By Vic Gerami
West Hollywood Go-Go Dancer Appreciation Day Festival and Competition was like a dream that left everyone wanting more.
Brainchild of West Hollywood City Councilman John D’Amico, the fun, sexy and totally West Hollywood contribution to Americana culture was packed with revenue potential for the local nightlife industry and others in The Creative City’s business community. GoGo Fest lasted only three years, but it was a passionately human expression of West Hollywood’s culture.
Soon after being elected to City Council, D’Amico decided he wanted to create an annual event that was uniquely West Hollywood. He also wanted the event to attract crowds to the city to help nightlife businesses during a part of the year (the post-summer weeks just before the always-teeming Halloween night) when restaurants, nightlife spots and ancillary businesses are typically slow.
Along the way, D’Amico hoped to solidify a legend, true or false, that gogo dancing originated in West Hollywood. However uncertain the lore, he wanted to capitalize on gogo’s timelessly compelling mystique in order to attract tourists and local visitors.
Leveraging a Myth Based in Fact
Legend has it that the famous West Hollywood nightclub, Whisky a Go Go, which opened in January 1964, lent its name to the dance craze that many believe was born inside its doors. But as the son of Philip Tanzini, one of the Whisky’s four original owners told Los Angeles Magazine, the only thing that’s certain about his father’s place and its proprietary contributions to the go-go dancing scene was go-go dancers suspended in cages from the ceiling.
The notion that the club was named after the go-go dance craze is not true, as Tanzini Jr. explains. West Hollywood’s Whisky a Go Go was named after a restaurant in Paris with the exact same name that included the sonorous French alliteration, “a go go,” meaning “bountiful supply,” or abundance. Yet legend has it that go-go dancing itself was born in West Hollywood. While there’s plenty of evidence gogo actually began at New York’s Peppermint Lounge, no one can argue that the archetypes of go-go dancing and go-go dancers as we think of them today were cemented in the culture we call Americana on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. The free-styling dance phenomenon continues developing today, even making it into a popular installation at the Hammer Museum.
But lovers of West Hollywood nightlife don’t have to go to a museum to see hot gogo boys and girls strutting seductively to beats atop bars, and tables every weekend at local nightclubs, like The Abbey, Mickey’s, or Revolver.
Believing his city needed to act to visibly to claim its rightful ownership of gogo culture, John D’Amico quickly introduced a motion to West Hollywood City Council, which passed unanimously. The council approved his move for the City to co-sponsor the first Go-Go Dancer Appreciation Day, AKA, Go-Go Fest, on October 29, 2011.
GoGo Fest meets Hesitance
Sticking to the business opportunity that he intended the event to be, D’Amico reached out to local bars and clubs for help organizing Go-Go Fest. He offered the city’s assistance if they would take an active role in planning and pulling off the event. But right away, the councilman noticed support was lacking. It’s hard to know whether club and bar owners were hesitating in order to give time for others to jump in first—or if there were other reasons they didn’t quickly take to the GoGo Dancer Appreciation Day and contest idea.
With others procrastinating, the owner of Micky’s, Michael Niemeyer and the late Mary Ann McClintock, former general manager, stepped-up and offered to help make GoGo Fest happen. They allocated $10,000 for hard-cost expenses that the City wasn’t able to cover and Stefano Rosso was the lead on the festival. At least as if not more valuable, McClintock offered staff to produce the event. I know this and more, because she told me the full story of her thoughts about the event before she died.
Mary Ann McClintock told me that she couldn’t say no when a council member asked her for something. Two years later, while producing the 3rd Annual GoGo Fest, Mary Ann let me take a picture of her in her office at Micky’s, something she never allowed anyone to do. I couldn’t imagine at the time that my photo of Mary Ann would be used for obituaries by dozens of media outlets upon her passing. Mary Ann McClintock was a fantastic woman who took great pride in her community and worked hard as a partner with other businesses. It was an enjoyable honor working with McClintock when I was at a major, locally based magazine, to help make GoGo Fest a success. Those couple of years I got to know her very well; and it was a great privilege I’ll never forget.
More Go-Go Dancers per Square Mile
City of West Hollywood wrote in its press-release announcing the first event, “The City of West Hollywood has a long history of being on the cutting edge of new artistic and musical endeavors. The Whisky A Go-Go, the first live-music venue and the only surviving one to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, opened its doors in 1964 and soon after launched a trend that would ultimately become the norm in clubs all over the world by suspending cages with GoGo dancers from the ceiling of the club.”
“From the Whisky to Micky’s, from Voyeur to Club Eleven (now Flaming Saddles) – gogo dancers perform all year long for the delight of both locals and tourists in West Hollywood,” said West Hollywood Mayor John J. Duran. “We have more go-go dancers per square mile than any other city in America and it’s time we celebrated their efforts and hard work!” continued Mayor Duran.
In the mid-1960s and the 1970s, the Sunset Strip became a major center for the counterculture as go-go dancers did their thing at the Whisky and other clubs along the Strip. In 1968, the first “Groovy Guy” contest was started as a marketing tool for the then newly-formed The Advocate magazine and as a way to unite the Los Angeles gay community. By 1970, the contest had become so famous that The Advocate featured a Groovy Guy float in the first Pride parade, which took place on Hollywood Boulevard. That summer’s contest was held at Ciro’s Restaurant (now The Comedy Store). The Groovy Guy contest ran in one form or another through 1991.
“GoGo Dancer Appreciation Day is about celebrating the part of our West Hollywood culture that arrived with the freedom generation and stuck around through the decades as an expression of who we are,” said Councilman D’Amico following the announcement that the first event would take place.
By the early 1970’s both the female and male go-go dancing phenomenon was part of West Hollywood culture. Dancers have been appreciated on stages big and small at clubs across the city ever since.
“On behalf of the Whisky A Go-Go, the original home of Go-Go dancers, we wholeheartedly support the City of West Hollywood’s efforts to celebrate the history and contribution of go-go dancers throughout the years in the City,” said Mikeal Maglieri, owner of the legendary Whisky A Go Go.
Another top official endorsed Councilman D’Amico’s brainchild.
“The City needs to do a better job in marketing West Hollywood as a gay destination,” former Mayor Pro Tempore Jeffrey Prang, currently Los Angeles County Assessor, said at the time.
“GoGo Dancer Appreciation Day will do just that, as well as demonstrate how effective it is for local businesses to join together with neighboring businesses and promote an entire area to the benefit of all. It will also serve to bring members of the community together to celebrate West Hollywood’s rich and vibrant history,” Prang continued.
At the time, I worked at Frontiers Magazine. I was very intrigued by GoGo Fest. I wanted Frontiers Media to take part in the festivities, so I came up with a way it could help the magazine’s new website at the same time our company did its part to help make the event a success.
We had recently changed our URL from FrontiersPublishing.com to FronteirsLA.com and our web traffic was sluggish. About two months before the festival, I came up with the idea for Frontiers Magazine to conduct a “Readers Choice” go-go dancer contest in the week’s leading up to Go Go Fest. I would have nightlife folks, promoters, bar owners and managers submit go-go dancers’ names as entrants in an online contest, hosted on the Frontiers’ website. I hoped it would get dancers to promote their participation and get people to visit our website to vote, thereby increasing web traffic.
My publisher was resistant. He didn’t like the idea. It took some convincing to get him to see the light. We chose 14 entries that year, two of which were a duos, a couple, Steven Dehler and Montana Volby, as well as Israel and Shawn. We designed a “couple-truck” center spread with photos of all the dancers. We featured video interviews of the dancers on our site.
As I’d envisioned, there was frenzy with dancers lobbying for votes on our website. Frontiers’ web traffic went through the roof. I looked forward to reading Google analytics every night to see the drastic increase in traffic. One of the dancers had galvanized his entire family in a small town to vote for him all day.
I was thrilled to be able to secure some really great prizes for the dancer(s) who would win the competition. We had a three-day getaway to Palm Springs, including hotel and meals, a one-year membership to Gold’s Gym Hollywood. And the winner would be on the cover of Frontiers magazine with a full-length feature interview to boot. I called John D’Amico to ask him if I could announce the winner of Frontiers’ competition at the festival and present the prizes. He said yes.
Combining Two Contests to end Confusion
As I would learn after the first Go-Go Fest, there had been confusion among gogo dancers about what they – mistakenly, but understandably – saw as competing prestige between our magazine’s web-based competition and the festival’s “brick-and-mortar” event. Micky’s staff had gotten a cold reception when they’d approached dancers to participate in several contests at the festival.
According to Mary Ann McClintock, dancers had protested that they were not interested in being in contests at the festival because the main competition was being produced by Frontiers Magazine. That was a misconception likely brought on by the level of promotion a media company is able to promulgate by mere virtue of the nature of its industry.
However, Micky’s secured more than a dozen dancers to participate in several contests before judges, including Bruce Villanch, Marcellas Reynolds and Council Member John Duran. John D’Amico declined to be a judge and said that he would not be a judge for at least the first three years.
It still pains me to think that so kind and generous a member of the community such as Mary Ann McClintock and her capable staff at Mickey’s felt like they were competing against a related event I was shepherding. Fortunately, as mentioned before, I was able to work with her and find a really great solution. More about that to come, but let’s talk about the first year’s go-go dancers first!
Among the categories in which contestants at the festival could compete were, “Hottest Jock, Best Bootie, Best Twink, Best Package” and “Muscle Stud.” Frontiers ran sponsored ads in several issues of the magazine, promoting the festival. Our efforts gleaned impressive buzz leading up to the first Go-Go Fest, while Micky’s hosted the official after-party.
The festival took place on Larrabee Street, between Santa Monica Boulevard and an alley. The City closed off that dense-traffic stretch of Larrabee for the festivities. The event was a hit with emcee Scott Boardman and DJ Derek Monteiro wowing the crowds.
Although Micky’s did the legwork and put up $10,000, all the bars and clubs reaped the benefits. Club Eleven (now Flaming Saddles) was allowed to be the only club to sell liquor at the festival, with bars set-up outside on Larabee Street.
I announced the winners of the Frontiers Magazine contest at the festival. We had a tie for the top prize. The winners were Steven Dehler and Montana Volby as a couple and Dominick Munafo, individually.
Immediately after the festival, I got a call from McClintock. She asked me to have a meeting with her at Micky’s. There, she explained the challenge that was presented to them with securing go-go dancers to participate in the festival’s dance contest due to their belief that Frontiers’ competition was the “real” competition. Hardly complaining nor accusing, McClintock sought to collaborate with me to find a solution to a situation that could make it challenging for the bar and the magazine to work together on the following year’s event.
Together, we came up with a plan that would make the event even more exciting by merging Frontiers’ competition with that of the festival. So the following year, in 2012, I announced that 14 dancers would be chosen as semi-finalists to compete online on Frontiers’ website for a month. Out of the 14, seven dancers who received the most votes would then advance to compete live at the festival in front of the judges. I told Mary Ann, I would be happy to take on the responsibility of securing celebrity judges.
A glutton for punishment, I agreed to find 12 judges instead of three. But I felt the event needed a big red carpet and an over-sized step-and-repeat (a backdrop like those you see at Hollywood awards red carpet events) to promote participating clubs and bars. We would also need sponsors and they’d need incentives, like visibility. They’d get it on our large step & repeat which I planned to position under beaming lights right on Santa Monica Blvd. for maximum, showpiece-level visibility.
Thanks to a little dialogue, some collaborative brainstorming and new ideas, it looked like we would all—the City of West Hollywood, local nightlife businesses (led by Mickey’s with McClintock at its helm) would work to make GoGo Fest 2012, an even bigger hit. Our red carpet with its step-and-repeat showing off the names of participating bars and sponsors would be just one highly visible showpiece to stake out proudly the fact that West Hollywood GoGo Fest was here to stay—once a year that is.
Bigger, Better Go-Go
However, despite having benefited from the first festival, none of the other bars offered to financially contribute to the event. Neither did they offer or agree to lift a finger in order to make it happen again.
Incredibly the former owner of one of the bars claimed to Mary Ann McClintock that they had not seen any increase in business during GoGo Fest. Regardless, in the spirit of unity, McClintock asked me to include the logos of all the bars on the step-and-repeat, as well the double-truck gogo dancers’ spread and the ads in Frontiers magazine. I did as the generously hearted Mary Ann requested. Micky’s took-on the logistics of the event set-up and once again shelled-out $10,000 for the hard-costs of producing GoGo Fest 2012.
Because Micky’s was handling the heavy-lifting for the festival set-up and basics once again, I took on things that would elevate the event, making it more sophisticated and giving it better promotion.
I sent out two press-releases, brought on celebrity judges such as Michelle Visage, ordered a 20” by 8” step & repeat and a sweeping swath of red carpet to be placed along the festival entrance on Santa Monica Blvd. I had a local designer custom make the briefs for all the dancers, so they were dressed uniformly. He also designed custom-made hats for each finalist adorned with Swarovski crystals. We got a ton of local, regional, national and even international press coverage that rolled out both before and after the festival. It was a very unique and refreshingly different event. Replete with stunning visuals the media loved it.
The 2nd Annual West Hollywood GoGo Dancer Appreciation Day Festival and Competition was a hit. Billy Francesca as emcee elevated the “IT” factor and the crowd loved him for it. Derek Monteiro was the DJ again, so the chemistry of the team was just perfect. Vladimir Shmygol melted the hearts of the judges during the Q&A portion. When asked what he would do with his $1,000 prize if he were to win, he replied, “I will send it to my grandmother in Ukraine.”
Magazine and newspaper articles kept pouring in for weeks following the festival.
Tom of Finland Go-Go, PDC NO-NO
In 2013, the 3rdAnnual GoGo Fest was even bigger and better. That fall, the Tom of Finland Foundation was having an exhibit at Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) at West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center (PDC). It was their first exhibit in a major museum, so it was a big deal. John D’Amico suggested that we incorporate Tom of Finland in the festival. He spearheaded a meeting and brought all parties to discuss the festivities.
A couple of representatives from MOCA, a representative from Tom of Finland (TOF), Andrew Campbell from the City of WeHo, John D’Amico and I met at City Hall. The festival had outgrown Larrabee Street so we discussed moving it into a larger space. Several areas of WeHo were discussed but we settled with PDC’s plaza. I was given the task of reaching out to PDC about holding the festival there. My call was returned by the owner, Charles Cohen. Mr. Cohen heard the city was involved and quote us an astronomical rate. We had made the mistake of not asking MOCA to tell PDC that the event was an after-party for the opening of the TOF exhibit, as that would likely have been a great angle in hindsight. Not being able to afford the PDC, we settled with Larrabee Street again.
However, for the third year, Mary Ann McClintock let us know that although Micky’s would gladly handle the logistics of the staging and DJ, that they are unable to underwrite the $10,000 in hard costs once again.
John D’Amico and I set out to raise the budget from sponsors. Visit West Hollywood covered $4,000; $1,000 came from Gold’s Gym Hollywood. I was able to get the step & repeat printed with a trade for sponsorship; likewise with many of the winners’ prizes and items for the judges’ gift bags. Again, the City waived several fees and provided security for the event. We decided to make the third year’s festival a fundraiser for the Tom of Finland Foundation and had a table set-up at the entrance for TOF representatives to collect donations.
Cut-throat Coercion Against Go-Go Dancers
Astonishingly, a very prominent bar in West Hollywood, whose name I’ll hold back from mentioning—for now, warned local gogo dancers that they should not participate in the festival if they ever wanted to dance there again. At the time, this popular and prosperous establishment was paying dancers $50 a night whenever they needed them.
That low-ball compensation notwithstanding, the big-name bar had the gall to ban hard-working entertainers from participating a city and community event whose importance and value to the local economy and sense of community was gaining strength. Presumably, the bar in question didn’t appreciate having to compete once a year with demand from anyone aside from other bars. They probably had to pay more that one night in order to get dancers to perform for them.
To put this in context, gogo dancers are not employed by any bar. They are merely booked sporadically throughout any given month. Also, contrary to popular belief, dancers in WeHo typically don’t make great tips. So, most of them have full-time day jobs. But this particular bar was the big dog on the block. Why they thought that they had the right to tell dancers not to participate is beyond me.
Yet this did not stop any dancer from submitting to be in the 2013 competition and festival.
Once again, I had custom-made speedos made for the dancers and world-famous, West Hollywood-based 665 Leather made harnesses for them. The third and last year of GoGo fest was a smashing success and the winner was bad boy (in a good way), Jonny Blade.
The official statement by John D’Amico as the reason why there wouldn’t be a fourth annual Go-Go Fest was the failure of LGBTQ-oriented businesses to unite to promote West Hollywood’s Boystown district. However, John D’Amico told me in early 2014 the real reason why there will not be another GoGo Fest. He said that his then-deputy, Michelle Rex, had advised him not to do it as he was running for re-election. That was the end of the City of West Hollywood GoGo Dancer Appreciation Day Festival and Competition.
Epilogue: Why I Shared my Go-Go Fest Story
I wanted to write this story because the head of an organization in West Hollywood told me a few years ago that GoGo Fest was not a success. I understand that the person of whom I speak was merely lashing out because they had not supported GoGo Fest during its three-years of success. They hadn’t been a part of the event and wanted to declare their self-granted absolution.
But I also wanted to write this article to capture and record a brief, important and unique period in West Hollywood history, to tell the real story and clear any lingering misconceptions about a rare confab that, in some ways, lives on in memories, and go-go dancing lovers mattered a little more than naysayers and those short on imagination.
Whenever I speak to anyone who was involved with Go-Go Fest, whether Adam Eramian at Micky’s, Billy Francesca or a gogo dancer who participated, they enthusiastically ask why we don’t bring back gogo fest.
“WeHo GoGo Fest was a great way to have some fun, get local bars working together, and show some appreciation for the gogo dancers who add to the fun, sexiness and allure of nightlife,” West Hollywood legend, Billy Francesca told me when I reached out to him for a comment.
Francesca added, “Gogo dancers are very much a part of the WeHo Culture.”
I reached out to several people who were responsible for making gogo fest a big success to share their thoughts. They are all nightlife impresarios who make WeHo and LA nightlife unique and special.
Scott Boardman, DJ for 1st GoGo Fest said, “I hosted the first ever gogo fest and at the time was sandwiched between Revolver and Eleven! It was great that Micky’s and the other bars all partnered together went to build a stage and give a nod to the go go boys of WeHo. I won’t forget asking Mary Ann from Micky’s what to do on stage for two hours. She told me to do whatever would make the crowd and dancers have fun”.
Dominick Munafo, winner of 1st gogo fest (2011) said, “Those were fun times in WeHo. People would go out of the bars and into the streets to celebrate nightlife in their community. We definitely need to bring back the block parties to our city”
Stefano Rosso, head organizer at Micky’s said, “The gogo fest was as unique and ridiculous as people would think, but it was more fun than anyone could imagine and it could only happen in WeHo.”
Vladimir Shmygol, winner of the 2nd gogo fest (2012) said, “It was a big pleasure to be a part of the very first gogo fest and so excited to be chosen to come back to compete next year. Everyone did an amazing job on event, famous judges and challengers. And the prizes were very generous. Thank you Vic for making it happen, hopefully we can see another competition in the future.”
Derek Monteiro, DJ for 2nd and 3rd year said, “The nights were super fun and happy; Stefano brought me on and my boy Billy Francesca to turn the night up! Taking over the street and having an outdoor party was a great.”
Jonny Blades, winner of the 3rd gogo fest (2013) said, “When I entered the GoGo Fest in 2013 I had no idea I’d even come close to winning. I thought it was a long shot for sure. Out of the 17 guys that entered, I came out in the top 7 to go to the final round. I had never been in anything like this before. I was really nervous getting out on stage in front of all the people and cameras. And when I had to talk in front of the judges I pretty much blacked out. When they announced the winner I was shocked. Seriously it blew my mind to take home the first place prize. It definitely was an event I’ll never forget. I’d like to thank you for having me that year.”
West Hollywood is referred to as the “Creative City’ and gogo fest was certainly a creative idea. But even without another iteration of GoGo Fest, the tradition and people of go-go dancing in West Hollywood thrive even now—perhaps now more than ever. In addition to almost every club having dancers, Adonis Lounge at Fubar is devoted entirely to go-go dancers every Wednesday and Sunday nights.
Whether GoGo Fest is brought back remains to be seen. But it would take one individual or venue to be the leader, much like Micky’s was for three years in order for it to happen. West Hollywood GoGo Dancer Appreciation Day Festival & Competition was an excellent signature event for the city and could once again promote WeHo and its diverse nightlife. Regardless, I will always have my special memories and I hope that you do too.
P.S., please tip your gogo dancers!