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9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Party DJs

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Where would a wedding or a bar mitzvah be without the DJ? Disc jockeys provide more than the playlist—they set the mood, get people dancing, and sometimes even emcee the reception. But there’s plenty of work that goes on behind the scenes, too. We talked to a few DJs to find out more about how they work, what they do and don’t want to see at a party, and what to know before you hire one. 

1. DJS PUT IN A LOT OF WORK BEFORE THE PARTY STARTS. 

Although some people think that DJs simply show up to an event with a laptop and press play, being a DJ actually requires a ton of work behind the scenes. DJ Jeffty, who spins at parties in the San Francisco Bay Area, explains that paperwork tasks such as drafting contracts, processing venue/vendor agreements, getting gate codes and parking access, and filing tax and insurance forms is a time-consuming requirement. 

“A lot of what I do is involved with pre-planning, and curating the playlist for each event,” he says. “For a wedding, pre-planning can be anything from site visits, lighting design, being involved with the rehearsal, coordinating/sound checking with performers, or practicing pronouncing the names of the bridal party!” 

DJs must also arrive early at the venue to coordinate any extras such as lighting, props, dancers, and video projectors. Setting up, and later breaking down, equipment can also take a significant amount of time and effort. 

2. SO THEIR FEE MIGHT BE HIGHER THAN YOU WERE EXPECTING.

The fees for DJs are all over the map, from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand. Most DJs stress that you get what you pay for—a cheap DJ may only work a few gigs per month and not have quality equipment. More expensive DJs usually have more experience, professional equipment, a large music library, and are licensed and insured.

3. MOST DJS HATE CARPETS, BRIGHT LIGHTS, AND DRY EVENTS.

DJs prefer working in venues with a wood or tile dance floor, rather than carpet, because carpet isn’t conducive to dancing—it just feels awkward. DJs also like to spin in a dark room, since most people are too self-conscious to bust their moves in glaring lights. Finally, alcohol loosens people up so they hit the dance floor without inhibitions.

4. THEY HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT TAKING REQUESTS. 

The last thing DJs want is a dead crowd. To encourage people to dance, DJs play a variety of well-known songs, switching up the genre and time period frequently to appeal to the most people. Good DJs also intuitively sense any lulls in the crowd’s energy and play a different song to get the party back on track.

Some DJs are loath to take requests because they know that certain songs will kill the vibe on the dance floor—and after all, they’ve already spent a bunch of time putting together the perfect playlist. However, other DJs will encourage requests.

“I am well aware that many DJs do not like to be approached while they are working an event,” DJ Jeffty says. “But personally, I believe that requests are essential to getting a read on what the crowd likes. I don't play every request I receive, but I do welcome the interaction with the crowd. In the end, the event is not about me ... it's about my clients and their guests.”

5. KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PART- AND FULL-TIME DJS. 

For some DJs, spinning is not their full-time gig. These DJs may work as a freelance contractor for a company that takes a percentage of the fee. Because big DJ companies rely on volume for their business, you may have little say over which DJ you actually get for your event. Other DJs are independent, working for themselves or running their own company. For most successful independent DJs, it’s their full-time job—they spin at parties on the weekends and evenings, and they run their business during the day. Price points and levels of professionalism vary, so you should speak with potential DJs to get a sense of how well they would fit for your event.

6. THEY WANT FOOD, BUT WILL PROBABLY DECLINE A DRINK. 

Party etiquette dictates that the photographer, videographer, and florist should get a meal during an event … and don’t forget about the DJ. Whether or not they’re emceeing your party, they probably also need to eat at some point. However, they may not want to drink.

“I think that every DJ should get a meal … Please feed your DJ! As far as drinking, I choose not to drink alcohol. I want to always put my best foot forward for my clients,” DJ Jeffty says. 

Vaughn Wooster, a.k.a. DJ Von Woo, a DJ in the Bay Area, stresses that every event is different, and in some cases it may be acceptable for DJs to discreetly eat their vendor meal at the booth, “in case any unforeseen changes in the music happen.” 

But because alcohol can hinder a DJ’s ability to perform at his or her best, Jerry Laskin, a DJ and owner of Jerry Laskin Enterprises, which serves New York and surrounding states, says that alcohol “should never be an option for the DJ or entertainers booked.”

7. THERE’S MORE MONEY IN BAR MITZVAHS THAN IN WEDDINGS.

2015 data compiled by job listing website Thumbtack showed that on average, DJs charge 32% more for bar and bat mitzvahs than weddings. According to Joel Macht, president of SpotlightLA, the DJ/emcee for a bar mitzvah “will be out and involved with the crowd, running games, setting up the photo montage, explaining how the candle-lighting works, and so on.” Entertaining a group of young teenagers requires more interaction, energy, and skills than entertaining adults. Bar mitzvahs are also more likely than weddings or birthday parties to feature dancers, special lighting, and audio/visual techs, which all add to the cost. 

8. TAKE THE AWARDS AND REVIEWS ON SOME DJS' WEBSITES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT.

The wedding services industry brings in $60 billion of revenue annually. To differentiate themselves from the competition and attract eyeballs, some wedding DJs put awards on their websites. Russ Messick, a DJ who specializes in weddings, writes on his website that DJs who pay for advertising get an award to display: “It's quite the joke. DJs love to tout their ‘awards’ they claim they have been bestowed … A bit misleading, but brides and grooms don't know it.” 

Messick also reveals that he spends $800 to $1400 per month to be featured on wedding sites, while other DJs post their own fake, positive reviews on wedding sites to try to get more clients. “There is no real way to know for sure whether reviews are real or fake,” Messick says.

9. WORD OF MOUTH IS THE MAIN WAY THEY GET MORE GIGS.

DJs who have done a great job spinning at parties say they get more and more clients via word of mouth. Former clients will recommend DJs to their friends, and every guest who attends a party is a potential client. Laskin says his company’s best recommendations come “from former satisfied clients as well as repeat customers, venues, caterers and decorators who have enjoyed our work, as well as event planners and orchestras. A smaller percentage comes from our online ad campaigns and social networking blogging and channels.”  

All images courtesy of iStock

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40 Years Later: Watch The Johnny Cash Christmas Show
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Over the course of his career, Johnny Cash made a series of Christmas TV specials and recorded a string of Christmas records. In this 1977 TV performance, Cash is in great form. He brings special guests Roy Clark, June Carter Cash, The Carter Family, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison ("Pretty Woman" starts around 23:50), Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers. Tune in for Christmas as we celebrated it 40 years ago—with gigantic shirt collars, wavy hair, and bow ties. So many bow ties.

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14 Fascinating Facts About Saturday Night Fever
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Paramount Pictures

We can tell by the way you use your walk that you're a fan of Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 blockbuster that made John Travolta a mega-star and brought disco into the mainstream. (Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.) To enhance your appreciation of what was the highest-grossing dance movie of all time until Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) beat it, here's a groovy list of facts to celebrate the film's 40th birthday. Put on your boogie shoes and read! 

1. THERE WAS A PG-RATED VERSION OF IT, TOO.

Saturday Night Fever was an instant hit when it was released in December 1977, quickly becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. What's especially impressive is that it did this despite being rated R and thus (theoretically) inaccessible to teenagers, the very audience that a disco movie would (theoretically) appeal to. And so in March 1979, the film was re-released in a PG version, with all the profanity, sex, and violence either deleted or downplayed. This version took in another $8.9 million (about $30 million at 2016 ticket prices), bringing the film's U.S. total to $94.2 million. Both versions were released on VHS and laserdisc, though the R-rated cut didn't become widely available on home video until the DVD upgrade. 

2. IT WAS BASED ON A MAGAZINE ARTICLE THAT TURNED OUT TO BE SEMI-FICTIONAL.

"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," a detailed look at the new generation of urban teenagers by British journalist Nik Cohn, was published in New York Magazine in June 1976. The central figure in the article was Vincent, "the very best dancer in Bay Ridge," whose name was changed to Tony Manero for the movie. But years later, Cohn confessed: "[Vincent] is completely made-up, a total fabrication." The styles and attitudes Cohn had described were real, but not the main character. Cohn said he'd only recently arrived in Brooklyn, didn't know the scene well, and based Vincent on a Mod he'd known in London in the '60s.

3. THE BEE GEES HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.

Most of the film had already been shot when music producer-turned-movie producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to write songs for it. The brothers, only modestly successful at that point and hard at work on their next album, didn't know what the movie was about but cranked out a few tunes in a weekend. They also repurposed several songs they'd been working on, including "Stayin' Alive," a demo version of which was prepared in time to be used in filming the opening "strut" sequence. (You'll notice Travolta struts in sync with the music.) So if the movie's signature songs didn't come until later, what were the cast members listening to when they shot the dance scenes? According to Travolta, it was Boz Scaggs and Stevie Wonder. 

4. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM BROKE ALL KINDS OF RECORDS.

With 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, Saturday Night Fever was the top-selling soundtrack album of all time before being supplanted by The Bodyguard some 15 years later. It's also the only disco record (so far) to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and one of only three soundtracks (besides The Bodyguard and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to win that category. It was the number one album on the Billboard charts for the entire first half of 1978, and stayed on the charts until March 1980, long after the supposed death of disco.

5. THE MOVIE EXTENDED DISCO'S LIFESPAN BY A FEW YEARS.

Disco had been popular enough in the mid-1970s to land multiple disco tunes on the Billboard charts, but by the end of 1977, when Saturday Night Fever came out, the backlash had started and the trend was on its way out. But thanks to the movie (and its soundtrack), not only did disco not die out, it achieved more widespread, mainstream, middle-America success than it ever had before.

6. IT HAS SOME ROCKY CONNECTIONS.


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First connection: It was supposed to be directed by John G. Avildsen, whose previous film was Rocky. Ultimately, that didn’t work out and Avildsen was replaced with John Badham a few weeks before shooting began. Second connection: Tony has a Rocky poster on his bedroom wall. Third connection: Saturday Night Fever’s 1983 sequel, Staying Alive, was directed by ... Sylvester Stallone.

7. TRAVOLTA WAS ALREADY SO FAMOUS THAT MAKING THE MOVIE WAS A HASSLE.

Saturday Night Fever made Travolta a movie star, but he was already a teen heartthrob because of the popular sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, where he played a delinquent teenager with the hilarious and timeless catchphrase "Up your nose with a rubber hose." Still, nobody was prepared for how Travolta's fame would affect the movie, which was to be shot on the streets of Brooklyn. As soon as the neighborhood found out Travolta was there, the sidewalks were swarmed by thousands of onlookers, many of them squealing teenage girls. (Badham said there were also a lot of teenage boys holding signs expressing their hatred for Travolta for being more desirable than themselves.)

Co-star Donna Pescow said, "The fans—oh, my God, they were all over him. It was scary to watch." Badham said, "By noon of the first day, we had to shut down and go home." Since it was nearly impossible to keep the crowds away (or quiet), Badham and the crew resorted to filming in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn. 

8. THE WHITE CASTLE EMPLOYEES WEREN'T ACTING WHEN THEY LOOKED SHOCKED. 


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In the brief scene where Tony, his boys, and Stephanie are loudly eating at White Castle, those were the real burger-flippers, not actors. Badham told them to just go about their business. He also told his actors to cut loose and surprise the White Castlers in whatever way they saw fit. The shot that's in the movie appears to be a reaction to Joey standing on the table and barking, but Badham said it was actually in response to something else: "Double J (actor Paul Pape) pulling his pants down and mooning the entire staff of the White Castle."

9. THE FEMALE LEAD GOT THE PART THANKS TO A SERENDIPITOUS CAB RIDE.

Casting the role of Tony's dance partner, Stephanie, proved difficult. Hundreds of women auditioned, but nobody seemed right. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Karen Lynn Gorney was looking for her big break into show business. As fate would have it, she shared a cab with a stranger who turned out to be producer Robert Stigwood's nephew. He mentioned that his uncle was working on a movie, and Gorney replied, "Oh, am I in it?"— her standard joke whenever she heard about a film being made. The nephew wound up submitting Gorney as a candidate, and the rest is history. 

10. TRAVOLTA’S GIRLFRIEND DIED DURING FILMING.

John Travolta stars in Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Paramount Pictures

Travolta met Diana Hyland on the set of the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, in which she played his mother. (She was 18 years older than him.) They had been dating for six months when Hyland succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 41, after filming just four episodes of her new gig on Eight Is Enough. Travolta was able to leave Saturday Night Fever and fly to L.A. in time to be with her before she died, then had to return to work. 

11. THE COMPOSER HAD TO SCRAMBLE TO REPLACE A NIXED SONG.

For Tony and Stephanie's rehearsal scene about 30 minutes into the movie, Badham had used the song "Lowdown" by Boz Scaggs, going so far as to shoot the scene, including the dialogue, with the song actually playing in the background. (That's usually a no-no, for exactly the reasons you're about to read about.) According to Badham, no sooner had they wrapped the scene than Scaggs' people reached out to say they couldn't use the song after all, as Scaggs was thinking of pursuing a disco project of his own. Badham now had to have the actors re-dub the dialogue (since the version he'd recorded was tainted by "Lowdown"); what's more, he had to find a new song that would fit the choreography and tempo of the dancing. Composer David Shire rose to the occasion, writing a piece of instrumental music that met the specifications, and that’s what we hear in the movie. 

12. THEY MADE UP A DANCE BECAUSE THE CHOREOGRAPHER DIDN'T SHOW UP.

In another rehearsal scene 55 minutes into the movie, Tony and Stephanie do the "tango hustle," which looks like a combination of both of those dances. This was something Travolta and Gorney invented as a matter of necessity: the film's choreographer didn't realize he was supposed to be on the set that day, and the actors didn't have any steps prepared. The tango hustle, alas, never quite caught on.  

13. TONY’S ICONIC WHITE SUIT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BLACK.

Travolta and Badham both assumed Tony's disco outfit would be black, as men's suits tended to be at the time. Costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein convinced them it should be white, partly to symbolize the character's journey to enlightenment but also for practical reasons: a dark suit doesn't photograph very well in a dark discotheque. 

14. TONY’S SUIT WAS LATER SOLD FOR $2000—THEN FOR $145,500.

Von Brandenstein took Travolta to a cheap men's clothing store in Brooklyn (swamped by teenage fans, of course) and bought the suit off the rack—three identical suits, actually, so they wouldn't have to stop filming when one became soaked with Travolta's sweat. Two of the suits disappeared after the movie was finished; the remaining one, inscribed by Travolta, was bought at a charity auction in 1979 by film critic Gene Siskel, who cited Saturday Night Fever as one of his favorite movies. He paid about $2000 for it. In 1995, he sold it for $145,500 to an anonymous bidder through Christie's auction house.

In 2012, after a lengthy search, curators at London's Victoria and Albert Museum found the owner (who still preferred to remain anonymous) and persuaded him to lend it for an exhibit of Hollywood costumes. It is now presumably back in that man's care, whoever he may be. (P.S. Badham says on the 2002 DVD commentary that the suit is on display at the Smithsonian, a tidbit repeated by NPR in 2006 and Vanity Fair in 2007. But they must be mistaken. The suit’s sale in 1995 and rediscovery for the 2012 museum exhibit are verified facts; the suit isn't in the Smithsonian's online catalogue; and finally, a 2007 Washington Post story about the Smithsonian lists the suit as one of the items the museum director wanted to get.)

Additional sources:
John Badham DVD commentary
DVD featurettes

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