The Whisky Turns 50: When Dancing Girls in Cages Conquered the Sunset Strip
When Smokey Robinson & the Miracles had a hit with "Going to a Go-Go" in 1966, much of America had exactly one nightclub come to mind, even if they'd never ventured that far west themselves: the Whisky-a-Go-Go on the Sunset Strip, which gave a name — and a cage! — to a style of nightclub dancing that took off in the mid-'60s.
You can still go to a go-go, even though dancers no longer hover like frugging, fringed parakeets above the stage. The venerable club turns 50 this week, commemorated with performances by some of the landmark acts who played there over the decades, including Johnny Rivers, who opened the place in 1964; John Densmore of the Doors, who became the house band in 1966 before getting unceremoniously fired; and representatives of the punk, new wave, and even hair-metal eras like X, the Motels, the Bangles, and Great White.
In later years, the place would become better known for pogoing and punk-style slamming than anything that would have appealed to Austin Powers. But opening night in January 1964 brought about the invention of go-go dancing (or cage dancing), at least as it quickly came to be popularly recognized in films and on television.
Club owner Elmer Valentine, a former cop who admitted he'd been in bed with the mob in Chicago before coming to L.A. to run nightclubs, had come across a discotheque in France called the Whisky-a-Go-Go while on vacation in 1963, and he decided to make that the name of his new West Hollywood nightspot, which was to favor bands over dancing. He held a contest to enlist a comely female DJ who would spin records between sets, but when the winner's mother refused to let her come the night of the grand opening, Valentine told a cigarette girl to get up in the glass booth instead. And.. she couldn't hold still.
"She had on a slit skirt, and we put her up there," Valentine (who died in 2008) recalled in a 2000 Vanity Fair profile. "So she's up there playing the records. She's a young girl, so while playing 'em, all of a sudden she starts dancing to 'em. It was a dream. It worked." The crowd came to expect it as the club's trademark, and soon the turntable was being kicked out to make room for two full-time "girl dancers."
Johnny Rivers, of "Secret Agent Man" fame, was the house act during those initial months, and he was not pleased at having to compete with the leggy wonders. "I said, ʻWhen Iʼm playing, I want people to listen to my music. I donʼt want any sideshows',” Rivers remembered, and the club agreed to have the miniskirted attractions tone it down while he sang.