Rival parties toast 20 years at the Dinah

While some of the world's top women golfers battle this weekend at the LPGA's Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, another competition of sorts will play out beside the sparkling pools of two of Palm Springs' hottest resorts, where rival night life promoters will be looking to claim supremacy in the popular and lucrative lesbian party scene surrounding the tournament.

What began as a discreet gathering of lesbian golf fans for the Dinah Shore golf tournament has evolved over the last two decades into a multimillion-dollar extravaganza that attracts an estimated 20,000 female revelers, corporate sponsors, and top-name entertainment (Ke$ha will headline one party this year). The parties, which never have had any official connection to the golf tournament, have been the subjects of books, documentaries and an episode of the television show "The L Word."

The two main promoters are Girl Bar, headed by the West Hollywood-based team of Sandy Sachs and Robin Gans, and Club Skirts, founded by San Francisco transplant Mariah Hanson, who now lives full time in Palm Springs. Once all three were in business together, but five years ago a contentious split led to a lawsuit (settled without either side having to pay up) and a lingering rivalry. This year both are proclaiming themselves "20th anniversary" gatherings and hope to bring in record crowds of as many as 10,000 each.

The women speak carefully and without obvious rancor about the ongoing division, but some put-downs still surface in conversation.

"Mariah has a small hotel with only a couple of hundred rooms; we have a 410-room hotel with a giant pool," Sachs said of this year's accommodations.

And when Hanson talks about their first year in the desert and how they threw separate parties before partnering up the following year she says, "Both of us will tell you that we had the bigger weekend, but I really did."

"We were best friends," added Sachs. "But we had a vision of how to expand, and so it was best that we went our separate ways."

They may have gone their separate ways, but in terms of style, many veteran observers of the scene say they really just swam to opposite ends of the pool.

Both boast high production values with fancy lights, snazzy sound systems, go-go dancers and top-notch entertainment (Ke$ha and Salt-N-Pepa are at Club Skirts this year while DJ Samantha Ronson and former Michael Jackson guitarist Orianthi are at Girl Bar). But Hanson says her party is hipper and more edgy while Sachs and Gans say that their party is classier and more international. Both sides disagree with the other's assessment.

They are more similar than they'd like to let on, says Michele Kort, an editor at Ms. magazine and author of "Dinah!: Three Decades of Sex, Golf and Rock 'n' Roll."

"I went to both a few years ago, and I didn't really see a difference," she said, adding that the evolution of the event over the decades reflects the gradual coming-out of the lesbian community. What began as small parties in private mansions has become "sheer spectacle."

"It became a younger and younger thing, and it got louder and louder," said Kort. "I find the volume at the parties unbearable now, and I put stuff in my ears."

When Kort began heading to Palm Springs in the 1980s -- before Girl Bar and Club Skirts monopolized the scene and an earlier generation of promoters, including Caroline Clone and Joani Weir, were throwing parties in mansions and airplane hangars -- she says it was a much more private event. "If you were a gay woman, you knew about it, but it wasn't like anybody else knew about it," she said.

"There's a whole new wave of lesbians coming out, and it's really interesting for me to watch," said Andrea Meyerson, a filmmaker who promoted a party at the Dinah for nearly nine years before moving on to found Cambria Women's Weekend. "We weren't all as free or willing to be so out. Younger women are so much more OK with themselves than the generation before them."

Gans, Sachs and Hanson belong to that earlier generation (although all three stubbornly refuse to reveal their ages), which is why their success in making "the Dinah," as the weekend is informally known, an international event that rivals its gay male counterpart -- Jeffrey Sanker's White Party -- in size, scope and financial impact, is so remarkable.

When Gans and Sachs -- who were lovers for 19 years and remain close friends and business partners -- moved to L.A. from New York in the late 1980s, there were very few places for lesbians to gather openly. "The only place was the Palms," recalled Gans, referring to a hole-in-the-wall bar on Santa Monica Boulevard. "But there wasn't much for the lipstick lesbian."

Then, several weeks before West Hollywood's gay pride parade, Sachs was hired to manage the Revolver, a gay men's video bar on the corner of Santa Monica and Larrabee and brought on Gans to assist.

"As word got out in the community that there were two women running this gay men's bar, women just started showing up," said Gans. "We looked at each other and said, 'Wow, we have to do something with this.' " And so the weekly Girl Bar party was born.

"What was special about Sandy and I at the time was the fact that we were educated and well dressed and had a sense of style," said Gans. "We were also feminine girls; we kind of coined the term lipstick lesbians."

"And we were out," added Sachs. "There were a lot of women like that, but they didn't want to come out."

In 1990, Gans and Sachs moved Girl Bar to a club shared with Sanker and the next year followed his lead to Palm Springs. In 1991, they threw their first Girl Bar party at the Dinah. That same spring Hanson came down for similar reasons and threw her own. The following year they teamed up. "We brought L.A. and San Francisco together," said Gans. "And we did it fairly well together for the first 10 years."

Hanson started Club Skirts in San Francisco at around the same time that Gans and Sachs started Girl Bar. "I was a college grad who had a knack for marketing, so I booked a club space and created a concept and, lo and behold, 1,100 women showed up," said Hanson. "The concept of a promoter was just being born, and I was one of its earliest adapters."

Since the split, Hanson has upped the marketing ante and reeled in pop acts like Lady Gaga, who performed at Club Skirts last year.

"We're sponsored by Bacardi, Budweiser, Sirius Radio, Showtime and Walgreens," she said. "When Fortune 500 companies are recognizing the lesbian market as a viable market, advertising changes and then thinking changes."

That's certainly true in Palm Springs, which now has a gay majority on the City Council, a gay mayor and, according to the 2000 Census, more gay couples per capita than San Francisco.

Within that increasingly accepting environment, says Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet, there is more than enough room for both Girl Bar and Club Skirts to flourish. "I travel all over the country, and a lot of people talk about Dinah Shore Week in Palm Springs. I think people will just continue to come."

Pougnet said he looks forward to giving a proclamation of recognition to both this year.

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

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