Never promising a performer he doesn’t deliver, Mark Nelson has engineered some of the most enormous parties and events of our time. Having some of the largest clients to his credit, Nelson is presently preparing for his 12th year of Gay Day at Six Flags Great Adventure. On September 5, Fairgrounds: Out at Night, the largest private LGBT event, unfolds, exploding with an adventure-filled day and night of pure, innocent fun.
Intrigued for years by the brilliance of whomever created the fun-filled amusement park event, I found Nelson candid, honest and, most of all, fun, especially as he went behind the scenes of some of the history of New York’s gay clubs and parties.
Mark, do you go on any of the rides?
I do, actually. I don’t go every year, because sometimes I’m stuck at the gate, cause I’m like the boss, so I have to make sure things are operational. Last time I went on rides it was fun, because I went with Melissa Gorga from “The Housewives.” We went on “Kingda Ka,” and the words that came out of that woman’s mouth…
I could just imagine.
She caught me off guard. It’s fun to go on the rides with lots of different people, and I think that one of the joys I see out of it is that everyone is in a good mood. Everyone! And there is something calming for everyone too. The focus is on rides, not racism, ageism, sexism. It all takes a back door, because people are just excited about going on rides. There’s a carnival area with Kewpie Dolls and things like that. It’s just pleasant. It’s an event were everybody is just happy, and it doesn’t matter your financial background—it’s all even, if that makes sense. I like the idea of things that are fun. We are all guilty of positioning things—“Oh, this is my Jewish friend,” or, “This is my gay friend.” It’s always those pronouns. I’d like them to go away. I just want in my life great people. In the relationship with the gay and lesbian community, it’s not a religion, but a sexual orientation, and that seems to be acknowledged. I’m tired of these politically correct people. “You suck dick, just like me!”
That’s why we’re related. Otherwise we have nothing else in common. Over the years people have wanted me to back them because they’re gay. They’re not talented, Eileen. They’re not anything. They just suck dick. That’s not good enough; that doesn’t work for me. We just had Gay Pride here in LA. It’s different than in New York. I lived in New York for 23 years. It’s more political. Obviously in New York they push the marriage equality, immigration. Here in LA, no, it’s just not politically motivated, and it doesn’t need to be. It’s almost like it’s a reason for people to party. What you have to understand is we’re not so set apart anymore. I think the gay community needs to take a look at itself, because of that recent thing with the guy who owned the Out Hotel. If you’re living in LA, a lot of the stuff just doesn’t get to me, newsworthy stuff. In New York, you’re very on point. News is right outside the door. In LA it’s really dumbed down. I guess maybe because it’s three hours behind. Those guys at the Out Hotel, they don’t represent me. I’m not a fan of theirs. I never worked with them. I think I’m the only person that didn’t work there, and it was my choice. Back in those days I did a party called The F Word, and it was really well received by the community, because it was a change. I would have celebrities and all kinds of stuff. Everybody was the same. There was no VIP. Everybody is just as important as the other person, and I’ve always been that guy that saw that. I’m not a fan of separate. By the way, I have a VIP for Six Flags, but the difference is they pay more to go in through an exit. They don’t have to wait in line.
That makes sense.
But it’s not like a special area just for you. You have enough problems without making people feel “less than.” Please, I used to do a party called Crash, which was all Latin. People thought that because I was a white gay I should do a white party, and people would say that. I went by the prettiest person, people who looked like they were going to have fun. This was their outlet. I worked at Splash for 20 years. The owner, we happened to be about the same size. I’m Norwegian and Swedish. The owner was German/French. If you didn’t know better, glancing, we could be the same person. I did not want to be associated with the owner of Splash. They did some really evil, fucked-up things. I didn’t want to be part of that. That’s not my life. There would be happy hour, and someone people would bring their mother. The owner would say, “Get her out of there.” He would do these crazy things.
I love when mothers come to gay clubs.
Well yeah, I celebrate that. There was a time in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, where at gay clubs you kind of wanted it more pure, more boys. There used to be a club called the Clit Club. So the Clit Club was a lesbian bar in the Meatpacking District, of course. I went there begrudgingly twice. Sure enough, I’d go in there, and I’d get attacked: “What are you doing in here? It’s for girls.”
I created the woman’s dance for Gay Pride.
Yeah, because they would rent the Pier out. The Sunday Night Pier Dance was great. I did the entertainment there for 12 years. You had to have a certain amount of income to go to that. It shut out 90% of the gay community, because they didn’t have $150 to spend on that. So they’d have the Gay Pride festival and things like that, but it did separate people. So you know what, it wasn’t a Gay Pride dance; it was a boys night. If I was a girl, I wouldn’t want to be caught dead in that. I wouldn’t want to be jostled around with these big steroid guys. So all of a sudden a woman’s dance just made sense. Its first incarnation was Rapture on the River.
So how did Six Flags come about?
My sobriety is very important to me. I struggle with my sobriety all the time, and I would analyze why I do drugs. I don’t drink, but I did drugs. When you work around clubs, it’s there. It’s always there. In my sobriety mode I said, “OK, let’s give someone something to do, to focus on.” I used to go to Twilo and Sound Factory, and it was a big black room. We’d just do bumps of coke. That’s how I came up with this. I would go to Orlando, their gay day. Gay people would have to wear red shirts. So there was a family, and this particular guy had a red shirt on. They were from Ohio, and the kids were like, “They think you’re gay.” Now, this guy never cared about if people were straight or gay. He didn’t give a shit but when he started being called gay. He copped an attitude. He didn’t want to be considered gay, because his kids were saying it. I watched the whole thing go down. It’s not helping the gay community. So I met with Six Flags a number of times for over a year. Then finally in 2004 we had our first party. There were like 2,000 people. Then the following year there were about 6,000. Everybody loved it. It was crazy.
Everyone looks forward to it.
It’s not a circuit party. First of all, I don’t price it that way. We do about 5,000 people every year. I think it will continue, but the movement is more concentrated on the fairgrounds, if that makes sense. It’s for the LGBTQI. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has been my main concern for about 10 years, and I work hand in hand with them on different things, whether it’s the Winter Party or if they do clinically motived dinners and stuff to help. This year we are working with a very gay-friendly church. I’m not religious; I’m spiritual. But I believe we all kind of grew up in churches, the majority of us. I think it falls back on “Good people.” I like to support good people who have good intentions, who have a good life. I’m all for it. The Six Flags is not a political statement. It’s as innocent as I can get—more bubble gum, more cookies and Kool-Aid. I mean, they sell beer, and I’m all for everything. I just want people to be in a safe situation. If they want to queen out and be crazy, no one is going to give them a dirty look. If someone says, “Hey gurrrlll, werk it out…”
And when you yell “Mary” and a thousand guys answer, that’s the fun of it.
It is fun. I actually think the standing in line is the funniest part of the night, because that’s when it’s kind of kiki with other people. It’s the opposite of standing in an elevator looking down at your feet. New York is different. We have people who are prepared and know how to interact with people. Here in LA I don’t see that. People are prepared, and they want to be spoken to, but if you speak to them they say, “Are you’re speaking to me?” New York is my home, but it eats people up too. I feel like I conquered whatever I had to. I had a good time, but when I was approaching 50 years old, I was like, “I don’t know if I want to have this little one-bedroom apartment in Chelsea.” It was a smart thing I did Eileen. I got a car, packed my dog and drove west.
That had to be exciting, like a challenge.
I felt like a gypsy. I just had to go. You just know something is correct. That’s how I felt when I did Six Flags. I knew it was the right thing. Everyone has ideas, but it’s a big struggle to go from ideas to implementation. I can tell you know what I’m talking about. There is satisfaction with this. I’m proud today that I produced and own and operate this annual event for the gay and lesbian community. And it’s not about me. “Mark Nelson Presents…” doesn’t mean anything to them. I stopped that years ago. It’s about “them.” It’s about giving to that part of the community, not the middle age white guy from Minnesota. I’m part of the Imperial Court, Night of a Thousand Gowns. All these things are for me. I have a satisfaction in my own head. It’s all about giving something back.
I love Gary, by the way.
OMG! Don’t you just love Gary Cosgrove. The next time you talk to him, give him my love. He always means well, and he always does well.
I will. So what DJs are you having at Six Flags?
David Aude, Ultra Nate, Steve Sidewalk, Joey Zeb and Kimani. We’re working on the talent. From 8 to 9 o’clock is going to be the main show though, versus 11 or 12 at night. We’ll be at the movie area. There is a Warner Brothers movie lot. There will be acts and stuff like that. The park closes at 8 p.m. to the public. Over the years there’s been really good acts. Last week in LA they had Kesha. People went nuts, but they were all drunk – so drunk.
Drunk can be so annoying.
My own personal thing was, I’d do a couple of shots of tequila, and then I’d be, “Who has some cocaine?”
Cocaine never did anything for me.
Thank God. For me it turned into crystal meth. I just had to stop it. My job is to preempt people, and I may do a drive by, but I like to be in bed by 11 p.m. I just don’t put myself in that situation. I’m very up front into people’s faces if I see them heading in that direction. I do make a point in my life, especially to people into the nightclub scene, to enjoy it, but when it starts becoming a job you need to walk away, but they don’t.
And you started in the club and entertainment industry because?
I kind of started in the go-go boy community, and I hate to say it, but I worked my way up. I did! I became HIV+ in ’91, and that changed everything. I had dreams. It’s been a good life, but I had other ideas in my head what to do. Then it became, “You’re going to die anyway, so party, party, and party.” Everything changed, but then 10 years ago or so I said, “OMG, I’m not gonna die. I need to put money away. What is a 401(k)?” I had to grow up. God or the higher being, whatever you want to call it, they keep me in line. My health is pretty good. I have my moments where I’m on a death bed, and it’s a reminder of doing the right thing for myself. I worked at a bar called The Break. That was my first gay bar. I bartended and managed it. That was in 1992 to 1994. It was fun back then, because it was a shithole, and I didn’t know who you were. I knew that you tipped or that you didn’t tip. We’d have all types of people going in there, like Michael Feinstein. I didn’t know who Michael Feinstein was. It was just a fun time.
It was a good time. Things are a little different now.
But they’re still having fun. You know, there is a new frontier going on. People my age are the first 40s, 50s group who skipped a generation or two because of the AIDS crisis. When I was in my 20s, the guys who were in their 40s were dying. With them went that baton where a lot of that was just lost. Even the Imperial Court gang and I had long conversations. They need to get these young drag queens to go to this. They don’t know about it, and that’s their future. They need to set some tables aside and just have some nightclub drag queens come in.
[Editor’s note: The conversation continued for another 45 minutes, and Mark disclosed his experiences with Debra Harry, Jody Watley, Amber and Cyndi Lauper, who he doubled with as club kid, producer and promoter for. Nelson spoke of people refusing to pay cover charges not understanding the fact that it pays for people like Amanda LePore. Nelson talked about the fact that he is so well known for never promising an act that doesn’t show up.]
This world can rob us of so many things, if we allow it. Personally, I feel like I’m a survivor, so I actually have fun. I kind of am just being genuine, becaus e I don’t care. I don’t need to prove anything anymore. I want to have fun still too, just like everybody else, but I also acknowledge that I’m 50 years old, not 22. I don’t think I would want to be 22.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I just want to say that I am devastated by the passing of Rob Fernandez. He was a close friend and business partner.
Lastly, remind us when gay Six Flags going to take place?
I want people to go and have fun. We have buses that go. It’s rain or shine. It’s Saturday, September 5. The park opens at 11 a.m. You have to have a ticket from us to stay after 8 p.m.