Metro Weekly


Getting behind the scenes of D.C.'s circuit party, Cherry Weekend

Spring in Washington is a time for blooming and booming: When nature’s emerging foliage and flowers bring out the big and the brassy, from parades to parties, that celebrate the blossoming of life and love.

That’s the spirit behind Cherry, Washington’s circuit party that celebrates its own 11th anniversary this year.

But this spring promises a lot of boom to go with the bloom, as Cherry has assembled a cadre of clubland’s biggest big-room DJs for the weekend’s festivities, including local favorites Manny Lehman and Alyson Calagna, and New York’s dance music powerhouse Peter Rauhofer. Also on the list are some of the circuit’s most popular DJs — Ralphi Rosario and Abel Aguilera — as well as up-and-coming stars DJ Melissa and D.C.’s own DJ Glanson.

”We were very fortunate with the lineup that we were able to get,” says Paul Marengo, chair of the Cherry Fund, the nonprofit organization that throws the all-volunteer event. And there’s even a bonus for some music fans — those who splurge for a Platinum VIP pass can even ”Meet the DJ” before each party. ”That’s something I’ve never seen at any other party,” says Marengo.

While the impressive line-up promises to draw the crowds to Cherry’s dance floors, Marengo points to changes at the Cherry Fund itself that could be good news for the community. With what he calls a “more lean and more efficient” operation, Cherry hopes to donate more money to its designated beneficiaries: Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund; Lambda Legal; the Mautner Project for Lesbian Health; and The Center-Home for GLBT in D.C.

This year’s Cherry arrives at a time when change is in the air for Washington nightlife, with actual and impending club closures. Yet the city is also seeing a large number of new clubs and events on the horizon, ready to make their own stake on the nightlife scene.

And that includes Cherry itself. The board of the Cherry Fund has been engaged in discussion for some time about altering the format of Cherry — most radically by doing away with the annual full-weekend event altogether.

Based on changes in demographics and in the national circuit scene, the board suspects that throwing one-night-only events several times a year would result in greater revenue. That, in turn, would increase the money Cherry could donate to its beneficiaries.

”We have to evolve in order to survive,” says Marengo, adding that every option is on the table, including continuing the weekend event as is.

He suggests the board will make a decision about Cherry’s future by June, after this year’s event is complete and more is known about D.C.’s club changing club scene.

Photo copyright Isoceles Publishing
100s of pics from past Cherry Events

”That will allow us to see what happens after the dust settles,” says Marengo. ”We’re not trying to limit ourselves in any stretch of the imagination. We just want to make sure we continuously offer something different and new that people can’t get anywhere else.”

One way Cherry is offering something different is by hosting its Saturday night event at the 9:30 Club, which does double duty these days with both concerts and dance parties such as Blowoff. Also, the city will see its first organized after-hours party since the start of the year when Alyson Calagna spins at Platinum for Cherry’s early Sunday party.

”I’m thrilled to be back at Cherry and especially for the After-Hours,” Calagna says. ”I absolutely love after-hours — it’s my time slot of choice. I feel that after-hours fits my groove and my sound the best.”

Calagna is one of two lesbian DJs spinning for the largely gay male masses at Cherry 11 (Apex regular and Philly-based DJ Melissa will be at the 9:30 Club’s Back Bar on Saturday). ”I think it’s fabulous,” says Anita Broccolino, development director at the Mautner Project, of this year’s lesbian presence. “It makes it even more inclusive for everyone.”

Mautner is a Cherry beneficiary as well as the lead organizer of Cherry’s official lesbian event for the weekend. This year, that Saturday night party is new and different: a country music dance party — featuring two more lesbian DJs — and it’s being thrown at De Lounge in Wheaton, Md.

Broccolino says Cherry is a significant part of the Washington GLBT community.

”Cherry allows us to spread the word about our work in delivering direct services and education and advocacy for everyone with cancer in the metro D.C. area,” she says. ”But it also gives us funding so that we can continue to do the work.”

Offering an event that people can’t get anywhere else and that provides the community the most bang for its buck has obviously become a harder task over the years. The Cherry Fund has donated just over $60,000 after the past three annual weekend events combined — a fraction of what earlier Cherry events donated every year. While five beneficiaries evenly split a total $20,000 donated after Cherry 10, for example, Cherry 7’s beneficiaries got to divvy up a cushier total of $173,000. The discrepancy is not lost on the Cherry Fund’s board.

”We’re looking at our business model to see how we can make our event more efficient…so we can raise more money for our beneficiaries,” Marengo says. ”We’ve been doing the same kind of format for the last 11 years. It’s time to review what we’ve done in the past and see if that’s what we want to do in the future.”

Demographic changes are a leading factor in Cherry’s decreased donations. Over the years, attendance by non-resident partygoers has dropped. Out-of-town guests generally account for roughly a third of total attendance, according to Marengo. The percentage has been decreasing in part because the weekend is increasingly competing with other circuit events held within weeks of Cherry and in nearby areas from where Cherry still draws a majority of its visitors, most notably Pennsylvania and New York.

But, says Marengo, “local participation is growing,” although it’s not yet keeping pace with the decrease. ”We feel that if it’s going in that direction, then it would probably be in our better interest to focus on more local events.”

Analyzing attendance at Cherry will be key to the event’s future.

”If there’s a surge from local people, then obviously instead of trying to appeal to a larger regional audience, we’ll just do more local,” Marengo says. That would mean reducing the level of promotional effort Cherry currently expends regionally and at other circuit parties.

Changing from a full-weekend annual event to several one-off events throughout the year would also free up other costs, such as having a host hotel or a printed program guide. It could also make for easier venue selection. Marengo says selecting the right venue has become increasingly difficult and expensive, especially as some larger clubs close. For a number of reasons, most of the venues that remain “cost way too much money to use.”

Plus, a change might help with volunteer morale. ”Most of our board has been on the committee for years,” Marengo explains. ”You’re doing this in your spare time, so it does take a lot out of you. If we can raise just as much money or more doing smaller events, spread out throughout the course of the year, then that’s better for us, because then we’d become more focused, and put more energy into these smaller events rather than killing ourselves in the springtime to produce a whole weekend.”

Of course, it’s all a question of if. If such a change would be worth the trouble. If the community, talent and beneficiaries would support it. Those are the issues that will preoccupy Cherry organizers over the next weeks and months.

For now, Cherry’s organizers are focused on the full weekend event they began planning last summer. Marengo says it wasn’t their explicit intention to recruit the biggest DJs in the business, even though that’s exactly what they did. He also insists the move wasn’t conceived as any kind of grand finale to the full-weekend format.

Photo copyright Isoceles Publishing
100s of pics from past Cherry Events

”We look at DJ selection more now [than in previous years] as a business decision,” Marengo says. “It wasn’t strategic, it was just who’s good, who will draw people and who hasn’t played for us in a while and who’s never played for us.

”We were very lucky this year as far as DJs and how much they cost us,” Marengo says. Many of the DJs reduced their fees for the event, which helps to explain why tickets are cheaper this year. Cherry is one of the last circuit parties still operating as an all-volunteer, nonprofit affair.

”Cherry has been a legendary weekend for years, and it’s a good cause, so I said of course I’m going to do it,” says Peter Rauhofer, about being asked to handle the Saturday Night Main Event. Rauhofer, one of dance music’s most popular remixers, has never spun for Cherry — and hasn’t spun in D.C. since 2000.

”There’s a lot of anticipation about Saturday night because of Rauhofer,” says Marengo, “but also because not many people have been to the 9:30 Club when there was a Saturday party there.” Before VelvetNation began in 1999, the same promoters held the weekly Millennium Party in the space, and more recently, Bob Mould and Rich Morel have been throwing their monthly gay Blowoff party there.

Cherry’s Friday Night Welcome Event will again be at one of D.C.’s longest-running gay venues, Apex. The event will offer a rare opportunity to hear Manny Lehman, a former monthly resident at Nation who in the past few years has only made infrequent visits to D.C. Marengo says that with Lehman, ”We’re bringing in a DJ that a lot of people haven’t heard in a long time or at all — we’re talking a new generation that’s never heard him.” It will also be a rare chance to hear the usually big-room DJ in a smaller, more intimate venue.

Aside from dancers and flaggers, no entertainers have been hired for Cherry: ”We just wanted to focus more on the music,” Marengo says. Meanwhile, New York-based lighting guru Guy Smith will handle both the Main Event and Closing Night Parties.

Cherry will close the way many Cherry events have, but in a way that no other Cherry event will: at Nation, the club set to close in July. Cherry brings back its famed closing night DJ, Abel Aguilera, to do the honors, this time with Ralph Rosario, his partner in the remix and production duo Rosabel. The Chicago-based Rosario is a popular remixer, best known for making the Pussycat Dolls’ ”Don’t Cha” especially ubiquitous in gay clubs last year. The Miami-based Abel is arguably the circuit’s most popular DJ, and the resident at New York’s Alegria party.

But the focus at this year’s Cherry Sunday Night Closing Event will be less on the DJs than on the club hosting the event. Nation will be dressed up for the occasion by expert circuit decorators RKM Future Boys. Abel told Metro Weekly last year that Nation is one of his favorite clubs in which to spin — ”Everybody seems to have a good time there.”

Adds Rauhofer, who spun there a couple times soon after Velvet first started: ”It’s a great place, it seemed to me always like a theater; there’s something theatrical about it. Maybe it was those big curtains.”

For a full listing of events and locations visit Tickets for each individual event can be purchased at the door, or at the Cherry Welcome Center at the Doubletree Washington, 1615 Rhode Island Avenue NW. The Welcome Center will be open Thursday evening, Friday afternoon and early evening, and Saturday afternoon. Host Passes and VIP Passes, starting at $190, can also be purchased at the Welcome Center. Visit the web site for more information.

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.