He’s the Disco King. He’s Washington’s Hugh Hefner. He’s the Man Who Reinvented the Sports Bar.
Mike O’Harro is all of those things, but the reason I’m settled into a seat across from him at the Lyon Hall restaurant in Arlington is because he’s the Man Who Took Halloween From the Children.
Well, he didn’t take it. He borrowed it. He made it — in Washington, at least — a night for grown-ups, thousands of whom would don costumes and clog the streets of Georgetown.
“Where I got my ideas for Halloween was the Playboy Mansion,” Mike says. “They had these great Halloween parties.”
Every other party guest “dressed” as Lady Godiva, I imagine. This was the early ’70s, after all, and Hef's palatial estate — the Grotto, the Bunny Hutch — was the place to be if you were a certain kind of young guy on the make in Southern California.
Which Mike was. Starting in 1963, he had cut a swath through Washington’s night life scene, throwing parties all over town and eventually opening a club called the Gentlemen II at 18th and M streets NW. It was Washington’s first singles bar, though the liquor board wouldn’t let him call it a “bar.” He and business partner Jim Desmond called it a singles “bistro” instead.
Mike had a good time, made some money, then sold his half of the biz and went West, young man, back to California, the state he’d grown up in. He possessed a sports car, a mustache, a rented mansion in the Hollywood Hills — and the ability to play it cool.
“I was all of a sudden invited to all of these events,” he says between sips of merlot. “You’re familiar with the A-list and the B-list? I was always a B-minus, B-list kind of guy. But they love to have — at the parties and the clubs and the Mansion — guys like me who are attractive. Always the key is being a gentleman. They always like to have guys who behave themselves. The A-list guys were Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson, superstars in the movies and music. But they had supernumeraries, guys who behaved themselves.”
Behaving oneself is relative, of course. Yes, reader, Mike dated centerfolds.
Mike eventually tired of the SoCal scene. He was aware of his limitations — it is easier to climb Everest in an iron lung than crash the A-list — but he was aware of Washington’s, too.
“I always found it easy here,” he says of Washington. “There weren’t guys like me. The guys in Washington were political. Most people here, they’re subtle. They don’t promote themselves.”
That has never been Mike O’Harro’s problem.
No, that’s not entirely true. Mike was voted “Least Likely to Succeed” at Hoover High in Glendale, Calif.
“Then, just like a bodybuilder will work out, I started working on my personality,” he says. He bounced around two colleges before finding his style at the University of Arizona. He was the Alpha Tau Omega party man. “Over time, it became my personality. . . . That shy guy is somewhere buried deep within me.”
In September 1975, Mike and his partner opened a disco in Georgetown called Tramps. With Hefner’s parties in mind, he decided to throw a big event for Halloween. He did the same thing the next year (and every year after that till the disco closed in 1982). Other bars followed suit. Crowds spilled into the streets.
A Washington tradition was born.
Mike repeated the formula at Champions, the Georgetown sports bar that became the model for countless sports bars around the world.
In 1984, The Washington Post reported that 40,000 people swarmed Wisconsin and M on Halloween. In 1987, the number was 150,000. Those were the peak days of the Halloween celebration. It’s fallen since then.
Mike sold Champions in 1991. He never married. He’s 73 now and doesn’t much care for today’s style of nightclub.
Though he admits he lived a Hefner-like lifestyle, Mike says he never really wanted to be Hefner.
“I like my privacy,” he says. “Whereas Hefner has no privacy. Hefner doesn’t go out of the Mansion. He lives in a huge estate. Everyone comes to Hefner. No one ever comes to me.”
No, that’s not true, either. Thursday night, little ghosts and goblins will descend on Mike O’Harro’s Arlington home.
“I’ve got a load of candy,” Mike says. “I don’t want to miss the kids.”
To see photos from Mike O’Harro’s super fabulous Washington party life, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly .
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.