Disco was long dead when Charles Village neighbors Rebecca Bruce and Halle Van der Gaag were raising their children in the late 1990s.
At the time, the Goucher College graduates were young mothers looking for a way to raise money to build playgrounds at nearby schools and community open spaces.
"We were at that age when playgrounds mattered," said Bruce, now 42.
Disco, a danceable genre of pop music that helped defined the 1970s, hadn't mattered in more than two decades when Bruce and Van der Gaag decided to organize a fundraiser. But the result of their brainstorming was the first annual "Spaghetti Disco" in 1999, a spaghetti-and-meatball dinner followed by a disco-style dance party that raised $7,000 to $8,000. Participants donned bell bottom jeans, wide-collared shirts, platform shoes and mini- and maxi-dresses.
Thirteen years later, Spaghetti Disco endures and is expected to draw 500 people to St. John's Church at 26th and St. Paul streets Feb. 23.
"Disco is alive and well," crowed Bruce, an administrator for surgical practices in Pennsylvania and financial manager for a local graphic design firm. Though the dinner itself is popular, "a whole separate crowd comes after the dinner — and they come to dance," she said.
In recent years, Spaghetti Disco has become a big fundraiser for the Village Learning Place, 2521 St. Paul St., a community-run library, tutoring and activities center and home of the after-school program LINK, Let's Invest in Neighborhood Kids. Bruce said when she and Van der Gaag got tired of running the disco fundraiser and tried to quit in 2007, "the neighborhood sort of revolted."
The Village Learning Place now runs the event, which is the VLP's second biggest fundraiser of the year, after Read Between the Wines.
In fact, Read Between the Wines raises more money, but Spaghetti Disco draws the bigger crowds, said Lindsey Henley, the VLP's volunteer and community relations coordinator.
"It's a huge neighborhood favorite," said Lindsey Henley, the VLP's volunteer and community relations coordinator. "A lot of our LINK families come."
"Not too many parties combine meatballs with literacy, the Bee-Gees with the ABCs, like this one does," the VLP says on its website, http://www.villagelearningplace.org.
Out of the woodwork
This year, organizers are hoping to raise $10,000 or more to help fund the VLP's participation in "Little Free Libraries," a global initiative to promote reading and literacy. In conjunction with National Library Week, April 14-20, the VLP plans to place libraries that look like big birdhouses around the neighborhood, so that people can put free books inside them and take books from them.
Although the main goal of Spaghetti Disco is to raise money, the event also serves an important role in lifting the collective spirit of the Charles Village community.
"This is the one event that bring people out of the woodwork," said Bruce, of the 2900 block of Guilford Ave., who still serves as an adviser and manages the "disco kitchen" with her husband, Chris, and Van der Gaag and her husband, Andy Thomas.
"We leave the organization and the cleanup to the VLP — and the profits," Bruce said. "We're there to have fun."
Many local businesses and vendors provide goods and services for the disco dinner. John Spurrier, a real estate agent and deejay, spins tunes for free, Bruce said. She said Gertrude's restaurant donates pasta and tomatoes, 32nd Street Farmers Market vendors contribute herbs and spices, Union Memorial Hospital donates cakes and other desserts, and the restaurant Donna's in Charles Village, where Thomas is the chef, donates coffee service. The grocery store Eddie's in Charles Village gives bread and cheese, and Woolsey Farm, one of the farmers' market vendors, provides meat for the meatballs, she said.
Spaghetti Disco isn't just a magnet for baby boomers and their adult children, but for families, many with young children.
"It's everybody, infants to grandparents," Henley said.
Bruce said her daughter, Kathryn, 15, who was born the year before the first Spaghetti Disco, is studying dance at the Baltimore School for the Arts. "She loves disco" and old groups like Abba, her mother said.
"A lot of the kids dress up," Rebecca Bruce said. They don't necessarily know much about disco or its dance steps, but watch others at the dance and pick up the moves as they go along, she said.
"Kids are kind of conservative," Bruce said. "This is a chance for them to be mature and be what they want."
Organizers try to keep the event "PG," because disco sometimes has an adult "undercurrent," she said.
Bruce will wear a VLP staff shirt while cooking and then change into "a little gold lamé and sparkles" for the dance. Last year, she said, she wore white bell bottoms and a tunic top with a "wild" print. She said she also teased and sprayed her hair until it was "as big as I could get it."
Henley is 27, born long after disco's heyday, but said she's planning to pick out an outfit for the dance.
"I do love disco," she said.
Spaghetti Disco will have dinner at 5:30 p.m. and dancing at 8 p.m. at St. John's Church, 2640 St. Paul St. in Charles Village. Tickets are $14 for adults and $7 for children ages 3-12. For more information, go to http://www.villagelearningplace.org.