Figures in slinky black glide by with trays: these are waiters. Other figures, with coiffed hair and glinting jewelry, stand languidly at the glass-top bars; these are patrons. There is a pair of preening deejays (sealed in their sound booth and an odd businessman or two, and, always the insipid, unrelenting sounds of disco.
The Place is called the Pier (formerly Pier 9), located at 1824 Half Street SW. It's not particularly a gay club, says Don Culver, a smooth, smiling man who owns a piece of the action. "It's just very now."
Very - especially with the addition of lasers. What the Pier has, at least for the moment, over every other subterranean dance palace in the area is something called "Lasermania." Temple-throbbing music and writhing bodies are not enough in your 1977 disco. Now you must have lasers.
Lasers? As in James Bond weaponry? Sort of, only these rays are meant to get you high (on good times, that is), not interred. What these beams do, instead of drill holes in your head, are explode on a specially made vinyl screen into fantastic colors. Create stars that whirl like pinwheels. Form batons that play electronic Ping-Pong (to the William Tell Overture). Make triangles an circles that dance, pop, dart, contract, plunge, and otherwise seem to suggest odd behavior. To use the lexicon of hip it's all very cosmic and far out.
Not to Donn Culver (who, in addition to his interest in the Pier, heads a newly formed distributorship called Laser Illusions). This is the fruition of a longtime dream.
"I just like lights," he said, following the premiere of Lasermania last week. "I've always been into special effects. In fact, I've got a small laser in my house, I like it so much. My living room's designed for total sound and light, just like this place. But you see, there's a careful line to draw between what personally turns you on and what you think will be good for business. This show is a gamble, but I think it'll pay off."
If the opening-night reaction was any measure, Culver's $40,000 bet (which is really just the unit cost of the system) has already begun to pay him off. The place was packed to the fire doors with straights and ors and gays, with jivers and schemers and round-the-clock dreamers, all of whom came to experience Lasermania.
To showcase the new attraction, Culver completely did over the Pier. The motif is new cool and glittery - a kind of art-deco Casablanca. There are desert palms, mosaic mirrors, soft gray carpeting going up the walls and staircases. The chairs are from Bom Marche in Georgetown. The whole effect is of something you might find on the Upper East Side, not in a onetime warehouse on the Potomac.
Technically, Culver's toy is a marvel. The brains of it are encased in the glass booth, above the dancers, where the deejays play their nonstop music. Culver, the Pier's only trained "laserist" (they also call him the Wizard), stands behind a board of glowing knobs and dials and gadgets marked "green select, "yellow select," "memory controllers." He can do all manner of things, Culver says - create "chasing fish," or maybe "running wallpaper," or how about "chopped sankes" The show, which comes on two or three times a night, is probably more dependent that he realizes on his moods and fantasies.
One wouldn't want to dwell on this last too long, but there does seem something a trifly scary about Lasermania. In a way, it's almost as if Culver and his deejays have the power to control the minds and movements of the several hundred bodies bobbing below them. As if all these whirling lights, in concert with teh insistent, dulling music, is the last stop on a bus to a weird kind of cultural fascism.
Culver, of course, along with the people who produce them, would say lasers who produce them, would say lasers are innocuous - just good clean fun. Actually, the emergence of lasers into the entertainment field began innocently enough four years ago. A Los Angeles filmmaker named Ivan Dryer is generally credited as the pioneer. Dryer installed a laser show in a local planetarium. He called it "Laserium"; eventually a company called Laser Images was formed. Today Griffith Observatory is still show-rasing Laserium (only now there are three shows), as are planetariums in 10 other cities around the country Laserium has also hit Canada, Japan, London; soon it will open in Paris.
The move of lasers to discos is a relatively new phenomenon. So, far only a handful of clubs across the country have installed them - Mo Mo's in Toronto. Apple's 3 in Columbus, Ohio, a few places in New York City. It's a wide-open market, says Culver, with new applications - amusement parks, fireworks displays, rock concerts - being developed every week.
The Pier's laser system was manufactured by an outfit in Columbus, Ohio, called Laser Presentations. Dick Van Schoyck is the company's director of operations. He says there are roughly half a dozen firms making laser-light systems for entertainment, but that only two - his and the company that produced Laserium - ae doing sizable business. (The Laserium firm, on the West Coast, corroborates Van Schoyck's claim.) His company has more installation requests than it can handle, says Van Schoyck. In February, Culver says he and Van Schoyck will produce a show at the Circuis Circus Hotel and Spa in Las Vegas. Two, there is talk of designing a system for a yet-to-be produced Broadway show.
But is it dangerous? Could a laser beam get loose somehow and burn holes in your brain cells.
No chance, says Van Schoyck. For one thing, the wattage of these lasers is very low. For another, they're positioned in such a way as to make direct contact virtually impossible. He acknowledges, however, that there seem to be suprisingly few laws governing lasers in this country.
According to a spokesman for OSHA, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, there are no federal laws whatsover governing the use of lasers in nightclubs, only "guidelines." Donn Culver says that, since he could find no applicable District of Columbia laws, he voluntarily had the Pier subscribe to the federal suggestions.
"What your're talking about here," Van Schoyck says "is a coherent beam of light travelling in one direction and not dispersing. We're using a krypton gas that's being ignited by a very high electrical charge. The only danger would be in the case of a direct hit to the eye. But that can't happen."