Elmer Valentine, co-founder of Whisky a Go Go, dies at 85
Elmer Valentine, co-founder of the Whisky a Go Go, the legendary live rock showcase on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood that gave birth to the go-go dancer phenomenon of the 1960s, has died. He was 85.
Valentine, who also co-founded the Roxy Theatre in the early ‘70s, died Wednesday at his home in Studio City after suffering from various ailments the last four years, said music mogul Lou Adler, his longtime friend and business partner.
A former Chicago cop who arrived in Los Angeles in 1960, Valentine was co-owner of P.J.'s, a successful West Hollywood restaurant-nightclub, when he sold his interest and took a trip to Europe in 1963.
While in Paris, he visited a discotheque and was so impressed by the large, enthusiastic crowd of young dancers that he decided to borrow the disco’s name and start his own club back home in Los Angeles.
After lining up three partners, Valentine launched the Whisky a Go Go in January 1964. The club was an immediate hit, with headliner Johnny Rivers attracting celebrity-studded sold-out audiences.
“For much of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Elmer Valentine’s Whisky was the most important rock club in town,” former Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn wrote in 1977. “It was an incubation spot for local bands and a showcase for highly touted visiting groups.”
The Byrds, the Doors, the Kinks, the Who, Them, Love and Buffalo Springfield were among the bands to play there.
“The Whisky was mecca,” Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors, told The Times in 2003. “It was the place in Los Angeles. It was probably the place in the entire country.”
Adler, who first met Valentine in 1964 and produced Rivers’ live Whisky a Go Go album, said the Whisky “was a template for what rock clubs would be, not only in Los Angeles but across the United States and around the world.”
“Up until that point, rock acts did not have that kind of venue. It drew a lot of celebrities, and the celebrities drew people to come watch the celebrities.” Along with drawing such stars as Steve McQueen, Jayne Mansfield and Cary Grant, the Whisky drew national media attention, including from Life magazine and Jack Paar, who did a segment for his weekly comedy-variety program at the club.
Part of the attraction was the mini-skirted go-go girls, a contribution to pop culture that happened by accident.
As recounted in a 2000 Vanity Fair article on Valentine, he arranged to have a female DJ play records between Rivers’ sets so patrons could continue dancing. But because there wasn’t enough room on the floor for a DJ booth, he had a glass-walled booth mounted high above the floor.
To publicize the girl-DJ gimmick, a public contest was held for the job. But when the young winner called Valentine on the night of the opening to tearfully say her mother forbade her from doing it, Valentine recruited the club’s cigarette girl, Patty Brockhurst.
“She had on a slit skirt, and we put her up there,” Valentine told Vanity Fair. “So she’s up there playing the records. She’s a young girl, so while playing ‘em, all of a sudden she starts dancing to ‘em. It was a dream. It worked.”
Valentine quickly hired two more girl dancers, one of whom, Joanie Labine, according to the Vanity Fair article, “designed the official go-go-girl costume of fringed dress and white boots.”
The Whisky a Go Go “spurred the entire go-go period,” said Adler. “The advertising agencies picked up on the phrase and everything became ‘go-go.’ ”
The way Valentine ran the Whisky -- and his relationships with the acts -- was nothing like the stereotypical hard-nosed nightclub owners in the movies, Adler said. “Being in that club was like heaven for him,” said Adler. “He loved rock music, and he loved the musicians. He had a special relationship with all of them.”
Valentine was born in Chicago on June 16, 1923. After serving as an Army Air Forces mechanic stationed in England during World War II, he joined the Chicago police force.
“I left Chicago [in 1960] because my wife dumped me, and I was flipped out,” he told Vanity Fair. But, as the magazine noted, he was also having a bit of trouble on the job: He was on the take from the Mob.
“It was a way of life,” Valentine said.
Although he was indicted for extortion, the magazine reported, he was never convicted. And once Valentine arrived in Los Angeles, he had a backup career plan: “I used to moonlight running nightclubs for the outfit. For gangsters.”
In 1965, Valentine launched the Trip, a small, short-lived rock club on the Strip. In 1972, he, Adler, Mario Maglieri and others started the Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Strip; a year later, Valentine, Adler and others founded the Roxy.
Adler, who bought into the Whisky in the late ‘70s, said Valentine sold his interest in the club in the ‘90s but retained an ownership in the Rainbow and the Roxy until his death.
Valentine, who was divorced, is survived by his daughter, Kimberly Valentine; and a grandson. Plans for a memorial service are pending.
McLellan is a Times staff writer.
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