Every Easter weekend for the last two decades, gay men have flocked to Palm Springs for Jeffrey Sanker's White Party. Poised to celebrate its 20th anniversary next weekend, it's equal parts dance, pool, costume and networking extravaganza and has grown from a smallish spring bash on the outskirts of acceptability to a mainstream party that attracts nearly 30,000 revelers.
"There have been challenging years," says Sanker, now one of the gay community's most visible night life and entertainment producers. "Years ago, there was a right-wing Republican mayor who didn't want gay people in the city, and his daughter protested against us at the convention center. Now I'm receiving the key to the city and a proclamation from the mayor."
Sanker moved to Los Angeles from New York City in 1987, after working at now classic clubs including Studio 54, the Limelight and the Palladium. He visited Palm Springs a year later and fell in love with it.
"The weekend started as a getaway for all my friends," he says. "It was to celebrate the rites of spring. That's why it's the White Party, because everybody looks good in white."
The first White Party drew 500 people and was held at the Marquis, "the only hotel at the time that was open to hosting a gay event," says Sanker.
He considers 1992 a tipping point. "We took rooms at the Hilton and the Wyndham, and it started to become more mainstream." In 1991, then-Mayor Sonny Bono was cracking down on spring break.
"That's when the gay community really moved in," says Sanker. "They liked us. We're generally an affluent group, we shop and eat in nice restaurants, so we beat out spring break."
The White Party is one of the biggest parties of its kind in the U.S., Sanker says, and it has come to attract an impressive roster of performers.
This year's headliner is nouveau house-in-hot-pants singer Lady GaGa, who just last year performed as the third act at the pool party, during the day, which Sanker says is "about as low on the totem pole as you can get." Hers is the "fastest rise for any performer that I've ever seen," says Sanker.
In 2001, Jennifer Lopez performed. Sanker says her manager contacted him, something that happens often when artists want to "say thank you to the gay community" or simply break into it.
"At that point, she had only performed live about four times," says Sanker. "She came out in her Easter bonnet and knee-high boots, and 5,000 people were screaming. You could see her beaming."
Does Sanker think the sour economy will keep the party down this year? Not at all. "People still want to have fun. Instead of two people to a room, there are four. They carpool, and there's a layaway ticket that a lot of people are taking advantage of," he says.
This year's theme is superheroes. "We want to keep appealing to the twentysomething crowd who likes dress-up parties," says Sanker.
"Things change since you're 22," he adds, putting on his glasses to read from a mayoral proclamation that designates next weekend as the "White Party 20th Anniversary Commemoration Weekend" and concludes, "in grateful appreciation of the work accomplished on behalf of the tens of thousands of gay tourists from around the world who arrive in our diverse community of Palm Springs, California."
Where: The Wyndham Palm Springs, 888 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs
When: April 10 through 13
Price: $25 (pool party) to $445 (VIP, seven-party package), price varies according to package. Tickets can be purchased at the door
Contact: www.jeffrey sanker.com