“Last year was pretty devastating. As a DJ and event producer, the global nightlife community went from flourishing to virtually non-existent. So much of what we do in nightlife is built on connectivity and a sense of community. Sure, we were able to do livestreams. That is us surviving and preserving, putting our passions into actions the only way that we could. But it’s hard to replace real human connection and the joy we feel on the dance floor together.” – KIM ANH (DJ and promoter)
“The clubs last year for us were non-existent, completely closed. All that time with bills stacking up and no income was scary. When the Democrats passed unemployment for the self-employed, our lives were literally saved. Personally, I had to cash out my savings account. Unfortunately, that did not last very long. For the good part of the year, my life was pasta and canned beans for dinner and going to eBay to sell my rare vinyl collection.”
“As time dragged on we started losing hope for survival. We kept hearing ‘soon’ from the government but no relief. We were not considered ‘priority’ for funding from California’s grant program announced with great fanfare by Gov. Newsom. Bars were left out of all consideration. It was all restaurants, restaurants, restaurants. We were at the point of having serious discussions about liquidating to save whatever was left of our personal savings when Barstool Sports’ grant fell from the sky. We had considered selling the business, selling our house, walking away from California completely.”
– TIM COOK (owner Maui Sugarmill Saloon)
“Venues have said from the start, it’s not just like a switch can be flipped and everything is back to normal. There’s still a lot of setup to do, staff needs to be retrained, bars need to be restocked, etc. Some venues are still waiting for SVOG money so they can’t open. Sure, it’s exciting everything can open up on June 15th – but what exactly does it mean and how is it going to play out? There’s still a lot of questions. But, venues and promoters are a resilient bunch and the job naturally requires you to think on your feet and think out of the box a lot. The pandemic knocked everyone off their game but the venues are so eager to get back to it and do the job and have fun and still bring people together. Music venues and live performance will survive; I always think of it as a natural instinct for people to gather and be together, to experience music, drink, food, conversation, dancing, etc.”
For well over a year, Los Angeles lost what some might call its lifeblood. As nightlife was forced to shut down due to the rapidly spreading coronavirus, venue owners, bookers, promoters, DJs, dancers, bands, bartenders, and what really felt like the entirety of our city’s creative community, was suddenly stifled and suppressed, stuck at home with no income and no way to connect beyond a cell phone or computer screen. With events of all sorts essentially obliterated, cancellations and closures became the rule, not the exception; and for a while there, it seemed there was no hope in sight.
Now, 15 months later, the end of the COVID-19 nightmare appears to be here thanks to a largely successful vaccination rollout. Last week, a reported 39 million vaccines had been administered in California. We have the lowest case rate in the country and some of the lowest levels of transmission in the nation. And so, as of June 15, California is officially “open” which as of this writing, indicates that public health restrictions, color-coded tiers, mask mandates and social distancing rules are basically over and “we can start to open up, business as usual,” as Governor Gavin Newsom stated in a recent press conference.
But as we discovered after reaching out to some of Los Angeles’ most notable nightlife figures (quoted throughout this piece), there is still confusion about certain aspects of the transition into normalcy, not to mention fears about the virus returning due to variants and anti-vaccination proponents keeping the state, country and world from ever reaching herd immunity. But there is also a lot of optimism based on business indicators thus far.
For many in the bar and club worlds, there’s a sense of urgency due to economics but there are still hurdles to overcome in terms of understanding the public’s comfort levels, adjusting practices for crowd control and spacing accordingly, deciding whether employees should be masked and/or vaccinated (and whether or not to ask patrons to be). It is hoped that the uncertainties will be transitional, but no one really knows at this point.
For promoters who book DJs and bands at local venues, there’s still a level of risk due to bar guarantees, talent fees, and promotional costs, not to mention the emotional energy and faith in the future that many of us saw seriously depleted during the pandemic. L.A. nightlife is back but whether you actually had COVID or not, its after-effects are real and PTSD-like, especially for those who make their livings bringing people together after dark, providing excitement and escapism, drink and dance, carousal and connection, all things that many of us have missed terribly and desperately want back.
For now, everyone here is participating in L.A.’s “re-opening.” Click hyper-links throughout this story for info on their returning parties, DJ gigs, shows, clubs, bars and more.
“2020 was pretty bleak. After a strong start, the rest of the year was completely dark. We started working pretty early on a series of contingency plans so that when things did open back up, we had a roadmap in place to hit the ground running. I personally took quite a lot of Covid compliance classes so that when we did reopen, we would be ready to do so in a safe manner that impacted our patrons in the most minimal way possible.”
– JOHN GIOVANAZZI (promoter Das Bunker, 90s parties at The Lash)
“The pandemic hit the queer nightlife scene like a ton of bricks. It literally sank us. We were very scared but also so desperate for community – so much so that some ventured out to underground events anyway, some of them, as a result, losing their jobs and being ostracized on social media simply for trying to breed fellowship. I think what has become prevalent from the pandemic is the underlying issue that our nightlife safe spaces are the only place in society that some of us really feel comfortable to be ourselves and without access to them many of us felt lost.”
– ERNIE OMEGA (party promoter, host / artist)
“What we do specifically is bring hundreds of people together and shove them into small spaces to dance, sweat and love all over each other with abandon. And my wild queer parties BFD, Full Frontal Disco & Hot Dog are about as intimate as they come. They are the quintessential opposite of social distancing or any type of safety practice. Needless to say, our jobs ended abruptly and it was very distressing. My first thoughts went to my peers and associates who depend on every tip and payout to survive. My drag queens, my bartenders, DJs, barbacks, door people, Go-Go boys….everyone. We have all had to find a new way to survive and for the most part, we have. It has been very tough on some while others managed to pivot virtually or in other ways quite well. Many have made big changes, moved away or found new professions.”
“Personally, I was not interested in pivoting my events into the virtual space as some other promoters did. My parties are an in-person experience. I could not see them working any other way. It’s the real-life connection, the intimacy of it all that makes it special. So I put everything on hold but here we are. On the precipice of packing our venues once again.”
– MARIO DIAZ (Hot Dog, Full Frontal Disco and BFD)
From the gay community to the goth scene, vital parts of L.A. nightlife have been lost for far too long. The closure of queer spaces in particular, was deeply felt during the pandemic. As shocking shutterings of venue staples like Rage, Gold Coast and Flaming Saddles in WeHo and Oil Can Harry’s in the Valley were announced, others like Redline DTLA and Akbar struggled so hard that Go Fund Me pages were created to help them survive. Both are still here and have been booking events at limited capacity since the yellow tier guidelines were implemented in May. They’re back in full force with a host of events including drag shows and beer busts.
Though there wasn’t a lot of reporting about them for obvious reasons, parties –gay, straight and pan– did continue on the down-low throughout L.A. in warehouses, DIY spaces and homes, as well. Some got busted while others ended up becoming small super-spreader events, with COVID cases in those circles increasing. The coronavirus has killed 62,500 Californians so far and while it was mostly elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, the risks to young and seemingly healthy folks was real, especially for the socially active. Going to the supermarket was one thing, but a club, bar or party was quite another. It seemed irresponsible and reckless, especially for those of us who watched the grim news on TV every day, which showed people fighting for their lives on ventilators, exhausted doctors and nurses working to save them, and tearful loved ones who lost someone close; situation was particularly in New York and countries like Italy last year but California was in bad shape as well. At this point, most of us know someone who had COVID or lost someone (usually parents) to the virus. Though we missed after-dark revelry, we couldn’t even imagine getting dolled up to go out and dance/prance.
But not everyone felt that way. Social media served to highlight the varied perspectives on what was safe to do and what wasn’t. While most of us were quarantining and only leaving our homes for essentials like food and (much-coveted) toilet paper, others didn’t take the virus as seriously and did go out, shamelessly sharing photos of themselves in groups, often maskless, on Facebook and Instagram. This only added to the contention and division that erupted post-George Floyd and during the racial reckoning that followed. Some promoters, owners and portions of the public found the local government’s guidelines too restrictive, unfair and inconsistent, and indeed, things didn’t always make sense in terms of which kind of businesses could do what and when.
Even the much-touted June 15 date designation for “back to normal” this week seems arbitrary. Starting this weekend, we will see more restaurants, parties, dance clubs, bars, concerts, variety shows, plays, improv and comedy, burlesque, art openings, screenings, readings, and every other exceptional and uncategorizable gathering that makes this city special, attempt a normal re-open at full capacity and it’s very likely most will be packed. But the reality is, none of us is actually safer going to any of them than we were last weekend or even the weekend before that. This time last year was another story, though.
“This past year was definitely different for us, but I think it probably made our community a lot closer. We were able to reach even more people than our usual L.A. crowd with online virtual events on Zoom and Twitch. We even had a festival for our party Heav3n on Minecraft with our friends Open Pit and Elsewhere space in New York to create an entire Heav3n world for everyone to join with live sets from a bunch of talented artists. Things were definitely really difficult financially. The plus side was that we were able to do a lot of charity shows during 2020 to give back to Black and POC artists through donations so the community really came through to help out a lot. I will definitely continue to curate more charity live stream shows to help out a lot more in the future as well.”
“I chose not to do online streaming shows because what was happening was a lot to process for me personally on a daily basis and I just couldn’t function enough some days to think about putting on a show. I was very distracted and it was hard to focus. I know a lot of us creatives couldn’t. We were watching the one thing many of us never dreamed would happen, happen. The entire world shut down and shut in. I live for producing great events. I live for live entertainment. But it was hard to think about how nothing would ever be the same afterward.”
“I think we all feared the worst when the days and weeks stretched into months. Gone was the modern world, when we were so spoiled with bottle service crammed into a big booth with a bunch of friends watching a great show, listening to a great DJ or seeing a band that helped us survive high school in an amphitheater with thousands of other fans… We thought it was over.”
— COURTNEY CRUZ (Star Girls Burlesque)
“While I’m ready to get performers back on stage and be live again I personally am fine with the time it took to get to this place. The anxiety of getting sick or making someone else sick was too much for most of us. The loneliness and depression that we dealt with from being quarantined and not performing (or seeing friends) was enough and I’m glad that’s over. It was tough, just like it was for any other performer relying on clubs and venues to keep the arts alive. There were moments when I (as a producer) wanted to call it quits, it just seemed too hard and pointless to try to make art during a pandemic.
“We did our first live stream show in March on IG from the Vertitude and thought it would be one of only a few online performances but boy were we wrong. We did another live IG show in May, socially distanced in the back alley of the Arts District. It was a wild, guerrilla / punk rock burlesque show under a full moon. It was an amazing experiment and it truly brought us life and made our audience so happy to see something different, raw and brought us together for that one hour.”
– Lulu DePina (producer, Bootleg Bombshells)
While the restaurant industry got a lot of attention for its struggle, venues and events without food had it especially hard. Some bars started doing take-out cocktail service and many entertainers and promoters offered virtual presentations. Here at L.A. Weekly our popular “GO LA” events guide was forced to adjust and morph with an “online arts” calendar, “livestreaming music picks” and “streaming picks” spotlighting cyber-concerts and exhibits, computer club simulations, pre-taped and live burlesque and strip shows, festival screenings, panel discussions, Zoom chats and more. Some had a lot of fun with the online thing, while others tried it once or twice but ultimately found it limited and less interesting than the real-life experience.
Groups like National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) and National Independent Talent Organization (NITO) tried to help music clubs with a “Save Our Stages” effort, but political ineptitude in the White House and the deep divide in congress made getting aid difficult. Music clubs presented a few cool events online, but for the most part, stayed dark. Some, like the legendary Troubadour, shared their struggle publicly and did fundraisers, but many have been mum about their fates thus far.
After reaching out to dozens of spaces, places and people for this piece, it became clear that many aren’t ready to share their plans for re-opening just yet. They see June 15 and what happens after that date as a test of sorts and they’ll be watching those who go for it closely. Unfortunately, many didn’t make it to see this week’s re-opening. In addition to the queer landmarks mentioned above, late night/date night hangouts such as the 101 Cafe, Cliff’s Edge, Pacific Dining Car, The Pikey, Little Bar, The Bazaar by Jose Andreas, The Standard Hotel on Sunset Blvd. (which house a nightclub called Mmhmmm) and many others officially announced closure, with one proper nightclub, The Satellite in Silver Lake (formerly Spaceland), announcing a pivot away from music and dancing and over to food service. Well before the 15th, a few venues have been open for business, but with mandates for proof of vaccination and/or masks, a rule that didn’t always go over well.
“On the one hand, the decisive action of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control gave bars, restaurants, and distributors a fighting chance to save themselves. On the other hand, many of the restrictions imposed by the state were both arbitrary and unsafe. Did anyone really believe that you could catch the virus by drinking at a place licensed as a bar, but that you would not catch it if the place was licensed as a restaurant? Or that you were no longer at risk of catching the virus if the bar partnered with a food vendor? Or that you could catch an airborne virus from people sitting in an enclosed room, but you could not catch it from people sitting in an enclosed tent?”
“Back in March, we announced that The Other Door would reopen as Risky Business, a private club for vaccinated members, operating at full capacity with no restrictions whatsoever. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, as everyone wanted to return to real social interactions, with no masks, no distancing, and no other arbitrary restrictions. There was also some colorful opposition from across the political spectrum. Ultimately, we attracted thousands of members, who appreciate that we restored their freedom to socialize, right now, without waiting for public policy to catch up.”
– ARI SCHINDLER (owner, Risky Business, formerly The Other Door)
“We went into hibernation. We closed almost everything during the pandemic. We weren’t sure we were going to be able to survive but we fought through it. That feels good now but it felt like shit for the last year, up until about a month ago, especially for our employees who are like family. I disagree with the way things were handled but there was nothing I could do. We were all in the same boat. But since we opened at 25% capacity during the yellow tier, it’s been great. Business has been really strong. Lines to get in every night. So far we’re seeing people staying longer and spending more money. I think people are going to have more appreciation for going out as things open up.”
– CEDD MOSES (POURING WITH HEART group: 4100 Bar, Bar Clacson, Bar Jackalope, Arts District Brewing, Broadway Bar, Cana Rum Bar, Las Perlas, Golden Gopher, Slipper Clutch, Tony’s Saloon, The Varnish and more )
“Personally, I don’t get how we are first to close and last to open. A lot of things don’t seem to really make sense and tend to have different standards for similar types of events with large crowds and drinks. I will encourage masks but I think if you’re going out to drink with others it’s really a risk you are aware of. No one can say for sure how sure they are of not being exposed. I say just do your part, wash your hands, wear protection, be aware of your environment and others’ space and drink responsibly. If you feel ill or off, stay home please.”
“We want to see all of our people laughing and losing themselves into the music again. And above all, getting decked the hell out as our party is intended for people to dress up as loud as possible. We know everyone has been waiting to bring out their best looks to the public again and we are ready for it.”
“Obviously it was just the toughest year possible. Luckily we found some ways to adapt to multi-revenue streams – doing food delivery, doing live streams, alternate use for our parking lot for COVID testing… I’m so glad we made it and I think this is going to be the best year ever now. We’re selling tickets like crazy, the calendar is getting filled up like crazy. It’s never been like this in my 10+ years of doing this. I’m extremely optimistic that it’s going to be a very wild Summer that we’re all going to remember for the rest of our lives.”
While L.A. is not alone in trying to figure out what nightlife will look like moving forward, we are one of the busiest and most bountiful places in the world for those who enjoy going out. How we fare during this transition will be looked at as an example. But across the country, cities and states will have to see what works for their citizens whether that means slowly easing into things or going full-throttle as if COVID is truly a thing of the past. Maybe we can even find some positive perspective on the pandemic and how it affected nightlife culture. It forced us all to get creative, to connect in new ways and never take the wealth of activities, amusements and revelry here for granted ever again.