Kevin Spencer is a marketing guy these days, working in audience development for Ranker.com, but it wasn’t too long ago that he was making his living as one of West Hollywood’s most popular bartenders.
Given the legendary status of WeHo’s nightlife scene, perhaps, it’s not surprising that he looks back upon his former career, which culminated in a three-year stint at Flaming Saddles, with enthusiastic fondness.
“I loved my time there,” he tells the Blade. “It was a really unique look at West Hollywood from the other side of the bar. You get a view of the community and the nightlife experience as a whole, whereas as a patron you only get a view of it from your own participation in it – you meet who you’re there to meet, or you’re there for whatever reason.”
Those fond memories made it inevitable that when the COVID-19 crisis necessitated the closure of WeHo’s bars and clubs along with all the other such establishments across Los Angeles, Spencer’s thoughts would naturally turn to his former co-workers, and the crushing financial impact such a grave decision would have on their lives. He didn’t just lament their fate, however. Instead, he took action.
“Like a lot of people, probably, I have wanted to volunteer, I’ve wanted to give back,” he explains. “We always have our excuses as to why we don’t – we’re too busy or whatever it may be – but then I found myself in this crisis, fortunate enough to have a job, and thinking, ‘I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck, and be out a job and not know where your money is going to come from.’ If this had happened, even three years ago, I knew I would have been in that position with everybody else, not just in West Hollywood but across the country. So I decided this was an opportunity to step up and give back what I can.”
His experiences behind the bar also allowed him to see a wider effect of the pandemic, even beyond the economic aspect precipitated by the shutdown.
“We’ve lost our community, we’ve lost our gathering space,” he says. “For a lot of people, these places are their connection to the gay world… and yeah, there are the partiers, and the people we see that are making the most noise at the bars – but there are also those people who come and get their drink, and they’re alone. They don’t really talk to anyone, but just being in the room with their tribe is enough for them – that’s how they escape, that’s how they connect to their world, and it’s gone.”
He hit upon an idea that could provide some relief on both fronts.
“I thought we could do a fundraiser through a virtual community get-together – get people doing DJ sets in their living room, doing Zoom chats with their friends, what a lot of people were doing already, anyway – and then combine that with the added aspect of tipping your service workers while you’re at home making your drink, talking to your friends, and dancing to music in your living room. If you’re fortunate enough to have the resources, you might as well leave the same five-dollar tip that you would leave on a regular Friday night.”
He reached out to WeHo Council member John Duran, who promptly put him into contact with Travis Garcia – another fixture in the community that had floated “almost the exact same idea” to him, according to James. The two men connected, and a week later they launched WeHo’s Nights In, with an initial goal to raise $10,000 within a two-week period in order to offer “immediate assistance for food, medicine, and other essentials” to the city’s now-unemployed nightlife workers while they wait for government programs and unemployment to kick in.
“People have been able to defer rent and other bills,” acknowledges Spencer, “but once you do that, you know, you still need some cash on hand to eat something.”
The project met with surprising success, meeting $9,000 of its target over the first weekend after its April 8 launch. With several days still to go, it’s a certainty that the fundraiser will far exceed its goal – especially considering the lineup of virtual events, such as an April 16 Digital Drag Fest performance by Jai Rodriguez (with all proceeds donated directly to WeHo’s Nights In), which will bring contributions yet to be added to the final tally.
“So far, it’s been a great response,” says Spencer. “It’s really important to me that it’s not just a fundraiser asking for a handout, it’s more of a fundraiser that gets people together and gets them talking about what that nightlife really means, as opposed to just giving a certain group of people some money.
“At the end of the day, it’s not a lot, but I hope it’s a way to inspire other people to give back, in any way.”
This prompts him to share that there have been “some questions” about why the campaign benefits only West Hollywood’s nightlife workers, when the whole city is affected by the shutdown.
“My response has been that we just picked a community that means something to us,” he says. “For us, it was a very clear and distinct place to start, with a well-defined community that we knew we had the connections and resources to raise money for – but it’s something that anyone can do, to start a fundraiser for your own community.
“I’ve told everyone, ‘Donate to our campaign, donate to any campaign, if you can’t donate then use your time to find people who can.’ I think it’s definitely a time for us to act, and to show that our lives are not transactional – that there’s actually a spirit of giving and helping each other out that exists, as well.”
In keeping with that selfless spirit, Spencer is adamant in his insistence to give credit where its due; he wants to make sure that Garcia’s efforts at his side are acknowledged (“Travis is my complete co-partner in all this, I think we make a great team!”), and that thanks are given to everyone who has “tipped” so far – making a point to highlight three mega-donors who each contributed $1k to the fundraiser: Mike
Manning, Enrique Martin, and Kevin Huvane.
And what happens after the campaign reaches its deadline next week?
“We’re going to get through this weekend, and take stock of where we are, see how much we’ve raised,” says Spencer. “I’ve envisioned it as this virtual community where we continue to tip as the weekends go along, so it’s a lot of small donations over a period of time and nobody feels like they’re dropping down huge sums of money.”
As to the details about what might be part of a continuing effort, he’s hesitant to say much, preferring to wait for official confirmations before doing more than hint at future virtual events and potential community partnerships designed to cover other communities across LA, such as downtown and the San Fernando Valley.
“This shutdown does not look like it’s going to end any time soon, and I’m sure the bars and clubs are going to be the last things to re-open,” he tells us. “As long as we can keep helping people, whoever they might be, I’d love to keep doing it.”