Jeffrey Sanker’s White Party Fetes 30 Years in Palm Springs
“There’s hardly anything that’s lasted as long in gay culture that people are still so passionate about,” Sanker told The Hollywood Reporter.
Thirty years ago, budding impresario Jeffrey Sanker had just moved to Los Angeles from New York, where he had cut his event-producing teeth at clubs like Studio 54 and Private Eyes. He was working at Studio One, the legendary disco that was a touchstone of early West Hollywood.
“I went out to Palm Springs and thought wouldn’t it be a cool idea to get people out of the nightclubs and into the beautiful desert,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter.
“We started this as a weekend, long before social media, and I was just inviting my friends,” he says. “It was 500 people at the Marquis Hotel for three days and we had one DJ for the whole weekend. We had pool parties and it was so hot we put ice cubes in the pool.”
Cut to this coming weekend when the desert dance mega-party is expected to attract 30,000 LGBTQ+ revelers over three days starting Friday, kicking off with an afternoon pool party and keeping up a full schedule revolving around the Saturday night White Party with the theme “House of Gods.”
The following day brings another notable event, the big Sunday tea dance that culminates in special synchronized fireworks. “At the tea dance, we have 22-year-olds and 82-year-olds,” Sanker says. “There’s no other event around the world that has such a diverse age range. The customer who was 25 is now 50 and they still want to go out and have a little fun.”
Over the years, the White Party stage has seen iconic entertainers make their way to Palm Springs, including early appearances that helped to popularize the careers of Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande. Other marquee names have included Jennifer Lopez, Kesha, Mary J. Blige and Kyle Minogue.
Lady Gaga’s midnight show in 2009 was particularly memorable for Sanker. “We had a contract for the White Party signed six months before and she had blown up and got an offer to do Saturday Night Live. Her manager called me, and I said, ‘She’s a friend and I’ll release her. I’m happy for her,’” he recalls. “She decided not to do Saturday Night Live and did my party instead, just to support the community. It really said something amazing about who she is. And, of course, she was on SNL two months later with Madonna.”
This year, Sanker is presenting “legends,” including RuPaul Drag Race star Shangela and legend Deborah Cox. “Shangela is a legend of our time and Debra Cox is a legend for supporting the gay community for the last 20 years,” he says. And he’s got one other “big surprise” performer and friend to the community about whom he’s remaining tight-lipped.
“It’s hard to give yourself accolades,” Sanker says, “but looking back 30 years ago, Sonny Bono was the mayor of Palm Springs and they were not gay-friendly. But we toughed it out and look at how gay Palm Springs is now, with a lot of people buying homes.”
The weekend is also a major economic driver for the city, with an estimated $1.5 million in revenue just from the hotel tax revenue alone, not to mention all the money attendees spend at restaurants, shopping and accommodations. “They give me a proclamation every year,” Sanker says, “and they gave me a star on the Walk of Fame. My parents liked seeing it, so that was nice. There’s hardly anything that’s lasted as long in gay culture that people are still so passionate about."