The 50th Anniversary of Studio City's Historic Oil Can Harry's
Who would've thought that 50 years ago when Studio City's Oil Can Harry's opened its doors on Ventura Blvd., it would still be dancing high today, and celebrating its 50th Anniversary in 2018?
Oil Can Harry's isn't just a Los Angeles or California landmark, it's an American Historic Landmark that has stood the test of time. Few bars, taverns or restaurants in America can boast 50 years+! Oil Can Harry's can.
It's a business survivor. A political survivor. A HATE survivor. An AIDS survivor. Its focus was, and always has been, to be a venue for the LGBT community, and their allies, to converge and express themselves. A place that is safe, welcoming and accepting to ALL. A place to dance and lose oneself to the hot beat of a pounding bass.
Mix lots of dancing to high energy Country, Pop, Rock, Hip-Hop & R & B under a Disco ball, on a hardwood floor, and the party has just started!
I had the pleasure of sitting down with OCH manager/bartender, Tommy Young, and chat about the history and future of this extraordinarily whimsical, magical and fantastical dance club.
Waide – Tommy... please give us a background/history of Oil Can Harry's. Start from the very beginning... can you go back as far as the 1940s or '50s'... and tell us about the property in general?
Tommy - Oil Can Harry's started as a burlesque club called The Zomba Room … I think in the 50`s ... I'M NOT THAT OLD!
Waide - How/where would the patrons hide during police raids?
Tommy - There really was no hiding place … there was, and still is, a spy hole in the door where patrons would be looked at before entering. As the gay community was Illegal. When men were dancing with men, or women dancing with women, if the police came to the door they would look out the spy hole and if it was the police there was, and still is, a siren that would be set-off. The couples would just switch partners from man to man, or woman to woman, to woman to man, and woman to man.
Waide – Oil Can Harry's is celebrating their 50th Anniversary this year ... what is the club going to do for the occasion?
Tommy - As our customers are practically family, every night is a special occasion and celebrations will be held through-out 2018.
Waide - How did OCH provide community support during the AIDS epidemic?
Tommy - Oil Can Harry`s has always been, and always will be, a supporter of any and all AIDS organizations … from AID for AIDS to Tuesday's Child; which is a foundation for babies with aids. When anyone came to Oil Can Harry's to get funds for any AIDS benefit, if there was no time to create a fundraiser, the original owner, BERT CHAROT, would take the money out of his own pocket, his business partner, BOB TOMASINO, was one of the biggest advocates ever during the AIDS epidemic. BOB TOMASINO really was one of the most kind and generous men I ever met. If you needed something, he would find a way to get it.
Example, when the epidemic first started, there were hospices, housing and homes opened to house people with AIDS ... They needed refrigerators, washing machines, furniture, clothing... even transportation... cars and money for taxis and bus money. There were fundraisers nearly every night of the week. From drag shows with the world-famous Campers and the world-famous Troupers... Garage sales... Even to having people donating their time for funding from car washing, doing gardening... Drink specials... And most of all, a lot of private donations from Bert Charot and Bob Tomasino. Nothing was held back. They were the pioneers of the AIDS crisis.
Nobody knew it was done as private donations from Bert and Bob, as they did not want the recognition for something they knew was so very important to the Gay community and anyone who was suffering from HIV and AIDS. They were silent 'angels' … They have both passed-on... but, up until their passing, both were very involved with donating to any organization who needed funding for AIDS... God bless them...
Waide – Thank you for sharing that information, Tommy... I really don't think many in the community know about this... so much time has passed by... The rodeos, Sunday beer busts, Pride festivals... all of these dynamic social events had evolved to major LGBT gatherings... sadly, they have all but disappeared, save for L.A. Pride, but, they have left the Country Community out... completely. What do you think the reason is?
Tommy – In the early 1990s, the rodeos and Pride festivals were in full-swing. With music by one of the best Country Music DJs in America, Rick Dominguez, who still works at Oil Can Harry's. He was also a pioneer of the Country Dance Movement and also now leads one of the best community Country Dance Groups in the United States: The L.A. Wrangles.
My opinion is that the people who run these events are now trying to make the festivals more like concerts. There are many different types of people in the Los Angeles area and many different types of bars and clubs... from The Bullet Bar in North Hollywood, with the owner Michael Lara, who also worked very hard with Bob Tomasino and Charlie and Gunter from The Eagle, to keep our 'Gaydom' at large and to promote what we have fought for for so many years, and that's our Freedom. From Country, to Leather, to Drag, to just really anything you want to be! I personally love it all!
I believe it's about money...which I do understand, because one cannot do anything without the funds to promote your function. I remember going to the rodeos at the Burbank Equestrian Center and it was packed! Full of cowboys and cowgirls who lived to dance! It was one of the most wonderful times one could have. Dancing! Watching the rodeos... it was really a place to be entertained by a different genre.
The Pride festival in West Hollywood was one of the most wonderful events one could ever imagine! Bob Tomasino, and his partner (Husband) of 35 years, John Fagan, were the leading forces of the Country Pavillion and the Country Movement. At the Christopher Street West Pride Festival in West Hollywood, after Bob Tomasino passed away, they renamed the gymnasium where the Country Festival was to the Bob Tomasino Country Pavillion! What an Honor from Christopher West to Bob!
Again, that was a real honor for all of us who knew Bob. But, I believe that whoever took reigns to organizing the Pride festival really lost the whole idea of what we always fought for, which is our own Individuality... To be anyone we wanted to be. A cowboy, a disco dancer, a drag queen, a leather man, and many many more... Also, with the arrival of the internet, it took a lot of people away from the meeting places... and, also, with a new generation, they don't have to hide anymore and are more open to who they are and if they want to go to a so-called straight place, or go out with boyfriends or girlfriends, there is less stigma about being gay. So, I believe it took a lot away from the Gay community. We had to fight for our rights to be who we are... and I do believe that we laid the way for a brighter future for the next generation... and, I'm really proud to have watched the next generation come into their own.
Waide - Tell us about the Upstairs Lounge?
Tommy – The upstairs lounge was always a place where people could go and talk, watch a movie, or just get away from the hustle and bustle and to be able to relax and enjoy your friends. Now, the upstairs is called The Loft. We have Happy Hour Monday-Friday from 3:30pm till 7:30pm, with 'show tunes' with bartender Scotty. Sometimes a movie! On Friday and Saturday nights, when there is Disco downstairs, we have Karaoke upstairs... And, we have some wonderful vocalists and singers, entertainers, and even a few stars here and there picking up the microphone... but... no names given, as we like to keep our customer's 'privacy.'
Waide - OCH is not only a city and state landmark, but it is truly an American Landmark. Very few businesses can survive 50+ years. What do you think the 'MAGIC' is?
Tommy – The 'MAGIC' is in the Can! Oil Can Harry's embraces everyone. No one is turned away from Oil Cans. Everyone must be 21 to enter and also must carry identification. Period. Otherwise, no entry. I have worked at Oil Cans for 32 years and there has never been any trouble. No fights or disruptions. The only way you can be fully 'Eighty-Sixed' is by fighting. I have only seen maybe four fights in 32 years. Eighty-Sixed (86ed, 86'ed, 86'd) means you are barred from the bar for life.
Waide - Studio City has been wanting to make OCH a Historic Landmark for many years now. Are there any plans to go forward with this? And, if not, why?
Tommy – I know the Lavender Effect, which is an educational society for Gay history, run by Andy Sacher, has been interested in making Oil Can Harry's a Gay historic landmark, as from what I know... Oil Can Harry's is the oldest gay bar west of the Mississippi... but... I have not heard anything for a few years...
Waide - Tuesday & Friday nights are reserved for?
Tommy – Country-Western dancing! We have couples and line-dancing classes both nights. Our Country is always the most current, and 'hot off the press' with the Nashville scene, with a splash of the classics.
Waide - Saturday night is?
Tommy – DISCO! Oil Can Harry's can boast and brag that we have one of the only original Disco dance nights left in America! We have people come from near and far to enjoy the wonderful music from the '70s'...Everyone is welcome! We have one of the largest, and most beautiful, sprung-wood dance floors in the country, and it is certainly hopping on Saturday nights... ABBA, The Bee Gees, Sylvester, Donna Summer, classic Madonna and Michael Jackson, Olivia Newton-John, Earth, Wind & Fire, Gloria Gaynor and so many more. Just make a request to one of our resident DJs.
We have Toastmasters every second and fourth Monday of the month. Public speaking... Thursdays are our Salsa nights with Salsa lessons with Mike and Christina. That's from 8:00pm till 2:00am. Sometimes they have some of the best Salsa bands on the west coast and with some of the most wonderful body movers I have ever... ever... seen! Shake it, shake it, shake it! And, the music is infectious! Every 2nd and 3rd Sunday are our musical nights with Lori Donato, on piano, and her band. Bring your own sheet music and sign-up to sing. We have some amazing Broadway entertainers here from 4:00pm till 8:00pm. Lori and her band are some of the best musicians around! The 4th Sunday of the month is our 'Hustle Heaven!' Come on down and learn to Hustle from Disco Liz and John Torres, spinning some of the most fantastic music around. It just makes you want to get-up and move... that's from 5:00pm to 9:00pm. If you've ever watched American Bandstand or Solid Gold, you have to come to see some of the original dancers from the dance shows, from the '70s' & '80s,' making their moves! Like, you have to see to believe! Don't miss Hustle Heaven!
Waide – Thanks, Tommy! Thanks for helping build an institution of memories! See you on the dancefloor!
Fun Oil Can Harry's Trivia:
"Happy, Texas" (1999) starring Steve Zahn & Jeremy Northam was shot on location in OCH. (IMDBPro resource)
The hot Haim music video, "Little of Your Love," shot entirely on location in OCH. (iTunes resource)
Grammy Nominee & Dove Award-Winner Ty Herndon has performed on the Oil Cans stage.
Grammy Award-Winner LeAnn Rimes has performed on the Oil Cans stage.
Academy Award-Winner Geena Davis has been spotted taking class.
Grammy Nominee & GLAAD Media Award-Winner k.d. Lang has been spotted on the dancefloor.
Congressman Barney Frank has been spotted chillin' with the 'real people.'
Primetime Emmy Awards & GLAAD Media Awards-Winner RuPaul has been spotted taking class.
Because Oil Can Harry's is such a special place to socialize & dance, this story just wouldn't be complete without testaments from the community!
Resident DJ Rick Dominguez:
"My life at Oil Can Harry’s I started working at Oil Cans in 1992 and knew instantly this would become a place I’d call home! Meeting the owner Bob with his warm fatherly guidance and amazing staff, I felt a connection with this community that started from day 1 and 26 years later! Thru hard work, growth, departures, returns, triumphs, tears, loss and years of building great nights and meeting amazing people! I see no chance of slowing down any time soon! As the resident DJ of both Country Western nights and Disco/Retro nights, I established a base of loyal and amazing clientele that to this day, have been my absolute joy and reason I do what I do! Oil Cans has allowed me to utilize my vision from the beginning and letting me shape a very progressive style of line dancing we do! One that few clubs in the country can say they’ve achieved. Along with keeping up with the curve in new country music, while yet blending the great classic country hits of all decades and updating classic line dances to keep them relevant with today's younger crowds. This has given me a platform that I have taken to many venues abroad as a guest DJ and instructor. As a line dance choreographer Oil Cans has also let me shine and given my dances a home to share with my dance family and thru social media now with the world! Lastly, I’d like to thank John Fagan and Tommy the UK Cowboy for all their hard work in following the dream Bob left us! It’s not an easy task, and with the rest of the staff, and amazing loyal dance family, I can confidently say the Magic at the Can with go on for years and years to come!"
Award-winning photographer & writer Jay Jorgensen:
"At 53, Oil Can Harry's is much more than a club to me. It's a living, vibrant piece of our history. There is a scene at the end of the film, "Longtime Companion," where AIDS is cured, and everyone's friends come back. Of course, that is just a fantasy. But when I'm dancing at Oil Can Harry's to retro music, in a club that looks like it did in the 1980's, I feel the spirits of those whose lives should not have been interrupted. Then I look around me at all the people dancing that are my age, and I feel a kinship knowing that we all survived those times, and we're all here, still dancing."
"Oil Can Harry's came into my life at a pivotal time. I was just coming to grips with my sexuality. I was introduced to it by friends in the gay rodeo circuit. From the first time I went, at age 55, I found it warm, welcoming and inclusive. The fact that I could learn country western dancing, was an added bonus... In that first year, I met people that have remained friends many years later. No matter how long I'm away, when I go back, it's like going home. My life now, at age 63, would have been so different, were it not for OCH."