If you’re over the age of 26 in Southern California you may remember partying at Circus Disco/Arena in Hollywood. 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 reverberating with DJ lights and disco balls.
Before there was Arena there was Circus Disco which was established in 1974 by Gene La Pietra and his then partner Ed Lemos 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 an ice 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 truly 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 epic nights. 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, is bringing 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 Musical 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.
The synopsis of the show reads:
ARENA: A HOUSE MUSICAL 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. It is a story about staying true to who you are and finding your chosen familia.
Arena: A House Musical 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, but the team at TNH Productions is hopeful to bring Arena: A House Musical back with the support garnered through crowdfunding.
The team hopes to raise $35,000 which will support and enhance this American musical theatrical production while preserving LGBTQ+ histories on the stage just in time for Pride season 2022.
You can support the revival of Arena: A House Musical by contributing at the crowdfunding page and sharing with others.
Creator and writer, Abel Alvarado gave some more insight on the importance of Arena: A House Musical in today’s world and the necessity to continue sharing LGBTQ+ narratives.
*Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
INSTINCT: Where did the inspiration for Arena: A House Musical come from?
ABEL ALVARADO: I love musical theatre and I love house music! I had been thinking how the two genres could come together to tell a story. I was at the closing night of Circus Disco/ARENA in 2015 along with about 10,000 other people. As I said hello and goodbye to many friends I had made over the years going to these clubs, I kept hearing story after story from people of many ages recounting the times they spent there. I remember ARENA being my first gay club in the early 1990s and how important that place had been to me as a young man, a Chicano just coming out of the closet. Both Circus Disco and ARENA were legendary, but ARENA played a very important role for Generation X, especially gay Latinos in Los Angeles, just like its predecessor, Circus had been for a generation before. The house music coming through those walls and all the stories around me–I knew this was a story, a moment, an era that needed to be memorialized. What better genre than a musical?
INSTINCT: Why is it important to tell this narrative?
AA: This narrative is important because these stories show us overcoming the things that try to defy us. It is important that we tell stories that say, “Yes, we were here” for each other and for future generations. It is also important for me as a Chicano, in a city where 49% of the population is Latino, that stories centered around our culture, our gente, and our experiences are told within the fabric and make up of our communities. These are American stories, too. Our stories are just as valid as any classical art and our stories are not just told as folklore, but as fine art. I also feel it is important to show how far we have come and that people within our communities have been trailblazers and engines of change.
INSTINCT: What was the response from the original limited run of the show in 2021?
AA: Sitting in the audience, watching people laugh, cry, hug each other, shout and sing along was absolutely amazing! There were audience members ranging from teenagers to senior citizens, high school kids to groups of FABULOUS grandmothers who had partied with their friends at Circus Disco in the 1970’s! Club Kids, Gen X Arena heads, house music lovers, Gay, Straight, Trans. Every night was full of people coming together under one roof to experience a night of LOVE, just like at ARENA!
Support Arena: A House Musical and help bring this party to life. See you at the club!