He stands above it all in the darkness, watching his empire ebb and flow at the direction of the DJ's dials. He watches the tables of young women, pallid faces blooming by strobe light, watches the men in tropical colors watching the women as around them roar the relentless measures of the latest of the rites that have always countermanded ordinary lives. He is Michael G. O'Harro, prince of disco, father of singles bars, the guiding light of Tramps, this town's oldest surviving discotheque. He is a man who has always foraged for his future with a hustle and a hope and has taken his seismograph to every shudder of the trends, to glean a little glory and to reap a little gain. "I want to be famous," he says in his Irish tenor. "A super success."
He has his mantra, hymned in numbers - 37 million 18-to-35-year-olds with $70 billion to spend - "One hell of a disposable income." He has his vision - "No one in history has ever been able to capture the entire youth market." He has a question - "Do you have any idea what it's like to have South Africa calling because you're the only person who knows where to get disco jewelry?"
And he knows the score - The only parties you can be sure to be invited to are the ones you give yourself.
Michael O'Harro is credited by no less an authority than William Manchester, in his social history of America, "The Glory and the Dream," as the man who began the singles bar business. And while this fact is properly enshrined on the wall among all of O'Harro's other advertisements for himself, he knows the way that glory can be gone with the last chorus of a song.
Sometimes it doesn't even take that long in the bar business. But in O'Harro's kingdom there are all the outward signs of success, the kind that counted 20 years ago, the ones that marked the Bachelor, the Playboy, the Man About Town.
"Celebrate the unmarried lifestyle," O'Harro says, "sybartic and hedonistic." The words ring with a dionysian vibrato, luxurious and ornate, but O'Harro himself is pale and chunky and looks like a school boy reciting Walt Whitman to his high school English teacher.
It is a plain face, etched in a shade of distress - as if he were never quite sure he had all the lines down correctly, as if someone might have changed the rules when he blinked.
But at least the artifacts are all in place.
There's Mike O'Harro, exercising the disco droit du seigeneur: plucking yet another blond from the crowd at Ramps. "I like younger women," he says. "They think I can help them."
There he is in the big house in Arlington: The Bentley is in the garage for repairs, but the '58 Calillac gleams yellow in the golden sun, and the red Ferrarri is rarely out of gear - there are women in Washington who are conviced that O'Harro's full name is Hi-I'm-Mike-O'Harro-I-Drive-a-Ferrarri.
There he is relaxing at home: The bearskin is upstairs, to sweep the vulnerability under, the tigerskin is downstairs, the stereo drones disco, "the hot tub is on the way," the stewardess is on the telephone - "of course, you can be in the Miss Georgetown pageant" - and Mike O'Harro is on.
"Marisa Berenson came to Tramps, I sent a bottle of champagne to her table, one of our best, but she sent it back, it wasn't Dom Perignon...Sylvester Stallone practically made us his headquarters, we partied for days, but we had to send out for the Blue Nun...Lloyd Bridges was one of my favorites...he seemed the most interested in talking to me."
And there is Mike O'Harro growing older: "I'm 39 now. It's sort of strange sometimes. All my friends have grown up and got married. I know very few people who are my peers any more."
Still, he tries to stay as young as the crowd that comes to his club. "I'm lucky, I know what I want," he says in the tone of voice that means whatever is to follow would probably be best left in the third person. "I want to be the sole marketing authority on this generation."
It's his right, he feels, he staked his claim early, before most of the rest caught on. "In 1973, disco was a fad," says O'Harro. "In 1977, it was a trend, and now" - now it's an $5 billion industry, flourishing in over 15,000 clubs across the country, and the DJ's, the maestros of this music, are paid up to $300 a night to work their magic.
But disco did not begin this way. It began among the bayous and backfields of the cultural landscape, the gay clubs and black clubs where long nights of nonstop motion counterpointed the long days of getting by.
The rich and trendy at times find distraction in the same excesses as the dispossessed. Studio 54 made it gleam with the envy of the uninvited - Bianca and Halston and the crowd, all dressed up, awash in the outrageous, dancing those complicated dances so perfectly timed to the mannered meaninglessness of the fashionable.
All it took was "Saturday Night Fever" and the prospectors were ready to mine the mother lode - the mass market of the middle class.
"People aren't rebels anymore," says the man who would be disco king. "They're into 9-to-5, they're into working for a living. At night, they want to escape the humdrum; they don't want pressure. At a disco, you lose yourself in sound and lights. It's not a hell of a lot of communication - it's a body language. Everyone's a star, everyone's watching each other. That's the ambience, people watching you, you watching them.
"It's better," says Mike O'Harro, "than the goddamn tube."
And so O'Harro is on the phone, bringing disco to Waco, Texas, and on the plane to Milwaukee, "I'm gonna make Schlitz chic," and on the phone as a consultant to neophyte discotheque owners ("You want neon? Neon's going to be an extra $5,000").
And while he may be right that disco has yet to reach its economichorizons, sheer numbers can drown the daring in a trend, and dash a fashion and its right to chicdom on the rocks of acceptablilty. But for the moment, the shining surfaces reflect whatever persona has been polished for the night and the kids from the suburbs can be whomever they want to be for a few frenetic hours. Mike O'Harro should know about self-creation. In the best American tradition, he's been doing it all his life.
He was born in Glendale. He went to Hoover High School there. "I was a very shy kind of person, I was voted least likely to succeed. I wasn't a leader, I was a follower, a nerd. The only thing I wanted to be was popular. I watched the popular ones. I tried to figure out how they did it."
Two years ago, his class held their 20th reunion, and O'Harro decided that "I was going and I was going in style." On his arm was "this beautiful model, she was a Harvard law school graduate." By then he had been named one of the 10 most eligible bachelors in the country by the National Enquirer, and Cosmopolitan designated him their bachelor of the month, and he was Billboard's disco consultant of the year, and there, among the latterday housewives and biology teachers and gas station owners and insurance salesmen, Mike O'Harro found the ultimate symbol of just how far he had come.
"One of my former classmates was there. She'd been a homecoming queen at USC. Now she wanted to go out with me. Back then she wouldn't have looked at me twice. Nobody remembered that when 50 people were invited to a party, I was the 51st."
Mike O'Harro remembers. He remembers what is not recorded in his boxes and files containing everything ever written about him. "One of my pleasures," he says, "is collecting the history of myself." And another of his pleasures is reciting that history as if he were hearing it for the very first time.
The nerd ended up at the University of Arizona and a fraternity there, ATO, helped him to find his calling in life. Soon he was president of the pledge class in the interfraternity council and soon he was fixing up the visiting alumni with dates, "sometimes 50 at a time." Soon enough, Mike O'Harro had found what he was good at.
He was spectacular at it in Washington, where, in 1964, he was a young Navy ensign with a '55 Thunderbird and no place to meet girls. He and his roommates began to throw parties. "We spent every Friday night on the phone - "where's the party, where's the crowd?"" They rented halls, the Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, and charged $3 a person and set requirements - "the men had to be single, 21 to 35, college graduates, military officers, young professionals, that's the sort of person we wanted."
And the women? "They had to be female."
And thus was born the singles imdustry, at least in the history of William Manchester, although O'Harro's competitors at the time say that that is a matter subject to some interpretation.
O'Harro's organization had a name - The Junior Officer's Protective Association. "We were protecting ourselves from loneliness and marriage." But the P was changed to stand for Professional as the parties increased from one a month to twice and three times a week as people came by the hundreds.
Eventually O'Harro turned pro. The result was a singles bar called Gentlemen's II and they brought Twiggy in for the opening. It was the day of longhaired girls in mini-skirts, dancing the Frug under the weight of several ounces of iridescent eye makeup, and it was only the beginning of building a ghetto out of people with nothing in common but being unmarried and middle class.
He was mentioned in an article in Life. "All of a sudden, I was the national authority on singles. I had a $48,000 house and a '67 Corvette and I was dating all these models and I thought I was living." Chuck and Lynda Bird Robb held their engagement party at Gentlemen's II, and O'Harro was invited to their wedding, "although I had to promise Chuck to do him a favor and not announce it at a press conference."
Ah, but there came serpents, came they into that Eden of swingledom. Singles weren't looking fun anymore, they were looking lonely. "The image was tarnished. You were getting the sleazy guys, the salesmen, the married guys."
O'Harro got out. He calls it a vacation; some in the business call it a strategic departure. He ended up in L.A., his old home town.
But it wasn't too long before O'Harro was back on the East Coast. What happened? "In L.A., there are a lot of guys like me. I wouldn't be the most eligible bachelor on my block back there. There's a lot of guys trying to do the same thing, and some of them have a lot more creativity and talent than I have."
Back East, O'Harro worked a deal on a disco in Boston, started a chain of them for the ill-fated Emersons, threw parties at a club then called Zanzibar's, one of Washington's first discos. Home is wherever it's happening.
In 1975, it was happening in a little used corner of Billy Martin's Carriage House, where, with a $50,000 investment, he opened Tramps.It was fitted out to look like a gentlemen's private club, with dark suited maitres d" ("They're Iranian, you know") inconspicuously burly doormen to enforce the dress code, a mailing list of 7,800 of the Right People.
Linda Roth was O'Harro's assistant during most of that time and she described her former boss as "one of the most scrupulously honest businessmen I know," a workaholic who sacrificed a large part of his social life to the rigors of his ambitions.
It was like producing a play, manipulating the right props and illusions, focusing the spotlight through a relentless barage of promotions, beauty pageants and Mexican Independence Day celebrations and Macho Men contests and any other excuse for attention.
"You always have to have something happening in the disco business to be successful," O'Harro says. "You have to keep the interest high. You can't let them get bored."
Because if they're bored, they'll go someplace else and you'll be the 51st person on the invitation list. For a time the place was Tramps, and the ones with the nervous energy so easily distracted by a flickering light, a silken sigh, settled there and rested their restless wings.
Mike O'Harro has written a manual. It sells for $75 a copy and it get right to the heart of the matter. "To make the whole idea jell, the main ingredient is girls, the foxier the better.If you create the atmosphere where the fine girls go, the men will follow.... Since the beginning of time, young ladies have been interested in meeting young men under exciting yet respectable circumstances." Put that way, it sounds rather quaint, more church social than a leap of leopards in the night. And every weekend night, and most others for that matter, Mike O'Harro is out there on the darkling plain, cruising the places he has created for the fine girls to go.
He starts out about 8 in the evening, dressed in a checkered suit and a white British racing cap and a red shirt, obediently unbuttoned to display the obligatory gold chains.
He makes a quick stop at the Crystal Underground Disco, a discotheque for the lower rent set in Crystal City, which O'Harro helped to create and for which he still consults. The senior citizens of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church of Westville, N.J., look on in detached amusement as the lights go down and the light begin flashing and the crowd, made up, O'Harro says, of "Army types and college kids and basic suburbans" set to work.
He glides along the Beltway to Scamps, a teen-age disco he started in L'Enfant Plaza and closed for the summer until the class tours start up again. Scamps books groups in advance - high school marching bands, graduating classes - serves them Cokes and hamburgers and turns up the volume. Just now, the eighth grade disco king of Snellville, Ga., is holding forth.
Gregg Chadwick is 13 1/3, he practices his moves in front of a mirror every day, Elvis Presley was his idol and he sounds the urgings of this spangled movement as well as anyone. "I just want to walk in anywhere and have everyone know I'm the king," he says. The gold hair that strays into his blue eyes makes him look as if he's already been crowned.
And then to Tramps. It's after 10 and the crowd has just begun to swell, but it does not look that ultra fashionable.
The women wear the fluffed-out hairdos of a few seasons back and then men have the look of out-of-town businessmen. The best that can be rustled up by way of celebrity is the son of the chief of police of Kuwait. O'Harro has a table by the door and an eye cocked on the crowd. He watches as two young Marines try to enter, dressed in tight black T-shirts and tight white pants. They are refused admission. "We suggest a place like the Crystal Underground," O'Harro says. "We don't just sent them away."
Quartets of young women sit suspended on the stalks of their cigarettes and the men at the bar look as if they are meditating on their Marlboros. Two dark-suited businessmen sit in sharklike self-possession at O'Harro's table until a pretty young blond, her face and hopes uncreased, stands poised at the door.
Suddenly through some of O'Harro's social slight of hand, she, too, is sitting at the table. She's a salesgirl at Landover shopping mall, she's a contestant in the Miss Georgetown pageant. She want to be a model, of course, or an actress and, yes, she loves discotheques. "They're the only place you get to dress up," she says in a sweet, breathy voice. "You don't have to be yourself."
Soon she is talking to one of the businessmen. "Maybe she'll have a nice time tonight," says O'Harro. "Maybe, I don't know. I don't fix people up. I just introduce people to people. That's what I do."
O'Harro scnas the room. He has met a few women there himself. He is asked how he goes about it. "I say, "Hi, I'm Mike O'Harro"," Mike O'Harro says. "Want to be in my beauty pageant?"
There are models and stewardesses and secretaries and they are invariably young, the women he dates. They usually have the kind of well-fed, tawny beauty of which Playboy is so fond.
Washingtonian magazine once published a list of the women it considered the 10 most eligible in the city and when O'Harro saw this list he called one of them up for a date. She said no. "She was very nice about it. But professional women, successful women, won't go out with me. But an 18-year-old sees my Ferarri and says, "Hey, will you take me home?" Of course I talk to her first. And then I take her home."
Michael O'Harro met "a fabulous girl" once, a runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant. It was Miss Finland, and he followed her back to Finland. But it was cold there, and she had work to do. "tthere was no beach, no sun, it wasn't right." He came home. His current girlfriend has moved to New York, intent on a modeling and acting career. They are still "the best of friends."
And always there are the young ones, the eager ones and the world for them is constantly startling and all the avenues are broad and bright. "I like to be their Svengali." At the Playboy mansion in Chicago, Miss July took O'Harro around and said, ""This is the guy who got me here," I really got off on that."
He likes them "with a zest for life. The essence of my interest is that they don't lay any heavies on me, don't make me commit myself, don't expect me to call.
"Older women have had some pain in their lives and I don't want to live down the sins of man. I want girls that impress me visually, that take time with their appearance. Older women want a lawyer, a stockbroker, they don't want a disco king. Theyve only got a couple good years left and I offer no security."
Anyway, says the disco king, "most men I know who are married are miserable, they're cheating on their wives every chance they get. A guy who's 39 and married missed out on all the free sex and now he's got some gorgeous secretary hitting on him every day. What's he going to do? I don't expect a relationship. There's not a hell of a lot of emotion between people anymore. They're pleasure oriented.It doesn't bother me. I play it as it lays. I live life as it is, not as it may be or could be."
Of course, he says quickly, "There's no greater emotion than love. It's just more transient. Instead of lasting for years, it's a weekend."
One recent weekend there was a phone call on a Friday night. The phone call said that the nice Frenchman she'd met at the Club Med resort had come back with her and, well, she couldn't make their date that night.
All right, said Mike O'Harro, but there was more on the other end of the phone. No, said O'Harro, I'm not mad, of course I'm not made, and still there was more on the other end of the pone. "I'm not mad," said O'Harro. "I'll call you Sunday."
And so that Friday evening, as the moon rose on all the promises and plans crossing Key Bridge at that moment, Michael G. O'Harro sat in the room with the bearskin rug and took out the spiralbound notebook with the phone numbers in it.
He told them all he had just returned from a trip to explain away the suddenness of the invitation, but one was working at elan's that night, and onw was picketing The Gaslight, and several were busy and two were out of town. Finally his voice brightened. "You don't? . Then see me at Tramps.... See me at 10...Alright, then see me at 11...."
There are two seats in a red Ferarri and something like relief settled softly over one of them. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, Design by Robert Barkin/photo by John McDonnell - The Washington Post