence that I needed to open my little adventure [with partner Peter Alexander]. Because of Dragstrip, I knew there was a creative and fun crowd out there who would enjoy a bar that welcomed one and all.”
Fans of drag culture will be familiar with the who’s who of fellas in foxy frocks who’ve taken the stage during the club’s midnight show over the years: everyone including Jackie Beat and Momma (both set to perform on Saturday), Joey Arias, Sherry Vine, Varla Jean Merman, Chi Chi LaRue and Holly Woodlawn (who starred in Andy Warhol’s film, Trash).
“I’m always saying in interviews that Los Angeles isn’t a big drag city, but when it came to Dragstrip — all of a sudden it was,” remembers Jackie Beat. “Everyone was there in drag, having a blast. I loved how Eastside it was, and it always had a fun, punk vibe. Oh no, now my mascara’s running!”
Waterproofing might be necessary for the club’s tearful last hurrah, but laughs are sure to be had, too, as Dan’s song parodies have long been hilarious highlights of the evening. In fact, the owners of Rudolpho’s were so impressed by his theatrical chops at Dragstrip, they asked him to book the basement club at their other Silver Lake restaurant, Casita del Campo, the same year (’93), and the space quickly transformed into Cavern Club, known for drag-friendly productions such as the Plush Life and Chico Angels. Cavern still sells out weekly with fresh new shows such as Jer Ber Jones’ Telekinesis and Beat’s holiday hell-raisers. Dragstrip’s spirit is sure to live on there for years to come.
With drag’s role in pop culture more prominent than ever, thanks to the quip-smart reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race (coming back for a second season on Logo and VH1, Feb. 1) and venues like San Francisco’s Trannyshack gaining national attention, some might be scratching their wigs in bewilderment thinking: Why is the club exiting, anyway?
“People are in disbelief, as if Dragstrip would last until the apocalypse or something. But that’s magic of what it means to everyone, which is a camaraderie so totally bigger than just having fun at a nightclub,” explains Paul V., best known in the straight world for radio show Neon Noise (on Indie 103.1 before it left the airwaves) and for his still-bustling Bootie LA party. V. and Dan are busy boys, and after 17 years, they seem ready to let a new slew of over-the-top soirees and gender-bending royalty take the reins. “Best friendships were forged there, longtime lovers and partners met there, and countless amazing and usually decadent memories were sealed there. All told, Dragstrip 66 and its patrons defined their own era, with a frenzied synergy and an everyone’s-invited spirit that connected all of us. That’s the legacy we’ll forever be the most proud of.”