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California Reigns Tonight as Party King

Halloween: West Hollywood, San Francisco say it's a mixed blessing.


Never mind the million or so expected to take in the Halloween parade in Greenwich Village. Forget the crowded haunts of New Orleans. The real party capital tonight is here in California.

In fact, two West Coast towns lay claim to throwing the biggest, brashest adult Halloween party in America. San Francisco and West Hollywood say the holiday has reached its modern apex on their streets, growing from private party for gay men into mass celebration attracting hundreds of thousands of gays and straights to an all-night revel and exhibitionist extravaganza.

Tonight, each town is bracing to welcome more than 200,000 to its block party. And each is convinced that its event will be more spectacular than the other's.

"Halloween is our major holiday," said Uti Kaupp, owner of the Piedmont Boutique in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury district. Calm in the frenzy of last-minute shoppers--gay and straight, male and female, young and old--who are crammed into her theatrical design boutique, Kaupp can't imagine why anyone would rather be anywhere but San Francisco on Halloween.

"This is just a very playful city," she said as people snatched up the silver pasties, sequined pumps with 6-inch heels and slinky gowns she custom-makes. "We just like to have fun. Up here, we have six major balls, private parties--it will go on all week."

Robaire Boisvert begs to differ. Surrounded by women's long-haired wigs, brocaded jackets and feather boas in every color of the rainbow at his West Hollywood theatrical costume store, Boisvert delivers a crushing assessment of rival San Francisco's festivities.

"San Francisco is big--it really is big," Boisvert conceded. "But here we are more glamorous. . . . Here they take it more seriously. Everything has to match, everything is so glamorous, so gorgeous. This is Hollywood!"

Popularity Seen as Mixed Blessing

In both towns, Halloween celebrants say the exploding popularity of their parties is a mixed blessing, a powerful symbol both of the growing acceptance of gay culture by mainstream Americans and of the loss some gays mourn of a subculture that--at least on the two coasts--is increasingly successful at assimilating.

In each city, Halloween has grown from the decadent, subversive celebration of largely gay communities to open civic events.

"One way to look at it is that the gay community has lost something, because there has been an evolution of what the event means for the community," said Lester Olmstead-Rose, executive director of the gay, San Francisco nonprofit group Community United Against Violence. "But if we can find a way to maintain that core fantasy of what adult Halloween meant in the '80s--gays mocking society's stereotypes of what we are--then we really are offering a gift to the world, a way to let your hair down," he said.

"We have lost the initial innocence of the event, and the familiarity," agreed San Francisco County Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a gay activist. "But the trade-off is a safe kind of community event providing a lot of people with entertainment and distraction."

In West Hollywood, Mayor Steve Martin, who is also gay, says he understands why some gay men feel they have lost something by throwing open their town to the whole world on Halloween night. Many embraced the night as the one day of the year when they had license to openly cross-dress or wear outrageously revealing or creative costumes. Martin says some now say that the presence of families and straight couples--particularly those who don't don costumes and come just to look--is inhibiting.

In both San Francisco and West Hollywood, many gay men approach the evening with deadly seriousness. Some spend thousands putting together multiple costumes, enter contests and attend parties--private and public--that begin the weekend before Halloween.

"Some of the best Xenas we see are men," said Tony Taravelli, owner of the House of Magic, a costume shop that opened in San Francisco 40 years ago. "We sell about 300 wigs each Halloween," Taravelli said. "Eighty percent of them are female wigs, and 80% of the female wigs are bought by men."

Martin says his town is determined to retain the gay essence of the celebration, even as it welcomes the infusion of outsiders.

"The city of West Hollywood has tried to recognize that there are some components of the community that do not want to be restricted," Martin said. "We want to celebrate the tradition of Halloween in the gay community and expand the nature of the celebration so that everybody on Halloween is able to share that gay experience."

Anyone who comes, he warns, must be prepared to come face to face with partiers who sometimes wear little more than a custom-made G-string.

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