HOLLYWOOD – Gene La Pietra became a ringmaster under the big top in 1974, when he turned a faded Hollywood warehouse into Circus Disco, a nightclub that created a sensation with a decor and style that celebrated the outlandish and attracted its clientele by embracing society’s disenfranchised.
Gene La Pietra
La Pietra launched Circus Disco in response to racism, which 40 years ago was expressed widely and openly in the gay club scenes of Los Angeles and West Hollywood. Such bigotry was chiefly exercised in discriminatory admissions policies, which many clubs typically enforced at the door. Latinos were often turned away, and African-Americans were frequently denied entrance, too. This prejudice increased shame and isolation among gay people people of color whose feelings and existence were frequently threatened.
But for 41 years, through changes in music, fashion, politics, laws, socio-cultural attitudes — and cover charges — La Pietra continued to insist that everyone was welcome on the dance floors at Circus Disco.
La Pietra, 67, will be honored as a community hero Thursday. The Wall Las Memorias, a Highland Park non-profit that focuses on the health and wellness of gay and bisexual Latinos, will present La Pietra with an award at its annual fundraiser to recognize what the organization called his “groundbreaking leadership in providing a safe space for our Latino and African-American communities.” La Pietra also is a sponsor for Thursday’s fundraiser.
Some queer Latinos, however, are uncomfortable about the prospect of paying tribute to La Pietra, mostly because the case for such acclaim is based on the press release, which is sparse, misleading, and ignores the story’s surprising and tragic ending.
Going to the Circus
For more than 40 years, La Pietra oversaw uncounted Donna Summer nights at Circus Disco from a seat he situated outdoors between the parking lot and the main entrance to the club, which funneled patrons through the laughing mouth of a huge clown’s face that was flanked on both sides by plaster elephants. High above, a fiberglas lion seemed to be scanning the procession of big-top patrons and Circus Disco’s indefatigable ringmaster.
Down below, La Pietra divided his attention between the swarm of arriving cars, each with one of the club’s valets at the steering wheel, and the animated crowd of customers assembling into an ever-lengthening line. He’d study a car, quickly assemble a decision, and authoritatively deploy a valet to deliver it to the parking he’d selected. Just as quickly he’d transform into a concierge of sorts, exuding good nature and small talk to greet some of the customers who were waiting in a line that snaked deep into the parking lot.
If the exterior of Circus Disco turned heads, the inside of the club had them spinning. Circus Disco was colossal — 26,937 square feet on two floors with three rooms pumping out dance beats and pulsating laser lights. It was housed in a former warehouse located on an industrial lot at the north-east corner of the intersection of Las Palmas Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. Initially, the warehouse was used for storage by a former ice factory. The club was across the street from the famed Hollywood Center Studios, where such iconic TV shows as “I Love Lucy,” “The Addams Family” and “The Cosby Show” as well as such movies as “Bad Santa,” “Misery” and “Ted” were shot.
The last dance
Circus Disco was the oldest, and longest-running LGBTQ Latino nightclub in Hollywood and Los Angeles. For 40 years, it was not only a place to socialize and have fun, but also a sanctuary for the Latino LGBTQ community to develop a sense of identity, community and social support.
La Pietra, however, sold the land and property for approximately $75 million last year to a developer who would demolish the landmark disco and replace it with 786 luxury condos.
The club closed its doors on January 1, 2016.
A consortium of LGBTQ activists and historic preservations valued Circus Disco’s place in gay Latino history and wanted to save part of the club, but La Pietra was hostile to the idea.
“That’s all it is, a warehouse,” La Pietra told LA Weekly last year. “Take the sign off and the lights off and you have a warehouse built in 1973.”
La Pietra told the publication that the fact that he sold it is the bottom line.
“That speaks to the whole issue,” he said.
Related article — Los Angeles LGBT Center: We don’t care about gay Latino history
La Pietra closed the historic and successful club and supported Circus Disco’s demolition – which displaced a large part of the LGBTQ Latino community, but Richard Zaldivar, executive director at The Wall Las Memorias – which works with the same disenfranchised communities that patronized Circus Disco – said La Pietra deserves the honor. Zaldivar didn’t say how much money La Pietra donated to the fundraiser.
“It’s true that he tore it down, but that doesn’t take away from his accomplishments,” Zaldivar said. “Gene created a safe place for gay Latino people. He created it for me and people in my generation.
‘We have to go with the flow’
“I wish it was still here, but the reality is it isn’t. There’s a place and time in our lives when we realize that change is happening, and we have to go with the flow,” Zaldivar said.
But Jorge Gutierrez, 32, director with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement and a former patron of Circus Disco, said, “The last thing we need are awards. We need spaces and resources.
“The closing of Circus Disco is representative of what’s been happening the past few years with LGBTQ spaces,” he said. “For our community, clubs are so much more than that. They’re places where people can be themselves, hang out with friends. It wasn’t just another club closing. It had a huge impact on the community.”
Destroying a safe space
Alessandro Negrete, 34, who identifies as a queer undocumented immigrant activist and lives in Boyle Heights, also frequented Circus Disco many times. Negrete, who wrote about queer and transgender people of color facing nightlife displacement in Los Angeles for Q Voice News last month, said he’s disappointed and insulted that Zaldivar and The Wall Las Memorias are honoring La Pietra.
“Gene could have sold the property to someone who would have added value to the community instead of taking away from the community,” Negrete said. “Circus Disco was across from the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Youth could have used it as a safe space.
“How is adding luxury housing adding value the LGBTQ community that Gene is being honored for?”
Speaking from privilege
Negrete also is flabbergasted at Zaldivar’s insensitive and incredulous “go with the flow” recommendation.
“He’s speaking from a position of access and privilege that is so far removed from the community that his organization serves,” Negrete said. “The Wall historically has represented and done work with disenfranchised communities. How would they feel if he told them that they should go with the flow and move on when their spaces are being taken away due to gentrification and displacement?”
Gutierrez said Zaldivar’s “go with the flow” comment shows that he is out of touch with the community.
“It’s unfortunate to hear that from a leader. It sounds like he has a disconnection with the community,” Gutierrez said. “I refuse to take that as an answer. We have to hold people accountable and responsible if they are making money off are people. We need to be more critical of what’s happening in our communities.
“Our leaders should be able to think about those people most impacted,” Gutierrez said. “They need to see beyond their own noses and past their own egos.”
Destroying historic space
Zaldivar’s The Wall Las Memorias was not among the concerned groups who, late last year, wanted to recognize Circus Disco as a historical cultural landmark.
“Some people lost a space to hang out and dance,” he said. “The gay community in Los Angeles is more diverse and has more spaces. There are other safe places.”
Gutierrez, however, said Zaldivar’s assessment that there are more safe spaces is “misleading.”
“Our clubs and spaces are disappearing,” Gutierrez said. “There are more bars popping up, but there’s a big difference between having a Latino night once a month and our community owning a club and running it.
“The community has no place like Circus Disco anymore. It was a sacred space for many of us. We are displaced,” he said.
La Pietra should have outreached to the community before deciding to tear down the club, Gutierrez said.
“Gene La Pietra made business off of our community for years, and he couldn’t give back? He had every right to sell, but he also had a responsibility to talk with the community, to honor us.
“There was no attempt in having a conversation to help us find another space. We didn’t deserve that,” Gutierrez said. “That was the most hurtful.”