George Sanchez Beat the Odds to Make OC Funk Fest a Phenomenon

George Sanchez leads the Curious Entertainment crew. Photo by Roger Santana

It’s around sunset on a Saturday night in Santa Ana, 1992. Cars slowly cruise through the city’s working-class neighborhoods on the way to a house party at the loudest casa on Bristol Street. You pull up with friends in a loaded El Camino. After a knock on the door, a 12-year-old Chicano opens up and lets you in for $2. Barely old enough to get how to talk to girls, let alone throw a raging party, young George Sanchez was already known for throwing some of the best backyard boogies in OC.

Walking into the yard, you hear the synthesizer zaps and snare slaps of the Bar-Kays song “Freakshow On the Dance Floor” blaring from the speakers. The place is packed. The ambient body heat rises as homeboys and chicas two-step to the retro groove, laughing and cracking jokes while sipping from red Solo cups. Taking in the scene, the young party promoter can’t help but bask in the vibe he has created with help from the funk.

Twenty-six years later, the Santa Ana native and creator of Curious Entertainment never imagined that people from throughout SoCal would fill the Honda Center for the biggest party he’s ever thrown.

On Saturday, Sanchez will see his dream come true, as the annual Funk Fest takes over Anaheim’s largest venue. Featuring legends Morris Day and the Time, the Bar-Kays, the Original Mary Jane Girls, and more, the event is a full-day celebration of lowrider culture and the sounds of Chicano youth.

But Sanchez’s mission to become a major voice in OC funk history hasn’t been without its ups and downs. A battle with the city of Santa Ana over one of his music events landed him on probation and possibly facing jail time; last March, police shut down one of his lowrider events in Santa Ana for allegedly not having a permit. Sanchez claims the city told him he didn’t need one, and on the day of the show, authorities pulled the plug, with the city of Santa Ana slapping Sanchez with a lawsuit for what they described as an unlawful public event.

Even as the price of his success means temporarily losing his freedom, Sanchez vows to not lose a step on the way to realizing his lifelong dream.

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Sanchez with DJ OmarGod. Photo by Roger Santana

Born in 1980 in Santa Ana, Sanchez was one of Juana and Raul’s three children. He earned the nickname “Curious,” after the cartoon monkey Curious George, at a young age.

When Sanchez was in high school, he threw parties in his family’s back yard and at local warehouses, charging a $2 entrance fee and $2 for cups to cover the cost of kegs—usually while his parents were out of town. “Umm, my parents didn’t really know,” he admits. Soon after he threw his first party, friends and strangers were asking him about the next one and pestering him for details. “I never doubted myself,” Sanchez says inside his company’s Santa Ana office space. “I knew I could make my dreams a reality, but even now as I live them out, it’s still surreal.”

Juana has been unwittingly investing in her son’s business since day one. “He would ask me for money—a lot of money for a kid at the time—but he would ask me to trust him, and every time, he’d pay me back.” she says. “Once I found out what he was doing, I supported him. He’s always been bien trabajador [a hard worker]. . . . Whatever he put his mind to, he would accomplish it. But I had to take a lot of heat from his father about his parties—his father was not happy.”

As he grew into adulthood, Sanchez had to find ways to make consistent money; he even worked for the city of Santa Ana as a street sweeper. But in 2010, he quit his job to pursue his lifelong passion of coordinating events. “It was the best decision that I’ve made, I had nothing holding me back and I also had no income so I had to step up to the plate,” Sanchez says. “Everyone knows I’m crazy so I don’t think anyone was shocked, but I don’t necessarily think anyone expected this kind of success.”

With his love of the music he grew up with, he wanted to celebrate the things that are often discriminated against by local authorities in Mexican communities: funk and oldies, lowriders, bomber cars, and the style embraced by Mexican immigrants who did not assimilate into Anglo culture. Santaneros have long taken pride in their heritage, celebrating their wins and losses on their bodies with tattoos, creating an art form through cars tricked out with hydraulics, custom exhaust pipes and bass-bumping music.

His sister Nelly co-founded Curious Entertainment with George in 2012; they wanted to not only entertain, but also inspire nostalgia. “I want people to pass by one of our events and hear the same songs they once heard floating from a window of a ’64 Impala cruising down Bristol,” he says.

Today, the business employs many of his friends and family. Even though they are 13 years apart, Nelly has always supported him. “He’s my brother, and I love him, so I’m going to be there for him without hesitation and without doubt,” she says. “We butt heads sometimes, but at the end of the day, we see the vision.”

Nelly manages the company’s social media, scouts up-and-coming talent and books artists, while Sanchez’s childhood friend David Hernandez is instrumental in planning and coordinating the events, some of which bring in funk legends who have never heard of OC. On average, an event such as Funk Fest draws as many as 20,000 people.

Finding local venues to host his events has always been a challenge. For the inaugural Funk Fest in 2012, the company booked the Bar-Kays. Not only was it their first time performing in Santa Ana, but it was also their first time playing on the West Coast since the ’80s. “I remember being so nervous on the phone as it was ringing,” Nelly says. “I don’t even remember how I got their contact [info], but I told George I would, so I had to.”

The first Funk Fest included other legends such as Slave, Lakeside and Circle City Band.

For a band such as the Bar-Kays, who’ve been grooving since 1966, the opportunity to draw new and old fans of the funk gives them the fire to perform. “Working with ‘Curious George’ has been great,” says bassist/bandleader James Alexander. “We’ve always known we have a big Latino following, so it’s great to come out to the West Coast and perform for our fans. Funk is universal, and we are appreciative of people like George who give us a stage to put on a good show.”

Clearly there’s a huge market for the funk in OC. The first fest, held at Original Mike’s, sold out within three days. The demand forced them to move to the Yost Theater in the heart of Downtown Santa Ana.

Sanchez knew he had to build on the momentum of Funk Fest, but he didn’t know how.

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The Curious bunch. Photo by Roger Santana

On Oct. 24, 2015, Sanchez’s father, Raul, passed away. He had only gotten to experience one or two Curious shows at Original Mike’s.

“Any time I’m in the middle of an event, I always think of when I was 12, and I asked my dad for $500,” Sanchez says. “I was going to work with some promoters to do an event in the Angels parking lot. It would have been my biggest event [at the time], but he said no and called me crazy. That’s the memory I always think of, and it makes me feel waves of emotions to look out and see that I’m making my dreams come true but my dad isn’t here to see it.”

After Raul, a tailor, died, his family went to pick up his sewing machine and found it was covered with Curious Entertainment stickers. On his phone, he had saved screenshots of each of the company’s event fliers. “I know it hurts my son that his father left without telling him he was proud,” Juana says, “but he was proud.”

Having worked tirelessly until his final day, Raul left each of his children $100,000. Sanchez decided to use his inheritance to plan his next big event, Funk Fest 2016.

When hearing what he was putting his money toward, Nelly decided she wanted to use her share to help her brother. “I believed in him as much as he believed in himself,” she says. “I told him, ‘Let’s pull the trigger; what do we have to lose? It’s either we take this leap of faith or wonder What if for the rest of our lives.’”

Curious Entertainment booked the Anaheim Convention Center Arena for the third Funk Fest, which featured Cameo, the Bar-Kays, Midnight Star, Stone City Band and One Way. The sold-out event put the company on the map. The siblings had risked it all and took home more than they expected.

In addition to its success with Funk Fest, Curious Entertainment’s Firme Sunday turned one of the least-popular days for bars and clubs into a money maker. Sanchez was inspired to create the monthly event after attending a Day of the Dead Car Show in downtown Santa Ana. “The sun was setting, and I walked into the middle of the street,” he remembers. “Grown-ups were laughing and drinking, children were playing around, oldies were playing in the background, and everything just felt right.” His wanted to come up with something that would resemble that feeling of togetherness on a day like Sunday, when many families come together for a barbecue and to relax before the week begins.

Sanchez has even brought in old-school actors from Chicano cult films to make appearances: Mousie (Seidy Lopez) and Sad Girl (Angel Aviles) from the 1993 movie Mi Vida Loca, plus famous characters Cruzito, Popeye and Spider from the 1993 movie Blood In Blood Out. All of the Firme Sunday events have charged less than $10, if anything at all, while bouncing between venues including the Yost Theater, the Underground (now known as Bar Ellipsis), the Mission Control, the Copper Door and, most recently, the House of Blues at Anaheim GardenWalk.

Last year, Curious Entertainment held its first Orange County Block Party, hosted by Big Boy, with Vaughan Mason, O’Bryan, One Way, Tuxedo, Too $hort, Tha Dogg Pound, Sonora Dinamita, Ramon Ayala and Elvis Crespo. Despite having a lineup that could be described as all headliners, the Sanchezes were fearful not many people would attend. “We sold out tickets, so we weren’t worried about sales,” Nelly explains. “But we were worried about how many people would actually show up the day of.”

The Orange County Block Party was just one month after the devastating Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting in Las Vegas. “We hired two separate security firms, and we had the Santa Ana Police Department on scene so that our attendees could feel safe,” Nelly says.

Despite their worries, thousands of people showed up, making it another successful event.

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O’Bryan perform at a past Funk Fest. Photo by Santiago “Santi” Zepeda

Though its events were successful, Curious Entertainment faced backlash from community members upset by the growing gentrification in Santa Ana. Some people say Sanchez is contributing to the displacement of Mexican culture and small businesses by working with Downtown INC, led by Ryan Chase.

Reppin’ SanTana. Photo by Roger Santana

“We just want to unite the community by providing good music and a safe environment,” Nelly says. Because of the backlash, the company has decided to move this year’s Orange County Block Party. “I’m trying to cater to my people, but it’s so difficult finding a local venue that accommodates all of our attendees.”

But that is not the only obstacle Curious Entertainment has had to face this year. On March 25, the company promoted a free event at Mission Control, a bar/arcade inside the McFadden Marketplace, with a live performance by Joe Bataan, who’s best known for the hit songs “Ordinary Guy” and “My Cloud.” Sanchez claims he had inquired with the city about a permit but was told he did not need one.

The event was kid-friendly, with a bounce house outside. Chicanos brought their lowriders for attendees to admire in the small parking lot alongside Bush Street. A crowd waited for Bataan’s performance while sipping drinks and boogieing to funk mixed by local DJs. But the good times were cut short when the Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) stopped by; they explained to Sanchez that he had to shut down his event because he lacked a permit.

For Sanchez, it’s not surprising that Chicano events are facing retaliation from city authorities. Sanchez wants society to stop the criminalization of Latino barrios and the profiling of brown people; he hopes to unite races and generations through the art of oldies and funk. “I hope that my hometown remembers that SanTana is a home to Latinos and we can all come together as a community to appreciate great music and share good times,” he says.

However, the city filed a lawsuit against Sanchez himself in March 2018. Charges included holding an event without a permit, even though the event was held inside a business, and selling alcohol outdoors, even though the business itself has the required license to do so. Recently, the city put Sanchez on a six-month probation; if broken under any circumstances, he faces six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Sanchez played it careful on July 1, when Curious Entertainment hosted the previously booked Firme Sunday inside the Copper Door with ’80s Motown R&B group OZONE (“Strut my Thang”). Downstairs, the vibe was nothing but fun, the small stage on which the band performed was surrounded by people getting down on the dance floor. The bar was busy all night, even after all the beer was sold out. But upstairs, the Curious team was once again faced with what it alleges is harassment from the SAPD.

A sergeant asked security outside to let him into the Copper Door, but event security denied his request, as he was not in uniform, which suggested he was not on duty. The officer, who did have his gun on him, called for backup units to address the issue, which apparently had to do with Sanchez’s truck being parked outside the bar on Broadway.

The truck, a Ford F-150 wrapped in Curious Entertainment’s logo, was parked beside one of the street meters on a Sunday, during a time when parking is free in downtown Santa Ana. SAPD verbally warned Sanchez about his vehicle being there, but the officers left without giving him a citation. Sanchez fears even a small altercation such as this could affect his probation. “I just hope they don’t serve me like last time, and I’m forced to do time over this,” Sanchez says angrily. “It’s stupid and unreasonable.”

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Funkin’ around with Stone City Band. Photo by Santiago “Santi” Zepeda

Despite such obstacles, Curious Entertainment continues to forge ahead. Earlier this year, it launched Curious Radio, an app available on iTunes and Google Play worldwide. “None of us knows anything about radio,” Sanchez says while sitting in the company’s newly set up recording room. “I had to invest so much money into something I knew nothing about.”

Since its launch, the fledgling station has already racked up a steady 60 downloads per day. Every Friday at 5 p.m., DJ OmarGod plays what he calls a traffic-jam mix. All day on Sundays, you can hear a prerecorded selection of oldies. And on Mondays, there’s the show Ghetto Mondaze, which usually features a special guest. At any time of any day, you can purchase tickets and merchandise or get news about Curious Entertainment events.

Among the new ventures is an event Sanchez refers to as FunkChella; think the Orange County Block Party, but on a massive scale.

“I’m pretty sure if I had the finances and resources, I could fill up Angel Stadium like the Observatory did for Day and Night, but I’d love to do an open place where people can camp out and barbecue with their friends and family while funk and oldies artists perform,” says Sanchez.

Photo by Roger Santana. Design by Richie Beckman

This year’s Funk Fest and the promise of even bigger things to come gives Sanchez hope for the future.

“I don’t even know how to describe the feelings I have for Funk Fest at the Honda Center,” he says. “I’m nervous and excited and sad and happy, and I know [the event is] coming, but I just can’t believe it. I know I’m going to be super-emotional at the event, but I’m going to try to get up onstage and thank the fans and the artists and my staff and my family and my dad.”

As big as this moment seems for Sanchez, after Funk Fest is over, Curious Entertainment will travel to Phoenix for a collaboration with All-Star Concerts’ Forever Oldies Tour. After that, it’s taking Firme Sundays to Las Vegas, where a local club plans to regularly host the event. Other states such as Texas, Georgia and Arizona have all reached out to Sanchez to hold any or all of his events; he’s even been asked to do international tours.

“It’s not just my back yard anymore, not even just Orange County,” Sanchez says. “But the principle for Curious Entertainment events will always be the same as when it was in my back yard in Santa Ana: unity through music, some firme rolas, well-dressed people with their elbows high and their drinks held higher, having a funk-tastic time. That’s the way it’s going to be—at the Honda Center, at a local club or in my back yard. It’s going to be a good time para mi gente.”

Funk Fest, featuring Morris Day & the Time, the Bar-Kays, Club Nouveau, Dazz Band, Con Funk Shun, Klymaxx, Original Mary Jane Girls, Tawatha of Mtume, O’Bryan, Howard Johnson, SKYY, and Evelyn “Champagne” King, at the Honda Center, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 704-2500; Sat., 7 p.m. $35-$200. All ages.

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