West Hollywood, 1980: The Organic Birth of L.A.’s Halloween Magic

After again canceling festivities, WeHo City Council told LAMag it wants to see “what organically grows in its place.” Here’s what that looked like 40 years ago
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When LAMag broke the news that the City of West Hollywood had once again canceled its famous Halloween parade, one WeHo Council member expressed that in terms of October 31 festivities the Council wants to see “what organically grows in its place.” 

Well, I was there in 1980 when the event originally—and organically—developed. This was before it became the bloated, corporate-sponsored, family-friendly event we knew back in 2019. I was a 21-year-old  when I experienced my first Halloween in Boystown, as the unincorporated area of West Hollywood was then nicknamed. That night, two of my friends had an extra ticket to the Studio One Halloween costume contest. At the time, the Studio One Disco (in the Factory building on La Peer) put up a tent in the parking lot for the party— this was just one reason West Hollywood was a Halloween destination.

The three of us caravanned from behind the Orange Curtain in three separate cars: A VW Bug convertible, an Accord sedan, and a Triumph Spitfire driven by a devil, a drag queen, and a mummy (that was me). We took the 133 to the 405 to the 5 to the 91 to the 110 to the 101, and got off on Santa Monica Blvd., stopped at the Carl’s Jr. on Highland (we were “The Californians” well before SNL). We then dropped our convertible tops and our…let’s just say party pills… We followed Bette Davis’ advice and took Fountain into West Hollywood. Santa Monica Blvd was already a parking lot at Crescent Heights, But we found street parking for all three cars. 

Remember, at this time there were no parking permits, as West Hollywood was not yet a city. We each made adjustments to our costumes. Straighten that wig; show more biceps; less leg; hide that candy! We walked downhill in the middle of the road-—there was no traffic on these residential streets, as access was blocked off. Boys dressed as girls, and cowboys and stormtroopers spilled into the streets from the neighboring apartments. Boystown was mostly young gay men at the time; most of the dingbat buildings were affordable apartments, not yet condos. Apartment windows were lit with other revelers getting dressed in their costumes and “accidentally” exposing themselves. 

“C’mon Di Di, he’ll still be putting on his show when we come back to our cars.” 

This was a time just before the AIDS epidemic when gay liberation was about sexual freedom. Before TikTok and OnlyFans, if you wanted to show off your “gains” you did it in your bedroom window. 

We stumbled down the street. There was a roadblock on Westmount at Santa Monica Blvd—which was still open to traffic but moving slowly. Sucked into the stream of bewigged pedestrians, we three staggered west toward the bars. Halloween was not an official event and this was not a parade. We were newly liberated young gay men making our way to the nearest bar—embracing the opportunity to masquerade as a woman, which in the years prior to Stonewall, had been illegal. At one point, a queen in six-inch platforms stepped on my mummy’s bandage; I nearly unraveled. The poor queen tumbled against a parked car and tore her skirt on its mirror. A couple of men dressed as Divine, from the filthy John Waters classic Pink Flamingos, pushed their way to aid her. As for me? As I had hoped, I was being groped by a costumed policeman while his two costumed convicts stood there handcuffed; the burly, mustachioed men looked to be from Silverlake. The vehicles on Santa Monica Blvd were as much a part of the show as they inched along at parade speed.

“Yoo-hoo, little Devil, you are horny, eh?” a group of muscular drag queens. done up like Esther Williams, called from a doorless Jeep that had been itching alongside us for a block. 

“Don’t you dare, Donnie!” my pal screamed as our friend, the devil, hoisted himself into the open Jeep. In the days before cell phones you didn’t dare get separated from friends—hence, why we all drove our own cars. As the Jeep crawled ahead, a pick-up truck full of dancing firemen crept forward, blaring “Ohio Players Fire.” Like an X-rated version of American Graffiti, Santa Monica Blvd had been turned into a gay Main Street where the testosterone-fueled boys cruised in their cars. I kept hoping a queen dressed as Suzanne Somers would pass by in a turquoise, port-holed T-Bird.

 As we got closer to Robertson, the sidewalk got more and more packed, with mechanics in coveralls unzipped to the crotch, a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, bare-chested in overalls and straw hats, faces dusted with Maybelline freckles. A trio of Scarlett O’Hara’s were floating down Palm Avenue and joined the crowd proceeding westward, poking their parasols to force their way in. Their huge hoop skirts created a traffic jam on the sidewalk—surely this was a great way to ensure social distancing in the Antebellum South.  They soon hiked their skirts up sideways and made their way into The Blue Parrot. The pedestrian parade soon thinned out as revelers pushed their way into the nearest bar. My mummy costume had come undone by the time we came to a halt at Santa Monica and Robertson. This was the only intersection since La Cienega to be open to cross traffic. A policeman mounted on horseback directed the pedestrian and vehicular traffic.  

“Here!” Didi said, handing the unraveling mummy wrap from her large purse. “Cover your basket!” 

As we crossed the street headed for Studio’s tent, our horny devil jumped out of the Jeep that had just caught up to us, breathlessly reminding us who was holding the tickets. Although almost everyone was in costume of one sort or the other, by the time we got to Studio, most of the costumes had come off before the contest had begun. Afterward, we took a break at The Abbey coffee shop—at that point, it was a small, coffee-only hole in the wall on the west side of Robertson—years before it moved to its present location. Exhausted, we sat down and sipped coffee, and watched the show at the corner. In a mad rush to get to Studio before the contest began, a deranged Baby Jane pushed a Blanche in her wheelchair straight into oncoming traffic, A 450SL screeched to a stop; the Blanche screamed bloody murder.

“Butcha are!” the Baby Jane cackled maniacally as she reached the west curb. 

Just then, a mounted policeman rode over to restore order, his horse blocking the crosswalk and causing a backup of Bette Davises and Divines. As the drag queens flirted with the handsome officer, his horse took a big, steaming poop. 

“What a dump!” enunciated a Bette Davis, twirling her cigarette and batting her eyes. The sidewalk crowd erupted in hysterics and applause. Not to be upstaged, a Divine pushed her way to the street and pantomimed the scandalous scene from Pink Flamingos.

***

The following Halloween, I was a new resident of West Hollywood. I’d inherited a studio apartment from a friend who moved to a larger unit across the street. I was paying $350 a month. It was on West Knoll below a palatial Spanish home. As Halloween night approached I was running all over town, trying to assemble my costume. 

“Church,” as I was nicknamed, “face it: You should just do drag,” my friend Joseph chided me. “I  bought this fabulous dress at Cher’s garage sale.” In the 80s, celebrities pretended they were just regular folks by having garage sales and Tupperware parties. “I’m sure it will fit you!” I could hear Juan in the background: “It ain’t a Bob Mackie, it must have been that bitch Fran’s dress.”

Later that day, with errands complete, I headed home to assemble my costume. I began turning a sheepskin seat cover into a skimpy caveman’s toga. I did 50 push-ups and slipped it on, then headed across the street to Juan’s apartment. Costumed revelers marched down Westmount, sloshing bottles of open champagne. “Hey, Bam Bam,” a Tin Man called out, offering me a swig of champagne out of Dorothy’s basket. These Wizard of Oz characters were perfectly turned out. They even had a little dog. “And Toto, too.”

Courtesy: David Churchill

As my friends teetered down the steps in their high-heeled cowgirl boots, we crossed the barricade at Santa Monica. The city has mercifully closed the westbound lane to traffic so we are not all joined tits-to-ass on the sidewalk. The previous year’s three Scarlett O’Hara’s glide gracefully down the boulevard as if on a plantation. The Tin Man comes up behind me and gooses me. He seems to have gotten separated from his crew. This year, folks must have known they were closing the boulevard, as they all chose group costumes. 

I’m not sure if this was the first year for the muscle guys dressed as West Hollywood cheerleaders in their miniskirts and pom poms, stopping to do a choreographed cheer. But I do remember the two roving bands of Village People, meeting aghast and reenacting the Jerome Robbins choreography from West Side Story when the Sharks rumble with the Jets. This was a period of time when West Hollywood was inhabited by struggling dancers, biding their time between awards shows choreographed by Debbie Allen and the rumored filming of A Chorus Line. Studio One was not hosting their tented costume contest this year, but that didn’t stop the queens from going all out with their costumes. Santa Monica became a quarter-mile runway for fabulousness. 

***

Now, 40 years later, I’ll never forget the queen who dressed as Evita, the 1940s eyebrows and lips perfection, the marcelled hair and gown magnificent. She glided down the boulevard with outstretched arms, a bank of microphones sprouting from her waist. This was years before Madonna’s movie. This was the year of the boom box. This Evita carried one playing, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” on an endless loop. 

“That’s the Patti LuPone recording.” some queen said. “No, it’s Loni Ackerman,” another replied.

Just as my heart awarded her best costume, another queen comes by, dressed as Tippi Hedren, to take the crown. She is unmistakable: It is Melanie Daniels in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. She no doubt used Butterick pattern 6676 to make the lettuce green skirt suit. The blonde coif and makeup made her look just like Tippi in her debut film. But what solidified this as the absolute best costume was that she encased this perfect look in a homemade phone booth—it must have been an old refrigerator box—which she somehow carried down the boulevard; as she walked inside the phone booth, spring-mounted blackbirds pecked at her head. A marvel of fashion and engineering.

Courtesy: David Churchill

The years blur together in my memories. Peter Lyle flew in from Hawaii dressed as sex symbol Joey Heatherton after her arrest for stabbing her boyfriend; he wore a lycra bell-bottomed pantsuit and carried a real steak knife and a vial of cocaine. He was only outdone by the queen as Zsa Zsa Gabor after she’d slapped that policeman. I’m not sure when they closed both sides of Santa Monica, but at one point, families from around the county set up lawn chairs on the grassy median as if they were watching a holiday parade. Little witches and goblins oohed and aahed at the queens sashaying down the boulevard as if they were Disney princesses on Main Street. When all the musclemen painted their faces blue and went commando under their kilts to be Braveheart, they were now careful not to flash the children.

Remembering all of this, I am hopeful. Perhaps this more “organic” approach that the WeHo Council hopes for might bring back the creativity of the past. Though in this wave of political correctness, who would ever have the temerity to dress as a German tourist impaled by one of Cristo’s umbrellas and twirl down the street, as if blown by the wind? Or spend months sewing a perfect replica of Jackie Kennedy’s pink Boucle suit and pillbox hat, only to spill stage blood on it, and arrive in a Continental Convertible parked at the roadblock on Larabee?

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