Mariah does the Dinah
From George Ranch to the biggest lesbian bash in the world. From the Winter 2011 issue of SONOMA magazine
You have to wonder what James P. George would say if his
granddaughter invited him to her party.
We’ll never know because George has long since passed, but we can imagine.
George was the oil magnate who bought a thousand acres on the southern flank of Sonoma Mountain in 1942 that came to be named George Ranch.
The party in question is a rather large one, attended each year by upwards of 10,000 people, or roughly the entire population of Sonoma. That’s impressive in itself.
But what’s even more impressive, what would almost certainly have rearranged George’s world view just a bit had he lived to see it, is the fact that virtually all of those people are women, and not just women but lesbian women.
Whatever his take on the cultural revolution that has shifted the axis of public opinion on gender orientation and gay rights, James P. George would have to be impressed that his persistent, entrepreneurial, almost preternaturally successful granddaughter, Mariah Hanson, produces that party every year.
It has, almost from the start, been called The Dinah, a fact that might have given its namesake serious pause. Dinah as in Dinah Shore, founder of the second oldest American golf tournament continuously held at the same location, at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California. The Dinah Shore Weekend traditionally referred to the golf tournament and the parties that grew up around it. And since a fair number of female golfers are gay (which Dinah Shore was emphatically not), a significant contingency of lesbians began attending, bolstering the developing reputation of the Palm Springs area as a gay Mecca.
Enter Mariah Hanson, a pert blond with quiet confidence and candid blue eyes, who pursued a double major at Sonoma State University in English and How To Throw A Party.
“I went to the dorm manager,” she recalls, explaining the genesis of her career, “and I asked if I could have my 21st birthday party in the cafeteria. I just thought that was kind of novel, and he said yes. But he made me promise I wouldn’t have any liquor and I wouldn’t charge admission.”
Hanson pauses the narrative and a mischievous smile crosses her face. “You can kind of tell I didn’t keep my promise.”
“I charged admission and I had five kegs of Pabst Blue Ribbon and five cases of a private stock of Lone Star beer, and I had my boyfriend’s band playing, (they were terrible) but we celebrated until the wee hours of the morning. And I remember waking up in my cousin’s truck, parked in the quad right in front of the cafeteria. And then I saw the dorm manager and I saw the look on his face, and I realized, I’m in big trouble.”
Not big enough, apparently, because the next year she did it again, this time in the campus coffee shop.
“I don’t know how I talked him into it again. But the same stipulation: No booze, no charging…and that party was a blow out, and of course we charged, and had a DJ, and after that, from what I understand, they banned parties from campus and it’s never happened since.”
Hanson learned two things from that early experience: She was a natural negotiator, and she instinctively knew how to throw a party.
After two years, she transferred from Sonoma State to UC Santa Barbara, graduated with her English degree, “thinking I was going to take the world by storm, and no one would hire me.”
So Hanson got a minimum-wage job folding clothes at Esprit, the San Francisco clothing company, worked her way up to the executive offices and learned some valuable lessons in corporate enterprise.
“They had incredible vision at Esprit, they were really on the cusp of what is considered now the way to do business. They weren’t necessarily green, but they were very conscious of the right kind of business and being socially conscious and environmentally conscious…”
But the economy hit a hiccup, Esprit was doing lay-offs, so Hanson took a severance package and pondered her
“You know, I always had a business bent,” she says. “Of all of the grandchildren, I was the closest to my grandfather, so his business acumen had an effect on me, and I just watched him create. And I also just loved the way people treated him. He certainly garnered a lot of respect.”
So one day Hanson walked into an old “huge, empty” San Francisco warehouse that was being turned into a nightclub, “and I said, ‘I want to throw a lesbian event in here on Sundays.’ And they just thought that was novel, and they said, ‘Sure.’”
Hanson set her alarm clock for midnight, every Wednesday through Sunday for two months, and put flyers on cars outside every busy nightclub she thought might serve the demographic she was seeking.
At her grand opening, she had 1,100 women on a Sunday night. “That was a big deal. And my career was born. And I loved it. I looked out on this warehouse filled with women having the time of their lives and I was, like wow. I could do this for a living. And then I did.”
Hanson founded a production company, Club Skirts, and threw parties, she says, “at probably every major nightclub in San Francisco, for more than a decade, and really developed a name for myself.” Then, in 1991, she started the Dinah, which has become the largest lesbian event in the world and has turned Hanson into an international figure and, according to one gay publication, a “power lesbian.”
How did she crack the Palm Springs equation as a Northern California outsider? Remember those parties at Sonoma State? There was a lesson there.
Palm Springs, Hanson discovered, has a stunning, world-class museum, endowed by people with names like Hope and Sinatra. Benefactors of the museum, she learned, were permitted to hold cocktail receptions. The proverbial lightbulb came on in Hanson’s head. Becoming a benefactor was relatively cheap: $2,500. It would become a fateful investment.
“So I bought in. And I didn’t really tell them what my reception was going to look like. I think I had 1,750 women in the Palm Springs museum. And I brought in a top-10 recording artist, and it was lovely, it was stunning.”
It was also briefly out of control, when a group of exuberant women somehow gained access to the roof and flashed their breasts at partiers below, which initiated a Keystone Cops chase involving octogenarian security guards and the lively lesbians.
Since that first year, Hanson says, again with that mischievous smile, “You can’t throw a corporate benefactor cocktail reception at the Palm Springs Museum for more than 500 people. I kind of have this legacy.”
What she also has is a raging success, a five-day bacchanalia, every spring, filled with pool parties and top-flight entertainment that has changed how the music industry views the lesbian market.
Palm Springs began taking the Dinah seriously when Hanson began booking hundreds of room nights in local hotels. Then about six years ago she upped the ante and began booking big-name talent, turning the Dinah into a lesbian music festival.
“In 2006,” she relates, “I booked the Pussycat Dolls right before their big hit, and you can’t imagine how much fun it was having the Pussycat Dolls singing, ‘Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me,’ in front of 4,000 lesbians. It was kind of cool.”
Other big names Hanson has booked for the Dinah are Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Colby Calet, Kesha and Paula Poundstone. And she sees that acceptance as indicating a big shift. “The music industry now is really taking this market seriously, and my Dinah Music Festival, which I’m really proud of. And for the first time in history I think lesbians are now considered trendsetters.”
But much more than music happens at the Dinah. What’s it like?
“It’s almost a rite of passage for lesbians to attend , there’s something really embracing about allowing women from all over the world to really live out loud for five days, without any fear of retribution, without any fear that they’re living too loud, just in this very celebratory, anything goes atmosphere. And that’s powerful. Because you take that home with you. Maybe you live a little bit louder at home. Maybe you tell that person that you’re gay.”
There’s also a correlating spin off in wider public acceptance, Hanson believes. “You can see an incremental change of heart in corporations. The end game is that we get closer to our civil rights. And that’s what I care about. A guy is in the voting booth and he thinks, ‘You know, I don’t care if they get married’”
Flush with success, Hanson came back to George Ranch for good less than a year ago, moving into the 15-acre family homestead she was able to buy but until now couldn’t find the time to occupy. Like her grandfather, she has horses and rides whenever she can. And, she confesses, she’s always dreamed of a “Sonoma Wine, Women and Song Weekend.”
But more than anything else, Sonoma is its own reward.
“This is God’s country, we’re really lucky to live here. Every night at the end of the day I walk out to feed the horses and the sun’s setting and I’m feeling, I could have the worst day in the world and there’s just nothing wrong with this.”
James P. George would be proud.
From the Winter 2011 issue of SONOMA magazine