Before there was Beyoncé’s house dance anthem Break My Soul, the queer community was dancing their heart away to Crystal Waters, Black Box, Robin S., Rozalla, and countless other jams. For many, these sounds flooded through the air of some of the most popular queer spaces that served as a sanctuary for folks looking for refuge or simply to be surrounding by chosen family while being their authentic selves. One of these places was Circus Disco/Arena, a Los Angeles place for community that is gone, but not forgotten.
If you’re from Southern California you may remember partying at Circus Disco/Arena on Santa Monica Boulevard. The watering hole for the queer community that drew thousands every night with its thumping of house music, hip hop, R&B, and the best Spanish music to get you on the dance floor. You may even remember getting drunk on several vodka crans and bouncing your way through the multiple floors bursting with DJ lights and disco balls.
Before there was Arena there was Circus Disco which was established in 1974 as a nightclub catering to the Latino LGBTQ+ community. One of the earliest nightclubs developed for Latino gay men, Circus Disco was founded in reaction to discrimination gay men of color received at West Hollywood clubs with a predominately white clientele. The 26,937 square-foot building originally served as a warehouse as part of an industrial site.
LGBTQ+ life in Los Angeles was largely underground in the 1970s and functioned along the lines of a subculture. This was primarily due to social and cultural intolerance as well as laws which either directly or indirectly discriminated against gays and lesbians. As a result of persecution and harassment, especially from law enforcement, most in the LGBTQ+ community could only socialize publicly in businesses that were openly supportive. In 1983, civil rights and labor leader César Chávez addressed roughly 100 members of the Project Just Business gay and lesbian coalition at the bar, where he offered strategies for organizing boycotts and coalition fundraising.
As a result, LGBTQ+ establishments became centers for political activism and the fight for civil rights. Circus Disco, and then Arena, was one of these queer spaces.
Arena was one of the iconic queer spaces that will live in history as a safe space where so many were able to freely express themselves and be their authentic selves. As LGBTQ+ spaces fluctuate, especially after being impacted by the pandemic, it’s important to remember to support the establishments that make us feel represented and like we belong.
In 2014 the warehouse was not deemed to be significant or eligible for historic designation with the City of Los Angeles. Circus Disco/Arena closed its doors in 2015 after 40 years of parties. The warehouse was sold by its owner and the city moved forward on a project to build a 786-unit housing complex.
If you never went to Arena, or were too much of a trainwreck to remember, you’ll be glad to know that TNH, a Los Angeles based production company, has brought a stage performance inspired by Arena to life as a celebration of the 90s gay dance club scene.
Conceived and written by Abel Alvarado, with lyrics by Gabrielle Maldonado and music by Ben Larson and Daniel Sugimoto, ARENA: A House MUSIC-al is a love letter to LGBTQ+ elders and ancestors who paved the way through an era when the queer community faced disproportionate struggles navigating HIV/AIDS, social unrest, and discrimination in 90s Los Angeles.
ARENA: A House MUSIC-al is a coming of age story set during the 90s LA Club + Party scene. We follow a group of friends during a turbulent decade when HIV/AIDS disproportionately affected LGBTQ+ BIPOC. Lucio Torrez is on a journey to find himself as a gay man growing up in a devout Apostolic family who is forced to attend conversion therapy workshops by his pastor father. It is a story about staying true to who you are and finding your chosen familia.
When audiences take a seat for ARENA: A House MUSIC-al they are transformed to a party with rhythm, light, and sound reverberating through the body. It’s a dance party interwoven with stories of the LGBTQ+ experience. 100% pure love.
ARENA: A House MUSIC-al had a limited workshop production run in 2021 at CASA 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights and it was an instant hit. Audiences sold out the four-week run and raved about the storytelling in this dynamic musical. The run was cut short due to the pandemic.
With the help of a successful crowdfunding campaign, ARENA: A House MUSIC-al has been enjoyed for weeks at CASA 0101 and has made audiences laugh, cry, dance, and reminisce on a time when music was a way to navigate identity and life. The musical tells its story over two acts with a total runtime of about 150 minutes with 32 musical numbers featuring choreography worthy of being on Broadway.
Under the direction of Rigo Tejeda the cast of 25 actors for the final weekend of performances of the show will be led by breakout star, Preston Gonzalez Valle as Lucio Torrez. Gonzalez Valle is an undeniable force on stage as the young person in search of identity around which each story revolves. Gonzalez Valle’s voice packs a punch with emotion that invokes hope and happiness.
Another standout in the production includes the powerhouse vocals by Caleb Green, who portrays Jerry Rodriguez, Father of the House of Mirage, who takes in Lucio and is pivotal in his coming-of-age journey.
Other Cast Members include: Matthew Noah as Ms. Martin Mendez, House of Mirage and Arena Hostess (July 29 and 31, 2022); Luis Ceja as Ms. Martin Mendez, House of Mirage and Arena Hostess (July 30, 2022), Krystal Gem as Donna Sanchez/Fly Girl 1/Ensemble; Casey Alcoser as Erik Stellar, Founder and Program Manager of the Gay Conversion Group, E.X.I.T.; Giovanni Navarro as Michael, an E.X.I.T. Member/News Reporter/Bartender; Milton David as Pastor Adan Torrrez, Lucio’s father; Amy Melendez of Orfa Torrez, Pastor Torrez’s wife and Lucio’s Mother; Chrissi Erickson as Angelica Torrez, Lucio’s sister/Ensemble; Alejandro Lechuga as Gilbert, a Non-Binary Deacon’s child; Christopher Baker as Octavio Tasquez/Kyle/Sex Clubber; Daniela Hernandez as Bambi; Angelica Ornelas as Ensemble; Jenna Small as DJ Irene, Arena’s Resident DJ/Anna; Giancarlo Garritano as Johnny Lozano, Jerry’s boyfriend; Jocelyn Sanchez as Nancy/House of Mirage Dancer; Bella Bilandzija as Ensemble; Sonny Felis as Nick Lopez, a House of Mirage Member; Obinne Onyeador as Suzen Rivera, Best Friend and Fairy Queen; Michael “Berck” Berckart as Gene La Pietra, Founder and Owner of Arena and Circus Disco; David Reza as Marcos Reyes, Bouncer at Arena/Emilio “Ed” Lemes, Rowdy Boy, Go-Go Dancer; Victor Becerra as Joaquin and Gilbert Understudy; Alexander Huntley as Ensemble and Alex Honorato (Lucio Torrez Understudy).
Performances of ARENA: A House MUSIC-al have been canceled for July 22, 23 and 24, 2022 due To COVID.
Final performances are slated for July 29, 30 and 31, 2022.
Grab your tickets for ARENA: A House MUSIC-al, before the party is over!
Tickets are available at the Casa 0101 Theater Box Office at 323-263-7684, via email at email@example.com, or online at www.casa0101.org