How 'Pam & Tommy' Fell in Love at Señor Frogs
The story behind recreating the infamous beer soaked setting of the couple's first date.
It's a romance out of a fairytale. Guy meets girl. Guy follows girl to Cancún. Guy gets kicked out of the Ritz-Carlton for wearing a tank top. Guy and girl go to Señor Frogs and take drugs and get wasted and fall completely in love. That's the story that plays out in the second episode of Pam & Tommy, the Hulu series which chronicles the scandal surrounding Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee's leaked sex tape. But lest you think the Señor Frogs of it all is too ridiculous to be true, think again. The notorious chain is a crucial part of the real Anderson and Lee's saga, and a site that production designer Ethan Tobman had to recreate for filming in Los Angeles.
Señor Frogs was established in 1989 in Mazatlán, and by the time Anderson and Lee hit the Cancún location, it already had a reputation as a spot for drunken American tourists who wanted to go to Mexico but not really interact with the country. Under the blacklight of Señor Frogs, partiers could listen to blaring music and do copious tequila shots in the comfort of the goofy excess.
In a 1994 syndicated newspaper column, writer D.L. Stewart chronicled going to Señor Frogs with his son where the revelers were blindly oblivious to the fact that there was a Zapatista uprising. "At Señor Frogs (maximum occupancy 43 billion), the most popular activity is a quaint Mexican custom called 'doing slammers,'" Stewart wrote sarcastically. "Based on an old Maya recipe, a slammer is a mixture of generic tequila and Sprite in a small glass." Of course, there's also a smugness to this take on Señor Frogs that discounts the local experience. Writing about her affection for the restaurants in 2020, Vice's Alex Zaragoza explained: "for many Latinx people—Mexicans in particular—Señor Frog's has operated more as a constant in their social lives, a space that reflected the absurd and fun aspects of their culture and gave them exactly what teenagers are looking for on a Saturday night: somewhere to rage among the corny signs; servers shaking their asses against old ladies; sombreros, maracas, and other Mexican tchotchkes covering the walls; and, in the case of my hometown franchise, a framed photo of O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson drinking in one of the booths."
Not that Pam & Tommy documents that. In the series, the celebrities are exactly the sort of dopey visitors that the stereotype of the Señor Frogs goer suggests. Contrary to the way the show documents their meeting, Lee didn't actually follow Anderson to Mexico the day after they met. He recalled in the Mötley Crue autobiography The Dirt that she called him to hang out six weeks after their first encounter on New Year's Eve 1994, but then she stood him up and said she was heading to Cancún. That's when he decided to chase her, and they landed at Frogs. "We found a place called Señor Frog’s, which reeked of beer and margarita vomit," he wrote. "We were both shy and embarrassed, especially after all the buildup to this first date, but as the night progressed, Señor Frog’s turned into the Sanctuary, the magic returned without the Ecstasy, and the outside world melted away." (On screen, they take Ecstasy.)
The key problem in recreating this fateful night for the Pam & Tommy team was that a trip to Mexico wasn't in the cards for the cast and crew, Tobman explained. Director Craig Gillespie wanted to ape Martin Scorsese with a Goodfellas-esque tracking shot, so Tobman found a club in Los Angeles' Mid-City area that he could transform, outside and inside. "I want drunk tourists on the street. I want street vendors. I want bouncers and the VIP area, but it's all 1995," he says. "On the outside of this building we painted huge murals of palm trees and Mexican vistas and then aged them to make them look like they were pieces of shit. The joke is that she's the biggest star in the world and he's on the downward trend, but they both have a real party side to them that's really unpretentious."
Though he could easily find reference photos from the aughts, it was trickier locating images of the Cancún Señor Frogs from around the time of Pam and Tommy's trip. His solution? Dig through Facebook trying to locate throwback images of '90s weddings and bachelor parties. Armed with those, Tobman recreated Frogs' signature sans serif signs with phrases encouraging patrons to get drunk (or drunker) in black light paint and then doused those in black lights. And while COVID meant the crew couldn't pack the place with extras to fully recreate the sweaty hedonism, Tobman used mirrors to make the interior look as crowded as possible.
The Señor Frogs ethos and aesthetic is easy to mock. When the establishment arrived in Times Square in 2015, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells took aim at it in a merciless review that also acknowledged that he had a kind of good time. "Señor Frog’s brand of fun is so mindless that it’s embarrassing to give in to at first, but eventually everybody I brought there did give in, maybe because we’re all so desperate to let go a little bit," he explained. That desperation feels particularly familiar in 2022, so watching Pam and Tommy let loose in a place that probably smelled a little like beer and vomit is almost appealing. There's an innocence to them, as Tobman notes, and Señor Frogs captures that innocence. It all seems so ill-advised and trashy, but ends up being kind of perfect.