When the Circus Disco on Santa Monica Boulevard closed, the LGBT community worried the history of the nightclub would be lost. The Circus Disco was known among the LGBT community as a nonjudgmental establishment and a safe haven for all. Thanks to an agreement between Hollywood Heritage and AvalonBay, developers of the building, the history surrounding Circus Disco will be preserved.
It was there, more than 40 years ago, where Los Angeles resident John Perez remembers dancing without feeling embarrassed about his sexual orientation and Latino heritage.
“[Circus Disco] had just opened,” Perez said. “Disco was not yet mainstream … the crowd was radical [wearing] fabulous attire.”
Perez said he remembers his first years at Circus Disco, dancing and socializing with like-minded individuals. It was a far cry from his home life in Central California, he said.
“Just years before Circus Disco opened, I would go to bars in Fresno, California or even L.A. and you would have to be very careful about it,” Perez said. “You’d watch the doors and hope police wouldn’t come in to harass you. Not with [Circus] Disco. That place is where the gay consciousness could be freer than ever.”
Many, he said, believed it to be a magical place where words such as gay, straight, bisexual, black, white, Latino didn’t apply. People left their inhibitions at the door. A large clown face at the entrance was a symbolic threshold where race or sexual orientation wasn’t a problem once you crossed it.
After Circus Disco became more popular and the AIDS crisis surfaced in Los Angeles, Perez said, he stopped going to the nightclub where he spent much of his mid-20s, but the significance of Circus Disco stayed in his heart. He watched it transcend generations as a place of refuge for many outsiders such as himself, including Mark Vieira.
Vieira, like Perez, fondly remembers the nights he spent at Circus Disco and the impact it left on him as a gay, Portuguese American. He frequented Circus Disco to the end and said the nightclub gave him a place to feel at ease with himself.
“It was a transporting place and experience,” Vieira said. “Instead of meeting in a dark, shady underworld of some street alley or dive bar, you could enjoy yourself under these fabulous lights and amazing sound. There was this feeling of happy abandonment, and it was so much fun. I’m grateful it ever existed.”
The nights he spent there were certainly liberating, he said, but the nightclub offered much more to the gay community than dancing.
“When AIDS took hold of L.A., Circus Disco hosted a lot of daytime activities such as hosting meetings, fundraisers and discussions about the AIDS epidemic and other issues the gay community faced,” Vieira said. “It really embedded itself into the community and was concerned with the problems we faced.”
It is because of the countless stories such as the ones told by Perez and Vieira that Hollywood Heritage and many others in the community have fought to preserve the history of Circus Disco. Richard Adkins, Hollywood Heritage’s president, said preserving the nightclub’s significance and acknowledging Circus Disco as a monumental establishment in LGBT history is what led to the agreement with AvalonBay.
In the beginning, he said, Hollywood Heritage was looking to save the entire building. AvalonBay had submitted its environmental impact report for development of the site. Shortly thereafter, the city of Los Angeles published a survey that listed Circus Disco as an important site, significant to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“When we first started applying to have the building be a historical landmark, we found out much of the original building wasn’t there anymore,” Adkins said. “So because we were left without a structure to save, we tried our best to preserve the historical significance the nightclub represented. The developers understood this, and they were very helpful with making sure we were able to save some of the club’s remaining features.”
Mark Janda, AvalonBay’s vice president of development, said portions of the retrieved features from the nightclub will be reused and incorporated into AVA Hollywood, the mixed-use project the developers are planning for the space.
“We believe we have worked collaboratively with Hollywood Heritage to come up with a creative solution, a solution that will tell the story of Circus Disco to future generations. And a solution that will allow us to move forward,” Janda said. “Circus Disco played a major role in the lives of many members of the LGBT community. With the help of Hollywood Heritage and its coalition partners, we are ensuring that its legacy lives on here.”
AVA Hollywood has been approved and the site, located at 6655 Santa Monica Blvd.
It will include 700 residential units, 31 of which be designated for affordable housing.
As for the old nightclub, Vieira said he is happy to hear its history is being acknowledged and preserved. While the nights he spent inside Circus Disco were fun, he said, the lasting impact it had on him and the gay community is what he wants future generations to remember.
“I think historical awareness about this is very limited, and needs to be preserved so people know the struggles we faced,” Vieira said. “Individuals today are much more open to being gay, but it wasn’t always like that. Circus Disco was a place where you could feel at home.”
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