Lincoln Center disco exhibit unleashes a young gay life’s worth of memories
Who could have known that a “misspent” youth could land one in a museum?
Like a generation of gay men, the emergence of my sexual identity was inextricably linked to that late 20th- century phenomenon, disco. In my case the birth of my own homosexuality very nearly coincided with the birth of disco, itself. I was underage, living in Los Angeles in 1974 when, one night, on a fluke, I managed to sneak into a gay club, the Paradise Ballroom on La Cienega. What I saw there—a hunky, mop-haired kid in a striped rugby shirt, doing the “gay-boy shuffle” to “Feel the Need” by The Detroit Emeralds—sealed my fate.
I knew that it was men I craved, but, in that post-Stonewall, burgeoning Gay Lib era, still suffered that fear of the Great Dark Homosexual Unknown, not to mention pervasive negative notions of super-effeminate, bouffant-haired, perfume-reeking queens. However, the unashamed, joyous and healthy beauty of that club image gob-smacked me, making me, really, for the first time, in the words of a big Tom Robinson song of the time, “Glad to Be Gay.”
“Feel the Need,” with its oh-so apropos lyrics of yearning and sensual self-discovery was but one of the soulfully danceable songs then beginning to encroach upon radio airwaves. It was soon followed by the likes of Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat,” Three Degrees’ “Dirty Ole Man,” and, of course, Barry White. I became not only obsessed with the music and dancing, but desperately wanted to work—live, really—in a disco, with a burning ambition frankly more white-hot than any I have known since.
Flash forward to 1977. I am taking acting class through NYU at the Stella Adler studio. One day, I see posted in the office a flyer which reads “Wanted: Actor/Model/Dancer Types for New Disco.” It was a cattle call for employees for a new club already rumored to be the quintessence of chic. I threw on a one-shoulder Halston spandex top (ripped off from a look I’d seen Victor Hugo, devastating male muse of Halston and Warhol, wearing at One Fifth Restaurant), beige jodhpurs and the then-ubiquitous cowboy boots and strolled in for an interview.
PR diva Carmen D’Alessio, whose Rolodex of the gay/fashion/rich nexus could make any club, sat behind a desk in head-to-toe leopard skin—a first for me—her cowboy boots propped up before her.
“Where are joo from, dahling?” she began.
“Well, I just moved here from L.A.,” I began before she interrupted me with “Divine! My boyfriend is from the West Coast. Joo are hired!”
And that is how I got my job at Studio 54. D’Alessio was hired by club owners Ian Schrager and the late Steve Rubell who went on to hotel ownership (the Paramount, Royalton, Delano, among them) and it should be noted that this particular practice of hiring the young and pretty, regardless of actual experience or professionalism, rather charmingly continues to this day in all their establishments.
April 26, 1977, 5 p.m. The cutest assortment of young juicy fruits of every conceivable gender were assembled in the old Ed Sullivan Theatre at 254 W. 54th Street. We were all given our uniforms—for the boys, Ronald Kolodzie-designed shorts, sleeveless vests and pillbox caps lending a Philip Morris bellboy effect. The girls got Antonio Lopez’s fantasy wisps of barely-there chiffon, prompting one Korean lass, Yeh Jong, to protest so loudly that she was allowed to wear her own drag and work, not as a cocktail waitress, but as a “doorperson,” thus single-handedly starting a brand-new, soon-to-be-infamous career position.
I was pouting over the unfairness of Antonio’s French boyfriend, Christian, getting the only uniform with long pants, when a ridiculously flimsy designer broom and Deco-hinged dustpan were thrust at me. “You’ll be busboy in the balcony,” barked the genial Italian club manager whose name I forget but not the fact that he always pronounced “Fiorucci,” “Foruchy’s.”
The doors weren’t set to open until 9 p.m. We were given nothing to eat or drink and told to just hang out, so we did just that, desultorily dishing and getting headaches from the smell of fresh paint still being brushed onto the walls. The hours crawled by, and then the first guests began to finally trickle in, skittishly standing around the dance floor like high school prom attendees. Peering out over the empty space from the balcony, I wondered, as we all did, “Is this gonna be one big bust?”
And then DJ Richie Kaczor played Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” and I saw then-uber-hot supermodel Margaux Hemingway, looking luscious in a hot pink and turquoise Giorgio di Sant Angelo spandex gown, doing the most elegantly sensuous hustle with her husband at the time, pastrami prince Errol Wetson. Following their fierce lead, the party officially started, the dance floor filled up with revelers and I heard someone say, “There are thousands of people waiting in line outside to get in!”
From then on, that night was a swirl of images—Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol and Halston holding court in one corner, Cher in a cowboy hat in another and Grace Jones, twirling to the music in saffron Issey Miyake as the crowd cheered her on. “I heard Warren Beatty and Frank Sinatra weren’t able to get in!” a co-worker was screaming. Kaczor’s music was brilliant all night long, as he spun soon-to-be-classics like Loleata Holloway’s “Hit and Run,” Minnie Ripperton’s “Stick Together” and Jean Carne’s “I Think You Got a Problem.” The dishwashing machine broke down around dawn, causing a cocktail glass disaster. They expected us all to pitch in and hand-wash them, but by now exhausted, I walked out, but not before seeing a completely passed-out Hemingway being carried to a taxi—a chilling harbinger of her 1996 suicide overdose.
But everyone had fabulous club stories to tell back in that fabulous day. And everyone had their own personal club trajectory, as well. For white clone boys, it could start with 12 West, then Flamingo and, finally, the awe-inspiring Saint. For black and Latino funksters—the Loft, the Gallery, Buttermilk Bottom and the unparalleled Paradise Garage. For fashionistas: Infinity, Hurrah, 54, Xenon and the punk-y Mudd Club.
My personal odyssey eclectically encompassed 12 West, before its brilliant DJ Jimmy Stuard perished in a 1977 fire at the Everhard Baths, 54, the Paradise Garage, with the incomparable Larry Levan, and the Mudd Club.
What was amazing about those pre-AIDS days was the unbridled hedonism of it all. Before the elitist, sequestering invention of VIP rooms, you could see Halston, ensconced with his court at 54, enjoying a joint of Angel Dust, while supermodels ecstatically ripped off their tops and everyone repaired upstairs to the balcony or downstairs to the basement to do the nasty. I recall one typical evening in which I met makeup artist Way Bandy at a theater performance, joined his court of boys and went to Max’s Kansas City where we saw Joy Division and were met up with by Rene Russo, then a model and the most beautiful girl in the world. From there, we hitched a ride in some horny straight boy’s van down to the Mudd Club, where Rene raced out to meet Linda Ronstadt, who we heard was there with her boyfriend, Gov. Jerry Brown. The evening culminated in a pit stop at 54, natch, and then some German industrialist’s Central Park West penthouse.
Back then, disco seemed to bring everyone, all races and ages, together and this city’s streets fairly throbbed with a shared euphoria. I remember going to Crazy Eddie’s on 14th Street the day Donna Summer’s “Four Seasons of Love” came out and the entire store was rocking to the sprightly beat of her “Spring Affair.” I recall buying Dr. Buzzard’s “Cherchez La Femme,” putting it on my turntable and seeing my next-door neighbor doing exactly the same thing. Susan Sontag cited the BeeGees’ “Stayin’Alive” as the song which most helped through her initial cancer bout.
Those truly halcyon days are vividly, exhaustively commemorated in Disco: A Decade of Saturday Nights,” the first major exhibition to explore this world, opening at the Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. It’s a multimedia, interactive extravaganza, originally created and first presented by Seattle’s Experience Music Project, with more than 200 disco artifacts and a dozen video monitors screening vintage images, classic club footage and interviews with disco pioneers.
Your aural memory will be jogged by listening stations and kiosks featuring songs from early house party music, and everything from the Bee Gees to Ethel Merman’s notorious disco album. An interactive DJ booth lets you create your own dance mixes. There are stage costumes worn by Donna Summer, Nile Rodgers, Patti Labelle; John Travolta’s “Saturday Night Fever” white suit; the drums Earl Young used to invent the four-on-the-floor disco beat; album covers; club souvenirs and membership cards, lovingly saved. There’s an exact replica of the coke-sniffing Moon sign regularly lowered over the dance floor during Studio 54’s peak party moments, and a wealth of photographs and film of the true stars of disco—the dancers and DJs
The incalculable contribution of gay men to disco is evident everywhere, from most of the pioneering DJs—Tom Moulton, Tom Savarese, Bobby Guttadaro, Nicky Siano and others— to club owners and music makers. The often homophobic and racist backlash to this phenomenon is also featured. Remember “Disco Sucks’” and the public burning of records and riot in Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1977?
Full disclosure—my 54 uniform is on display, as is a Castelbajac jumpsuit I used to wear to the club. I quit after two nights, realizing it was more fun to play than work there, probably saving my life in the process. It was truly wonderful to revisit my youth in this exhibit, but I have to confess, all those cherished artifacts still pale besides the devastating memory of that boy in the rugby shirt all those years ago.