The Whisky Turns 50: When Dancing Girls in Cages Conquered the Sunset Strip

Chris Willman
Yahoo Music

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.

Quickly, the Whisky became a deeply embedded part of pop culture. In a 1965 episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, Jane and Jethro, of all people, visit the club. Jack Paar hosted a show from the nightspot. Life magazine ran a photo feature on the place. Dustin Hoffman was seen exiting the Whisky in The Graduate. Celebrities made a point of stopping by and grabbing one of the coveted private booths — even seeming squares like Cary Grant. "I remember the Beatles coming, and the Stones, and Bob Dylan playing pool upstairs," Rivers told the Los Angeles Times. "And I didn't recognize half the celebrities. People'd say, 'That was Gina Lollabrigida dancing out there and Steve McQueen.'"

This was a fairly new development in the history of rock & roll, which before then had been dismissed as strictly teen culture: fully fledged adults, both recognizable and not, wanting to cut a rug to the current sounds. “Part of what interested me was the audience that I saw,” Lou Adler, Valentine's later-to-be partner, told Vanity Fair. “Because they were adults dancing to rock & roll—people in sport coats and ties. That showed the audience was getting really broad.”

"The Whisky was Mecca," Ray Manzarek told the Times. "It was the place in Los Angeles. It was probably the place in the entire country."

In 1966, the L.A. music scene began to take on a darker and/or more overtly countercultural vibe, thanks in part to Manzarek's own group, which was playing a dingier club down the block before getting hired by Valentine as the Whisky's house band for seven months. Cary Grant and Gina Lollabrigida surely would have been horrified if they'd been there the night Jim Morrison spontaneously introduced the legendary Oedipal sex-and-murder climax of "The End," which got the band fired (although they were allowed to finish out the week). After the show ended, Manzarek related, one of the club operators charged into the dressing room, saying, "You guys have the dirtiest [bleeping] mouths Iʼve ever heard in my life! Morrison, you canʼt say that about your mother... What kind of pervert are you?"

Thankfully for the owners, the next house band of note, the then-fledgling Buffalo Springfield, kept the obscenities and forbidden mother-love to a minimum, and established a pretty substantial legacy in their own right.

By this point, the go-go girls were undulating less wildly at the shows, as trippy slide shows put together by Roger McGuinn were projected alongside them. Eventually the gals were gone altogether as the music got heavier, resulting in double-bills like a five-night stand of Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper in early 1969. (According to Cooper, the two acts flipped a coin to see who'd go on first, since they were both so unknown that Zeppelin had to be advertised as "featuring Jimmy Page of the Yardbirds.")

Acts who went on to do multi-night stands at the Whisky in the early '70s included Steely Dan, Van Morrison, Linda Ronstadt, Iggy and the Stooges, Chicago, the Beach Boys, Black Sabbath, Weather Report, Bob Seger, Yes, Aerosmith, the Allman Brothers, and Roxy Music, to name just a sampling. After the club briefly turned to theatrical revues in the mid-'670s, it came back primarily as a punk and new wave venue favoring locals like X and Oingo Boingo, followed by the hair-metal explosion of the '80s and '90s. Now, anniversary events excepted, it exists mainly as a pay-to-play venue that rarely books big-name acts.

But the true go-go era survives, if only in clips from the Hullabaloo and Shindig! TV shows that popularized on the dancing fad, or in revivals like Elvis Costello's occasional "Spinning Songbook" tours that include a go-go cage on stage for both professional and audience dancers. And if you visit the Whisky and look above the stage long enough, you might just see the ghost of some white fringe and boots, ready to kick the heinies of today's navel-gazing rockers.