This article examines the culture of California Christian nightclubs opened by evangelical entrepreneurs in the 1970s and ’80s. These venues were part of an effort to reclaim secular spaces and transform them into Christian copies of typical nightlife sites like bars and dance clubs. The nightclubs were designed to break the stereotype of religious spaces as anti-fun, offering a secular feel with dance floors and state-of-the-art sound systems. The article explores the rise of Christian nightclubs, the development and culture of these evangelical spaces, and the reasons for their failure to become a significant part of American nightlife. Despite the excitement of Christians at the opening of these venues across the United States, no real mass Christian nightlife movement developed. Although Christian nightclubs opened in various cities well into the twenty-first century, they survived only briefly as novelty creations. Because they were unprofitable, they failed to create a lasting Christian nightlife culture.

On a warm Saturday evening in 1971, as the day’s light waned and the familiar hymn “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended” perhaps echoed in some minds, an orderly queue began to form just after 8:30 in front of a music venue near Beverly Hills.1 The setting sun might have signaled the close of a day, but for those in line, the evening was just beginning, and it promised a different kind of spiritual experience. At first glance, the venue appeared unremarkable. It sat on the so-called Sunset Strip, a nearly two-mile stretch of road infamous for rowdy nightclubs, bars, and restaurants on Sunset Boulevard, an area of the city that Los Angeles rocker Arthur Lee once compared to “a psychedelic movie in technicolor.”2 But unlike the typical clientele of other music clubs on the Strip, those in line at this musical venue seemed quite different. These folks in line were of all ages, with neatly presented hair and well put together attire, an appearance the Los Angeles Times would call a “mother’s dream…Orange County safe.” The message appearing on the neon marquee towering above the queue was unexpected, too; instead of marketing the latest up-and-coming rock musician, the sign read “The Jesus Movement Is Here.” These patrons were not waiting for a Friday night filled with booze and dancing to psychedelic rock. Rather, they were in line for a show at the brand-new venue Right On, the city’s first Christian nightclub.3

Beginning in the early 1970s, entrepreneurs in California and across the nation began opening Christian nightclubs. They hoped to profit from the emerging Christian marketplace, of course, but also intended to claim secular spaces such as bars and nightclubs, sites typically associated with morally suspect activities, and transform them into joyfully Christian spaces, where patrons might have fun in the company of fellow followers of Christ. These entrepreneurs also believed that Christian nightclubs could be helpful sites of evangelism: since non-Christians did not hear the gospel at traditional houses of worship, these music venues would bring the flock to the gospel.

Religious nightclubs were part of Christian Americans’ efforts to create religious versions of such secular entertainments as theme parks, music festivals, museums, and summer camps, all part of a Christian consumerist movement that emerged in the middle of the twentieth century. Christian nightlife entrepreneurs hoped to reach those non-Christian teenagers and adults who found other Christian spaces too stuffy, churchy, and overly evangelistic. They intended their nightclubs to combat the stereotype of religious spaces as being anti-fun. Entrepreneurs envisioned Christian amusements as a way to keep Christians devoted to God every day, at all hours of the day, not just on Sunday mornings. These nightclubs were special to so many Christians, I argue, precisely because they were not church; they were seldom affiliated with any specific church. Christian nightlife owners reasoned that the clubs’ secular feel, with dance floors and state-of-the art sound systems, could make being Christian cool, and thus more appealing to nonbelievers. The nightclubs were experiments in re-envisioning evening pleasures without cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol, as promoters explored the ways that patrons might reimagine modern Christian life, devout while also hip. Promoters offered spaces in which the saved and unsaved could listen to music and dance, enjoy wholesome leisure with like-minded people, and find suitable dates and, ideally, Christian spouses.

Prior to the advent of Christian nightclubs, evangelical fans of music and fellowship predominantly found solace in coffeehouses and, later, music festivals. The emergence of Christian commercial nightclubs without formal ties to churches marked an audacious stride in infusing sacred ethos into erstwhile secular spaces. The archetypical image of a nightclub, with its sensual dancing, tobacco consumption, and alcohol indulgence, seemed starkly at odds with Christian ideals. Despite this, Christian entrepreneurs dared to reimagine and repurpose these venues to align with their religious worldviews. They believed they could Christianize secular institutions, resulting in benefits that extended beyond merely curtailing vice and sin. This bold endeavor was buoyed by a surge in the evangelical demographic in California in the 1970s, characterized by a spectrum of beliefs (especially among young people and Christian nightlife entrepreneurs) that occasionally demonstrated an openness to challenging traditional evangelical taboos, especially dancing.

This article is structured in three parts. First, I briefly discuss the context that led to the rise of Christian nightclubs in the 1970s. I explain how California, particularly Southern California, saw a revival of Christianity in the 1960s through the 1980s. The Jesus Movement proclaimed on Right On’s marquee described a robust emerging marketplace for Christ-themed products and services. The growth in Christian identification convinced Christian entrepreneurs that a market existed for new kinds of Christian leisure spaces. Next, I explore the development and culture of Christian nightclubs in California, focusing on eight clubs that opened between 1971 and 1986 in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Newport Beach, Fresno, Orange, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Commonalities within these venues reflected entrepreneurs’ vision of what a stable Christian nightlife culture might look like in late twentieth-century America. Entrepreneurs struck a tricky balance in designing their nightclubs, combining Christian messaging and wholesome pleasures with the traditional features of secular nightlife, trying to appear neither too religious or not religious enough. Finally, I explain the failure of Christian nightclubs to become a staple of evening entertainment in modern America. Despite the excitement of Christians at the opening of these venues across the United States, no real mass Christian nightlife movement developed. Christian nightclubs proved unprofitable and, despite attempts in various cities well into the twenty-first century to build and sustain them, they remained novelties, incapable of overtaking and replacing secular nightlife culture.

The birth of Christian nightclubs in the early 1970s coincided with what commentator Tom Wolfe calls the “Third Great Awakening” in America, when “people were finding god in record numbers and in odd places.”4 This Great Awakening was unevenly distributed across Christian denominations. While so-called liberal Protestant denominations such as Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians saw a 20 to 30 percent decline in membership in the decades following World War II, the membership rolls of evangelical and fundamentalist denominations surged through the 1970s. Even new evangelical movements prospered, in the form of megachurches and what historian Bruce J. Schulman calls “para-church networks,” such as the Willow Creek congregation in 1975 and the Calvary Chapel movement in 1976.5 By 1978, one study suggests, nearly a quarter of Americans identified as evangelical Christians; a decade later, Gallup found that 32 percent of Americans identified either as “born again” or evangelical.6 In the 1970s, evangelical Christianity seemed to grip the nation.

California helped to fuel this evangelical explosion. In the postwar era, the state’s population grew rapidly, due in large part to migration from Southern Bible Belt states. Between 1930 and 1970, six million people left the South, with many settling in Southern California, known for its temperate weather and rising middle-class suburban prosperity. By 1969 California had more Southern-born residents than Arkansas.7 In the early 1940s, Carey McWilliams, editor of the Nation, thought of Southern California with its peculiar mixing of cultures as an “island on the land,” unlike most other parts of America. By the late 1960s he saw Southern California as “the America to come.”8

The state’s evangelical explosion was not limited to Southern California. In 1968 the San Jose Mercury-News reported a “New Religious Awakening” around San Francisco’s South Bay, where the numbers of Protestant churches grew rapidly. The Calvary Community Church in San Jose could claim fewer than 400 attendees in 1970, but by 1980 it counted nearly 5,000 parishioners.9 At a time when many Americans felt discontent with the world order (manifested in the counterculture centered in San Francisco in the late 1960s), many Californians embraced evangelicalism as an alternative way to channel their uneasiness. These California Christians wanted to “assert their sense of a properly ordered world,” explains historian Lisa McGirr, and saw “championing family values, authority, and tradition” via a Christian lifestyle as one way to do it.10

The surge in popularity of evangelical Christianity in California through the 1970s accompanied the belief of some that Christianity could be fully ingrained into daily life and culture, becoming more than a Sunday-morning ritual. The Jesus Movement that began in Southern California in the late 1960s demonstrates this trend. The movement’s founder, Reverend Chuck Smith, modeled his new Orange County church, Calvary Chapel, on the hippie counterculture lifestyle. Instead of embracing psychedelic drugs and free love, however, Smith encouraged his followers (later self-branded as “radical Christians” or “Jesus Freaks”) to come barefoot into his newfound church and to accept an informal loving relationship with God. The church found huge popularity with both teenagers and adults, even in middle-class, conservative Orange County, partly because of what historian Lisa McGirr called its “informal Southern California style” of embracing folk music, lively Bible sessions, and church gatherings and baptisms on Southern California’s gorgeous beaches. In 1965, Smith’s church had 25 members; by 1978, 25,000 Christians attended Calvary Chapel.11

This mushrooming of California’s evangelical community led Christian entrepreneurs to envision the creation of what Jeremy Rifkin called a “total Christian community” and the infrastructure network to support it. By the 1970s, evangelicals across the United States had created Christian senior homes, banks, auto-repair facilities, coffeehouses, beauty shops, and medical offices. Some built sites of Christian pleasure, including Christian dude ranches, radio programs, summer camps, bookstores, and amusement parks.12 The Christian theme park Heritage USA opened in 1978 in South Carolina, complete with a massive waterpark, the Jerusalem Amphitheater, and Christian-themed stores and cafeterias. So many evangelicals visited the park that, before it closed a decade later, it was the third most visited amusement park in the world, after Disneyworld and Disneyland. Historians like Colleen McDannell agree that the rise of such institutions as independent Christian bookstores in this period reflected how evangelicals saw their faith as both belief system and lifestyle.13

While evangelicals embraced this emerging Christian commercial and recreational infrastructure across the country, most remained skeptical about creating Christian versions of institutions they saw as particularly connected to sin. Southern Baptist minister Arthur Blessitt set out to witness to the youth, hustlers, and drug users on the Sunset Strip in the late 1960s precisely because he thought nightclubs were dens of sin. He urged nightlife workers to embrace Christianity, particularly barmaids, sex workers, strip show dancers, and band members. Blessitt even secured permission from Sunset Strip nightclub owners to enter their clubs for occasional evangelism. Although workers “know we oppose their type of entertainment,” explained Blessitt, nightclub owners “realize the spiritual needs of their workers.” Blessitt urged nightlife patrons and their staff not to drop acid but instead to “drop Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” After all, he noted, Jesus was the “everlasting high.”14 To evangelicals like Blessitt, the idea of a nightclub was synonymous with sin. Evangelical newsletters often referred to the “nightclub section” of cities in negative terms, describing them as seedy, sex- and drug-focused areas of the inner city. Blessitt hoped that one day in the not-so-distant future a nightclub owner might be saved and potentially open a clean “gospel nightclub” in California. The newspaper Southern Baptist observed that some conservative Christians might think a Christian nightclub “farfetched,” but added that “it would be another door to taking the gospel to the lost where they are.”15 Blessitt’s dream of a Christian nightclub came to fruition more quickly than he might have expected. Just three years later, on the same street where he ministered to nightclub employees and patrons, Blessitt witnessed the opening of the Right On nightclub.16

Christian entrepreneurs had no idea if their nightclub experiments would actually work. But they observed other evangelical entrepreneurs remaking formerly secular daytime spaces and applied the principle to nighttime spaces. They hoped their experimental Christian nightclubs would catch on, not just in their own cities but nationwide—and what better place to experiment than California, especially with the evangelical and population boom of the mid-twentieth century? Christian entrepreneurs hoped their Christian nightclubs in California would inspire a nationwide evangelical nightlife movement that could rebrand evangelical culture as fun and hip.

Thus, by the early 1970s Christian entrepreneurs were ready to found Christian nightclubs in California, but whether these sites were appropriate for believers was still up for debate. Unlike Christian theme parks, campgrounds, coffeehouses, or museums, nightlife spaces seemed inherently connected to vice and sin. Many Christians were convinced that nightlife was antithetical to their beliefs. Readers of The King’s Business, a monthly newspaper of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, learned in the late 1950s how jazz musician and evangelical Jack Wyrtzen bought an island off New York to convert into a Bible conference center. To attract the faithful, however, Wyrtzen first dismantled the property’s “posh nightclub.” The newspaper reported approvingly that the venue was “cleaned of its bar, cigarette machines, and dances,” and thus was suitable as a “family resort.”17

Similarly, in an opinion article against dancing in The King’s Business, Dr. William W. Orr painted a vivid picture of the environments where dancing took place. He described them as establishments filled with “drinking, smoking, and profanity. The lights are always turned low as if to hide what goes on there. The music is strange, jungle music…the whole thing reeks of sensuality and lust.”18 Even the popular evangelical Baptist Billy Graham portrayed nightclubs as fundamentally anti-Christian. Expressing concern about the effects of television on evangelicals in a 1958 interview with Christianity Today, Graham remarked that Christians were “no longer sensitive to sin. I think television brought the nightclub into the home, along with violence and sex, things that Christians looked upon 10 years ago with abhorrence.”19 These were pervasive views of nightclubs throughout the evangelical community: the clubs were irredeemably tied to indulgence, overt sexuality, and sinful excess.

These suspicions continued even as California entrepreneurs began opening Christian nightspots in the 1970s. Sam Talbert of Santa Ana’s Calvary Church understood promoters’ motives but still disapproved. To him, discothèques and the like were “worldly institutions. They originated in bars and so naturally my reaction to a Christian disco is negative.” Gary Richmond, youth minister of Santa Ana’s Trinity United Presbyterian, thought Christian nightclubs put religious patrons “too close to the edge of a lifestyle” that endangered their faith. Richmond fervently opposed the idea of Christian nightclubs, which he said increased the patron’s “appetite for that type of lifestyle, the worldly lifestyle of whatever feels good.” This, he feared, placed believers on a perilous path that “leads them to temptation.” Richmond also took issue with nightspots that offered dancing, which could result in romance and potentially lead couples into sin. He insisted that it was not “the church’s function” to provide the faithful with romantic opportunities. The Christian attracted to such spaces, he believed, was already on the “borderline in terms of his relationship and commitment to the church.” Rather than successfully spread evangelical Christianity, Richmond argued that Christian nightclubs would decrease individuals’ attachment to their religion.20

Despite the objections of Talbert, Richmond, and others who opposed commercial Christian nightclubs, others in California’s diverse evangelical community saw potential in this new concept. They believed such venues could provide an alternative, Christian-infused form of nightlife that retained the nightclub’s appealing aspects, especially music, dance, and camaraderie, while eliminating its associated vices. Hal Ruppert, who opened two Christian nightclubs in Orange County in the 1970s, recalled growing up with a “conservative faith” that outlawed dancing, but he grew to love dance as a young adult. Ruppert explained that the Christian aversion to dancing was “associated with drinking…card playing…loose women. Things that draw you away from God.”21 Ruppert reasoned that he could build sites that allowed Christians to dance without exposing them to the devil’s lures.

Ruppert and other Christian entrepreneurs found a strong market for their idea, especially among young people. The Hollywood Free Paper, a Christian underground self-described “Jesus freak” countercultural newspaper, promoted the grand opening of Right On, “Hollywood’s First Jesus Nightclub.” Christians wary of going to the club alone could meet like-minded faithful at the First Baptist Church in Beverly Hills and “march” together to the new venue.22 Six years later, the paper advertised the Daisy, another new Christian nightclub, as a place to have an “outrageously incredible night on the town” in Los Angeles (Figure 1).23

Figure 1.

Patrons at Right On Christian nightclub in Los Angeles partaking in “spiritual food” and reading the Hollywood Free Paper, 1971. Photo by Harry Chase.

Courtesy of Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA

Figure 1.

Patrons at Right On Christian nightclub in Los Angeles partaking in “spiritual food” and reading the Hollywood Free Paper, 1971. Photo by Harry Chase.

Courtesy of Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA

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Joining the Christian nightclub entrepreneurs were promoters of California’s burgeoning Christian evening coffeehouse culture. Historian Preston Shires notes that, by 1970, Southern California boasted over one hundred such coffeehouses. Yet these commercial venues had little in common with the Daisy or Right On. The coffeehouses were primarily social hubs where folk singers performed intermittently, and they often had affiliations with specific churches. For example, The Salt Company coffeehouse, opened in Los Angeles by Don Williams in 1968, was made possible by a generous donation from the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.24 In contrast, Christian nightclub entrepreneurs aspired to create spaces that mirrored secular nightlife venues and that operated independently from church affiliation and funding.

One sign that Christian nightclub owners intended to Christianize nightlife was their penchant for transforming secular venues into Christian nightspots. Entrepreneurs often opened their clubs in former nightspots, which they believed would mark the new clubs as not all that different from non-Christian taverns, minus major taboos such as alcohol, smoking, and sexuality. “Like born-again Christians, the nightclubs have undergone a conversion experience,” explained Dann Davies, who managed a traveling gospel group that toured Christian nightclubs in the late 1970s. In 1976 Hal Ruppert selected what had been a hard-rock discothèque for his Christian nightclub, the Basement in Orange, in the city of Orange, California. The next year Bryan Maclean converted the Daisy, which, according to Newsweek, was “once a trendy private disco,” into a Christian nightclub smack in the middle of Beverly Hills’s Rodeo Drive.25 Those who could not afford to purchase former hot spots elected to rent them. In 1986 Jason Ross secured a weekend lease on a dive bar for his Christian nightclub Praises. Monday through Friday, noted journalist Steve Cooper, the tavern was a “gritty saloon,” but on Saturdays and Sundays, Praises was free of the “choking smoke, sultry fashions, and slurred speech” common at secular bars.26

Perhaps the best example of Christian reclamation was Los Angeles’s Right On, a go-go bar and self-proclaimed “strip palace” in the 1960s. It had previously welcomed such burlesque stars as Lili St. Cyr, billed as the “anatomic bomb.” Merced, California’s Central Park Disco is another excellent example: male strippers had previously entertained the disco’s patrons before Bob Campbell reopened the venue as a Christian nightclub in 1981.27

A musical genre born in African American and gay communities as a symbol of unity, identity, and resistance, disco swept the nation (and the world) in the late 1970s. A 1979 Newsweek cover graced with an image of disco diva Donna Summer proclaimed, “Disco Takes Over.” Prominent disco clubs such as New York’s Studio 54 became synonymous with sex and drugs, but disco found broad appeal among diverse audiences. As Billboard writer Bill Wardlow observed that year: “There are teen discos, even kiddie discos with soft drinks and senior citizen discos. The music hasn’t divided parents and children, as previous popular music did.”28 Disco fever reached Christian entrepreneurs as well, who folded the genre into their visions of Christian nightlife.

Promoters recognized that they must adapt the disco scene to meet the cultural and religious values of their conservative patrons. Visitors to Christian nightclubs were probably unaware of disco’s origins or the genre’s meaning within Black and gay communities, responding primarily to the music’s relentless dance beat. As historian Alice Echols observes, disco “staked out a position of sly inclusiveness, one that worked to ‘blur the lines, to bring everybody together,’ not into some homogenous nightlife…but one that was multiracial and sexually varied.” The liberating and unifying spirit of disco music and dance was powerful enough to permeate and influence religious (here, evangelical) communities as well.29 Christian nightclubs thrummed to the beat of disco music and dance, especially since some club owners spent extravagant sums improving their lighting, sound systems, and dance floors. Hal Ruppert invested some $20,000 upgrading audio at his Basement in Orange. Even before the disco craze, the Basement offered a glistening parquet dance floor, a revolving disco ball overhead, and ultraviolet light show, not unlike the secular nightclubs of the time.30 In 1977 Ruppert invested another $35,000 in sound and lights for his next Christian nightclub, Noah’s Ark in Long Beach. When he became an evangelical Christian, Bob Campbell revamped his previously secular Central Park Disco as a 11,000-square-foot Christian nightspot, but he likely retained his earlier improvements, including 24 speakers with state-of-the-art “earthquake horns,” 32,000 watts of lighting, and $60,000 worth of sound equipment. Indeed, the club was impressive enough to be highlighted in Billboard magazine in 1978.31 Well into the 1980s, Christian nightclub operators recognized that their clubs needed top-of-the-line features. Jason Ross, operator of the weekend Praises nightclub in Los Angeles, decried the notion “that ‘Christian’ means Styrofoam cups and poor sound and lighting.”32 He and others recognized that, Christian or not, to succeed a disco must have high-quality sound and a first-rate dance floor.

In the disco era, secular music and fashion trends seeped into the Christian nightclub world. Ruppert admitted that he had initially hoped his patrons would dance to Christian music, but he found that type of music did not appeal to audiences of the late 1970s. “We tried gospel music,” explained Ruppert, “but nobody would dance even though a lot of gospel has a good beat.”33 Yet Christian nightclub owners knew that disco music offended some. When Ruppert switched from gospel to disco, “a lot of the more conservative Christians were turned off.”34 Even so, with what the Los Angeles Times called an “incessant disco beat” booming through state-of-the-art speakers, Noah’s Ark was popular. Christian adults took over one of the dance floors, while the eighteen-and-under set did the hustle on the club’s three other dance floors.35 The fact that Ruppert could fill the Ark’s four dance floors suggests a Christian public that was eager to dance.

In the 1970s disco culture permeated America, with discos operating in nearly every urban center. Their success hinged on catering to a diverse clientele that spanned various age groups, races, classes, and genders. New York fashionistas in haute couture had their favorite hot spots, just as working-class New Yorkers in flannels and steel-toed boots did. However, there was a distinct difference in the fashion ethos of Christian nightclubs. To reassure conservatives in their community, some Christian nightclub owners adopted and enforced dress codes. The Basement in Orange, for instance, committed to maintaining the disco as “a Christian place with a clean atmosphere” by prohibiting attire like tank tops, shorts, and sandals. Such conservative dress became the norm, even in clubs that didn’t explicitly list banned clothing. Mainstream press images from various Christian nightclubs depict young women in long dresses and young men in button-collared shirts, dress coats, and neatly pressed trousers.36 While it’s indeed possible that these photographs were staged for the press, they undeniably indicate that the vision of Christian nightlife by club owners encompassed a clientele that was both stylish and modestly dressed. This contrasted sharply with the broader disco scene, often associated with images of “pernicious velvet-rope elitism,” as disco historian Alice Echols aptly put it.37

Despite the obvious popularity of Noah’s Ark and similar venues, opinion on Christian discos remained divided within the evangelical community. While some embraced disco, others viewed it as a gateway to perversion. Anti-gay campaigner Anita Bryant sent out a newsletter in 1979 warning readers that gays were “producing [disco] records with double meanings…then having ‘straight’ children buy them.” 38 Following their rise up the charts, disco divas Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor themselves became born-again Christians and, to quote Alice Echols, “urged gays to change their ways.”39 Even celebrities were swept up in the surge of fundamentalist Christianity that accompanied the disco era.

Christian entrepreneurs tried adapting disco to their venues. Lyric-less disco was less likely to provoke objection from conversative patrons, while music with explicit lyrics, especially involving sex, required censorship. But it was not just the music or disco culture’s celebration of sexual freedom that so irked many Christians. In some fundamentalist Christian circles, any form of dance was objectionable. Protestant Christians had long divided on dancing’s sinfulness. William W. Orr explained to Christian readers in The King’s Business that he understood some churches promoted dancing, but he denied that dance glorified God. According to Orr, dancing promoted “impure thinking, soils lives and in many cases causes immorality of the worst sort.” Orr linked dance to the sin-filled dens of nightlife, the “smoke filled and liquor laden atmosphere of a ballroom.”40 Hal Ruppert of Noah’s Ark agreed that “half of the Christian world doesn’t believe in dancing.” “Most of the reason,” he felt, was “culturally induced, not from the Bible. I feel the Bible is full of dancing.”41

Nonetheless, in the early 1970s leaders of some new Christian institutions forbade social dancing. This was particularly true at Christian colleges in Southern California, which were filled with young adults, the very demographic targeted by Christian nightclubs. Southern California universities that banned dance included Southern California College (now Vanguard) in Costa Mesa, Biola University in La Mirada, Azusa-Pacific University in Azusa, Westmont College in Santa Barbara, and Point Loma College in San Diego.42

Aware of the congregational disagreement over dancing, in 1984 Christian entrepreneurs Ray Swanlund and Shep Wilkinson consulted with various Orange County pastors before proceeding with plans for a Christian nightclub. They soon realized that religious leadership was “grey on the issue.” The pastors gave the proposed nightclub their metaphoric blessing, suggesting ways the venture might “provide a justifiable alternative for youth.” Swanlund and Wilkinson’s Lighthouse One opened in Newport Beach in 1985, with some writers proclaiming it the largest dance club, secular or religious, in all of Orange County. The club’s popularity was due in large part to students from the neighboring Christian colleges, including those that forbade social dancing.43

For Christian college students, attending a nightclub with dancing was risky, even at Lighthouse One, which banned alcohol and cigarettes. Southern California College (SCC), a Pentecostal campus, often sent letters to students suspected of attending dance parties. School officials admonished students that social dancing was against the student code of conduct and a risk to their financial aid and scholarships.44 Many more liberal students thought the handbook policy outdated and compared the ban to previous policies against women wearing pants, shorts, or makeup.45 Though some students urged administrators to keep the no-social-dancing policy, other SCC students repeatedly petitioned them to drop it. Many students just ignored the rule, just as some violated bans on drinking and smoking. Other students responded to the SCC dancing ban in jest. One student claimed she never violated the social dancing ban; she instead was an “anti-social” dancer, never socializing with anyone while dancing at a nightclub.46 In a parody “Campus Security Blotter” published in SCC’s student newspaper New Wine Press, editors joked that the campus resident directors policed the Lighthouse One dance floor and “rounded up” dozens of students for violating the school’s ban on attending a social dance, including “the entire sixth floor of the women’s tower.”47 Obviously, some SCC students saw the dancing ban as absurd.

The SCC student newspaper’s coverage of Lighthouse One’s opening may have ended SCC’s dancing ban. In March 1985, SCC’s board of directors voted to alter point six of the Statement of Responsibilities that all students were required to sign. Where the statement once forbade dancing, the amended clause specified that “social dancing within a non-Christian context is prohibited.” SCC Board Chairman Everett Stenhouse noted that student news coverage of Lighthouse One spurred the change. “We all realized we needed to re-evaluate our position,” explained Stenhouse. “Change is difficult, but we need to shed ourselves of outdated beliefs.” Upon hearing the news, the student newspaper shared the excitement of the SCC students who were “coming out of the closet” as frequenters of Lighthouse One. “I feel free at last,” one student joyfully responded.48

Some Christian nightclub owners explicitly targeted college-age patrons, as they believed this demographic would be enthusiastic about their faith and open to new experiences. For instance, Fresno’s Agape Club advertised its appeal to “college-age, handsome, and evangelical individuals who valued freedom and individuality.” In order to attract such a crowd, the club chose the Archers, a Christian music group popular on college campuses, as their opening night’s headline act, ensuring a strong turnout of their desired audience.49 Beth Hite of The Banner, the California Baptist University student newspaper, likewise explained that Right On specifically catered to college-age Christians and young adults, offering them “an alternative to the Whiskey a Go-Go type operation” (Figure 2).50

Figure 2.

Dave and Debbie Peters playing pool at the Christian nightclub Right On in Los Angeles, 1971. Photo by Harry Chase.

Courtesy of Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA

Figure 2.

Dave and Debbie Peters playing pool at the Christian nightclub Right On in Los Angeles, 1971. Photo by Harry Chase.

Courtesy of Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA

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The Daisy’s reopening as a Christian nightspot illustrates the evangelical community’s continued internal conflict over social dancing. The Daisy had been a popular Rodeo Drive nightclub all through the 1960s, attracting such celebrities as Sean Connery, Mia Farrow, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly. The New York Times called the Daisy the “hippest, raciest night spot in Southern California.”51 When Bryan MacLean took over in 1977, he retained the previously installed sound and lighting systems but strictly prohibited dancing. “Dancing would hinder what we do,” explained the Daisy’s Brent Rue. “We feel our job is to get out the Gospel. We entertain, but that’s not the main emphasis.”52 Out of the eight California Christian nightclubs discussed here, the Daisy was one of only two that forbade dancing (the other was Fresno’s Agape Club).53 Yet the Daisy’s ban did not annoy fourteen-year-old Daisy patron Cindy Huff. “It’s nice just listening to the words,” Huff explained.54 After all, if they wanted to dance, by 1977 Huff and other nightlife seekers could patronize several Southern California Christian nightclubs that permitted it.

Ironically, a 1977 press photograph taken inside the Daisy showcases its patrons’ unique response to the club’s ban on dancing. While two Black male singers energized the crowd from the stage, several Daisy patrons seemed to dance in their seats, their lower halves seated and their arms raised high above their heads.55 Attendees appeared determined to enjoy the music and to feel God’s message, interpreting the club’s policy to mean that moving their bodies to the music was acceptable, as long as one remained seated. This photograph captures Daisy patrons in the act of negotiating Christian behavior in a nightclub setting.

The emergence of multiple Christian nightspots meant that patrons had options. Just as SCC students who wanted to dance could find Christian clubs to dance at, so could conservative Christians steer clear of clubs that offended them. Noah’s Ark management was cognizant that some Christians would not care for disco music or dancing. Some patrons, said Ruppert, expected “a sacred church atmosphere.” Conservative Christian visitors to Noah’s Ark who felt that the club’s four dance floors promoted immoral activity could simply head over to the Daisy.56

How much emphasis to place on evangelism was something every Christian nightclub owner wrestled with. On the one hand, they wanted to build places of Christian fellowship, to help spread what they saw was the loving message of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, they wanted to be hip and cool enough to compete with secular music clubs. If Christian nightclubs were nothing more than church services at night, then they would fail to attract Christian clientele who found such offerings boring and banal. Likewise, a dance club that was too churchy would turn off non-Christians otherwise drawn by the club’s wholesome atmosphere, with no cigarettes or alcohol permitted. Here too managers sought a balance, tempering the temptation to evangelize against the need to keep it fun.

Most of California’s Christian nightclubs preferred to keep their entertainment offerings relatively free of evangelism. In fact, few were directly connected to a local church. Yet they often offered nocturnal worship. At 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, the Basement in Orange disc jockey turned off the music for a few minutes and led the group in prayer. Sometimes he asked God to deliver jobs to the unemployed in Orange County, other times to bring rain to drought-ridden California. After a few words of scripture the music resumed, as did the dancing. That was the extent of the nightclub’s evangelism. “We are not a church,” explained Basement owner Hal Ruppert. “We are not attempting to be a church, but we have had many kids who have given their hearts to Christ because of our little service.”57 Robert May, who in 1976 opened Fresno’s Agape Club, emphasized that his Christian nightclub did not bear a “denominational badge” and was not “pushy” about religion. For those seeking God’s word, they would hear it resonating in the club’s live music.58 California Baptist University’s student newspaper noted that Right On had “spirit filled workers” whose management “never preaches.”59 Seventeen-year-old Connie Simpson enjoyed the Daisy precisely because it was not a church. “It’s more alive and fun than going to church.”60 Cindy Huff agreed. She felt much more at home at the Daisy than she did at a traditional Sunday service. “At church,” Huff explained, “I have to be careful what I say because it might hurt the old, the young, the retired, the children. Here, you don’t have to worry about offending anyone because everyone is always smiling.” For young people like Huff and Simpson, evangelical churches felt stifling, constricting, and inattentive to young people. Christian nightclubs, on the other hand, offered the opportunity to practice their faith in a way that engaged their hearts and minds, without the judgments of a Sunday congregation skeptical of youthful tastes in music and dance.

While Christian nightclubs often offered prayer and counseling, these functions were literally on the sidelines, separate from stages and dance floors. “We have an office where the young people can go if they want to talk more about what they heard,” explained Bob May, who opened his San Joaquin Valley Christian nightclub in 1976.61 Others, like the Agape Club, could be forceful in their evangelizing, but most Christian nightclub operators opted to make religion an optional part of their offerings. In fact, some clubs made sure not to compete with church or church-related functions. Merced’s Central Park Disco was open every night but Sunday or Wednesday, which, according to the Los Angeles Times, were “traditional church activity nights.”62

The evangelism-lite atmosphere of Christian nightclubs appealed to non-Christians too. Daisy management saw its location on Rodeo Drive next to bustling secular nightclubs as a “different vehicle” for spreading God’s word, targeting those uninterested in Sunday morning service. “People come in who are going down Rodeo Drive to the bars and they’re immediately impressed by the positive feeling that’s here,” said Bryan MacLean. “Christians can bring people in here who normally couldn’t get to a church.” MacLean noted that the occasional unsuspecting drunk stumbled into the Daisy and heard the gospel “where he never would have otherwise.”63 Following Praises’ opening-night performance, nightclub owner Jason Ross asked his patrons for a quick moment to talk about Jesus’s love. He started with a reassurance: “I’m not going to have you all lower your heads and raise your hands for this,” Ross recounted. “This isn’t a church. But I’d be cheating you if I didn’t give you the opportunity to meet Jesus.” When he asked if anyone needed Jesus in their life, no one responded. Still, Ross and others believed that their low-pressure evangelism would reach those seeking redemption. Perhaps God’s message spread easier on the dance floor than in Sunday morning church pews.

If part of the allure of Christian nightclubs was the fact that they were not overtly religious, other facets of these spaces identified them as religious sites quite unlike others. Probably few secular nightclub entrances included the small ecumenical Christian flags found at the Basement in Orange.64 The venue’s control booth offered another difference: disc jockey Craig Harreld spun Christian rock and disco records below a large portrait of Jesus (Richard Hook’s famous Head of Christ) (Figure 3). Behind his other shoulder hung a large cross.65 Christian nightclub owners positioned religious literature where patrons might find it, including flyers for upcoming events at local churches and such evangelical newspapers as the Hollywood Free Paper. “We don’t push [the literature] on them,” explained Hal Ruppert of Noah’s Ark, “but we do make it available.”66 Right On’s configuration of dance floors and bar tables was typical of secular nightclubs, but its wall décor was undeniably Christian: each wall bore such Christian slogans as “Where Charity and Love Are, There Is God” and “We Are One in Christ, Let Us Love One Another.” Like many secular nightspots, Right On served food, including hot dogs and strawberry shortcake priced under one dollar, but the menu above the bar noted that “spiritual food” was free.67 Right On patrons used restrooms labeled not for men or women but for “brothers” and “sisters.”68 Christian nightclubs may have mimicked secular nightclubs, but their décor visibly marked them as Christian spaces.

Figure 3.

Disc jockey Craig Harreld in the booth at the Basement, a Christian nightclub in Orange, California, 1977. Photo by Don Kelsen.

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

Figure 3.

Disc jockey Craig Harreld in the booth at the Basement, a Christian nightclub in Orange, California, 1977. Photo by Don Kelsen.

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

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Christian nightclub operators made numerous decisions in designing their spaces, including specifying acceptable patron behavior. One of the most notable features of Christian nightclubs in this era was their stance on cigarettes. Smoking was either banned or discouraged at nearly every Christian nightlife venue. Owners who viewed tobacco consumption as indulgent, addictive, and ungodly went to great lengths to ensure their spaces were smoke-free. Discouraging rather than banning smoking, Right On instead encouraged patrons to find a “spiritual high.” Larry Norman of the Hollywood Free Press noted that smoking was a contentious topic among believers, stating, “I see many, many new Christians who are still smoking and it has become such a point of division and aggravation among believers that it should probably be discussed openly.”69

Of course, opposition to cigarette smoke in public spaces was growing throughout the United States in the 1970s, as the public became more aware of the detrimental health effects and addictive nature of tobacco.70 The first commercial Christian nightspots opened just as many Americans had grown weary of the pervasive stench of cigarette smoke, a stark contrast to the 1920s, when smokers cited the “pleasing fragrance” of cigarettes as one reason they enjoyed smoking.71 Some Christian nightclub owners saw their ban on smoking as a selling point. “Probably one of the main drawing cards we have is the smoke-free atmosphere,” said Hal Ruppert. “A lot of people come in here who aren’t even Christian to escape cigarettes.”72

Because they understood that tobacco was addictive, some Christian nightclubs tried to help patrons give up cigarettes. The Basement in Orange and Noah’s Ark offered such unique services as five-day “stop smoking” clinics, a feature not typically found in secular nightlife. As one Noah’s Ark flyer proclaimed, “Only the candles are allowed to smoke in the Ark.” 73

By far the most striking difference between Christian and nonreligious nightclubs was the absence of alcohol. None of the eight Christian nightspots discussed here sold alcohol. This is unsurprising, as evangelical Christians had been the driving force behind the temperance movement that swept the United States in the nineteenth century. While many Protestants drank throughout the twentieth century, evangelical Christians typically embraced teetotalism, believing that alcohol consumption was a sin or, at the very least, that it led to unwise decisions that eventually resulted in sin.74 The ban on cigarettes and alcohol distinguished Christian nightspots from their secular counterparts and led many Christians to accept such venues. Christian nightclub owners understood that removing these temptations would make fellowship and socialization available to Christians, especially young people, giving them alternatives to the secular dance clubs that forced Christians to beware the devil’s temptations. “Some [Christian young people] go dancing at the only places available to them, places where liquor is served,” stated Ruppert. “Some of them might even get a little smashed themselves and then go home and have a guilt trip.”75 Ruppert therefore saw it as his godly mission to create spaces where Christians could experience nightlife on their own terms, without the booze that lowered the inhibitions of God’s warriors.

Although no alcohol was ever served, Christian nightclubs were not without bars. Nearly every nightlife location had some sort of beverage station. The Basement in Orange called its mahogany bar Jacob’s Well, a reference to the Biblical site where Jesus met the Samaritan woman and offered her “living water.”76 Additionally, Jacob’s Well sold such nonalcoholic beverages as 7 Up, punch, Cherry Coke, root beer, and pineapple juice. Julia Mobley, hired as a Basement waitress when she turned sixteen in 1975, remembers serving Goetz Pale, “the Famous Near Beer,” to young, thirsty customers.77 Christian nightclub operators faced no legal barriers to hiring younger bartenders; as the Los Angeles Times noted, the law prescribed no legal age for serving “rum drinks without the rum.”78 Faith, not age, determined who could serve behind the bar at Noah’s Ark: any of its twelve employees, all “believing Christians” according to management, could serve nonalcoholic beverages.79

To make their drink menus seem less like a roller-rink concession stand and more like a hip nightspot, some Christian nightclubs created what Noah’s Ark called “fantastic and frothy” virgin cocktails, in addition to the well-known Shirley Temple. A cocktail of milk and honey named Promised Land landed on Christian nightclub drink menus in the 1970s.80 Other clever house specialties were called Samson’s Delight, Happy Halo, Fruit of the Spirit, and Carpenter’s Quencher, all nonalcoholic takes on such classic mixed drinks as Mai Tais and margaritas that the Santa Ana Register promised “taste[d] almost like the real thing.”81

Some Southern California Christian entrepreneurs found inspiration in the handful of nonalcoholic bars that opened in the mid-1970s. Hawbie’s Habit in La Habra, for example, inspired Hal Ruppert, who visited the alcohol-free bar in the early 1970s and noticed “Christian groups…coming in droves there.”82 When he organized a Christian music night at a popular music venue in Los Angeles, Jason Ross got positive feedback from the venue’s non-drinking Muslim staff, who reported that they “appreciated the change in atmosphere.”83 This prompted Ross to launch Praises. To Ruppert and Ross, the market for smoke- and alcohol-free nightspots was obvious.

While the absence of alcohol and smoking created an attractive environment for many, the Christian nightspots discussed here intended to do more than provide wholesome alternatives to secular nightlife. They also aimed to provide social hubs, particularly for young, single Christians. Hal Ruppert originally launched the Basement in Orange for young, single Christian adults, which he estimated numbered at least 50,000 in Orange County. “The single adult,” he explained, “is the most neglected person in the church.” Ruppert’s decision to focus on singles was timely, given demographics revealed in the most recent U.S. census.84 Of the total increase in American households from 1970 to 1976, nearly half of the new households were headed by people either living alone or with nonrelatives. This statistic alarmed some Christian church leaders, who worried that they focused on families at the expense of those anxious to form families.85 Costa Mesa’s Calvary Chapel and Brethren in Long Beach offered programs for singles, but Ruppert believed he could bring together Christian singles by offering spaces in which to seek love and marriage. Indeed, when Ruppert opened Noah’s Ark in 1977, he started a “video-vision dating service,” which offered Christian men the opportunity to view videotaped interviews with Christian women they could meet at the club for a date arranged by Rupert and his staff. Ruppert claimed that 300 Christian singles signed up for this dating service, although the number of marriages and families that resulted is unclear.86

Although this was not something Christian nightclubs set out to do, by the 1980s some patrons looked to them to demonstrate modern Christianity. This was especially true for adults who did not regularly attend church. Jason Ross found Praises patrons “hesitant” during the club’s first few weeks of operation in 1986, unsure of the proper etiquette. If dancing was allowed, then what sort of dance moves were appropriate? Adults accustomed to secular dance clubs walked into Praises and suddenly wondered “if they should let anyone see them move their body.” What about flirting? Adult men familiar with the sexualized, self-indulgent ethos of secular clubs wondered how meeting women worked in a Christian venue. “All these guys have ever known is to go out, pick up women, and get loaded,” according to Praises singer Rick Riso. “It may take a little time to break them.”87 By providing patrons with Christian spaces to listen to music, dance, and socialize, nightclub operators offered them models for living as Christians in the modern world.

Christian nightclub owners marketed their venues to families as well as singles. Right On’s patrons included Orange County police lieutenants and their wives who had avoided Sunset Strip clubs for years. Louise Bakley, a West Covina housewife, initially thought that Right On was just for kids but she changed her mind when she visited the club in 1971. Impressed, she shared her hope that the club could “help with the generation gap somewhat, parents coming with their kids to a clean place like this and listening to the Lord’s music.”88 Similarly, young dancers at Newport Beach’s Lighthouse One reported wanting to share the experience with their families. “I come here with my sister,” explained twenty-three-year-old Marie Jerde. “We’ve even thought of inviting our parents along one night. We wouldn’t do that at a regular bar. Can you image a ‘Mom and Dad Night’ at one of those places?”89

Christian nightspot operators made every effort to draw singles, families, and all age groups. Noah’s Ark, for example, offered senior citizen nights. Hoping to draw in older Christians, on senior nights they switched from disco to music of the Big Band era.90 In addition to dividing the week into age-specific musical genres, Hal Ruppert experimented with dividing Ark dance floors by age groups. In October 1977, the Long Beach Independent observed that the “port side” entertained young folk with disco and hits from Billboard’s Top 40, while the “starboard section is for adults who prefer mellower music, such as the nostalgia swing of the bands of the ’40s, or light pop rock” (Figure 4).91

Figure 4.

Crowd dancing at Noah's Ark, a Christian nightclub in Long Beach, California, September 27, 1977.

Courtesy of Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Figure 4.

Crowd dancing at Noah's Ark, a Christian nightclub in Long Beach, California, September 27, 1977.

Courtesy of Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

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Yet Ruppert’s efforts to draw in older patrons proved unsuccessful. Teenagers dominated the Basement in Orange. Ray Swanlund of Lighthouse One likewise tried changing its music selection to attract an older clientele, but “no matter what we do,” he lamented, “the crowd keeps getting younger.”92 Praises in Los Angeles, while it remained open to all ages, felt to the Palm Springs Desert Sun like the only real Christian nightclub successfully “appealing to the adult club crowd.”93 Week in, week out, Praises aimed its Christian evening entertainments at a specific target market, the “adult club crowd,” competing with the area’s secular clubs rather than nearby theme parks, such as Knotts Berry Farm and Disneyland, which periodically organized evening entertainments geared toward church youth groups.94

Domination by young people was a mixed blessing for Christian nightclub operators. Teenage patrons flocked to them because, unlike secular clubs that sold alcohol, Christian nightclubs did not limit entry to the 21-and-over set. Thus Christian nightclubs were especially appealing to young people eager to dance and socialize with their friends. Naturally, this fit the vision of Christian nightlife promoters intent on offering sites of Christian fellowship. Many entrepreneurs claimed they had opened their clubs, in Ruppert’s words, to get “kids off the street,” providing them with alternatives to drugs, booze, and premarital sex.95 Ruppert estimated that most of his Noah’s Ark patrons were Christians who loved to dance, but a good 20 percent were “teenagers who have no place to go.”96

Catering to teenagers presented unique problems to Christian nightspot operators. They despaired when teens crowded adults off their dance floors, sometimes permanently. “Teens have taken over” the Basement in Orange, Ruppert lamented in July 1977, “and we have lost our adult clientele.”97 What was worse, teenage patrons behaved badly. Between 1976 and 1978, Orange police received over seventy complaints from its neighbors about young people congregating in alleys and the doorways of neighboring businesses, smoking marijuana, binge drinking, urinating, and engaging in acts of public sex and vandalism. Orange Police Chief Merrill Duncan lamented that juveniles used the Christian nightclub as “a good excuse” to gain parents’ permission to go out, “when in reality the kids were in a van in a nearby alley with a six-pack of beer.” One year after it opened, Ruppert sold the Basement. Under new management, the club soon lost its Christian focus. Orange City Council eventually revoked its business license in 1978 due to police complaints during and after the club’s Christian phase.98 The demise of his first Christian nightclub taught Ruppert a valuable lesson: at Noah’s Ark, he and his staff exerted “complete control” over their teenage patrons. Toward that end, the Ark ended in-and-out privileges, demanding repayment of the cover charge each time patrons left. The policy cut down on shenanigans inside and outside the club, discouraging teens from stepping outside to smoke cigarettes, drink, or have sex in their vehicles.99

Although some teenagers used Christian nightclubs to get into mischief, other young people appreciated the clubs for providing wholesome fun. As the Los Angeles Times put it, “bible school students” enjoying Christian, “clean” music, a group who “finally found a club they can relate to,” filled Right On’s booths.100 Before it closed, the Basement likewise attracted young patrons who just loved to dance. They were grateful for the dance lessons and dance contests, which allowed them to try out new moves. At the dawn of the disco era, many Orange County youth learned to dance at Christian nightclubs and appreciated being able to do so without the temptations of smoke, drink, and licentiousness associated with secular nightclubs. One teenager loved going to the Basement on a Saturday night, as it was “righteous for people, like me, who like to go stag.” Another called the Basement a “nightly celebration” and praised it for providing young people a chapel where they could seek help and counsel in their formative years.101 The best part of Lighthouse One, according to seventeen-year-old Joanne Young of Yorba Linda, was that “you know what to expect from people here. You don’t have to be so cautious because you know that other people share your set of values.” Young loved not feeling pressured to partake of cigarettes, booze, sex, or drugs. She wanted to hang out with her friends, clearheaded.102

This is not to say that young people saw Christian nightclubs as devoid of romantic possibilities. One college student loved the Basement because he had “never seen so many foxes gathered together in one place.”103 At the age of sixteen, Basement summer waitress Julia Mobley thoroughly enjoyed flirting with the boys she served nonalcoholic beer, away from her parents’ watchful eyes. She fondly recalled sneaking outside on several occasions and “making out” with flirtatious boys before her unsuspecting mother arrived to pick her up. “If my mom knew I was making out with boys,” Julia reminisced, “she would’ve been horrified.”104 Likewise, three fourteen-year-old girls told the OC Register that what kept them returning to Lighthouse One was the club’s positive energy, its great music, and fun dance floor, but they also admitted that they went there to “meet good-looking boys.”105

It made sense that romantic passions ignited between dancers at Christian nightclubs. But young patrons knew the evangelical stance toward premarital sexuality. “Sex is not bad in itself,” explained twenty-year-old Rick Herbel, a frequent Lighthouse patron. It simply should take place “in a proper context, and that context is marriage. Sex before marriage is immoral.”106 To many youngsters, Christian nightclubs were sites to seek romance, but sex would have to wait until matrimony.

Christian nightclubs brought young and old out to boogie, but they were also more diverse than other evangelical spaces. Many evangelical churches of the 1970s sought homogenous congregations, believing that people of similar race, socioeconomic status, and backgrounds would produce a cohesive, unified parish. Unity was essential to building church membership. Theologist Donald McGavran, author of an influential 1970 book on congregation building, explained that churches had to “respect the fact that people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.”107 But that push for homogeneity did not carry over into California’s Christian nightlife culture. Though most patrons were white and middle-class, some clubs attracted an interracial clientele. According to the Los Angeles Times, when the all-Black Miracle-Aires sang at the Daisy on an April evening in 1977, they packed in a “half-white, half-black audience of about 200” fans.108 The New York Times also noted the “variety of ethnic and age groups” frequenting the Daisy, suggesting that Christian clubs often drew crowds that crossed common social barriers.109

Orange County’s nightclubs welcomed another group often overlooked by nightclub operators: people with disabilities. Hal Ruppert looked at the Ark’s “spacious dance floors” and “realized that with minimal changes like a few ramps for wheelchairs,” he could make his club accessible. Managers eagerly publicized the club’s accessibility to paraplegics, the blind, and the wheelchair bound.110 Whereas local theme parks and churches hosted outreach nights once or twice a year to people with disabilities, Noah’s Ark offered a year-round welcome.

So why didn’t Christian nightclubs become a permanent staple of California nightlife? After all, they opened to excited crowds. During its opening year, lines formed for performances at Right On. In the late 1970s, Friday nights found nearly all of the Daisy’s 300 seats filled. On some weekends, managers of Noah’s Ark could see 1,000 patrons packed in, as the Los Angeles Times put it, “from bow to stern.” Dance floors at the Basement in Orange always seemed full, the club crowded. “There was never an empty seat,” reported Basement waitress Julia Mobley.111 Lighthouse One was probably Orange County’s largest nightclub in the 1980s, its dance floors thronged with Christian college students and other young people. Praises was slower to build a clientele, but Jason Ross noticed that Sunday nights were extraordinarily, and surprisingly, popular. “They were jammed in here,” noted Ross, when he “thought most folks would be in church.”112

Although Christian nightclubs often began with promise, most folded relatively quickly. None of the eight California Christian nightclubs discussed here survived more than a few years. Most start-up businesses face financial difficulties, but this was especially true for Christian nightclubs. A key factor in the secular nightspot’s financial survival was liquor sales, but this revenue stream was closed to Christian clubs. Nor could Christian entrepreneurs rely on single men, in the Long Beach Independent’s words, “dropp[ing] a lot of money buying rounds of drinks,” as was common at secular bars. Nonalcoholic beverages failed to lower patrons’ inhibitions and encourage them to spend lavishly.113 Hal Ruppert understood this dilemma yet put his faith in God: “I think God led us into establishing this sort of facility.” This gave Ruppert confidence that his nightclub experiments would succeed. God’s help was most definitely needed; in its first three months, he admitted, the Basement hemorrhaged over $1,000 every week.114

Without alcohol, Ruppert and other nightclub owners found alternative means of generating revenue. Nearly every Christian nightclub operated with a cover charge, sometimes higher than those of secular clubs. Noah’s Ark and Praises charged monthly membership fees, although Praises sold fewer than expected in their first year, despite their “jammed” Sunday nights. Other nightclubs relied on donations from churches, local businesses, and wealthy evangelical philanthropists. Food and nonalcoholic drink sales helped, but only so much. Although nightclubs typically paid staff meager wages and managers often pressed local evangelical churches to provide volunteers to work without wages, expenses still racked up. Rents on Rodeo Drive could exceed $10,000 a month. Attracting top-rated performers was another financial burden. All nightspots face financial difficulties, but, with their unique challenges, Christian nightclubs faced a David-vs.-Goliath-level challenge.115

California’s explosion in evangelical church membership might have supported these businesses. But their inability to survive for more than a few years suggests that evangelical communities never warmed to the Christian nightlife concept. Despite efforts to bring in adults, Christian nightclubs mostly drew young people, a demographic with thin billfolds. Crowds of young people likely turned off older patrons, especially those who preferred to socialize with people their own age. Perhaps Christian nightclubs never overcame their image as sanitized and uncool, especially when compared to their secular counterparts. Yes, secular nightclubs brought the temptations of sex, drugs, and booze, but many godly Christians found that they could “Just Say No,” as First Lady Nancy Reagan would later advise. By the late 1980s, the Christian nightclub’s smoke-free environment was less of a selling point, as cigarette consumption declined. In any event, the excitement that accompanied Christian nightclub openings eventually dissipated, and so too did the patronage. Other cities across the United States similarly saw Christian nightclubs open and close throughout this period and beyond, even into the twenty-first century, but none became long-lasting institutions. Nearly every Christian nightclub that opened prompted media coverage in local newspapers or television, evidence that the mainstream American public remained intrigued by the very concept of Christian nightlife. Yet the entrepreneurs who attempted to shed Christianity’s puritanical image and to prove that evangelicals could boogie ultimately failed.

One reason that Christian nightlife experiments failed was that, toward the end of the twentieth century, many evangelicals favored integration into secular life over segregated Christian spaces. Consider, for example, Holy Soldier and Barren Cross, Christian rock bands that emerged in Los Angeles in the 1980s and performed with hugely popular secular bands Motley Crue, Van Halen, and Ratt at popular Sunset Strip venues such as the Palace and the Roxy.116 As Steve Shannon of Idle Cure told Heaven’s Metal Magazine, Christian bands saw their forays into secular nightclubs and other venues as a form of spiritual warfare: “Sometimes you have to go out on the battle lines. Sometimes you have to go out against Satan and use your shield of faith against him. Sometimes you need to go out in the world full-force, dressed in worldly garb, and be a light.”117 Christian nightclubs and Christian performers shared the goal of reaching people, especially young people, with their messages, but, as Shannon understood it, the battle was better waged in secular sites than in Christian-specific venues.

As historian Eileen Luhr notes, Christian bands across Southern California sought to bridge cultural divides by bringing their music into secular urban nightlife. They viewed secular nightclubs, music festivals, and theme parks (including Disneyland, which hosted Christian music nights in the 1970s) as opportunities to reach those who might never attend a religious revival, church, or even a Christian nightclub. Stryper, founded in 1984 in Orange County and the 1980s’ most popular Christian metal band, toured with White Lion, Jet Boy, and other secular bands, and typically performed in secular venues. Despite the group’s claims that they soft-pedaled religion for secular audiences, Stryper frequently ended their concerts by throwing thousands of dollars’ worth of Bibles into the crowd.118

While Christian nightclub experiments undoubtedly fostered a sense of community among patrons and offered pleasing spaces to Christian adults and youth, perhaps their failure resulted from the success of evangelicalism in moving Christianity into the mainstream, making American society in general more of, in Jeremy Rifkin’s words, a “total Christian community.”119 Perhaps the Christian entrepreneurs discussed here got what they wanted: to compete with mainstream secular clubs. However, they ultimately lost the competition, as mainstream culture offered so many acceptable alternatives that evangelicals need not confine themselves to Christian-themed venues.

Still, it’s important to return to the initial aspirations of the Christian nightlife entrepreneurs discussed here. They hoped their experiments would generate a stable Christian nightlife culture, providing evangelicals with alternative spaces to enjoy music, dance, and socializing without the temptations associated with secular evening venues. They knew that evangelicals wanted to hear good music, dance, and spend time with their friends: maybe their clubs would succeed in keeping patrons excited about Christ every day, all day. Operators’ decisions about nightclub décor, music, nonalcoholic beverages, lighting, and dance floors reveal as much about operators’ aspirations as those of their patrons. Entrepreneurs hoped to serve born-again Christians, but they hoped to make converts as well. They believed in the nightclub stage and the dance floor and ideal spaces in which to share the power of Jesus’s love. Through these strategies, Christian nightlife experiments give us insight into how evangelicals understood, negotiated, and made sense of their relationship with the secular world.

It should not be surprising that, in the 1970s, California hosted perhaps the greatest concentration of commercial Christian nightlife establishments in the United States. Reflecting on the state’s impact on American religious thought and experience, historian Charles A. Fracchia labeled California “the laboratory, ‘the great crucible,’ so to speak, where new religious forms are being forged.”120 Christian nightclubs emerged as a unique experiment within this context, aiming to provide Christian-oriented entertainment spaces that could compete with mainstream secular clubs. However, their rapid rise and subsequent decline underscored the challenges inherent in the endeavor, including financial instability and the failure to build long-term evangelical support, even in a state with a booming population of evangelical Christians. Christian nightclubs were one outcome of the broader wave of religious innovation sweeping through California in the late twentieth century, a manifestation of California’s religious “laboratory.” However, their brief histories also highlight the complexities and difficulties involved in maintaining Christian-oriented spaces within a broader secular culture. The story of Christian nightclubs in California offers a unique lens through which to view the broader dynamics of religious innovation and adaptation in the late twentieth century.

Following that evening performance at Right On in 1971, the evangelical crowd cleared out of the nightclub and drove back to their Los Angeles homes and Orange County suburbs. A few drunks barhopping down the Sunset Strip likely stopped by around midnight. The nightclub was almost empty, not just free of smoke and booze, but of patrons, too. Perhaps they looked around, noticed the no-alcohol bar, and promptly left. Unbeknownst to them, they had entered perhaps the Strip’s most unique venue, one of a series of California nightclub experiments that tried to show the evangelical belief that Jesus made happy days and happy nights. To these evangelicals, “the day thou gavest, Lord” might have ended, but the night, with godly nightclubs, gave another opportunity to praise Him.121


Rev. John Ellerton (1826–1893), hymnodist, “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended,” set to the tune of “St. Clement,” composer Clement Cotteril Scholefield (1839–1904).


Hadley Meares, “Rebellion and Rock ’n’ Roll: The Sunset Strip in the ’60s,” Curbed, March 7, 2019,


Alan Cartnal, “A Christian Nightclub on the Strip,” Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1971, H1.


Edward D. Berkowitz, Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 160. Wolfe misspoke: historians generally refer to this era as the “Fourth Great Awakening.” Robert O. Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012), 339.


Philip Jenkins, Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 83.


Bruce J. Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001), 92.


John Wigger, PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 32.


Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 261.


Clayton Howard, The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac: The Politics of Sexual Privacy in Northern California (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 278.


Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 242.


McGirr, Suburban Warriors, 243–45.


Jeremy Rifkin, The Emerging Order: God in the Age of Scarcity (New York: Putnam, 1979), 114–15.


Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 222–23.


Larry Eskridge, “One Way: Billy Graham, the Jesus Movement, and the Idea of an Evangelical Youth Culture,” Church History 67, no. 1 (March 1998): 93.


“Arthur Blessitt—Man with a Mission,” California Southern Baptist, January 4, 1968, 5.


Rita Warren, “Beverly Hills Pastor Starts Jesus Nightclub on Sunset Strip,” California Southern Baptist, July 8, 1971, 3.


“Jack Wyrtzen and His International Camps,” Kings Business, May 1958, 12–13.


William W. Orr, “Young People: God Has the Answer!” Kings Business, November 1949, 11.


“Billy Graham Speaks: The Evangelical World Prospect,” Christianity Today, October 13, 1958, 4.


Shearlean Duke, “Prayers Start When Music Stops,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1977, 9.


Duke, “Prayers Start.”


“Right On Advertisement,” Hollywood Free Paper, June 15, 1971, 7.


Tim Berends, “Daisy Advertisement,” Hollywood Free Paper, October 1977, 6.


Preston Shires, Hippies of the Religious Right: From the Counterculture of Jerry Garcia to the Subculture of Jerry Falwell (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 93


Kenneth L. Woodward, “Nightclubs for Christ,” Newsweek, June 13, 1977, 98.


Steve Cooper, “Christians Sing Praises of New Nightclub,” The Desert Sun, October 4, 1986, F19.


“Once X-Rated Disco Is Born Again as Christian Nightclub,” Los Angeles Times, January 4, 1981, A28.


Alexander Auderbach, “Industry Boom,” Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1979.


Alice Echols, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 93.


“No Boozing, Smoking at this Disco,” Independent (Long Beach), September 27, 1976, 17.


“Bit of N.Y. at this Club in California,” Billboard, October 7, 1978, 63.


Steve Cooper, “Clean Scene,” The Sun, September 12, 1986, D1.


Scott Harris, “Disco Gives Singles Alternative,” Los Angeles Times, September 16, 1979, SE1, 6.


Harris, “Disco Gives Singles Alternative.”


Harris, “Disco Gives Singles Alternative.”


“No Boozing, Smoking,” 17.


Echols, Hot Stuff, 68.


Echols, Hot Stuff, 204–5.


Echols, Hot Stuff, 117.


Orr, “Young People,” 11.


Russell Chandler, “Christians Pair Up in Noah’s Ark Club,” Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1977, A29.


Randy Tift, “Dancing around the Issue,” New Wine Press, March 1, 1985, 4.


Randy Conner, “Lighthouse One: Beacon or Shipwreck,” New Wine Press, March 1985, 1.


Scott Theede, “Letters in the Wrong Boxes,” New Wine Press, September 1985, 2.


Ginger Conley, “Community and ‘Old Number 6,’” New Wine Press, October 1983, 1.


H. L. Host, “We Dance if We Want to, or Can We,” New Wine Press, October 1983, 7.


“Campus Security Blotter,” New Wine Press, April 1, 1985, 3.


Despite the board decision, as of 2021 Vanguard University (formerly SCC) still bans social dancing on campus, though it permits the practice at university-sponsored off-campus events. Jonathan Reed, “Lighthouse Won: Board Reveals Decision,” New Wine Press, April 1, 1985, 1.


“Archers Will Open Christian Nightclub,” Fresno Bee, May 14, 1976, 24.


Beth Hite, “Right On Club Offers New Approach to Entertainment,” The Banner (California Baptist University, Riverside), September 30, 1971, 2.


Cindy Kadonaga, “Reborn Nightclub on Coast Shuns Glitter, Now Rocks to Gospel Beat,” New York Times, June 6, 1977, 18.


Chandler, “Christians Pair Up,” 30.


“Nightclub that Rocks with Christian Love,” Fresno Bee, May 8, 1976, 8; “Archers Will Open,” 24.


Kadonaga, “Reborn Nightclub,” 18.


Cindy Kadonaga, “A Night Club That Was Born Again,” San Francisco Examiner, June 26, 1977, 5.


The Daisy later moved to Panorama City and became Daisy II. Chandler, “Christians Pair Up,” 30.


Duke, “Prayers Start,” 9.


“Nightclub that Rocks,” 8.


Hite, “Right On Club,” 2.


Woodward, “Nightclubs for Christ,” 98.


“Nightclub that Rocks,” 8.


“Once X-Rated Disco,” A28.


Beth Ann Krier, “From Disco to Christian Nightclub,” Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1977, G9.


“No Boozing, Smoking,” 17.


For more on popular artwork of Jesus Christ in the domestic sphere, see David Morgan, “Domestic Devotion and Ritual: Visual Piety in the Modern American Home,” Art Journal 57, no. 1 (Spring 1998).


Harris, “Disco Gives Singles Alternative,” 6.


Cartnal, “A Christian Nightclub,” 6.


Woodward, “Nightclubs for Christ,” 98.


Larry Norman, “As I See It,” Hollywood Free Press, October 5, 1971, 4.


Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 337.


Brandt, The Cigarette Century, 98.


“No Boozing, Smoking,” 17.


Chandler, “Christians Pair Up,” 30.


For more on the debate regarding alcohol consumption among evangelicals, see Jessica Warner, “Temperance, Alcohol, and the American Evangelical: A Reassessment,” Addiction 104, no. 7 (July 2009).


Duke, “Prayers Start,” F4.


John 4:10, NIV.


Julia Mobley, interview with author, January 3, 2023.


Krier, “From Disco to Christian Nightclub,” F1.


Chandler, “Christians Pair Up,” A29.


“Christian’s Nightclub All Shot to ‘Goodness,’” Del Rio News Herald (Del Rio, Texas), June 21, 1977.


Cheryl Pruett, “Disco Forbids Smoking, Alcohol,” Santa Ana Register, September 13, 1976, 39.


Pruett, “Disco Forbids,” 39.


Cooper, “Christians Sing Praises.”


Harris, “Disco Gives Singles Alternative.”


Janis Johnson, “Northern Virginia Churches Face Question of How to Include Their Young Singles,” Washington Post, August 12, 1976, VA1.


Chandler, “Christians Pair Up,” 29.


Cooper, “Clean Scene,” D2.


Cartnal, “A Christian Nightclub,” 6.


Barry Koltnow, “Lighthouse One: Answering the Prayers of Christian Teen-agers,” Santa Ana Orange County Register, February 14, 1986, P26.


Jean Williams, “Noah’s Ark: 2nd Christian Club in LA,” Billboard, July 30, 1977, 42.


Tedd Thomey, “In Person,” Independent, October 27, 1977, 35.


Koltnow, “Lighthouse One,” 27.


Cooper, “Christians Sing Praises.”


See, e.g., Progress Bulletin (Pomona, California), “Church Youth to Berry Farm,” October 16, 1973, 8; Randy Lewis, “Christian Bands Seek a Joyful Noise,” Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1985; John Dart “Keeping the Faith at Disney,” Los Angeles Times, December 15, 1997; Pam Kragen, “Disneyland Resort is Taking a 100-Year Dive into its History for Yearlong Celebration of Anaheim Theme Parks,” San Diego Union Tribune, February 1, 2023.


Tim Funk, “Christian Nightspot,” Cincinnati Inquirer, August 8, 1977.


Chandler, “Christians Pair Up,” 30.


Williams, “Noah’s Ark,” 42.


Cheryl Pruett, “License for Disco Revoked by Orange,” Santa Ana Orange County Register, April 13, 1978, B2.


Harris, “Disco Gives Singles Alternative,” 6.


Cartnal, “A Christian Nightclub,” 6.


Bruce Patterson, “Q.C. Gets Boogie Fever,” Quaker Campus, February 16, 1977, 3.


Koltnow, “After Dark,” 130.


Patterson, “Q.C. Gets Boogie Fever,” 3.


Mobley, interview with author.


Mobley, interview with author.


Koltnow, “After Dark,” E3.


Howard, The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac, 279.


Krier, “From Disco to Christian Nightclub,” F1.


Kadonaga, “Reborn Nightclub,” 18.


“Noah’s Ark Begins Dance Night for Handicapped,” The Paw Print (California State University, San Bernardino), May 30, 1978, 11.


Mobley, interview with author.


Cooper, “Clean Scene.”


“No Boozing, Smoking,” 17.


“No Boozing, Smoking,” 17.


1 Samuel 17, NIV.


Eileen Luhr, Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 123.


Luhr, Witnessing Suburbia, 117.


Luhr, Witnessing Suburbia, 126–27.


Rifkin, The Emerging Order, 114–15.


Eldon G. Ernst, “The Emergence of California in American Religious Historiography,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 11, no. 1 (Winter 2001): 32.


Ellerton, “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord.”