Red Dress, Portland’s “Sultry Beast,” is Back!

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“It started as a house party in NW, but it’s grown to have hundreds in attendance,†Judge Kemp, above, says. “It started as a house party in NW, but it’s grown to have hundreds in attendance,†Judge Kemp, above, says.
By Matt Pizzuti, PQ Monthly While the rest of us debated whether a certain dress was white or blue, a local group of organizers were thinking red. They’re setting the stage for Portland’s annual Red Dress Party, an ebullient extravaganza now in its 15th year and promising a night of food, fun and (rumor has it) frequent frisky fondling — benefitting health-related charities in Portland. This year’s event, Saturday, May 16 in Northeast Portland, is themed “Red Top†— think circus tent — with DJs, multiple performance acts and a ritzy VIP package for those who want those extra perks. “It’s a homegrown party that really captures the quirkiness of Portland,†said Judge Kemp, a member of the organization’s board and Red Dress devotee who’s been involved in the event since its early years. “It started as a house party in NW, but it’s grown to have hundreds in attendance,†Kemp said. And for those who aren’t familiar with the famous annual event, remember — circus theme notwithstanding — it really is all about that dress. “Everybody’s required to wear a red dress. It has to be 75 percent color red, or you can’t get in,†said board member and organizer Jon Poteet. “And yes, we have turned people away at the door.†In fact, he said, in all of Red Dress history they’ve made but one exception to the red dress rule: for Chelsea Clinton. “She was in town campaigning for her mother in 2008. We figure, OK, if you’re the daughter of a former president — and in this case also the daughter of a future president — you can come in without a red dress.†(Did you catch that, Malia and Sasha?) This year’s Red Dress Party beneficiaries are Our House, a housing and healthcare resource for people with HIV, as well as Cascade AIDS Project. General admission is $55, although there’s a chance to go for free if you volunteer to help with the event, said Larry Lewis, another Red Dress board member (and, full disclosure, a sales representative for PQ Monthly). “Some people volunteer because they just wanted to help, but we do track their hours and can let them know they’ve earned a ticket — sometimes they’re surprised,†he said. “It’s truly a good cause, and your help is needed. The bartenders donate their tips back to the cause, and the contractors are compensated, of course, but they give us good deals so more goes back to the beneficiaries.†Lewis said Red Dress has raised about $300,000 for charity beneficiaries over the years — that’s an average of about $20,000 per annual event — with a board that puts in countless hours as an unpaid labor of love. “We have to cover our expenses and be responsible, but our goal is to give away as much as possible. Our goal is 50 percent of revenues to the beneficiary, and hopefully someday that will be 60 or 70 percent.†“We’ve had very good success getting volunteers,†said Karl Rohde, another board member who added, with a chuckle: “The struggle is getting people to get up early in the morning to help clean up.†Board member Polly Pospisil, who’s part of the group’s design team, said the same — “As a board member we’re required to be there to help clean up the morning after, and we’ve already put a lot of work into it. But my favorite part of the process is that magical hour when we’ve finished putting it together, we go back to the hotel to get cleaned up, come back and now there’s this huge party there.†Planning for each annual event starts as early as September the year before, Kemp said, when board members meet to brainstorm the upcoming party’s theme. “We meet in September to kinda reconnect, then in October and November to really get planning for the next year. By now we’re meeting weekly,†Kemp said. “It’s gonna be a great party, but it’s totally a volunteer-driven thing. We all have full-time jobs. I’m very grateful and very gracious to my fellow board members; if they weren’t the people they are, I wouldn’t do this.†He said the hardest part of the planning process is venue shopping. “It’s increasingly more difficult to find one now that the economy’s doing better,†Kemp said. The organizers look for a warehouse space with a raw, unfinished feel. This year they found that at the Old Freeman Factory, at 2638 NW Wilson St. “My favorite thing about this year’s party is that it’s a brand new building that Portland hasn’t had a chance to see yet,†Poteet said. “It’s a 60 or 70 year old building that was a hay-bailing factory — not a big need for that in central Portland anymore — so they’re turning it into an event space. This is the first large scale event there.†And it may also be the last time Red Dress gets to use the venue; Poteet said these Red Dress parties have a tendency to work as really effective advertisements for a party space. “It’s kind of a hallmark of the Red Dress party that one of the partygoers ends up leasing the building and moving a business there,†Poteet said. Now imagine that virgin dance floor filled with jugglers, fire dancers, LED hoop performers and more at this year’s big event. The organizers are also doubling down their efforts to bring in a youthful spark. “We’re going for a much younger clientele,†Poteet said. “We reduced the price and we have the circus theme. Originally, years ago this was a younger party, and we want to get back to that.†“‘Red Top’ is kind of a play off American Horror Story: Freak Show,†Kemp said. “Kind of a sexy circus. Last year was Red Wedding, after the red wedding on Game of Thrones. The themes allow the guests to be creative.†Red Dress 1 (Find photo galleries of the Red Dress going all the way back to 2003 at the event’s website, http://reddresspdx.com, where you can also get more info and order your tickets.) The atmosphere? “It’s Disneyland for adults, plus booze,†Poteet said. “It isn’t exclusively a queer party and it isn’t a drag party, it’s Red Dress. There are a lot of heterosexual men who go, and women; basically, everybody who’s there steps 15.8 percent out of their comfort zone.†He added: “Expect to see one of everything, and a half of something you’re not sure what you saw! … Did ya get that? Heh.†“It’s very excitable, very loud there,†Pospisil said, “and you look out and can’t tell anything about who anybody is — all you see is a sea of red dresses.†But that’s not to say the magic never happens 1-on-1. “It’s a sexy party, there’s a lot of that. It turns into a pretty hot party,†she said. Among the food and drinks available there will be more non-alcoholic options this year, a response to requests from patrons after last year’s party. But the board has a request to make for patrons, too: buy your tickets soon! “Buy early and buy often,†Rohde said. “One of our focuses this year is getting the turnout. From a planning perspective, the more we can get a good head count as early as possible, the more we can maximize our use of resources and the revenue we can guarantee goes towards charity.†Poteet put it a little more bluntly. “Portland. Get your goddamn tickets early. Get. Them. Early.†That’s not to scold; these organizers speak — and anyone who attended last year’s event will know this — from the deep pain of a traumatic experience. “Last year we cut the Porta Potties thinking that not many people would come, and then a bunch more showed up,†Poteet explained. Ah, that fiasco. Do you remember now? This time, put your mind at ease: the organizers have learned from the experience. “We got extra toilets this year, but it’s based on what we think attendance is gonna be — if the attendance doubles three days before the event, that’s challenging! And that’s what happened last year,†Poteet said. Knowing the numbers helps the organizers make their spending decisions wisely, leaving more of revenues to go to the charity beneficiaries. That, Rohde said, is what keeps him so invested in the party. “My favorite part of the whole process, aside from the party which is just a ton of fun, is the part where we figure out the accounting and see how much we can give to the charities,†Rohde said. “I look at it as, Red Dress party is a sultry beast — it’s a love-hate relationship,†Kemp said. “But the outcome, I love seeing the looks on peoples’ faces when they come out, and when we hand our checks over to the beneficiaries. I hope everyone will come out and see the fun for themselves.†Aside from that, Poteet had one piece of advice for anyone who might attend: “Red dresses are going to start to be a hard commodity to get, so start shopping now!â€