Concerts are back, which means one thing: The return of L.A.'s one-and-only ‘Dancing Man’
One day last March as the pandemic was ravaging the world and nightlife was shutting down, Howard Mordoh, 70, looked at his empty calendar and started freaking out.
Known to countless Southern California concertgoers as “Front Row” Mordoh, That Silver-Haired Dancing Man, or some variation thereof, Mordoh has attended many thousands of gigs since the early 1970s and has very prominently grooved during most of them. That fateful day, the self-described “attention whore” was facing an abyss.
“I was shocked. It was like I was going through withdrawal,” Mordoh said last week from his Woodland Hills home a few hours after he’d nearly lost out on My Morning Jacket tickets when he made an error while trying to game the system with a pair of computers.
If you’re looking for a symbol that the concert business is roaring back to life, check Mordoh’s updated calendar.
You’ve witnessed his passion if you’ve been to the Hollywood Bowl in the past, say, 40 years: With long, wavy gray hair, the now-retired clinical lab scientist is usually peacocking in and around his reserved Garden box seats to the right of the stage. The Forum, the Mint, the Wiltern, the Roxy, the Greek and beyond: He’s ruled aisles and dance floors at them all.
His husband, Ken Warren — who long ago retired from being Mordoh’s plus-one: “It used to embarrass me, but I got over that soon” — says in the new documentary “The Dancing Man of L.A.” that he once calculated that Mordoh had spent more than $40,000 one year on tickets. “And that was before tickets got so expensive,” brags Mordoh. Asked to guess how many concerts he’d attended, Mordoh comes up blank. During the summer, five to eight shows a week. During the off season, a few shows per week.
That’s him, on the other side of the country, in the LCD Soundsystem documentary “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” spinning at Madison Square Garden like a ballet dancer on mushrooms. You can briefly spy him in San Francisco 35 years earlier in Martin Scorsese’s classic documentary on the Band, “The Last Waltz,” where Mordoh sneaked in an 8-millimeter color camera and can be seen in the front row shooting one of the many snippets he captured that night. It remains his favorite-ever concert.
When, in March 2020, Mordoh’s normally regimented and color-coded daily schedule — waiting in online queues for upcoming tickets in the morning and attending five to eight concerts per week at night — went blank, his friend Jen Fodor and documentary co-director Scott Sheppard were there to capture it.
“The Dancing Man of L.A.” shows Mordoh hamming it up at various before-COVID concerts as he recounts his life as a Southern California groover. Then — spoiler alert! — the pandemic hits, and the directors, like everyone else, are forced to adapt. The 25-minute film, the production of which started long before anyone knew a virus would transform nightlife, premiered Monday on the PBS app and YouTube as part of PBS’ acclaimed Independent Lens series.
“My friends would say, ‘Oh, Howard, eventually you’re going to slow down,’” Mordoh says. “I didn’t know the world was going to make me slow down.”
Sheppard, who has also produced and directed the feature documentaries “An Act of Love” and “Planes, Trains & Autorickshaws,” calls Mordoh “a staple of Southern California” whom he’s eyed at concerts for years. “I’d see him on the way to my seats at the Hollywood Bowl. He’ll be dancing in the aisles before the show starts, and he always looks like he is having the best night of his life. He has so much joy.”
Mordoh reflects on this in the documentary, explaining that “some of my friends get mad at me, because it’s, like, ‘Howard, you’re not paying attention to the concert. You’re too busy dancing and watching other people watch you.’” He later explains that at some point he picked 27 as his “perennial age,” adding that “my head is still back there.”
Anyone who’s been to the same concert as Mordoh has seen it in action. He dances with a Deadhead-style abandon, arms moving in unison, his knees and feet serving as springboards that often propel him into a series of spins. There’s glee in every whirl.
“Before I could walk, I could dance,” Mordoh says in the film. His parents were competitive swing dancers, and he and drummer-sister Joyce watched “American Bandstand” and tried to learn the newest moves. Eventually the siblings appeared as dancers on the show. Mordoh’s arsenal was multiplied when “Soul Train” started informing his maneuvers.
His first concert was on March 15, 1969: psychedelic rock band Iron Butterfly at the Rose Palace in Pasadena during the “In a Gadda Da Vida” tour. He earned his first media attention as a fan when, in 1976, he and some friends waited in line for nearly two days to get tickets to a Paul McCartney and Wings concert at the Forum. Then 25, he was the first in line. A photo of him at the ticket window appeared in The Times. What it doesn’t show is Mordoh shoving his 8-mm camera down his pants to shoot a 3½-minute reel of the night’s highlights. He did the same at early concerts by David Bowie, Patti Smith, Devo, Iggy Pop, Thin Lizzy, Parliament-Funkadelic, Blondie and dozens more.
He lists a few in the film: “Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Forum in 1978. Bruce Springsteen at the Santa Monica Civic [Auditorium] in ’76. Fleetwood Mac at the Forum, 1977, third row center. Queen, March 1976. I’ve got videos of Queen from every tour they ever did until they stopped letting me bring in the camera.” If an act booked two nights in town, Mordoh would buy tickets to both — one for filming and the other for dancing.
There have been incidents. Privileged Garden box holders not down with “Front Row” Mordoh’s exuberance. Piercing glares from husbands whose wives are dancing with him a little too closely. Woe to the fans sitting directly behind him who had hoped to enjoy a relaxed, unobstructed evening under the stars experiencing live music.
“There are always one or two who get mad at me: ‘Sit down! I paid a lot of money for these seats!’ Well, so did I, and I’m here to enjoy the music and dance.” He adds that often if he’s the sole dancer, security will ask him to sit down. He’ll comply, but his strategy to prevent this is to encourage a critical mass of dancers to join him. Somebody has to be the first one to boogie.
Fodor had been concert buddies with Mordoh for a few years. After she interviewed Mordoh on her music industry podcast, “I Love Music,” she and Sheppard started discussing the idea of documenting the Dancing Man’s life as a fan.
“We thought, ‘Let’s start off doing a character piece about Howard and his concert addiction,’” Fodor says. Then, as venues shuttered post-COVID and nightlife died, they knew they had to document Mordoh’s withdrawal and the ways he coped.
The mornings were hard. Absent his routine, Mordoh often woke up in terror at the wide-open day that lay before him. Nothing to look forward to. No tickets to pursue. No communal dancing. He soon gravitated toward the next best thing: “I delved into pay-per-view stuff, dancing in my living room in my underwear,” Mordoh says.
In the documentary, Mordoh appears in a Zoom call, robed but shirtless, describing the “Groundhog Day” reality of his pandemic life. He compares the loss of live music to going through the various stages of grief. He regularly spoke with his therapist.
Restless, Mordoh started hiking during the day and exploring the city’s food scene at night. His newest joy? “Fancy takeout at that restaurant Vespertine,” he says. “People think I’m crazy, but I get excited. It’s something to do.”
Mordoh’s return to public dancing occurred two weeks ago at the “Vax Live” concert. There at SoFi Stadium, he was caught on camera moving to Foo Fighters, J Balvin, Eddie Vedder and others.
On Facebook, where he posts as “LA Rocker,” Mordoh called it “an amazing night,” adding that “they put me sixth row center on the aisle.... The feeling of the loud music vibrating thru my body and lights in my face, was so cathartic!”
His schedule doesn’t really take off until after July, he said, but he’s been back to hunting on-sale dates. “Everything is filling up for August, September and October,” he says, a tone of relief obvious. “Today I bought something for the Greek Theatre. It’s a year away.”
On Friday, Mordoh rose at 3 a.m. and drove to the Santa Barbara Bowl to procure seats to an upcoming Phish show. As one of the only remaining venues that gives priority to customers who are at the front of a physical line, the Santa Barbara Bowl rewards old-fashioned fandom. That blunder with the My Morning Jacket tickets was a prime example of how things could go wrong.
“I forgot about all that stress of getting tickets,” he says with a sigh.
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