Inside Zoom’s exclusive A-list, invite-only, money-raising-juggernaut quarantine party
Just after 6 p.m. on Friday, the mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, logged into a Zoom house party full of L.A.’s music and film A-listers and talked about cutting hair during a pandemic.
This month-old, semi-weekly “Quarantunes” Zoom party, hosted by WME partner Richard Weitz, 51, and his 17-year-old daughter Demi from their kitchen table, had record-biz legend Clive Davis, WME head of music Marc Geiger, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and actor Amy Adams tuning in from their homes. Atlanta Hawks owner and Beverly Hills venture capitalist Antony Ressler talked about losing a loved-one to COVID-19. Jazz star Trombone Shorty lamented that in his hometown of New Orleans, “Our heartbeat is music and to not hear that on the street means it’s a very serious time.” (Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the owner of The Times, is an investor in Zoom.)
In this Zoom grid full of L.A. boldface names, Bottoms told how one community close to her was at terrible risk of COVID-19 as Georgia’s Gov. Brian Kemp reopens its economy, against most experts’ advice.
“In the African American community, there’s a beauty parlor or barbershop on every corner,” she said. “When I look at them, I see women like my mother, who are single parents and uninsured. To think that these are the people being sent back out first as guinea pigs to see if it’s OK to venture out, these people are the last ones who need to be there. If you infect people in salons, you infect the entire community.”
The Weitz family posted links in the Zoom group chat for the 500 guests to donate to United Way and an Atlanta fund, Strength in Beauty, to help parlor workers stay home. Then for close to four hours, Fantasia Barrino, Prince percussionist Sheila E., Amos Lee, Christopher Jackson from “Hamilton,” Michael Franti, YouTube sensation Alaina Castillo and others performed stripped-back live versions of their hits from their living rooms.
It was a red-carpet crowd at their most stir-crazy and homebound. But they raised around $350,000 that night — and showed a more activist future for streaming parties during the pandemic.
During the COVID-19 shutdown, live-streamed concerts have grown from a novelty born of necessity into a fixture of cultural life. D-Nice’s dance parties (known to include a presidential candidate or two), Instagram Live’s R&B/hip-hop battles and Fortnite and Minecraft’s virtual festivals have remade live music. Global Citizen’s “One World: Together at Home” event was a veritable live-streamed Live-Aid.
Likewise, the Weitz family’s Zooms have become a notable hub for big-dollar fundraising and pop-star appearances.
Mayor Garcetti introduced a session in April. Singers Randy Newman, Charlie Puth and Thomas Rhett have swung through and performed. Guests like Disney’s Bob Iger, Quibi’s Jeffrey Katzenberg and Tina Fey have tuned in lounging on their (very expensive) couches. Sometimes a teen TikTok sensation like Addison Rae drops in to delight and/or confuse the generations. Guy Fieri made a cameo from his quarantine in Flavortown, and John Legend covered Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” in front of his wall of EGOT trophies.
If the series started as an ad hoc birthday party, it’s now a fundraising juggernaut, with more than $1 million raised in just a month for local and national coronavirus-related charities.
“To think of the origin of what it was, to then see L.A.'s mayor come on was pretty crazy,” Richard Weitz said, a few days before Friday’s party. “That was the turning point we needed, when it went from a kitchen Zoom to legit fundraising.”
In the future, “Just because we’re out of quarantine doesn’t mean [COVID-19] is no longer an issue,” his daughter Demi, a junior at Campbell Hall school in Studio City, added. ”People in need won’t disappear.”
A month ago, when Weitz booked the first of these Zoom parties to celebrate Demi’s birthday, it was a lark for friends that quickly turned into one of the must-see quarantine digital events. They remain invite-only for around 500 guests. But Weitz’s WME contact list soon brought in John Mayer, James Bay, Josh Groban and other pop singers to play. They pegged each event to a COVID-19-leaning charity, like the Saban Clinic and Cedars-Sinai’s coronavirus-fighting units.
The tide shifted two weeks ago, however, when singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright played a session that raised funds for United Way Los Angeles and ended with a$100,000 donation from showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser (“Living Single”). The Weitzs realized their Zoom klatches could help replace the now-canceled gala balls and black-tie industry events that fund necessary organizations like MusiCares and Sweet Relief. It couldn’t come soon enough for these groups.
“We were in a crisis before this crisis hit. The needs are so dramatically urgent, and we’re doing two years of work in 60 days,” said Elise Buik, the president and chief executive of United Way Los Angeles.
She admitted that fundraising for a huge crisis like this gets more difficult when you can’t do it in person. But Zoom and Instagram party scenes that took off in the music industry could be a new platform to support the staggering needs amid the pandemic.
“Learning how to connect in a virtual world, it’s hard,” Buik said. “But it’s all about storytelling. Where people can connect and have empathy, you can try to create common ground. I’ve been really blown away by Richard and Demi. When Demi asked everyone to tap into their own fear and isolation while quarantined at home with their families and then imagine sitting in a tent on the street and feeling that same way, everyone was in tears.”
For the organizers, it’s already transformed how they see their futures post-quarantine. Weitz has practically all of the music industry looking to jump into what’s become the must-see velvet rope club in our digital town. Hollywood has turned it into a virtual Tower Bar for seeing old friends and colleagues.
“If someone was like ‘Hey, I’m having a party and Clive Davis and Babyface and John Legend will be there,’ I’d 100% go for 10 minutes and have to leave I was so nervous,” joked singer-songwriter Amos Lee, who performed on Friday’s “Quarantunes” show. He logged in from quarantining at a friend’s parents’ house outside Philadelphia.
“Everyone is so vulnerable right now,” he added, “but here we connected in this really vulnerable way.”
Those connections are crucial for everyone right now. But Buik also emphasized that people are experiencing the pandemic very differently depending on their circumstances. The view from an A-list streaming party is very different than one for someone who can’t find resources on homeless services because the public library is closed. Events like these can help people see beyond their own immediate circumstances in quarantine.
“If there’s any silver lining to this,” she said, “it’s that all L.A. County residents can understand that government is a critical part of the safety net. I hope this makes a case for why things like everyone having healthcare and housing is important and how the recovery needs to be more inclusive.”
Richard Weitz is trying to figure out how these parties can continue to draw an influential viewership as quarantine rolls on. “The hard part is to maintain the excitement. This was meant to entertain family and friends,” he said. “I don’t know where it’ll take us, but I know that there will be no ballroom galas for anybody in the summer and fall. So I think what we started will become the norm.”
For Demi, who wanted to study film directing in college, these events swung her career interests into public service.
“It’s such a lonely time and I felt so helpless doing nothing sitting at home watching ‘How I Met Your Mother,’” Demi said. “But this taught me to realize my privilege, and in the future my path will be going down this road.”
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