Page 2 of 3As a student at Arden Cahill Academy in Gretna, Disco Donnie loved sports and social success. "Everyone would call him to see what he was doing. He was always the one that planned things, that made things happen," Betty Estopinal says. When he wasn't in school, he traveled with his mother, often in an old Datsun with no air conditioning, on trips to places such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park and Winter Park Resort.
In 1980, Betty Estopinal came down with a potentially deadly form of meningitis that required a four-month hospital stay. "It was a scary time, but the thing that upset him the most," she recalls, "was that nobody told him I could die until after I was OK."
Disco Donnie entered Louisiana State University
in 1990, planning to follow in his mother's footsteps and become an accountant.
In college, he threw small parties in bars, mostly for his fraternity, which
he led as president. When he returned to New Orleans after graduating in 1994,
he briefly worked for his mother and took a job waiting tables at night. One
night, a few gay men he worked with invited him to a dance party at Cafe Istanbul,
a now-defunct club on Frenchmen Street. "I felt misplaced when I first came
back here," he recalls as he twists the sideburns of his 1970s haircut into
little curls. "Until I found this. I was totally floored."
From then on, he set himself on a mission -- to spread the word about the culture he had found. "My personal crusade was not to let this scene pass by anybody else," he says. He passed out flyers and invited his fraternity brothers to attend dance parties around town and quickly became known as "Disco Donnie," a nickname that he considers an early rite of passage into the family of ravers he was helping to build.
Estopinal's first dance events were intimate affairs for a close-knit group of college-aged clubbers. He booked local DJs at Cafe Istanbul, the Audubon Hotel on St. Charles Avenue and the previous incarnation of the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center on Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District. Working with partners including Dan Millstein, aka DJ Stryfe, Estinopal organized the parties under a series of "company" monikers such as Moon Patrol, a precursor to his current entities, Disco Productions and the Freebass Society.
When the parties outgrew small clubs, Estopinal and his cohorts found larger, less legitimate venues. They posed as a sound equipment company to gain access to a stinky fish warehouse on Erato Street for a regular Friday night event. "No liquor license, no insurance, no security," he recalls. "Totally, like, stupid. Five hundred people started showing up to these things, and it got really risky. It's a six-story place, someone throws a two-by-four out the window, and it hits someone in the head. Stuff like that started happening. We knew that if we wanted to get bigger, we had to go legal."
THROUGHOUT THE GOLDEN AGE OF GRUNGE, the State Palace Theatre had featured acts such as Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam and had hosted the New Orleans premiere of the Dave Matthews Band in 1995. A family business owned and operated by brothers Robert and Brian Brunet and their father Rene Brunet, it had a security staff, proper insurance policies and ticket sales through Ticketmaster. It was also tailor-made for raves. With its ornate opera-house architecture and multiple performance rooms, the State Palace could accommodate dozens of DJs and live acts and throngs of electronic music fans.
The first few State Palace raves, held in 1995, drew crowds in the hundreds, and the first Freebass Society Mardi Gras party at the State Palace, Zoolu 2, held in February 1996, netted about $12,000. State Palace co-owner Robert Brunet learned quickly that there was money to be made from raves: "I said to Donnie and Dan, 'Hey, I don't know shit about the music you promote, and y'all don't know shit about putting on a show.' So, I proposed that we partner up. Donnie and Dan were peeing in their pants they were so excited. Donnie's not a dumb guy." Estopinal insists that he was the one to put a deal on the table with Brunet and that he wasn't altogether clueless about putting on shows. But he also admits that the bottom line was never his primary concern.
Donnie was always about the music," says Brunet. "He was always all, 'I'm concerned about how other promoters are going to feel about this,' or, 'I'm concerned about this not being the right thing for the kids.' I was like, f--k the other promoters."
Eventually, Estopinal's success meant he began receiving investment opportunities: a clothing line, a record label, a bagel shop. "I was so busy goofing off, I was like, whatever," he says. "I was spontaneously successful and I knew that it would be hard to duplicate that. I had seen enough VH1 Behind the Music to know that. I was resigned to the fact that one day, it would end, or slow down, or change."
"YOU EVER SEEN A BUILDING'S WALLS SWEAT?" asks local raver and Web archivist Bruce Burge, referring to the height of the State Palace rave scene, from 1996 to 2000.
Estopinal's parties became nationally known for bizarre themes and attractions. There was a dance contest MC-ed by Fred Berry (the now-deceased actor who played Rerun on the television sitcom What's Happening!!), a surprise set by 2 Live Crew, a puppet show by local novelty act Quintron and a traditional Mardi Gras second line by ReBirth Brass Band. At one party, the San Diego group Crash Worship led a drum-pounding processional that included a naked woman drenched in wine. Another time, Estopinal turned on all the house lights at 3 a.m. and had a choir sing "Amazing Grace" into the cavernous theater.
Some parties had cryptic titles like "Onslaught," and "Fire," and others took on more twisted themes like "Psychedelic Pimp-Daddyland," "Caffeine Sex Fiend," and "Supaphat Hong Kong Phooey." Later, Estopinal reincarnated successful parties with "brand" names such as, "Supaphat Hong Kong Phooey Twooey," "Phuture Phat Hong Kong Phooey," "Caffeine Mean Joe Greens," and "Caffeine Mr. Green Jeans."
Freebass Society parties also featured top-tier electronic music talent such as the Crystal Method, Paul Oakenfold and Thievery Corporation. In 2001, Scott Kirkland of the Crystal Method told the online magazine New Orleans Electronica Digest, "[Donnie] is always willing to do something for New Orleans that no other person in the country is willing to do, to make a connection to the people that go out and pay $20 and $30 a night to get into an event."
Talking to Freebass Society devotees, it's clear that they hold a near-eerie allegiance to Estopinal and the scene he created. Mostly in their early 20s, these ravers are visibly cautious when asked about their leader's antics, offering responses like, "Donnie would kill me," or, "I have a story, but it's X-rated." To some attendees, Estopinal held celebrity status. "People wanted to meet him, hang out with him or just touch him," says local DJ and upstart promoter Swede White. "They wanted to shake his hand and say thanks for the great time."
DISCO DONNIE WAS AT HOME, trying on outfits and styling his hair when agents from the DEA's New Orleans field office entered the State Palace Theatre on Aug. 26, 2000, just before "Phuture Phat Hong Kong Phooey" was set to begin. When Estopinal finally arrived, he found police cars, lights flashing, scattered around the venue's one-block perimeter. The police had sealed off the theater's entrance before its doors opened to patrons, leaving thousands of ravers spilling onto Canal Street.
From 9 p.m. until 1 a.m., DEA agents scoured the premises, seizing files, computers, party favors and as much bottled water as they could haul away. The agents found virtually no illegal drugs inside the theater -- and no proof that Estopinal and the Brunets were involved in any type of drug dealing. The following Monday morning, the promoters discovered that that wasn't the issue at hand.