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A Crossover Success : Halloween: Some say West Hollywood's parade, originally a gay and lesbian event, is becoming a victim of its popularity. Often, 'looky-loos' outnumber costumed participants.

October 30, 1995|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There will be a couple of guys dressed as Little Bo Peep and the usual complement of Snow Whites and Marilyns. Linebacker-size men in mini-skirts will totter down Santa Monica Boulevard on pencil-thin heels. And some strapping costume-minimalist may wear nothing more than a single, strategically placed paper cup.

Halloween in West Hollywood is a little different. And that gender-bending difference is expected to help attract nearly 100,000 people to the city Tuesday for its annual street party.

If what has happened in the past is any indication, the enormous crowd will include senior citizens, Russian immigrants and parents pushing strollers, alongside the gay men who created the occasion more than two decades ago as a joyous, renegade romp down the community's main drag.

The once spontaneous celebration now includes licensed vendors, official city sponsorship, corporate participation by Baskin Robbins, ATT and MCI and even a name--"Halloween Costume Carnival."

Many of the party's hosts cheer the evolution, saying the mainstreaming of Halloween confirms West Hollywood's tolerant, progressive civic culture. "Phooey!" answer the critics, who believe the event has been sanitized, purified and drained of its fun.

Even City Councilman Steve Martin, a gay man and supporter of the city's bash, acknowledges many gays' longing for a return to the good old days. "There is nothing worse," Martin says, "than outrageous fun that has been legitimized."

Official sanction, increasing popularity and $10 tickets all but killed the once rebellious Doo Dah Parade in Pasadena two years ago. Creeping tedium has sent organizers scrambling for changes in the Rose Parade parody that they hope will recapture the impromptu, renegade spirit of the original.

In West Hollywood, the city's substantial gay and lesbian community puzzles and argues over the party's success. These are more than just the musings of the nervous host before a grand fete. The debate reflects an event glowing with psychological, political and libidinal energy.

West Hollywood's Halloween celebration emerged after the 1969 Stonewall rebellion in New York City, a gay rights milestone in which the patrons of a gay bar fought back after a police raid. In the early years, that simply meant drag queens and other gays spilling out of bars on Halloween night to take the streets of West Hollywood. As more and more people came to Santa Monica Boulevard on Halloween, the celebration would spill off the sidewalks and onto the street.

"If you wanted to stay at the table at Thanksgiving or Christmas, you kept your mouth shut" and your sexual orientation concealed, said Morris Kight, 76, an elder statesman of the gay rights movement in Los Angeles. "The only holiday where we were welcome as ourselves was Halloween. People enjoyed the other-worldliness, the existentialism and the ability to be someone other than who you were. . . . It was really our national gay holiday."

The event grew as it began to attract more heterosexuals and curiosity-seekers from the outside until about a decade ago, when the Sheriff's Department began to barricade Santa Monica Boulevard to keep revelers a safe distance from traffic.

Three years ago, the party had expanded to an estimated 60,000 people. City officials decided that they had to accommodate their guests with more than a closed road. They hired a promoter, who now books several bands and performers onto the party's main stage at Westbourne Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard.

The boulevard is closed on Halloween from midafternoon until midnight, between La Cienega Boulevard and Doheny Drive. Along that stretch vendors will sell sushi, churros and pretzels, along with psychic readings.

The main draw, however, remains the outlandish and often revealing costume parade. The brazen and the brave are free to parade on stage through the night--some singing, some dancing, others merely strutting.

But some bar owners and Halloween junkies in West Hollywood say they see a disturbing trend in recent years, with costumed participants outnumbered by hordes of plainclothes "looky-loos."

"With all these moms and dads filling the sidewalk, not wearing costumes, staring at people who are, it's almost become like a zoo environment," said one leading West Hollywood businessman. "That further alienates . . . these two different populations."

ANT, a stand-up comic and actor who has helped organize the parade for two years, decried the overabundance of what he calls the "SS" or "staring straights."

"It used to be a gay and lesbian event and now they are trying to turn it into something else," said the comic. "Now it's becoming so boring.

"I want everyone to have the same rights. I would never want to exclude anyone," he added. "But what's happening is we are getting stuck in a vacuum. The more straight people who come to looky-loo the more and more uncomfortable people are getting dressed up. The event is losing its spirit."

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