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Wall of Costa Mesa club dressed in coats of many colors in tribute to Dolly Parton, frontline workers

Luke Nero and Long Beach-based artist David Gilmore at Strut Bar & Club in Costa Mesa.
Strut Bar & Club owner Luke Nero, right, and Long Beach-based artist David Gilmore at a Dolly Parton-themed mural outside the Costa Mesa nightclub that will be dedicated to frontline workers on March 13.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Costa Mesa’s Strut Bar & Club — an LGBTQ-friendly establishment that operated a mere six months before being shuttered on March 15, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic — has begun to exhibit some promising signs of life.

Set at the eastern terminus of an otherwise nondescript 19th Street strip mall, the club has a massive exterior wall whose beige blankness failed to complement Strut’s lush interior décor, which is complete with mirror balls, a light-installation tunnel and a neon sign flanked by nude female mannequins that reads: “You have been warned.”

Club owner and Newport Beach resident Luke Nero prides himself on maintaining a visually stimulating environment that, during its short shelf life, provided an abundance of “Instagrammable” moments.

“At every wall, you can stand next to it and take a picture,” he said in a recent interview. “That’s why it was just as important to make the exterior beautiful.”

With not much else to do but dust and polish fixtures during a yearlong closure, Nero began to think of how he might dress up that drab exterior wall while drumming up interest in the still-closed nightclub.

A mural seemed like just the thing.

He considered a tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose death on Sept. 18 fell almost exactly on what would have been Strut’s one-year anniversary, but he figured it best not to stoke the fires of political divisiveness in a world already run amok.

It wasn’t until months later, when Nero heard country legend Dolly Parton had donated $1 million toward development of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, that he knew he’d found the perfect subject.

He’d seen the 2019 Netflix documentary “Here I Am” and recalled reading about how the 75-year-old chanteuse turned down the Presidential Medal of Freedom not once but twice and was an uncredited executive producer of TV cult classic “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

“For some reason, Dolly was on my radar whatever turn I took,” he said. “I was never a big fan, but then I read more about who she was. She is the best of humanity.”

Nero put out an open call for someone who could do the work and was introduced to Long Beach muralist David Gilmore.

An artist who’d made a living doing murals for hire before taking on large-scale patterned pop art pieces, one of Gilmore’s most famous canvases has been supermodel Heidi Klum, whose body he painted for a series of elaborate Halloween photos last year.

The two connected and discussed how best to portray Parton on the 18.5-by-51.5-foot wall. Gilmore said Nero “wanted her to be ethereal, like a goddess.”

So, the Long Beach artist got to work. Drawing inspiration from photos of the singer at different ages and compiling them into one composite image using Photoshop, Gilmore created a beatific vision of Parton, her arms open wide with beams of light emanating from her outstretched hands.

Long Beach-based artist David Gilmore works on a mural outside Strut Bar & Club.
Long Beach-based artist David Gilmore works on a mural outside Strut Bar & Club in Costa Mesa on Thursday, March 4, 2021.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“Getting to paint Dolly on a gay nightclub, especially in Orange County, is great,” he said. “All day long people are driving up and saying, ‘Oh my god, I love Dolly Parton.’ She just transcends pop culture — she cuts through.”

Gilmore began painting Feb. 12 and will finish next Friday, exactly one month later. He will finish off the piece by dedicating it to frontline workers, a request made by Nero, who wanted to create a work of inclusivity and welcome, a place people could escape the grind of reality.

Plans are in the works for a modest unveiling on March 13 at 3:30 p.m., which may feature a young girl singing Parton’s hit tune “Jolene” and a drag queen impersonator. Until visitors are welcome inside Strut once more, Nero said this mural will be a place of peace.

“I just hope it makes people smile,” he said.

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