When Johnny Vegas appears in the doorway of the Cabaret Room at Ka-Boom! nightclub, a dozen pairs of arms shoot into the air. Johnny Vegas saunters through the crowd with a pleased grin; everyone knows him here.
"Hey, Johnny, where you been?" shouts one woman.
Johnny Vegas smiles at her and keeps moving through the crowd. It's well past midnight and he's late for his performance--his car got a flat as he was coming back from a festival of Elvis impersonators. Because of his tardiness, Johnny Vegas has to swing into action quicker than usual.
Fortunately, the Disco Inferno Dancers have everything ready to go. At a red leather booth in the front of the room they've set up enormous duffel bags full of wigs, costumes, and props. As Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" plays over the sound system, Johnny Vegas takes his shoulder-length blond hair out of its ponytail. He strips off his long coat, sweater, and sweatpants and within seconds is standing in the middle of the Cabaret Room clad only in black bikini briefs.
He slips on a white disco jacket that reveals his bare, bony chest and slides into white bell-bottoms and black penny loafers. Then Johnny Vegas reaches into one of the duffel bags and pulls out a bottle of cologne. He sits in the booth, arches his back, opens his mouth in a cackle, and lets the scent splash all over his chest. Then he sticks his nose in the air and crinkles his face in disappointment. He goes back into the bag and pulls out a bottle of Brut.
"This should take care of things," Johnny Vegas says, and douses himself again. He pulls a few more things out of the bags: a miniature disco ball on a string, which he hangs around his neck, and a handful of tissues, which he stuffs into his crotch. "As far as anyone's concerned, I don't do this," he says. "I tell them that sometimes I put one cotton ball down there, but only in case I sweat." The air around the booth has become almost unbreathable with cologne, but Johnny Vegas is no longer there. He has popped a cigarette in his mouth and headed for the dance floor.
Johnny Vegas is 28. His real name doesn't matter, he says, because everybody knows him as Johnny Vegas. He appears with the Disco Inferno Dancers at nightclubs and benefits across the city, doing routines to popular songs on the disco revival playlist, such as "Greased Lightning" and "Disco Duck," and has developed routines mocking the styles of such notables as Donna Summer, the Village People, and Rod Stewart. He has four regular dancers, all men, who go by the names Rick Rock, Hairdo, JoHo, and the Candyman. In their real lives they are: a landlord, an attorney, an architect, and a part owner of a medical-claim review company. For Johnny Vegas, on the other hand, this is a full-time mission.
He hits the stage with two of his dancers, a white guy with slicked-back black hair and a mustache in tight red pants and a red-checked jacket and a bearded black guy with a mohawk in a white suit. All three of them have put on dark sunglasses.
"Hey Johnny," someone shouts from the crowd, "nice bell-bottoms!"
"The way you judge a man is by the length of his pant cuffs," Johnny Vegas yells back, and the whole crowd hoots and laughs. He fingers his disco ball, looks at it dreamily.
"Mirror ball, mirror ball on the wall, who's the fairest one of all?" he asks. He pauses, then replies, "Me!"
The DJ immediately puts on "Disco Inferno," and Johnny Vegas and his dancers go to work. They have all kinds of moves, rocking their hips, shooting out their thumbs, licking their lips, thrusting their arms in the air in imitation of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. A ripple of thrilled recognition moves through the crowd, and dozens of men and woman rush the stage to join the Disco Inferno Dancers.
The dancers drop to the floor and move their legs like swimmers in an Esther Williams movie. They get up and move across the stage doing some Travolta-style hand rolls. Johnny Vegas sticks his hand inside his jacket and extends his index finger like a gun, waving it back and forth. He and the mohawked guy put their hands on each other's shoulders and dance around the stage in a circle.
The routine ends, and Johnny Vegas is waving off admirers. "You know," he shouts, "since John Travolta and Evel Knievel are gone, their energy has come into me. I'm the one who must bear the baton."
Once upon a time Johnny Vegas was a self-described yuppie, a financially successful entrepreneur in his early 20s with a Jaguar and a Rolex. He was also a frequent clubgoer, and sometime around 1985 he decided he didn't like what he was seeing at various north-side establishments. There existed an antisocial creature called the Club Kid, who was antithetical to the way Johnny Vegas saw the world.
"All the nightclubs were boring because people were so into being what they weren't," he says, "being cool or being VIPs. It's the fable of the king who had no clothes. People didn't really like the music they were listening to, and didn't want to dress in black. They really didn't want to snarl at everyone, and didn't want to do the drugs they were doing. They wanted to be nice, fun, happy people, but the atmosphere wasn't conducive for that."
While he was still working, in 1986, Johnny Vegas and a few friends began going out to Rush Street and improvising dance routines to disco music. "My theory is that my mental disorder surfaced and my alter ego came out as Johnny Vegas," he says. "I decided that making money wasn't going to make me happy, and people were just completely blown away. We'd bring our own records into the bars down there, and they would be totally freaked out by the whole thing. But they loved it."
Johnny Vegas spreads his philosophies of fun and self-love around the nightclub circuit; he's part chauvinist pig, part Leo Buscaglia. He abstains from all vice: no drugs, no drinking, no smoking. Johnny Vegas is about clean living and clean fun. "Anybody that knows me personally [knows] I respect my grandparents, and God, and America, and everything first," he says. "I come last. Because of that, I'm very secure in who I am. I'm happy about myself, so I don't care what anyone thinks. In a way, I'm very warped. I am a little bit insane. I'm actually clinically borderline nuts."
The Disco Inferno Dancers, Johnny Vegas says, have never held a rehearsal. All their routines are completely improvised, "born live on the dance floor," he says. "We say, here's a good idea, let's do the Jackson Five. Of the six guys, everybody will remember one funny move that the Jackson Five or the Partridge Family used to do, and stick them together, and by the end of it we have a really funny routine."
Down in the Cabaret Room, Johnny Vegas is changing costumes for the next number, a take on the Village People's "Y.M.C.A." "It kind of makes fun of homosexuals," Johnny Vegas says, "but that's OK because some of my best fans are homosexuals, and they go nuts over this. They're more loose and carefree on the dance floor."
For this dance Johnny Vegas wears only a pair of red sequined shorts, stuffed with dozens of tissues, a gigantic foam cowboy hat, and a studded gun belt. One of his dancers wears a hard hat, "autographed by the construction worker of the Village People." The crowd is dancing to "Celebration" when the DJ comes on over the system.
"Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention," he says. "Ka-Boom! nightclub presents, direct from the Gay Bay, San Francisco--Village Idiots!" Johnny Vegas and the Disco Inferno Dancers charge the stage and fall into their dance.
The dancers gyrate their hips, rubs their hands together, and massage their backsides with them. Johnny Vegas licks his thumbs, hikes them into the air, and reaches down to pinch his nipples. Then the three of them get in a line and pretend to sodomize one another, their arms flaying invisible whips. Of course they spell out "Y.M.C.A." with their hands and march back and forth across the stage. The routine ends with Johnny Vegas dropping on his stomach and humping the stage.
Johnny Vegas comes back to the booth grinning and adjusting his crotch; a chunky guy in a sweatshirt comes up to him and pats his sweaty back. "I've never seen so many babes, Johnny," he says. "I was here last night, on ladies' night, and it was incredible."
"This is my friend here," Johnny Vegas says. "If he was here more often with me, he wouldn't be at the track losing money."
A blond woman comes up to Johnny Vegas, and he hands her several coupons for free drinks. "Johnny," she says, "if you were here every night, and I'm telling you that you should be, Johnny Vegas, I'd be here every night, too.
"This is Johnny Vegas," she shouts, "and he is the greatest!"
"The girls, they go crazy," Johnny Vegas says. "I mean, they love to be offended, they love it, because they're just bored. No one wants to get the line about the car that you can't afford, the job you don't have, and the important people you don't know. Seriously, there's hundreds of girls that love me, and it's because I don't hurt anybody. I treat them nice. As far as I'm concerned, they think they're the most important person in the world, and I agree with them....I don't need anything from anybody. I'm not out to steal anyone's girlfriend or have sex with every girl I meet. Guys just get jealous when their girlfriend loves me because they're a sniveling pervert. You can see it on a guy's face a mile away--he either wants to beat someone up or get laid within an hour. Nobody wants to talk to him; he's the fool on the hill. But if I'm out there exposed and happy, people are drawn to that. I don't go after anybody; they flock to me because I'm happy."
The woman with the free drinks sidles up next to him, this time with three other women. "You know my friends here, Johnny Vegas," she says. "We want to talk to you about something."
"You see, you see," Johnny Vegas says, "they just can't resist." He slips on his white disco jacket and moves toward the exit. The women follow as Johnny Vegas leaves the Cabaret Room, hand on his chest, twirling his disco ball.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Philin Phlash.