Once upon a time, in a Los Angeles many remember, Hollywood's Circus nightclub ruled Saturday nights. One of the first venues in L.A. to introduce electronic dance music on a large scale, Circus — home to promoters Giant and then Spundae — regularly attracted more than a thousand people on a Saturday night. If the line didn't stretch all through the parking lot to the Santa Monica Boulevard entrance, it was a slow night.
But that was then. Today, electronic dance music is no longer the new beat on the block, and unless you have a Hilton hanging at your club, your spot generates as much buzz as a wingless bee.
Most club owners would've folded up shop. Not Circus owner Gene La Pietra though. Why would he? With 32 years in the same spot, La Pietra and his venue have ridden the cycles of disco, punk, new wave, hair metal, grunge and hip-hop.
What's the secret to longevity like that?
"You have to reinvent yourself. You really do," says La Pietra, 60. "I'm getting older. But young people are always coming up, and we've got to think like they do. You've got to have the new videos, the best sound; things that were OK before aren't OK anymore."
In the new club world, bigger is better. And Circus is now the biggest of them all, with a capacity of 3,200.
The previously separate rooms have been united into one elaborate labyrinth (even the restrooms have entrances and exits on opposite sides so that you can go in one way and come out the other if you want to ditch your friends or that drunk guy).
And around every corner awaits a new gaggle of dancers, a different DJ and new surprises — go-go dancers on raised podiums, large-screen videos, a cafe on the back patio that serves grilled hot dogs, burritos and more until closing time, a hookah bar replete with cushioned chairs or one of the spot's 17 bars.
Charissa Saviano, better known to dance fans as the versatile DJ Rap, has been playing at Circus for years. And as a current twice-monthly resident at the Spundae promotion on Saturday nights, she sees the effect the redesign has had. "They've made it all open and brought everybody together," she says. "Now it's packed the whole time. Everybody loves a breath of fresh air, and that's pretty much what happened."
Unchanged, however, is the dynamic of the clubgoers, Saviano says. "What I love most is the crowd — very music-oriented crowd, fun, energetic. They're all music heads, which I love playing to."
Having watched the wheels go by for more than three decades, La Pietra has seen a change not only in musical styles but also in the habits and knowledge of clubgoers, and he concurs with Saviano's assertion about the regulars.
"Circus is all about the music. Everything else is secondary," he says. "Years ago you went out to get laid. Now you go out to hear music, and there is a difference. People know what kind of equipment you have, and that's why you put it out there and display it. You're proud of it, and they know what it is."
Patrons even offer suggestions. As La Pietra stands on a second-floor balcony that overlooks the main room, a young man comes over and introduces himself. He relates how he's been to clubs in Las Vegas, Miami and elsewhere and that he frequents Circus regularly. He requests that La Pietra bring back the Kyrogenics (blasts of cold air and fog that occasionally bathe the crowd). La Pietra listens intently and thanks the customer.
Later, he says, "We've done it on specials, but is it something we'd do all the time? I don't know if it's cost-effective. But I will check it out. If you don't listen to your customers, you're not going to be here 32 years. The customers dictate your longevity."
Indeed, most nights La Pietra can be found out in the parking lot, greeting people as they come and go.
"One of the biggest kicks I get out of this is people coming up and talking to me. I have a huge ego. I like being recognized," he says. "My customers now are the children of my first customers. That's an amazing thing to have happen."
Steve Baltin may be reached at email@example.com.
Where: 6655 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood
When: 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays; 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Info: (323) 462-1291; www.circusdisco.comCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times