Thousands of gay men descend on Palm Springs, Calif. Friday for the White Party, a euphoric weekend of liberation on the dance floor, a performance by Grammy Award-winner Mary J. Blige, pool soirees, and after-parties. With the annual White Party, Palm Springs producer Jeffrey Sanker utilizes the skills he honed as a promoter in New York in the 1980s at iconic nightclubs such as Studio 54 and Palladium. Taking advantage of new technology Sanker promises this year's event will be the most memorable yet. “White Party 2012 is going to be a 3-D experience,” Sanker says. “Bigger and bolder LED and visual displays and immense stage and platform structures designed to stretch the limits of your imagination, the only lenses needed are your shades.” Sanker tells The Advocate about his inspiration to create the iconic party, what he sees as its legacy, and what revelers can expect this year.
The Advocate: How did your idea for White Party originate?
Jeffrey Sanker: I started White Party as a weekend getaway event for the boys in L.A. Now it’s gone from 500 to over 25,000 admissions over the course of the weekend. The Saturday night main event has always been the White Party signature event. Everyone wears white in celebration of spring and a fresh, new beginning. Looking out over a sea of men all in white really is spectacular. Also, everyone always looks good in white – especially with the hundreds of colored lights and lasers overhead.
What about the event makes it the preeminent weekend party in the country?
White Party is truly a unique event. It’s the largest gay dance music festival in the United States and Palm Springs is an incredible setting. Everyone loves the warm weather, the majestic mountains, and the desert is truly a magical place. The people of Palm Springs welcome us back every year, which makes it all the more special.
In what ways has the party evolved over the years?
For the first few years, White Party weekend was very intimate. We only took up part of a hotel and a very small pool area. We had events just on Friday night and Saturday night and there was just one DJ for the whole weekend. After that, it got bigger and bigger every year. We added more events, such as the Sunday T-Dance and Afterhours. We changed to a larger hotel and moved the main event into the Palm Springs Convention Center. Our White Party Park on the east side of the Convention Center for the Sunday T-Dance is twice the size of our previous location a few years back. We have guys flying in from all over the world every year to attend White Party. It’s become the largest stand-alone gay dance music festival weekend in North America, as well as an annual tradition for so many guys.
What kind of people do you expect at White Party this year? How diverse is the crowd?
We get a fantastic mix of guys from all over the globe. A lot of guys have been coming since the early days. There are also lots of guys coming to White Party for the first time – or as they are frequently referred to by their peers – White Party Virgins. Although the event is geared toward gay men, there is always a smattering of those “friends of gays” in attendance – who know the boys have the best parties around. Everyone gets along really well. Anyone who wants to come and enjoy the sun, make friends and dance to the best music is welcome.
What do you think it is about the party that keeps people going back each year?
It’s an annual tradition for a lot of guys. It’s a great opportunity for friends from all over to come together and see each other. People make friends here, and it’s their one chance each year to be reunited with them. Also, for many, it’s the opportunity to escape the everyday world, dance and have a good time. And in today’s world of social media, for many it’s an opportunity to finally meet “face to face” the buddy from whatever chat room or social media site they have been frequenting.
For some people, party weekends are synonymous with drugs and sex. Former Palm Springs Mayor Will Kleindienst once described the White Party weekend as a haven for drugs and public sex. Obviously you can't control the entire crowd, but what efforts are made to prevent drug abuse on the dancefloor, and help people who might overdose?
That’s a comment made over a decade ago by a Republican Mayor who has long since been booted out of office largely because of homophobic bias in a city that is over 40% gay. His successor, Mayor Ron Oden, won by a landslide with two four-year terms. Currently gay Mayor Steve Pougnet is serving the LGBT community and has the respect of everyone and works with us hand-in-hand on education and information in spreading the word, first and foremost, of a zero-tolerance policy for illegal drugs. No exceptions. The safety of our guests is always our number one priority. Of course there are always some exceptions, just like at sports games, concerts, and any large event. However, we have trained EMTs on duty, on-site throughout the weekend for any potential medical emergency that may arise. For White Party, we have been very blessed and the bonds of friendship carry over to everyone also looking out for each other.
This year’s lineup includes rising young DJs like DJ Pornstar as well as veterans such as Hector Fonseca and Manny Lehman. Why is it important to have such an eclectic lineup?
Trends in dance music constantly change and we always strive to have DJs who are on the cutting edge, or who no one has ever heard before. At the same time, we have some of the most popular DJs booked that guys are familiar with and sure to enjoy.
How would you characterize the musical performance talent lined up this year?
This year’s line-up is an incredible cavalcade of musical talent. We have a true superstar, Mary J. Blige, performing at the Saturday night main event. We also have X-Factor winner Melanie Amaro performing on Sunday at T-Dance. She is amazing. Jessica Sutta, formerly of Pussycat Dolls, and Kimberly Cole will be here and Jessie and the Toy Boys, one of last year’s favorites, are back. We also have rising star talent such as Rye Rye, Liz Primo, and Decolletage.
Each year a hugely popular entertainer such as Lady Gaga, or Jennifer Lopez, and this year it's Mary J. Blige, who goes to the desert to perform for their gay fans. How much convincing does it take?
Years ago, we used to have to explain what White Party was when we approached performers. Now they either already know all about White Party, or they are proactively approaching us because they want to perform and reach out to an audience they know will become loyal fans and spread the word of their performances globally and instantly.
What do you see as the legacy of the White Party?
I have spent years positioning this as the largest gay dance music festival in the U.S. and I would love to see it grow into the largest in the world. That is my dream. Also, for it to be known as a party not-to-be-missed, full of new talent and surprises.
The White Party takes place April 6-9. For more information go to JeffreySanker.com.