Dragstrip 66 curators Phil Scanlon and Paul V. Vitagliano graciously answered questions about their new documentary film Dragstrip 66: The Frockumentary, and the iconic history behind the dazzling Los Angeles based party that was Dragstrip 66.
For more information please check out Phil Scanlon and Paul V. Vitagliano’s CrowdFunding page, the official Dragstrip 66 Webpage, Facebook and Twitter.
Francis Xavier: Describe Los Angeles nightlife when Dragstrip 66 began, and what were you hoping to bring to the scene by introducing Dragstrip 66?
Paul V. Vitagliano: In the early 90’s, gay people basically had two nightlife options: either hit the very mainstream dance clubs in West Hollywood or the edgier leather/cruise bars here in Silver Lake, where the music was amazing but you couldn’t dance. We knew that our aesthetic was 100% Silver Lake, meaning we wanted to be the antithesis to the mainstream. So for Mr. Dan and myself, we had a really simple goal to create an event that we would want to attend ourselves, where the crowd was diverse, the music would be an alternative to everything else in the clubs, and the energy would be loose, fun and friendly with an underground, queer vibe.
Phil Scanlon: And by 1993, AIDS had destroyed Los Angeles nightlife just as it destroyed lives. When Dragstrip 66 opened at Rudolpho’s, Silver Lake was also widely known for ‘Silver Lake Life,’ a documentary of two men living their last days battling the disease. A few years later, the protease ‘cocktail’ medications were newly available, allowing the community to think about life as lasting more than a few years, and Dragstrip 66 seemed to permit us to have fun again. It encouraged dressing up in all its forms. The goal was always to be imaginative and have fun. That joie de vive created a celebratory and buoyant experience that reminded us that life can be wonderful.
FX: What was the initial theme of Dragstrip 66 and were you surprised by its popularity, and how it evolved over time?
Paul: The magic formula was set in motion from the very first one. Each one would have a different theme as a touchstone to inspire people to dress in drag or masquerade, we would have a Midnight show featuring different queens singing live, and we would invite patrons to walk on stage in what we called the ‘Promenade.’ By around the six month, we were floored how insanely packed and popular Dragstrip 66 had become simply by word of mouth. But we were even more floored that we sustained that ‘it factor’ and huge buzz for the entirety of our 11-year tenure at Rudolpho’s and beyond. There are patrons that attended the very first night who were also with us at the grand finale’ 20 years later. It was truly a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.
￼FX: What would you say was people’s biggest misconception about Dragstrip 66?
PV: The biggest misconception was that drag was required or that it was only drag queens attending. The reality was, only about 40% of the crowd was dressed up. I also think some people assumed we were doing ‘standard’ drag shows, which meant lip-synching. Little did those people know we had the hottest, most friendly guys in LA and were presenting edgy, subversive shows featuring incredibly talented queens who were all singing live. Another Dragstrip distinction was how truly mixed the crowd was. Real girls and the straight community loved attending too. We truly were an LGBTQIA alphabet soup!
PS: Paul is exactly right, because Dragstrip 66 really wasn’t about drag! Dragstrip appropriated the punk rock vibe with do it yourself looks that were gender indeterminate. Leather men, goths, gym rats, drag queens, and transgender folks of every age and race converged to enjoy each other in a way that I haven’t witnessed since. Twenty years ago, drag was still marginalized, even within the gay community. RuPaul and ‘Drag Race’ changed this, as did Dragstrip. The club created a welcoming and safe space for patrons to dress up and explore personas, which all flourished underground before the Internet and social media.
FX: There were so many extraordinary moments during Dragstrip 66, how are you planning on capturing the magic of those moments in the documentary?
PS: We’ve digitized hundreds of hours of tape on the stage shows which were written, directed and hosted by Gina Lotriman (Mr. Dan). The shows were funny, shocking and political. Mr. Dan knew his audience and he wrote lyrics that were always satirical and provocative. We also have great footage of dancefloor mosh pits, bathroom confessionals, patio interviews and more. Enhancing this will be interviews with patrons, staff and celebrities.
PV: Our goal is to distill every layer of what made Dragstrip 66 so special and unique, because it was special to people for different reasons. The location, the music, the shows, the sexual energy, and the lethally strong drinks. We also want people to feel immersed in the entirety of that experience, even if they never got to attend themselves. For the people that did attend, we want them feel celebrated for making it all possible. Our patrons will truly be the stars of this film, and that’s why getting this film funded is so important to us.
PS: Paul’s correct, as the patron interviews conducted so far have been profound and reveal the importance of the club in people’s lives. So we want to show how the Dragstrip 66 experience is a bond that has created lifelong friendships and￼connections.
FX: As the creators of Dragstrip 66, go back in time to the first night and give yourselves one piece of advice…what would it be?
PV: Probably ‘Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!’ But Dragstrip was bumpy in the most beautiful, decadent, thrilling way. I would probably also tell myself ‘Don’t sweat it, kid – your makeup will eventually look flawless with some practice!’ Because I had never really done drag before that time. Yet here I was, DJing in drag every month for 20 years. Who knew?
FX: How did the idea to create a documentary about Dragstrip 66 develop, and what do you hope people will take away from the documentary. ?
PS: I contacted Paul when I learned that the 20th Anniversary would be the final event. I felt it’s important that there is a record of the extraordinary explosion of creativity and community that positively impacted everyone who experienced it. One goal is to have others be inspired to create a similar event experience wherever they live. While our story is about an underground gay nightclub, our theme is wider, deeper and responds to a universal need. So the “Frockumentary” will reveal the power that can be unleashed when like-minded individuals assemble and create something meaningful. Dragstrip 66 may not have changed the world, but it did change everyone who walked through its magical doors, for the better.
PV: Before Phil contacted me, I’d pondered doing some kind of photo retrospective or maybe even a short movie myself. But when Phil, as a patron himself, said how important doing this would be, I knew we had to make it a reality. What I want people to take away from the movie is the power of community. And not just for the gay community, but the world community. Because Dragstrip 66 was basically like Woodstock, Studio 54, Lollapalooza and Burning Man thrown in a blender.
FX: What interviews do you have planned and what is the next step in making the Dragstrip 66 ‘frockumentary’ happen?
PV: We have about 25% more filming to do, which will mainly be interviews with our staff, performers and hopefully some of the famous faces that attended. Our dream is to sit down with Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Coolidge, and Perry Farrell, among other celebs, for interviews. So if any of them are reading this, call us!
PS: We are assembling a rough cut now and will invite notable personalities to enhance the story we are shaping. Then our goal is submitting it to festivals.
FX: Who are three filmmakers/artists that have inspired/influenced you?
PV: Well, my spirit animals are Warhol and John Waters, and of course Divine. Their aesthetic inspired just about everything we did at Dragstrip. But I also loved all of John Hughes’ work, and I’ll cite Rob Reiner, simply for ‘Spinal Tap,’ because being in the music biz myself, I’ve seen and lived some of that in person.
PS: Tim Burton is an imaginative filmmaker whose early movies have a heartfelt quality that I attempt to emulate. I admire ‘Beany and Cecil’ creator Bob Clampett for the same reason. He tapped into a world of childlike imagination and wonder that most adults are too guarded to explore. Yet, that child’s world is within us all. Another artist I admire is Judy Garland because, well – don’t I have to?