Paper Trail: That '70s glow

An excerpt from Gay L.A., a remarkable and addictive queer history of the metropolis by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, traces the rise and racism of West Hollywood’s iconic superdisco Studio One.

BY admin

September 25 2006 12:00 AM ET

Some Los Angeles
businesses did not use sex to sell gay
products—instead, sex itself was the product.
Gay baths, bars, and that distinctly ’70s
enterprise, discotheques, boomed and became money machines
in Los Angeles. The biggest such business was West
Hollywood’s Studio One, conceived in 1972 when
Scott Forbes, a Beverly Hills optometrist, asked Lee
Glaze how he was able to draw an instant gay crowd when he
revived Ciro’s nightclub on the Sunset Strip.
The ever-generous Glaze offered the use of his vast
gay mailing list. Two years later, Forbes opened Studio
One (a name evocative of its Hollywood location) in a
cavernous factory building that he outfitted with
strobes and speakers in a hall of mirrors that became
a temple of amplified sound and masculine vanity.

One thousand or
more gay men gathered nightly at Studio One to
“dance, dance, dance.…” Music
industry promoters vied to have their records played
there; it was featured on national television; and it was
dubbed by many newspapers and magazines as one of the
most exciting discos in the country.

The cachet of
Studio One was enhanced by its Back Lot Theater (another
name chosen to evoke movie-studio proximity), which featured
entertainers ranging from Joan Rivers to Wayland
Flowers and his outrageous, foul-mouthed puppet,
Madame. Scott Forbes’s disco became a legend; and
its owner, the former optometrist who was now called the
“disco king” by the press, became an
overnight millionaire. His phenomenal prominence in
promoting gay pleasure even rendered him a political power
in the gay community. Forbes served on the boards of
gay L.A.’s most important or prestigious
organizations and agencies, such as the Gay Community
Services Center and the Municipal Elections Committee of Los
Angeles.

To the media,
Forbes often spoke of his business in tones of political
pride: “Studio One was designed, planned, and
conceived for gay people, gay male people,” he
announced to the Los Angeles Times. “Any
straight people here are guests of the gay
community.” Forbes insisted that his
discotheque filled a vital community need: It celebrated
sexual freedom for gay men. As he told the
Times reporter, while many came to dance, just
as many came primarily “for sexual purposes.”
His admission elicited shocked letters to the editor:
“What is this society coming to?” one
reader lamented. “Don’t people want any more
out of another human being than their body for sexual
pleasures?” Apparently they did not: 1,600
invited guests packed the house for the disco’s sixth
anniversary. The crowd rarely thinned over the years.

The beauties of
gay Hollywood could have the time of their lives at
Studio One. But what to them was all the rage, outraged
others. Gay activists complained bitterly of
Studio-One-types who would rather dance than go to
political meetings, disparaging them as “disco
bunnies—blond, built, and brainless.”
Activists were also outraged at clubs that practiced
hateful exclusionary policies, and Studio One was a prime
target of their anger. Forbes’s statement to the
Los Angeles Times that his disco was simply
“for…gay male people” was duplicitous
by its omission of who counted in his definition of
“gay male people.” Studio One turned
away almost everyone not meeting its Hollywood Golden Boy
standard: Non-whites were especially excluded, “to
keep the club from getting too dark,” Mark
Haile, a journalist for BLK, an African
American gay magazine, says bitterly. All but the most
remarkably attractive Blacks, Latinos, and Asian
“gay male people” were generally asked
for three pieces of picture identification—an
effective ploy for weeding out the
“undesirables.…” Activist Dave Johnson,
son of actor Russell Johnson of Gilligan’s
Island fame, reported in the Los Angeles Free
Press
that he had staked the place out and seen
thirty-five instances in less than an hour in which
people of color, and white females too, were refused
admission.…

When the Los
Angeles Times
confronted Forbes in 1976 on
allegations of both racism and sexism at Studio One, he dug
himself in deeper by claiming that he needed to keep
out “the bad element.” Irate picketers,
organized by the Gay Community Mobilization Committee,
demonstrated in front of Studio One until they were granted
a meeting with Forbes, who promised reform.…
[But] the offensive door policy, as well as the
protests, continued for years.

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