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Transportation for the Partying Masses

Times Staff Writer

They start massing outside Canter’s delicatessen on Fairfax Avenue at 10 p.m.--the weird and the wonderful, the beastly and the beautiful, the unremarkable and the unforgettable.

Outfits range from spiked heels and spiked hair to leopard skins and lace underwear. There are people who look like Billy Idol and people who don’t look like anything earthly. Some are dressed up in sequins and rhinestones; some are dressed down in rips, tears and shreds.

But they do have one thing in common. Their attention is focused on a school bus painted in a purple, red and blue checkerboard pattern with a neon-yellow dragon along its sides. And on a woman wearing a plaid pleated skirt and collegiate cable-knit sweater who is being led blindfolded onto the bus.

“Where are we?” Monique Cloud, a 22-year-old UCLA psychology major who is celebrating her birthday, nervously asks her girlfriends. They take the blindfold off.

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“Where are we!” she demands, even more alarmed.

Forget Greyhound, the RTD, the little yellow school bus or anything else you ever knew about transportation for the masses. Welcome aboard the Los Angeles Party Bus for an experience--in the words of one first-time rider--"you sure can’t get in Bakersfield.”

You are entering a world as bizarre as Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours,” as unpredictable as Chuck Barris’ “The Gong Show” and as zany as the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.” The cast of 40 club-crawling characters includes otherwise normal career women who will moon cars on the Santa Monica Freeway for $1 apiece; a couple who will drink their way into a hospital emergency room, and two social workers from Orange County.

For six months now, this unofficial shuttle of the L.A. club scene has been running sporadically on alternate Saturday nights and drawing riders largely through word-of-mouth. It functions as an informal tour guide to the often confusing network of small rock clubs that have sprung up around Los Angeles as rapidly as Taco Bells. And it offers club regulars a safe and cheap alternative to drinking and driving between dances.

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On this Saturday night, the high-tech sound system of the Party Bus is going full-blast long before it peels away from the curb. Within minutes of boarding, the riders are gyrating to the music of Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

“Hey, let’s PARTY!,” shouts Cash Oshman, the Party Bus’ hip heart-and-soul and its founder.

“Let’s PARTY!” the revelers shout back.

It all started five years ago when Oshman, a one-time waiter, bought a fleet of school buses at auction and started Audience Associates. Today he helps fill Hollywood’s insatiable need for studio audiences by ferrying groups of students, senior citizens and other Southern Californians to and from game shows and sit-coms.

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Then, 18 months ago, Oshman had another brainstorm: Why not decorate the buses into mobile pieces of art? Oshman commissioned several mural artists to decorate four buses inside and out at a cost of $5,000 to $10,000 each. He liked the results so much that he started carrying pictures of the buses around in his wallet.

“They’re like my kids,” he says sheepishly. “So I didn’t want to keep them locked up at home at night.”

Brainstorm three: Use the buses to shuttle revelers around selected clubs throughout Los Angeles, guaranteeing them entry and discounted admission. He enlisted the help of Myryah Flint, one of the unofficial “gurus” of the L.A. club scene and the editor of several club guides, and together they made the rounds of the club owners to win their confidence.

Hard at First

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“It was hard at first because a lot of the places were skeptical,” Flint notes. “The owners don’t want just anyone at their clubs. But eventually, they grew to like the idea.”

Even on a good night--40 riders paying $7--Oshman claims the Party Bus is more a labor of love than a labor for profit since the insurance tab per outing is a steep $900. “I lose money every time I do it. But it’s fun,” he says in his best party-animal patois. “And that’s the only objective I ever had--to have fun.”

As last-minute dashes for six-packs of beer, bottles of bourbon and takeout roast beef sandwiches subside; as the moon and stars enter into proper alignment, and as the engine lurches to life, the bus begins its run at 10:30 p.m. sharp .

Er, 11 p.m. sharp . Well, 11:30 p.m. sharp .

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“No, really, guys, let’s get out of here now ,” Oshman pleads.

For this evening’s odyssey, Oshman has selected the checkerboard-painted Dragon bus. His favorite, the Sphinx (which comes complete with two life-size mummies), has broken down.

Still, the Dragon is intended to attract stares from unsuspecting pedestrians and motorists--and that’s exactly what it does. Or maybe the onlookers are really gazing at its riders, who, reverting to elementary-school pranks, are hanging out the windows and screaming.

“Are we having FUN?” Oshman asks.

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“YEEEEEEAH!” the passengers respond.

Clinging to a bottle of 7-Up with one hand and to a handrail with the other, Oshman explains the Party Bus policy. “We don’t sell liquor, but we serve it,” he announces. “There will be a liquor run halfway through.”

“YEEEEEEAH!”

Only One Rule

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“And we have only one rule,” he continues. “No smoking on the bus.”

A few riders look crestfallen. “What about illicit sex?” asks William Shaw, a Los Angeles actor.

Oshman shrugs. “Fine with me,” he replies.

Actually, the evening goes by with scarcely more intimate physical contact than kissing and hand-holding. Mooning, however, is something of a Party Bus tradition. Flint fondly recalls the group of guys from rock radio station KXLU-FM who “spent virtually the whole bus ride with their pants off. They were the greatest bunch of mooners we ever had,” she enthuses.

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On this particular evening, UCLA student Cloud and her gaggle of girlfriends have imbibed just enough champagne to erase any inhibitions. Oshman dares them $1 to moon a Chevy pickup. “What the hell,” laughs Cloud, who coquettishly obliges.

Her girlfriends erupt into a chorus of giggles--and some follow her lead.

The mix of passengers this particular evening is more or less typical.

There’s Ivy League-looking Dave, who declines to identify himself further. “I’m really not in a position to speak to the press right now,” he says self-importantly.

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“Gee,” Cloud interjects. “You don’t look like anybody important.”

Pamela Zink, a 22-year-old journalism major at Cal State Northridge who is dressed in slinky satins, explains that she and her fiance, James Quinn, a 26-year-old exotic car builder who has spiked his hair for the night, are celebrating their last tour of the L.A. club scene for a while “because we’re saving up for a wedding.”

Tonight is especially nostalgic for them, she notes. “We first met at Scream a year ago when it was totally underground, and tonight we’re planning on going back.”

The bus makes its first club stop--on La Cienega Boulevard for Zombie Zoo and Funky Reggae. Oshman explains that it will shuttle between a total of five clubs until 4 a.m., picking up and letting off the riders throughout the night “so you can’t get lost or anything. And you can visit as many of them as you’d like.”

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“YEEEAH!” the revelers respond.

Cat-and-Mouse Game

It is Flint’s task to arrange which clubs the Party Bus will visit--no small feat, considering that many of the underground places open and close virtually overnight in a never-ending cat-and-mouse game with the authorities.

Now the bus is really rocking and rolling--literally, since its shock absorbers leave something to be desired. “Hey, I want to drive. Let’s see how fast it can go!” Quinn yells to bus driver Tony Bautista, who ignores the outburst. (Even though the 36-year-old Bautista remains in the bus all night, he has a great time people-watching. “I love it,” he says, shaking his head as a woman with Kelly green hair flashes him a smile.)

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By 1 a.m., the Party Bus makes the evening’s only liquor stop, at the Thriftown Market near the corner of La Cienega and the Santa Monica Freeway. As Quinn enters the store, he screams to one of the clerks, “Do they sell Trojans here?”

His fiance seems to think he’s talking about USC. “Oh, yeah, they’re going to the Rose Bowl,” she remarks to no one in particular. “Isn’t that great?”

Oshman uses the time to reminisce about great Party Bus episodes. Like the elderly aunt who wouldn’t let her niece take the bus unescorted and ended up accompanying her. (“The old girl had a great time,” Oshman marvels. “She just bopped around.”)

Or the underground club owner who was so paranoid about being discovered by the authorities that he wouldn’t give Oshman the club’s address. (“So we had to go to a parking lot and climb on his bus. But all the windows were covered so none of us could see where we were going.”)

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An hour later, a small group heads toward Scream in the Park Plaza Hotel and a larger one to Alcoholic Salad in the Variety Arts Center.

By 3 a.m., Tina Peek and Carrie Ellis from Bakersfield are fast asleep in the rear. Only the hard-core revelers are left to party on the bus, and most of them have pseudonyms.

There is Tequila Mockingbird, a bleached-blond musician from Hollywood who is sporting a leopard fez; Brenda Starr, a house painter from Venice wearing heart-shaped glasses, and Kim from the Holy Sisters of Gaga Dada, who hails from Atwater. “Our life styles are our art,” Kim explains. “And besides, our phone numbers are listed.”

Also in the crowd are Kristie Winkle, 32, of Anaheim and Giselle Rocha, 28, of Irvine, two social workers who care for abused children. “This is how we blow off steam from stressful jobs,” Winkle explains.

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Honing Clinical Skills

“We like to people-watch and hone our clinical skills,” Rocha notes.

Nearing 4 a.m., the Party Bus swings by to pick up the last group--but not before the bus driver makes a quick stop at a hospital to check on one couple.

“The girl didn’t feel good and wanted to be taken home,” Flint explains. “I thought it was better to play it safe so I took her to the emergency room. I think she had too much to drink.”

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Finally, the last revelers are deposited at Canter’s. Some go in for an early morning snack. Some exchange phone numbers. And some are still puzzling over the evening.

“It was an experience,” a bemused Cloud concludes. “A different, unique experience. I think.”

L.A. party bus information: (213) 464-5026.


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