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Photo by Jeanne RiceYou could call Orange County the land of the frigid and the home of the prude if you wanted to, and there would be plenty of shriveled-up seniors who'd vote you into public office if you did, but you'd be wrong—at least since Club Rubber opened.
This homegrown institution—Orange County's most popular and longest-running dance club—kicks off its sixth summer this weekend, an unheard-of milestone in an industry where most clubs barely scrape by for a season or two. But Rubber promoters Damian Sanders and John Huntington bucked the trend—and everything über-Republican Orange County is supposed to stand for—by turning faux sleaze into forbidden fun. Don't be afraid of hookers, pimps and assorted sexual outlaws, they said. Become them.
And when thousands of kids from dullsville bedroom towns like Mission Viejo and Buena Park came panting and crawling up to Club Rubber, dressed in bondage gear, skimpy lingerie and goofball mack-daddy clothes not seen since The Streets of San Francisco went off the air, Club Rubber was ready for them. Club Rubber maybe wasn't quite as ready for the vice cops, the alleged orgies—love those alleged orgies!—the sometimes-dangerous drug scene, and the lean times when their little nightclub almost died. But they've survived and even thrived—so this weekend, they're having a victory celebration in Palm Springs that could be their biggest show yet. And 12,000 of those suburban kids are supposed to show up.
"It's like being a rock star without the perks—everyone wants something from you," laughs Sanders, a 33-year-old former star snowboarder with the by turns doughy and chiseled looks of actor Mark Wahlberg. Sanders said he and his crew of more than 20 employees, including set designers, warehouse managers and website producers, work 12-hour days to make these parties go off—and after six years of that kind of effort, they just might have changed the landscape of nightclubs throughout the nation.
Any club kid will tell you that erotica clubs are nothing new—even according to Chapman University sociologist Paul Apodaca, rich folks dressing up like low-class sex freaks has been in vogue since the Roman Empire. But like the Romans, most clubs find a theme and stick with it (we're told Nero liked "Toga, Toga, Toga!"). Rubber re-imagines itself for each of its biweekly sessions at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, and according to Altan Aksu, a veteran Orange County nightclub promoter who hosts Club Raw at the Grove of Anaheim, that's an innovation.
One weekend, you've got "Galactic Cowgirl." The next, you're "Busted." Or you've got an appointment with "Naughty Nurses," with clubbers dressed up like the horniest hospital staff ever. It's a slick Vivid Video porno fantasy come to life, and it has caught on.
"Every now and then, a girl will give you a funny look—like you're the devil," says Rubber's resident DJ Danny Love. "They think it's sexist, but it's not. Women who go to Rubber feel like getting dressed like that. A lot of them are there with their boyfriends and lovers—it's an outlet for them to get crazy and dressed-up."
But by 1999, Rubber was devolving into a party for dorks and tourists, sliding from turning away 1,500 hipsters every night to begging for 300 squares to wander in and clomp around in platforms. But the themes won back the cool people—mostly drawn from the extreme-sports industry and the Newport Beach party scene, which is where Orange County keeps its cool people—and then some. Nightclubs from New York to Florida and even Japan started throwing similarly themed erotica parties. And life at Rubber returned to normal—as normal as it can be for Sanders, anyway, what with the laser shows, the pole-dancing, the Rubber Dolls go-go dancers and whatever outlandish props (police cars, operating tables, etc.) the theme demands.
It might even be a little too normal for some people. "The new crowd is not as expressive as the old one," complains Julie Salazar, 25, of Huntington Beach, dressed in a plain pink tank top at a recent Rubber. She's a longtime Rubber clubber, and she misses the original crowd. They used to go all-out dressing up for the themes, with outrageous costumes par for the course, she says. And then they could get even a little wilder. A few Rubber veterans revealed that the Galaxy's upstairs VIP rooms were the scenes of legendary debaucheries.
"Every one of those VIP rooms was an orgy room," says promoter Aksu. "A lot of times, I would walk in accidentally on people, and they wouldn't care—because they wanted to be watched."
According to Aksu, a lot of Rubber footage ended up in a watch-'em-fuck video, Hollywood Hotties—so that's what those guys with camcorders were doing! But Sanders denies Club Rubber ever crossed the line from pretend orgy action to real-life orgy action. And a representative for the Santa Ana Police Department doesn't remember any complaints or arrests regarding lewdness—but the cops did hear about the drug problems. GHB—a feel-good drug that shares chemical properties with drain cleaner—swept the nation's clubs a couple of years ago, and Sanders said there were two or three overdoses on particularly horrible nights.
The solution was heightened security and frisking clubgoers, which satisfied the authorities but chased away many of the cool people. A loss, yes, but it's good for the club's finances. Aksu said the iron law of nightclubs is that the A-list crowd never pays—but the C- and D-list crowd will be more than happy to shell out $20 to feel like Dennis Rodman for a few hours. That D-list crowd has been good for the bottom line.
Sanders has no problems banking $300,000 on a Rubber event, and he still makes enough of a profit so that he—and his employees—can live comfortably. And Sanders has plans to reinvent the club yet again—an expansion of the stage show, perhaps Cirque du Soleil-type acrobats entertaining crowds, he says. Anything but superstar DJs.
"I personally think DJs are way overrated and way overpaid," he says. "Then again, we've never been a DJ club. We're geared toward the pimps and hookers."Club Rubber's Summer of Love at the Wyndham Palm Springs Hotel, 888 Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs, (714) 973-7685; www.spiritworld.com. Sat., 10 a.m.-Mon., 6 p.m. Weekend packages start at $289 per person; tickets for Sunday's main event (9 p.m.): $52; VIP, $125. 21+.