'White Men Only': The Troubled Past Of Studio One, A Historic Gay Disco
When it comes to literature devoted to disco, L.A. gets short shrift, historically. New York, New Jersey, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco and several European capitals have seen many more articles and books published describing their discoland stories from the ‘70s and ‘80s. But often lost in this conversation is how L.A.’s queer discos and nightclubs fit into the mix.
In the last two years, as classic queer havens like Circus Disco, The Palms, and Jewel’s Catch One closed, we were treated to some solid coverage of how these venues became nightlife institutions and safe spaces for thousands of Angelenos. But lost in the shuffle is perhaps the most important—albeit for the opposite reasons—gay disco in L.A. lore: Studio One, a former factory converted into a dance club that operated from 1974 to 1988. Conservationists and developers have sparred for years about what to do with this space as the debate continues over whether the structure should be considered a cultural landmark or not.
But much of the coverage of this argument has missed the fact that the club catered to whites only, which certainly changes the assumption that it was a haven for all queer people. With its back facing where The Abbey stands now, and the entrance on North La Peer Drive, Studio One was a massive temple of excess and exclusion, proving that progress for some is often the same as progress for none.
Before it was Studio One, the building had already lived several lives. The Mitchell Camera Company built the factory in 1929, and it became the production site for their still and motion picture cameras. William Fox, whose media empire ultimately transformed into 20th Century Fox, and its associated studios and television networks, was a major shareholder in Mitchell.
Rumors persist that the factory became a site for Norden bombsights, which were used in America’s nuclear bombings of Japan. After the war, Mitchell moved to Glendale, and the factory briefly became the Veterans Salvage Depot. In 1967 a man named Rob Buck reimagined the space as a ritzy Hollywood nightclub called, simply, The Factory. Buck's club succeeds for a few years before closing in 1972, despite have Hollywood stars like Paul Newman, Peter Lawford, and Jerry Orbach as some of the investors. The location briefly became the site of something called “Paradise Ballroom” and, after that, a family chain restaurant called “Spaghetti Village”. Neither lasted very long, shockingly. Somewhere along the way it was a Koontz hardware store, too.
Then, in 1975, Studio One opened. The disco was opened by Scott Forbes, a gay optometrist in West Hollywood whose clientele included many celebrities and entertainment professionals. According to Don Kilhefner, a gay rights activist and self-ascribed “gay tribal elder” based in Los Angeles, Forbes “was going to open it as a straight disco and club owners were telling him straight men are a problem because straight men tend to come out on weekends to blow off steam. And they fight, and they're a management problem. Gay men who are very appreciative of having a place to go to come out almost every night and there are no management problems, and they spend a lot of money.”
Forbes went with the idea, and the business soon proved to be not only extremely successful, but one of the early hosts of public fundraisers for gay causes. Studio One “offered no shortage of mirrored balls (seven to be exact), strobe lights, lasers, a gleaming red neon Pegasus and a fish tank in the men's room that spouted water for hand washing," WeHoville says in their history of the space. The club was apparently full most of the weeks, and it could hold anywhere between 1,000 and 1,600 partiers, based on various reports. In addition to the main room, there was the Backlot Theater where comedians like Joan Rivers and other entertainers would perform. Old Hollywood celebrities like and Liza Minelli were ubiquitous, and there were many special performances in addition to DJs. It was a debauched Hollywood pleasure palace, if you were lucky enough to be white and have two X chromosomes.
Photo courtesy of ONE Archives/USC
Straight people were theoretically welcome too, but if you weren’t white, it proved extremely difficult to get in. “If you were white and, or let’s say if you were white,” Kilhefner continues, “usually one piece of photo ID would be enough to get you in. And if the door person knew you he’d just wave you in. If you were black or a woman, you needed two pieces of ID information. And once you got a hint as to what’s going on and you brought two pieces, then you needed to have three pieces!” So it’s not like there was a sign on the door that said “No women” or “No blacks,” but the door people were quick to play a shell game of rules and policy. Today, a similar tactic of keeping out undesirable clientele is to institute dress codes like “no hats”.
When pressed as to why Kilhefner thinks Forbes - who has been deceased since 2002 - did this, Kilhefner speculates that Forbes “had the idea that somehow black people being there and women being there are in large numbers would keep white people away. It was his own racist attitude” that created this odious door policy. In addition, West Hollywood was also, as Kilhefner wrote, “a white enclave with a checkered race-relations history, particularly when people of color tried to rent there.”
This especially irks people like Kilhefner to this day, because he was part of a group of L.A. gay activist group called the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) which toiled for years to win the right for gays to touch and dance in public in Los Angeles. The GLF would host all-ages dances at Troopers Hall in West Hollywood. Cops would come and harass them because gay men weren’t supposed to be allowed to dance together. “And we made it very clear to the police, if they arrest one of us they're going to arrest all of us, and so we were not intimidated by them,” Kilhefner remembers. “After a while they just left us alone.”
In 1970, the GLF also organized a “Touch-In” at gay bar The Farm, in which they openly defied California's no touching laws. The deliberate and repeat violations of the law caused the police to leave and never come back, which Kilhefner argues ended the raiding of gay spaces in town.
“I think now you don’t hear a lot of people talking about [Studio One’s heyday] because they feel guilty they were there cooperating with that racist policy.” It wasn’t a secret. There were many open demonstrations in front of the club for years. “People just didn’t give a damn. They wanted to dance.”
The L.A. Times ran an exposé on the racist and misogynist door policy in 1976. Forbes said he was trying to keep the “bad element out”. Protesters called for a boycott, which largely didn’t work because Forbes was aggressively donating to other charities in the area. Despite all this controversy, Studio One stayed packed for years, even though picketers outside the club’s velvet ropes were commonplace. In her book Gay LA: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, Lillian Faderman claims that “Studio One was not alone among West Hollywood bars to practice exclusionary policies, which were an ironic by-product of the expansion of the gay community and the success of the gay movement.” Bar owners could be discriminatory because business was good as gay men felt more comfortable going out and being out. Studio One ultimately shuttered its doors in 1988, which marked a particularly long run amidst the fickleness of the L.A. nightlife world.
Since the ‘90s, the club has changed names and hands several times. It was The Rose Tattoo in the early ‘90s, under the direction of Linda Gerard, and, later, The Factory, under Sandy Sachs. Now it’s called Metropolitan. As the demand for increased density has exploded, developers and preservationists have been battling over the space for the last few years, which is now eligible for listing on the National Registry of Historic Places. Kilhefner seems to think the preservationists will win.
But if it does, what of it? Will people actually understand its history and the several decades of discrimination it represents? Or will Studio One's history be whitewashed too?