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Disco Donnie and the Days of Rave

All Disco Donnie wanted to do was throw some wild parties. Then he threw New Orleans into the center of a national debate over music, drugs, the First Amendment and pacifiers.

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The stench of smoke and must rises to the State Palace Theatre's massive balcony. It's a few minutes until the start of the first local screening of Rise: The Story of Rave Outlaw Disco Donnie, a new documentary about the heyday of the local rave scene and its legendary promoter. The line to get into this all-night party stretches up Canal Street and halfway around the block on Elk's Place, where paint chips from the theater's unkempt exterior drop to a sidewalk flooded almost exclusively with white high school- and college-aged kids. Girls in halter tops sparkle with body glitter, chatting up boys in baggy pants. Eager to get inside, each patron meets with a security bottleneck at the door. Bags, pockets and shoes are searched; IDs are checked. An enormous sign above the doors prohibits glow materials, Vicks inhalers, Vicks Vapo Rub, dust masks and infant pacifiers.

Inside, the curtain opens to whoops and howls. The opening credits feature QBert -- a seminal hip-hop DJ, hailed for his elevation of turntablism as an art form -- collecting his luggage from the local airport carousel. Like most of the passengers on his flight, he's on his way to a Mardi Gras party, namely Zoolu, a rave at the State Palace Theatre. As the film plays on, a host of international DJs appear, including marquee names such as Josh Wink, Nigel Richards and Derrick Carter.

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But none of these performers is the star of the film.

That honor is reserved for event promoter James D. Estopinal Jr., aka Disco Donnie, who first appears dressed in an orange vinyl tracksuit and a Wagner's Meat T-shirt, gold sunglasses and a bottle opener on a gold rope around his neck. "We're going to a party," he says to start the film, flashing both rows of stark-white teeth in a wide grin. "Twenty-five hundred or 3,000 of my closest friends."

Estopinal's wildly popular parties at the State Palace Theatre became the stuff of rave legend by early 2000. Yet it wasn't just innovative productions and financial success that landed him in Time, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. The parties -- along with their venue and promoter -- won their fame thanks to a national controversy that would eventually grow to include the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), both houses of Congress and the entire entertainment industry.

 

GROWING UP ON THE WEST BANK
James D. Estopinal Jr. got his first taste of nightlife via his father. A hardworking attorney, James Estopinal Sr. gave up his practice in 1979 after he separated from 8-year-old Donnie's mother. Known as "Disco Jim," the elder Estopinal took a job as a DJ at a bar called Scratches on Behrman Highway. Sometimes on weekends, Donnie's mother would let him go there with his father. "I would sleep on the floor, go through records, play video games, help stock beers, stuff like that," the younger Estopinal recalls.

Once, Disco Jim staged an "urban cowboy" show at the bar. Dressed in chaps, he played the theme song from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and had patrons sign a liability release form before mounting the quarter-a-ride hobbyhorse he'd rented for the occasion. Another time, he encouraged everyone to get naked to a Rolling Stones record.

When he wasn't spinning records, Disco Jim lived in a motor home parked in a field near the bar. "I thought it was awesome that he lived in a motor home," says Disco Donnie. "I saw all kinds of stuff kids aren't supposed to see."

Most of the time, though, Estopinal lived with his mother, Betty Estopinal, a CPA who now runs her own accounting firm in Metairie. The most striking thing in her office is a massive portrait of "Disco Donnie" dancing in a leisure suit, constructed entirely of Mardi Gras beads. "That's my son!" she says proudly.

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