15 Minutes With Neon Carnival Founder Brent Bolthouse

The hospitality veteran shares what’s new at Neon Carnival, expanding The Bungalow empire and the state of nightlife in L.A.

Nightlife impresario and businessman Brent Bolthouse is a veteran of creating fun experiences in Los Angeles. From his early days as a club promoter, to running The Bungalow in Santa Monica for more than a decade, to creating Neon Carnival, he always knows where the party is because he’s often as not running it.

Bolthouse sat down with LAMag to talk about this year’s Neon Carnival (which is near and during, but not officially associated with, Coachella) and his other endeavors.

LAMag: When you came up with the idea of Neon Carnival what did you really want it to be? 

Brent Bolthouse: When I went to Coachella those first few years, I was backstage with my friends and a lot of people were like, “What are we doing now, dude?” I was like, “Oh, yeah. I’m the guy who throws parties.” I didn’t have anything, but everyone was asking me and you looked around and there was this community of people from Los Angeles there that had nowhere to go. So that’s kind of how it all burst.

We convinced T-Mobile to do it the first year. And then after that, we really turned it into a carnival with my full vision. Then the next year, we really evolved into what it is today, not knowing it would turn into this juggernaut.

What is your most memorable Neon Carnival moment is?

It was really awesome when Clint Eastwood came and he was playing games and hanging with his kids. That was pretty awesome.

My greatest moments are always just standing on the stage with the DJs and just looking at everyone’s happy faces.

Given that Neon Carnival was one of the first, are you surprised how many parties there are now during Coachella? Are there any other ones you go to?

I’m not surprised at how many there are. I’m surprised at how many of them are bad.

The only party I really wish I could go to is Jeremy Scott’s, because he’s such an old friend and I love him so much. He started the same year we did with his party — which was a house party at his house — and it’s grown into what it’s grown into. That’s the only one of them.

I haven’t been to another party out there, other than when Kings of Leon played once and did a little party on a Friday night after their show.

Why do you think the party has stood the test of time?

Well, for a couple of reasons: We do it once a year, so it doesn’t get boring.

I also think a lot of it was the endorphins, the fun of Coachella, being at the festival and you don’t just go home and pass out, right? You have all this energy and you want to kind of celebrate a little bit.

And I think what happens at Neon Carnival is that people get into a flow state and they might not even consciously know how they get into it. Last time I checked it was 11. It’s now 4 in the morning. What happened? Where did the time go? They go and they have fun. And there’s very few places where you get to have fun anymore.

But I think it’s also the fact that we’ve kind of kept it the way we ran all of our nightclubs for so long: You can’t really buy your way in, it’s guest list only. And we really do put thought into how we curate the list of who comes in.

But we don’t pay celebrities; we don’t pay influencers. So they are there because they want to be there, which changes the game. There’s no obligations. We don’t have a step-and-repeat wall — we take pictures and do stuff, but it’s all done in a very casual way, which I think makes everyone’s guard come down.

How do you curate the Neon Carnival guest list?

It’s always a combination between Best Events — Jeffrey Best is my partner in this, and we’ve done it for a long time together — and obviously the sponsors all have lists. But most of the list is curated through our office, and we kind of vet every person.

We want to have a fun group of people there, so we’re really liberal with the people that we know and we let them invite a lot of people. That’s how it gets to these crazy numbers because no one really goes to the festival plus one: Most people make it a weekend where they rent a house and they get sprinter vans or they all rent SUVs and they all kind of go. We can’t be too precious about the plus ones or we don’t have a party.

For all of the people wondering how do they get invited to Neon Carnival, what do you tell them?

There’s no really good answer. From our perspective, it’s a 10,000 person party and we say yes to so many people; we’re super lenient.

But I only know the people that I know, and I get strangers asking me. I don’t put strangers on the guest list; that’s a boundary that I have. I don’t know if that will ever change.

I would love it if all 8 billion people could come to Neon Carnival. But I don’t know if I have enough space. We’ve kind of hit the sweet spot, I think is where we’re at.

Earlier in your career, you promoted then hot spots like the Roxbury, the Viper Room and House of Blues. What do you think of nightlife these days?

The ‘90s and 2000s was this time where people came into our venues and had fun: It wasn’t about a photograph or being in “the right place” or having the right geo tag. I don’t go out as much as I used to but, when I have gone out, I see these kids run in, they take their pictures, they’re in the right place, they tag and then they leave. Is that fun? To me that feels like work.

Arguably, one of the most fun parties [was when] people put their stuff down and they were just present with other humans. We want to touch things. We want to feel. I think some of that has been lost in nightlife in Los Angeles.

Why do you think hotel rooftops are the new thing? 

Not even that long ago in Los Angeles, eating outdoors or being outdoors was hard. If you think about it, the Mondrian was like the last hotel built [with an outdoor space], and that was 30 years ago. One of the greatest cities in the world on one of the greatest streets in the world, and there was one place you could go have a drink outdoors and have a city view. It was pretty crazy.

These rooftops that are outdoors now are built with the intention of outdoor activity — the Pendry, 1 Hotel,  all of them are building these outdoor experiences into their build which I think is fantastic. It’s such an important part of the experience in Los Angeles. So many people come here because of the weather.

I hope the City Council is not so near-sighted that they stop restaurants from having outdoor dining, because this is one of the great cities with the greatest weather in the world. But nobody can eat outside. If this was a city anywhere else in the world, we could have the greatest cafes on Venice Boulevard, on the beach, on the boardwalk. We’d be having experiences of people eating and celebrating life and it would be this amazing, beautiful experience.

It doesn’t have to hurt the environment to have restaurants and things by the ocean. You’ve just got to put parameters around it.

How did you decide where to bring The Bungalow to?

When we went to Santa Monica 12 years ago, the only thing happening was Gjelina. Nobu Malibu was getting ready to open. I knew that there was a hole there; the west side was still sleepy. After, we were like, Whoa, we woke a dragon.

To me, Huntington Beach was also really underserved: A great community with lots of fun people, but there wasn’t really a great world-class bar there.

We’re community driven and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’re not trying to be the biggest, hottest, funnest thing in the universe. It’s just a great place to have a drink.

The Bungalow, is always hopping in Santa Monica and Huntington Beach. Are you opening more locations?

Long Beach is coming back soon, shortly after Coachella sometime, hopefully before the end of May. We made a pivot [to a restaurant] because of the pandemic and we’ve made a conscious decision to go back to our original vision of making that a Bungalow bar and lounge. I think it’s one of the best Bungalows we’ve ever built.

I love that Long Beach and Belmont Shore were so kind and great to us when we opened the restaurant and supported us in such a great way. We’re so excited to bring something new to the community.

Hopefully over the summer we’re going to announce some more Bungalows coming to other cities. I’m really excited to be out there again, having conversations with developers and hotels about bringing The Bungalow somewhere because I think it’s such a special concept that really speaks to people.

The Bungalow was really meant to be this world-class experience that we take to underserved markets. That’s kind of in our DNA.

So we don’t always look at Miami or New York. We look at Denver or Oklahoma City or Dallas or even Houston. Like I know Austin has so many great bars. Do they need another great bar? Maybe not.

What are your favorite things to do in L.A.?

I love the beach. I’m so grateful to be close to the water. I go as much as I can. I really love that there’s so many great hikes and trails and nature in Los Angeles. Like you don’t have to go too far to find that: Even if you live in Beverly Hills, you can kind of go right up and there’s like a lake and you can watch ducks and there’s turtles in that pond. You can sort of get out of the city. You can’t do that in most cities.

And if you decide to go out to Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains, there’s so many great things out there. I love that we’re so close to Lake Arrowhead. I love that community. And Idyllwild. And if you want to go to Ojai, it’s really not that far, right? There’s so many things that you can do. So I love that about L.A.

Neon Carnival is celebrating its 12th year and is taking place at Desert International Horse Park in Thermal, Calif. on April 15.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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