Under the Hard Hat: An Interview with Village People's David Hodo
May 3, 1980. Village People perform on Soul Train. It's one of many appearances the group does to promote their starring role in Can't Stop the Music (1980). Host Don Cornelius asks each member about what he did prior to joining the group. Attired in a sleek, electric blue version of his Construction Worker outfit, David Hodo answers with coy understatement, “I was just a gypsy looking for a good time.”
If ever a life in show business could be summarized in one sentence, it's Hodo's response to Cornelius. Before Village People, he belonged to a different group of people — the chorus guys and gals of New York's theater community. "Gypsies, as we called ourselves." A native of Sacramento, Hodo moved to Manhattan in the early '70s, a time when musicals like Company, Follies, and Pippin' dominated the Great White Way. Hodo paid his dues in dinner theater and summer stock until landing his first Broadway show, Doctor Jazz (1975). Though lead actress Lola Falana earned a Tony nomination, the musical closed after only five performances. Within two years, Hodo would win a role that lasted 35 years — the Construction Worker in Village People.
Conceived by French producer Jacques Morali, Village People quickly evolved from a studio concept to a global phenomenon. The producer had struck disco gold with the Ritchie Family on Brazil (1975), Arabian Nights (1976), and African Queens (1977), and caught the interest of Neil Bogart at Casablanca Records. Bogart signed Morali's newest enterprise in 1977, further expanding the label's roster of disco acts, which included Love & Kisses, D.C. LaRue, Pattie Brooks, and Giorgio Moroder. All four tracks off Village People (1977) garnered massive club play, topping the disco chart for seven weeks in between the Ritchie Family's African Queens and Chic's "Dance, Dance, Dance". The first public configuration of the group included Victor Willis, Felipe Rose, and Alexander Briley, plus four dancers who represented different archetypes of the gay club scene in New York's Greenwich Village. Further honing his concept, Morali replaced the anonymous dancers with Hodo, Randy Jones, and Glenn Hughes, and unveiled a revamped Village People line-up on Macho Man (1978).
Casablanca went all-out to bolster the group's image. Photographed in the Mojave Desert, the Cruisin' (1978) album cover depicted Willis (Cop), Rose (Native American), Briley (G.I.), Hodo (Construction Worker), Jones (Cowboy) and Hughes (Leather Man) in full regalia, accompanied by horses, motorcycles, and tractor trailers. Writing for Rolling Stone Lester Bangs called the group "the ultimate crossover act". Their music could be viewed through more than one lens, from kid-friendly fun to adult fantasies laced with double entendres. Whether in the gay discos of New York and Los Angeles, a Las Vegas show room, or a shopping mall in Middle America, one thing was undeniable: Village People had some of the catchiest songs on the airwaves.
Nearly overnight, Village People became one of Casablanca's marquee acts, holding court alongside Kiss, Parliament, and Donna Summer. Between 1977 and 1979, the group released five consecutive gold-selling albums of which three went platinum in the US. "Y.M.C.A." topped the UK Singles Chart and climbed to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 while "In the Navy" followed into the top five. Ray Simpson, who'd sung background for the group, assumed the lead spot on the studio sides of Live and Sleazy (1979) and ushered Village People into the '80s and beyond.
Part of what's made Village People survive four decades of personnel changes, commercial disappointments, and changing musical tastes is the appeal of six distinct personalities. With his lean physique and winsome smile, David Hodo was the group's blonde bombshell, a natural pinup regularly featured in magazines like 16 and Tiger Beat. "Onstage he's the macho man, offstage he's a cuddly pussycat", cooed Super Teen. Quick-witted and straight-shooting, Hodo had an endearing personality underneath the tool belt and reflective shades. It equipped him to endure everything from industry politics to "wardrobe malfunctions" to performing conditions that tested all manner of resilience.
However, Hodo decided to retire his hard hat after recording the group's latest single "Let's Go Back to the Dance Floor" (2013). While Village People continues to perform, Hodo is adjusting to life off the road and reflecting on a career that's taken him from the Broadway stage to some of the world's biggest stadiums. In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, he retraces his 35 years with Village People and recalls how a gypsy kid from Sacramento secured a permanent place in pop culture history.
Part I: Broadway or Bust
Let's go back to Sacramento. What is your earliest memory of music?
I can tell you exactly. I was seven years old. My mother had one of those big-ass radios. I couldn't even reach the top of it. My parents were divorced and my mother was a working single mother so we had a series of babysitters and nannies. One day, this pretty girl showed up at the door to take care of my sister and I while my mother went to work. She was a teenager. I remember she had a pony tail. She walked up and changed the radio. I didn't know it could even do that! I heard "Poison Ivy" by the Coasters and I was just mesmerized. I'd grown up with [sings] "See the pyramids along the Nile" and all of a sudden "Poison Ivy" and "Charlie Brown" came out. This babysitter was my introduction to rock and roll. She taught me all the latest dances. I learned the bop, the slop, the walk, whatever. I became a teenager at seven years-old. I spent all my allowance on 45s.
Did anyone in your family have musical talent?
My mother had a beautiful singing voice. She sang all day long when she did housework. She was always like a canary in a cage. My mother was more of a classical singer. It wasn't a pop sound. I used to listen to the radio with my mother and of course with her it was Perry Como, Jimmie Rodgers, Rosemary Clooney, that stuff. My father was into country/western music, which I hated because he wouldn't let me listen to my rock and roll. I grew up on Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, all of them. Slim Whitman was my father's idol. He had this incredible falsetto voice. He was a huge star and ended up living in England for a long time. He just recently died at 90. As a kid, I could do dead-on Slim Whitman impersonations. It was only later when Linda Ronstadt came along and kind of turned it into folk rock that I realized how much I loved this country western music. I sort of blocked it out because it reeked of my father's stinking cigars.
Yes, I remember you sharing with me that Linda's Heart Like a Wheel (1974) is one of your favorite albums. At what point did you realize that music was something you wanted to pursue, professionally?
I don't think I ever did. I loved to sing but I thought I was going to be an artist. I started college as an art major. I was such a country bumpkin that I'd never seen a stage production until I was 19. The college put on Once Upon a Mattress. I was just bowled over. I dropped all of my art classes and took all theater classes. I couldn't tell my family because it was bad enough that I was an artist. "Starving artist" was always what I heard. When I graduated from University of California, Sacramento it was with a B.A. in speech because they didn't have what was called a degree in theater.
How did you get from Sacramento to New York?
I was working on a farm, re-weaving wicker furniture. This was in a beautiful area in California called Aptos. It's right between Santa Cruz and Carmel. This friend of mine had gone to New York for the summer and rented an apartment. We were in a dance company together. He came back and said, "I'm taking you to New York". I was living with this bunch of hippies and I was ready to go.
You arrived in New York during the early '70s. What's your first memory of the city?
I can remember when my friend and I landed at LaGuardia. I said, "Where are the buildings?" I just figured you were dropped down into the city. He said, "We have to drive into town". It was nighttime when we came in. We pulled up in a cab to our new apartment on W. 69th St. and Central Park West. I opened the door and the first thing I saw was a pile of dog shit. Sacramento is pristine. It's a very friendly city. You say hello to people when you pass them on the sidewalk. You never saw dog shit on the sidewalk. Then we moved over to W. 70th Street. We had one of those railroad flats. My roommate's room was over the French laundry and my room was over the Chinese laundry. The French laundry is still there. Then three of us got together (we added a fourth roommate) and got a large apartment on W. 79th St. We spent several years there.
Did you feel overwhelmed by the city or did you fit in right away?
No, I loved it immediately. I took to New York like a fish to water. I was so lucky that I got my Equity Card on my second day in New York City, which is really unheard of. People wait tables for years before they can get an Equity Card, but it was a case of preparation meeting opportunity. I never had to wait a table. The day that I got my Equity Card, I had to take the subway by myself and I was terrified. It cost 35 cents. When the train came into the station, I didn't know if it was an earthquake or what! I just really loved it … and of course it was the '70s, so it was wild.
At that time, were you auditioning for musicals or more dramatic productions?
I was into musicals. I wasn't going out for serious stuff. I auditioned for No, No Nanette (1971). When I came to New York, the big choruses were no more. They couldn't afford them. Now they had smaller choruses and you were either a singer who could dance or a dancer who could sing. I could shout in tune but I was basically a dancer.
What was your social world like, in terms of congregating with other actors or other musicians? One of the places that I imagine I would have enjoyed back then is Reno Sweeney's …
I used to go see Ellen Greene at Reno Sweeney's all the time. She was very classy. She had dark hair, slicked back into a chignon. She wore thick red lipstick that was very shiny. She was funny and she sang beautifully. I used to watch her and think, Is there anybody better? This must have been what it was like when Barbra Streisand was first playing clubs. One of the first shows I auditioned for was a show that Ellen was the lead in called Rachael Lily Rosenbloom (And Don't You Ever Forget It) (1973). I think it lasted three days or something. Years later, my best friend told me that Ellen was doing this Off-Broadway show Little Shop of Horrors (1982). I ended up going to see that and of course it was wonderful. Then she did the movie. The sad thing is, nobody recognized her without that blonde wig. Ellen made such a splash in that movie. She played that part so well that they didn't want to see anything else. They wanted to see the ditzy blonde. That was a career-maker and a career-killer. It's really kind of sad because she's a phenomenal talent.
From what I understand, your first Broadway show was a musical called Doctor Jazz (1975). How did it feel to land a role on Broadway?
It was great because by that time I'd done so much dinner theater and so much stock, I was really over it. I had gone home to California thinking about just returning to California. When I came back for Doctor Jazz, there was this thing in me: "I have to get that show" … and I did, so I ended up staying in New York.
What was the premise of Doctor Jazz?
Doctor Jazz was a wonderful concept. Basically, it started in Storyville, New Orleans where all the hookers were. That's where Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin and all of them came from. The black artists had to play behind a curtain so as to not offend the white patrons of the brothel. Then Storyville was shut down and all the jazz people moved to Chicago. Lola Falana was the star of Doctor Jazz. Another phenomenal talent. She basically played a Josephine Baker character. She ends up going to France, which is exactly what Josephine Baker did, because she couldn't get arrested in Chicago. Raoul Pène Du Bois did all the sets and costumes and the poster. He was a genius. The costumes were outrageous. Two guys came on as girls in corsets and then reached over and pulled each other's corsets off. They just had g-strings on. They'd scream and run off stage. The show was full of hookers. I love a show that's got hookers in it — I saw Seesaw (1973) four times just to see the hookers.
Cyma Rubin, who produced Doctor Jazz, was the one that famously chopped one of the other producers out of No, No Nanette. I can't remember his name but he went on to do Irene. Cyma thought she could do it all herself. At our first rehearsal, they handed us our scripts. We went home and read them. We came back the next day and said, "We're in a turkey!" It had to go through several re-writes. They didn't take Doctor Jazz out on the road. They just rehearsed it in the Winter Garden Theatre and opened it there. It actually opened without a second act. It was a tragedy. It was the first million-dollar disaster on Broadway.
You went from Doctor Jazz to your second Broadway musical, a revival of Pal Joey (1976).
Pal Joey was another show that could have been incredible. It started out with Eleanor Parker and Edward Villella — America's premier dancer. It had Janie Sell who won a Tony for Over Here! (1974). A few of the chorus kids went on to do bigger things. Marilu Henner was in the chorus. Marilu was a hoot! I praise Marilu 'til the sun goes down. She was a doll to work with. She knew she was going to be a star. By the time the show opened, we'd lost Eleanor and Edward. Neither one of them were up to the task. The director had his head up his ass. If it had been with Eleanor and Edward, it would have been a decent show, but there were script changes every day. This was Edward's first theater thing so it was totally throwing him. Joan Copeland and Chris Chadman took over. Of course, Dixie Carter walked away with it.
Tell me about watching Dixie Carter work.
Dixie was on a soap opera (The Edge of Night) so she'd show up in a limo with her script. We didn't have that much interaction with her. We knew she was very quiet and kind of quirky. She had this very insouciant, tousled look that was very sexy. She only had that one number called "Zip", which they gave to Rita Hayworth in the movie when it's not that character's number. It's just this interviewer who comes on to interview Joey. She does this faux Gypsy Rose Lee striptease. When Dixie came out and did "Zip", I'd never seen someone steal a show in five minutes. The audience would not let her leave the stage. They finally brought Richard Rodgers to see her and he brought another verse out of the vaults for her to do so she had an encore for the audience!
It seems like the 1970s was such a vibrant time for theater. You said you saw Seesaw four times. What other musicals did you get to see?
I also saw Pippin' (1972) four times. I loved Pippin'. I saw the original Chicago (1975) with Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon. Looking back at it now I think, That was really good, but I was so over Fosse by then. I wish he was alive to see how long this new version of Chicago has lasted. Chita and Gwen were "Chita and Gwen" — they were incredible but the show opened the same time that A Chorus Line (1975) opened. A Chorus Line came along and just blew everybody out of the water.
Once Pal Joey closed, what did you do?
There was a lot of work. If there wasn't work in New York, there was always dinner theater and summer stock. That kept the bills paid until you got that next Broadway show. I did a show that was going to be my third Broadway show but it closed on the road, The Red Blue Grass Western Flyer Show. It was about the Grand Ole Opry. Katharine Hepburn was bringing it into New York. She loved it. She'd seen it twice. She, Paul Newman, and Bette Davis frequented the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. It was this little picturesque place on the river, this old theater that brought many musicals into the city. Katharine would sit way down in her seat. We could see her because she had this white turtleneck. Every time the dance numbers were over, she'd go [slow, deliberate applause]. Otherwise, she was very sedate. When the show was over, the first thing she said was to take her back to see the dancers. They brought her to the boys' dressing room. She said, [in Katharine Hepburn's voice], "That's some athletic dance number!" I just remember standing there. It was like this aura of gold around her. The second time she came to the show, same thing. She had to come backstage and see the dancers. Then she said, "You're surely going to New York." That was the last we heard. Then it closed and I had to audition for this non-Equity thing …
And that was for Village People. How did you find out about that audition?
I wasn't getting any unemployment checks so I came to the unemployment office. It was somewhere on 34th St. They said you need one more week's employment. I picked up a stage magazine, either Show Business or Backstage, I can't remember which one. In those days, there was enough work that on the right side of the paper was all Equity work and on the left side of the paper was non-Equity work. It was close to Christmas. There was nothing going on in Equity. Everything had already been cast so I thought let me look over here (in non-Equity) and I see this ad, "Macho Types Wanted". They wanted a construction worker, a leather man, and a cowboy for this world famous disco act. The group had already had the first album out (Village People, 1977).
I went to this audition. I was auditioning for the cowboy, because I'd just done The Red Blue Grass Western Flyer Show. I wore a western shirt. The audition was held in a sleazy studio that I'd never been to. I know Alex [Briley] was there but I couldn't see anybody. They were sitting in the dark. All I could see was Jacques and Victor. They had a piano player to play the song that I had to sing but then I had to do choreography. They just put a cassette on. I was used to standing there with 300 chorus boys and having to learn choreography. I looked around and I said, "You mean you just want me to stand here and dance by myself?" I tried it a little bit and I just stopped. I said, "I feel like an ass". Victor jumped onstage and said, "I'll join you", so I didn't feel so stupid.
I got a call from Jacques that night. His accent was so thick. I couldn't understand half of what he was saying. He said I was going to be a construction worker. Construction workers weren't that visible as a sex thing. I just thought, Boots? I came to New York for the sequins and the tap numbers and the glitter. I can remember going into my roommates saying, "Remember that awful job I auditioned for today? I think I got it." The next week we recorded Macho Man (1978). It was very fast. We did that album and then we went into rehearsals, putting the show and the concept together. That's how I got into the group. It wasn't intentional. The rule in show business is, "Say yes and then figure it out later."