40 years of Freaker’s Ball: A look back at Lake Tahoe’s biggest Halloween bash
40th Freaker’s Ball
When: 9 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 27
Where: MontBleu Resort Casino and Spa, 55 U.S. 50, Stateline
Tickets: $35 in advance, $40 at the door
In 1978 at a Chinese restaurant by day, club by night, the first Freaker’s Ball took place in South Lake Tahoe. Over the next 40 years the event would go on to swap hands and locations numerous times, but despite these changes, thousands of costumed partiers still descend on the South Shore every year for what is considered the craziest, most extreme Halloween party Lake Tahoe has ever seen.
Four decades ago Freaker’s Ball came to be thanks to a little San Francisco inspiration and a country rock song.
It all started when longtime local Brian Williams convinced the owner of Tahoe Chinese Palace that he was missing an opportunity by closing up the 6,000 square-foot restaurant at 9 p.m. every night. They struck up a deal and Williams opened up the nightclub.
“We were kind of the mainstream nighttime activity back in those days,” said Williams. “At the time, there were some costume balls going on in San Francisco, and with Halloween coming up, I thought we should throw a party there.”
A few years earlier, Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show released a cover of the song “Freakin’ at the Freakers Ball,” the title song from Shel Silverstein’s album.
That first year, 300 people showed up for the inaugural Freaker’s Ball where several live bands performed.
“It wasn’t an extreme thing like it evolved into,” said Williams. “Nobody knew what to expect.”
The next year it moved to Vagabond Lodge — now the future site of Whole Foods 365 — where the event stayed for several years. Popular local band Mal and the Movers with former South Lake Tahoe Mayor (and current City Council candidate) Hal Cole on drums was Williams’ go-to entertainment for the event.
But soon the event outgrew the lodge and Williams set his sights on Edgewood Tahoe. But first he needed permission from owner Brooks Park.
“I explained what I wanted to do and he said, ‘You can do it but, make sure nobody gets crazy and drives on my golf course,’” recalled Williams with a laugh.
“We held it at Edegwood that year and by 2 a.m. the customers had drunk the bar dry and the only thing left was Chartreuse. It was a great night.”
Though Round Hill Safeway shoppers and Anytime Fitness members might find it hard to believe, the shopping center was once home to several nightclubs with intriguing names like After Dark, La Fantasia…and Turtles.
Owned by Dennis Nelson, Turtles soon became the venue for Freaker’s Ball for a number of years.
As the event grew, the costumes became more extravagant and so did the prizes. In 1990, the grand prize for best costume was a seven-day Caribbean Cruise and airfare for two.
“Word starts to get around. People come to town and hear about it. We started having people coming up from San Martin Valley and Modesto and Placerville,” said Williams.
Eventually Nelson bought Freaker’s Ball from Williams. The event moved down to the Embassy Suites — now Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel — for the next few years before Nelson sold it to Caesars, which operates Harrah’s and Harveys.
About a decade ago, MontBleu Resort Casino and Spa bought the event, and they’ve been growing it ever since.
For the bash’s 40th year, Freaker’s Ball will expand beyond the showroom and Opal Nightclub to the casino floor.
“We spent $25,000 in props and costumes for the event this year,” said Will Jackson, general manager of nightlife for MontBleu. “It’s visually going to be more compelling than it’s ever been.”
Similar to last year, around 2,000 people are expected to attend the event, which will be played by top DJs from Reno and Sacramento, including Louie Giovanni, DJ Oasis and Rick Gee.
“We’ve also upped the ante with $10,000 in cash and prizes,” said Jackson.
For some attendees, the costumes themselves cost hundreds of dollars to put together.
“Last year I saw a guy dressed as a yeti on stilts. He had to be 8-12 feet tall,” said Jackson. “Honestly it’s hard to describe what you see there sometimes.”
Jackson credits Freaker’s Ball branding and commitment to quality entertainment for its longevity on the South Shore.
“It gives people a chance to interact with people they don’t normally interact with,” said Jackson. “It’s electric. It’s cutting edge.”
This year’s Freaker’s Ball is on Saturday, Oct. 27, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $35 in advance or $40 at the door.