On the 21st floor of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, the disco ball is throwing spots of light, like a counterclockwise school of fish, around the red velvet booths of the Starlight Room. Dancers have a panoramic view of the city, Rick James is belting out “Super Freak” and everyone is getting down – from Swedish surgeons in town for a convention to young twerkers in a dark corner to the couple celebrating 70 years together.
The pulse of the night is emanating from a dark booth, where, after 32 years, San Francisco’s unofficial Pied Piper of Party, DJ Page Hodel, is still stirring up a funk and soul frenzy.
“A DJ gets to witness the unfolding of the story of San Francisco,” said Hodel, 58. “It’s a front-row seat to cultural anthropology. It’s magical to observe our species as we interrelate and behave with one another.”
Hodel created San Francisco’s longest-running gay dance parties – Club Q for women and the Box for both genders – which from 1987 to 2003 drew thousands each month to warehouses packed with go-go dancers, free prizes, and, before social media, 13 slide projectors that illuminated the walls with candids of party guests. The first female mixer on major market radio, Hodel broadcast soul and hip-hop for stations KSOL, KMEL and Live 105. Billboard magazine named her one of the top DJs in the country and sought her input to create their Top 100 charts.
In a genre dominated at the time by men, she was a pioneer, not only for her gender, but also because she was white and gay, said Dave “Davey D” Cook, who teaches hip-hop at San Francisco State University and has a syndicated hip-hop talk show, Hard Knock Radio, on KPFA.
“In the ’80s, if you wanted to hear good hip-hop, you went to where Page and the lesbians were,” he said. “Straight people and hip-hop people went to her clubs, because she had respect; she played hard-core things like 2 Live Crew.”
Hodel didn’t see divisions; all she saw were beats per minute and ways to blend them into a crescendo that matched the energy of the room.
“She just understands human nature; she understands who her audience is,” said Judy Dlugacz of Olivia Lesbian Travel, who hired Hodel to DJ on her all-women cruise trips. “She has such a creative mind that her DJing just keeps expanding over time.”
Hodel’s first musical inspiration was her father. Hodel, her brother, and two sisters grew up in Ross, where her mother looked after them, and her father, who ran a textile factory in San Francisco, liked to throw dinner parties. The night always ended with her gregarious father playing the guitar or the piano.
Hodel bought a songbook and taught herself to play her dad’s acoustic guitar. With her first paychecks from working in a neighbor’s psychiatry office, she bought her own guitar for $16.
“It had macrame straps. I liked to go into the redwoods near my house and sing to the trees,” Hodel said. “It was so very Joan Baez.”
After her mother’s sudden death of a heart attack when Hodel was 14, she enrolled in a private music school in Paris to study classical guitar with a professional guitarist. Hodel honed her skills, made friends with people in theater and clown circles, and fell in love with a mime named Robin.
Women’s funk band
The young lovers came to Oakland and later joined a women’s funk band called Mama Says Funk, which got only one gig – at a birthday party at the Mormon temple.
Several bands later, the women’s music scene of the ’70s was blossoming, but Hodel hit an artistic crossroads. She could continue to perform in Top 40 bands and make money, or she could play her own music and starve. Being a thoughtful artist, she didn’t choose starvation; she chose to find a new way to follow her muse.
It began with birthday parties.
“I liked to throw huge birthday parties for myself,” Hodel said. “I remember one time I got evicted at my own housewarming party.”
Eventually, she started renting empty storefronts in the Mission for her birthday parties. At one, she hired a lineup of all-girl punk bands. More than 600 people showed up.
“The next morning I got a call from the women’s bar down the street, Amelia’s,” Hodel said. “The owner said, ‘I don’t know what you are doing over there, but we were empty all night. How about you come here and play your records?’ “
Hodel was thunderstruck. Someone wanted to pay her to host a party?
Found her calling
She bought a $19 mixer from Radio Shack, borrowed her friends’ records, and knew within the first song that this would be her career. She played Chaka Khan; Con Funk Shun; the Four Tops; the Isley Brothers; Earth, Wind & Fire; Diana Ross.
Then she got invited to play two nights a week at Amelia’s. Then three. Then the club had to hire a bouncer to keep crowds from violating the fire code. She started buying her own records, and then needed a storage locker to house all 50,000 of them.
Other clubs took notice, and soon Hodel was DJing at the Oasis and City Nights and at gay pride weekends; and then KSOL, KMEL and Live 105 hired her to join a select group of DJs who mixed records on air. Her day jobs, as a bike messenger and a cable splicer for the phone company, had to go.
“I was staying up till 3 a.m. and had to be at work for the phone company at 9,” she said. “It wasn’t a good fit.”
Soon Hodel had a coterie, an inner circle of female friends who liked to gather after work for dinner and conversation at Hodel’s house – a 40-foot 1972 yellow school bus that Hodel gutted and renovated into a home, complete with inlaid cabinets and a cubby for a turntable. Her bus was named, in lettering over the windshield, Roxanne Roxanne, after the pioneer female rapper Roxanne Shanté.
It was these same friends who jumped at the chance to help Hodel start her own club in 1987, offering to be the go-go dancers for what became Hodel’s thunderous monthly party, Club Q, at Fourth and Brannan streets. She ran a second club for men and women called the Box, on Divisadero.
“I didn’t hire perfect bodies and perfect-looking people,” she said. “I hired people who were great dancers.”
Life of the party
As word spread, thousands showed up, and the parties got more lavish. Once Hodel made a Twister game that covered the entire floor of Club Q.
“It was mayhem in the girl community,” Hodel said.
But by 2003, as more people began socializing on screens, the lines outside Hodel’s clubs shortened. She had already shut the Box down in 1999. Reluctantly, she threw her last Club Q party in 2003.
The silence depressed her. Hodel moved to the country, to Penngrove outside of Petaluma, to live quietly in her renovated bus. She spent time cooking and doing daytime carpentry jobs for friends.
When she returned to Oakland two years later, in 2005, she knew she didn’t want to start another club.
“I’d gotten older and quieter. I didn’t necessarily want a billion people phoning me all day. I’d had quite a bit of human contact.”
Instead, she fell in love with the neighbor across the street, Madalene Rodriguez, and wooed her by building a heart out of bougainvillea and roses on her doorstep. But not long after they got together, Rodriguez was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“Our love was mythic,” Hodel said. “When she got sick, it was like watching someone you love being dragged behind a car. I felt helpless.”
Hodel continued to construct hearts for her love out of found objects and left them in places where Rodriguez would find them every Monday, until the last one, outside Rodriguez’ hospital room window. Rodriguez died at 46, just 11 months after the couple fell in love.
Queen of hearts
Hodel made a promise to keep the hearts going, and now has a book, a website, and 2,000 followers who receive e-mailed photos of the whimsical hearts that Hodel assembles every Sunday night from bits of string, cocktail umbrellas and acacia flowers, or by stacking oranges into the shape of a heart in the side of a woodpile.
“Someone once said I’m like the Andy Goldsworthy of love,” Hodel said. “I like that.”
Hodel now also helps produce jazz education and performance programs through the nonprofit Living Jazz. She is still DJing at all sorts of Bay Area venues, private parties, weddings, and some of the newer Bay Area girl parties such as Play Club or Butta, and spins occasionally at the Starlight Room.
She still has the stamina, despite a permanent ringing in her ears, tinnitus, which came on a decade ago after so many years in the loud DJ booth. She now must wear special earplugs while working.
These days, youngsters on the dance floor will give her kudos for being a DJ “at her age,” knowing nothing of her long legacy. But Hodel still has regulars, those who have followed her to the Starlight Room all the way from the thumping clubs of the ’80s.
“Page watches the floor. She’s not like those DJs who want you to hear their favorite music, that play one dance beat all night long,” said George Carty of San Jose, who has been dancing to Hodel for three decades. “She takes you to both sides of the street – black and white. Then she blends it, getting people to dance together who don’t normally do.”
Hodel refuses to make playlists beforehand; instead, she groups songs by beats per minute, and selects them spur-of-the-moment based on her reading of the crowd.
“I watch people’s faces to see if they light up or if their eyes roll when a certain song is played,” she said. “DJing is like flying a plane. You increase to liftoff, then hit the height, and then bring them down softly so they don’t even feel it.”
The Starlight Room plays to Hodel’s strengths – blending a crowd of unlike people into a musical whole. At the start of her 8 p.m. shift, she plays Frank Sinatra. By midnight, she’s playing a rap song, “Bubble Butt” by Major Lazer and Bruno Mars.
Yet all ages are still on the floor – European tourists, retirees, hipsters and young men in military fatigues. Hodel takes the headphones off her ears for a second.
“Did you see that?!” she asks, like a child discovering a shooting star.
“The energy level just went, whoosh!”
Rocking the console
She jumps back to her console, bopping her head and shimmy-shaking to the beat.
To Hodel, the dance floor is a stage. Every night there are characters, and every night they unfurl a different script. But the theme of the San Francisco tale is always the same – that communities collide: gay, straight, retired or still in college, but everyone is absolutely free to be themselves and dance together. If the dance floor is fire, Hodel likes to think of herself as the gasoline.
“I’ve always had this dream to buy a double-decker bus,” Hodel said. “I’d live in the top and have a dance club in the bottom. That way, the party would never leave me.”