The Black Party at Probe was a special event
where the audience WAS the show
Coauthored with DJ Stewart Barkal
First pubished in Frontiers Newsmagazine,
April 1, 1986
Not Available online
SOME 2,000 men last weekend shared a 15-hour fantasy in what has become one of the rites of spring for Southern California’s gay male community: The Black Party.
From early Saturday evening until Sunday afternoon those attending were able to temporarily put aside the realities of survival in the ’80s, and indulge in a fantasmagorical journey into a reality limited only by their imagination.
DJ Stewart Barkal, his personal Bozac mixer on the console, is seen in the DJ booth high above the dance floor at Probe in 1985. (Additional description of this image included in the post script at the end of this post.)
For those at the eighth annual Black Party may have seemed like magic how the physical and sensual environment was able to stimulate the intensity of the response they felt.
But the sensory experience of the partygoers, created by the elaborate decor and props, the lighting and music was a direct result of the passion, creativity and skill that was contributed to all aspects of the production.
All these elements were carefully and deliberately designed to stimulate the imagination and unlock inner fantasies.
Scroll down to see a post script added on May 3, 2013.
Calling the event a “party” actually conceals its true nature; it is in fact an elaborate theatrical production, unique in the contributions of the key players and in the setting, or stage, upon which the drama unfolds.
The “actors” were the partygoers, and the main stage was the dance floor.
Planning the set, designing the backdrops and props began more than three months ago, said Chuck Russell, who designed the physical environment and supervised set construction by a crew of more than 30 volunteers. New materials used this year were intended “to surprise people,” Russell said.
“Black fabric replaced the heavy-duty plastic which had been used before as the overall background. It was actually easier to create with fabric those abstract shapes and forms which are visually stimulating,” Russell said.
UNKNOWN to most partygoers, The Black Party decor was completed in little more than half the time previously available; work on it began only at 6 a.m. Saturday morning, and finishing touches were added just minutes before the first guests arrived.
The lighting, which plays an integral role in capturing mood and ambiance, was tailored to enhance the visual stimulation of the static backdrops. Enhancements to the programmable lighting were unleashed with full force.
When the first party guests arrived, though, a new magic took over. There are few more vivid demonstrations of the powerful effects of music, expertly mixed and effectively programmed, than was provided at The Black Party last weekend.
THE MUSIC: In essence, it was a 15-hour musical journey, painstakingly planned for more than six weeks prior to the presentation.
For planning purposes, the program was divided into distinct and identifiable segments, sequentially arranged to create a desired effect.
Although their precise timing is determined largely by the mood of and feedback from the audience, the program segments can be identified as warm-up (low tempo, but energizing music), followed by a gradual building of energy over perhaps three hours, into the peak of the program epitomized by those super-HiNRG well-known and popular numbers generally 140 BPM or faster.
While the peak can last from four to six hours, it is a gradual and smooth transition into lower tempo music which is the key to maintaining the energy and interest of dancers who otherwise might be exhausted after so many hours on the floor.
Planning the music program required dozens of hours of research over about six weeks.
Hundreds of dance music records, some almost 10 years old, were reviewed.
Each program segment was separately planned, with music for each selected or set aside for reasons ranging from popular appeal to whether a desired effect could be achieved or not.
The two most objective measurements of music are its tempo and mood. These can vary in either opposite or similar directions.
An example of a low-tempo song which is upbeat in its mood and highly energized is the new version of “Living in the City” just released by Sylvester.
At 114 BPM, this is ideal for the early morning hours since it can generate energy even while lowering the tempo.
Conversely, a song like “Check it Out” by Fancy at 116 BPM can be programmed in the warm-up phase to build energy.
The difference in effect of these two songs is in the mood of the music (created by the lyrics and overall sound rather than the beats per minute) and the way they are programmed.
One of the essential preparations for an event like The Black Party involves building physical stamina by the DJ. This year it consisted of more than a month of regular physical exercise at a gym, and an early-to-bed routine which ensured eight hours of sleep nightly for weeks before the 1S-hour show.
FROM the beginning of last weekend’s show, more than three hours was spent building energy, smoothly and gradually as the party guests arrived. By the time the crowd approached capacity, the music had reached its peak in tempo and intensity.
While most of the audience may be blissfully unaware of it, the DJ is closely monitoring their mood and response.
Accurately measuring an audience’s mood is one of the most difficult but crucial skills required of the DJ. It is probably the single most important determining factor in the success – or failure – of the entire experience.
During the late-night hours of last weekend’s theater, after an invigorating performance by Phyllis Nelson, the music program took off in a planned progressive direction.
For perhaps three hours the dancers were treated to a blend of well-known and popular melodies, combined with frequent digressions into jazz, R&B, mood music and lesser-known but equally accessible new and old recordings.
After eight to 10 hours of high-energy dance music it takes tremendous concentration and focus by the DJ to keep an audience energized, not exhausted and still coming back for more.
The open secret of programming for this segment is to gradually and smoothly lower the tempo while maintaining the energy and up-beat mood in the music.
It is during the morning hours of a program such as The Black Party that the planning, stamina and skills of the DJ are most required and often most apparent.
While there is much music in the 100 BPM to 120 BPM range, only a relatively small amount of it is widely accessible to a dance audience and energizing despite its lower tempo.
Selecting the music for this part of the program involved considerably more accumulated knowledge and experience than for the preceding segments which contain much of the more popular and better known material.
One of the best and most enjoyed examples of what is often termed “morning music” is the beautiful 1985 release by Miquel Brown, “Close to Perfection.”
In the classic tradition of disco, this poignant melody at 109 BPM can be as energizing during the 15th hour of the show as a much faster song would be many hours earlier.
MORE THAN 12 hours after the show began, we looked out over the dance floor – and it was still packed. The program has clearly worked: the transitions have been smooth, the fantasy complete.
Magic? Not entirely.
Creativity, commitment and a sense of excitement generated by those who produced this elaborately staged event, were communicated to and shared with the audience . The word “party” does not come close to a true description of the experience.
Post-script: Added on May 3, 2013
Stewart Barkal was the head DJ at Probe from 1981 to 1986. He was the first person I knew to contract the then deadly HIV virus. He succumbed in three months, in June 1987, before his doctors could even diagnose his condition.
An autopsy revealed the cause of death to be neuro-encephalopathy: his brain was destroyed.
He was survived by his parents and twin brother, Steven, who at that time owned a record store “Prime Cuts” on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.
Stewart lived on Lookout Mountain drive, high above Sunset Plaza, with his partner Robert. A fabulous swimming pool and deck afforded a splendid view of the downtown skyline.
Their bedroom was a separate, glass enclosed structure on the opposite side of the pool, at the edge of the cliff; they could see the panorama while lying in bed.
At the rear of their home was another structure – Stewart’s music room. Surrounding the turntables, Bozac mixer and equalizer console in the room’s center, were 12-inch vinyl records – thousands of them.
All four walls were lined with shelves, floor to ceiling, each containing parts of Stewart’s music library. And there were other records, scattered all over the room.
HE used to receive upwards of 100 promotional copies from the big music publishers every week, and felt it obligatory to listen to at least a few seconds of each one … just in case it was of some use.
During the 1985 period he also was the DJ every Thursday evening at Motherlode, a popular hangout even then for a young, upscale crowd. At these shows, Stewart would test his new music: while the record was spinning, he would intently observe the audience reaction from the DJ booth, high up in the rear of the bar.
If the reaction was positive, he would select the new record and play it two days later at Probe.
IN THE image at the top of this post, Stewart is wearing his “Mixerphone” – a shoulder-mounted stereo headphone (it produced both channels from its tiny speaker). This allowed him to perfectly cue the incoming record with the one already spinning on the Technics Mark II turntables, both visible in this image.
The imperfections in analog circuitry in those days were what allowed the mixes to be so special. If the DJ hit the beat just right, the two records would phase – producing a brand new sound that couldn’t be replicated, even by the DJ himself, later.
I still have many of these unique sounds (some produced by Stewart, others by me), recorded first on cassette tape, but later digitized. They are unique, maybe worth some money these days. To me, they are priceless.
A great deal of new music and hitherto unknown and underappreciated bands were discovered this way.
DJs at Los Angeles-area gay dance clubs in these days, including Lewis van der Wyk who spun the records at Studio One for owner Scott Forbes, discovered and launched the careers of several stars. Among them could be said to be Sylvester, Patrick Colwey, Depeche Mode, Erasure and Pet Shop Boys. Some of the members of these groups later revealed they are gay.
Disco divas such as Donna Summer and Jeannie Tracy, already established in the 1970s, featured prominently in Stewart’s programs.
At the Probe Gay Pride Parade party – the second biggest annual event on the club’s calendar to the Black Party – in 1985, Jeannie Tracy performed. After the show she spent much of the rest of the night in the DJ booth with Stewart and me.
BJ, left, me and Jeannie Tracy ride the Probe float in the June 1985 Christopher Street West Gay Pride parade down Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.
While Stewart continued his shift until 11 a.m. that day, Jeannie, my dear friend BJ and I joined about a dozen or so others on the parade float we had spent the previous day building in the alley behind 832 Highland Avenue.
A reel-to-reel tape of music Stewart had prepared for the float went missing at the last minute. He asked if I would lend the 90-minute DJ mix tape he had recorded for me during the show that evening.
As the float began turning from Crescent Heights onto Santa Monica Boulevard around 11 a.m. on Sunday morning, the music from my tape began. We danced all the way to Robertson Avenue, where the parade turned left and the floats were parked. I have long since digitized the 90-minute recording, and still enjoy it today.
BJ and I still have the wonderful pictures from this event, – although they are somewhat deteriorated from age. One of them appears on this post.
The rest, as they say, is history.