Is that guy in the sling really getting, you know…by a snake?
That question—and others about sex vignettes—had been asked by my Colorado dancing buddies at New York’s The Saint during its second Black Party in 1982. Tom Mills, Terry Fuller, and Paul Hunter, owners of Denver’s famed bathhouse, the Ballpark, had traveled 1,600 miles just for a party. But what a party! What a dance club!
A disco nap was always part of my preparation for a night of dancing. The first time I heard the term PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), I thought it was some new party regimen. I was corrected. One pill that could prevent HIV infection? Seriously? It seemed too easy after the hell I’d been through during the AIDS epidemic (penis envy of a different kind) when a drug cocktail meant acid, MDA, and a quarter Quaalude–not Norvir, Tivicay, Prozista.
Apex of party palaces, opened in 1980 just as disco was dying and shortly before its members began dying of the “gay cancer.” It represented hard-won gay freedoms to those who expressed freedom as dance, disco, and drugs. New York state had legalized gay sex. Gay rights were on government agendas, and gay bars and dance clubs blossomed like theaters depicting one aspect of gay life. Whether at Charlie’s, Tracks, or The Saint, patrons are, were, actors two-stepping, flailing, or standing still in costumes on a set, improvising.
A theater provided the bones for The Saint: Bill Graham’s Fillmore East, the 60s rock venue in the East Village. Capable of accommodating 5,000 bodies, the private club opened only on Saturdays and Sundays and closed for the summer, its members migrating to Fire Island. It served no liquor. Partying 10-plus hours required illegal fuel. Gay men provided the demand, nefarious forces the supply. (A “drugstore” across from the Anvil, a sleazy after-hours club, had a setup just like the candy counter at Annie’s Café on Colfax.)
Bruce Mailman, already minting gay dollars from his New St. Marks Baths, would spend 15,000,000 of them with architect Charles Terrell to conceive the crowning disco: a unique, industrial structure of steel and concrete; a 4,800-square-foot circular dance floor capped by an aluminum dome larger than the Hayden Planetarium; a Spitz Space System star projector 10 times more powerful than most; the largest Graebar sound system (630 drivers, 32 amps, 500 speakers, 26,000 watts); 1,500 lights–every detail executed so gay men could experience life in 3-D: dance, disco, drugs. Lust was a given.
Cast of Characters
The Saint was designed for an elite clientele: white, rich, under 40, gorgeous, talented, hung. One trait or knowing a social ally got you in the door. Without apology, the Saint was built for gay men, period.
Butch apparel and appearance was de rigueur: tight t-shirt and Levi 501 jeans, sneakers or boots, mustache and muscles. But the East Village was undergoing its nascent punk renaissance. Gay denizens did not welcome Christopher Street clones. Clean-shaven artist Keith Haring fought the West Village invasion by spraypainting “Clones Go Home FAFH” (Fags Against Facial Hair) in fluorescent orange on sidewalks.
Act I: Arrival
Through brass doors with The Saint etched in frosted glass, my buddies and I opened a gateway to ecstasy. In a black-and-gold marble entry, winding through stanchions to pay was like presenting a passport before taking a flight. A mechanized cloakroom with rotating racks like a fancy dry cleaners could hang the coats of 3,000 partiers. Down a ramp to the enormous main lobby, arrangements of trippy flowers—stood sentry in exquisite, dim lighting. Metal catwalks and circular staircases of wire mesh framed a bar underneath the three story space that used to be the Fillmore East stage. Through the buzz of this hive, muffled music pulsated from the dance floor above, teasing our anticipation until we could wait no longer.
If entering The Saint was like going down Alice’s rabbit hole, stepping onto the dance floor was like passing through her looking glass. Every sense was overwhelmed, and if your drugs had kicked in… well, hang on!
We were immediately drenched in the sweat of this hothouse, a gridlock of bodies bouncing to its tribal beat. Gypsies gyrated on banquettes, some exotic silhouettes with pin-wheeling fans. Booming music vibrated our bones and permeated every cell, caressing our ears like aural honey. Grids of light pods swiveled and swayed in sync with the music.
When a peephole appeared above the dome, a huge, mirrored ball would descend. In the center of the dance floor, the star machine sat atop a 30-foot pole spinning its celestial glitter on the ecstatic boys. With so many revolutions of stars, eons would have passed in one night.
Courtesy and smiles prevailed. If you were there, you were pre-approved. You belonged.
On party nights, two DJs spun, one for the high-energy music, one for the morning set. The music would stop, dancers applauding the star deejay. But instead of the next DJ beginning, a panel of the dome would rise, revealing the night’s featured entertainer. The list reads like a who’s-who of gay icons: Laura Branigan, Divine, Erasure, Gloria Gaynor, Lime, RuPaul, Sylvester, and a hundred more. (Sometimes, a surprise performer would appear unannounced. One night, 50 feet from where I luckily stood, Tina Turner stepped out and sang “Proud Mary.” I thought the crowd would tear the place apart!)
Needing a break from the onslaught of unceasing stimulus, we would catch our breath in the main lobby, the social hub, at bars serving complimentary juices and sodas. As the parade of men passed by, one more beautiful than the next, you could find lost dancing buddies, or a trick. If you had a locker, you could change out of a sweat-soaked t-shirt ready for the next round, or grab a joint or a snort of coke or climb the stairs to the balcony.
The Saint’s top 20 rows of carpeted banquettes, retained from the original theater, overlooked the dome. Through its perforated screen, you could observe the party below as though from Mount Olympus, a stunning perspective. Gay men were no less horny than Greek gods and created a mass of writhing men.
Act II: Touch Down
By 6 a.m. the amateurs had left, and the serious partiers could spread out. My Ballpark buddies and I partied hard, but we loved the slower music: melodic, sleazy, soulful. There was no DJ better to calm down a wired crowd and guide us on a collective trip than Wayne Scott. On rare occasions, his mix of the right songs created a synergy so blithe and ethereal, the entire tribe seemed to beat with one heart in an atmosphere inexplicably still amidst so much stimulus.
After 10 hours, leaving The Saint to confront the noon day sun (contacts seared to my eyeballs), we would head to the Kiev Restaurant, a 24/7 Ukrainian diner, for food and a recap. (Stop with the snake in the guy; I’m eating.) You’d think everyone would have gone deaf. Despite thundering decibels, the sound system was so pure, earache was never an issue. We’d suffer the typical crash party abuse entails, but the euphoria lasted for days.
In the middle of the party with the snake and Wayne Scott’s performance for 3,000, Tom had given Wayne $250 and a blank tape. Tom left for Colorado with a reel-to-reel of that night’s program, and gave me his membership card so I could enjoy the club any time. My cassette copies of the ’82 Black Party are like archeological finds.
The Saint was of a singular moment in time and place, yet when dancing there, time did not exist. As the AIDS plague ramped up, The Saint became our sanctuary. None of us knew if we’d be next, so what the hell! Let’s dance another dance.
The club began patrolling the balcony for men performing unsafe sex and kicking them out. Management had to do something; its audience was dying. This perceived betrayal signaled the end of the sexual revolution of the 60s and the beginning of the AIDS apocalypse of the 80s. How responsible the gay community was in creating its own epidemic was a question angrily and bitterly debated.
The Saint closed in 1988, gutted for a bank and condos. No club will ever equal its magnitude, extravagance, and grandeur. Every detail had one decadent purpose: to entertain drugged up gay men with an overwhelming beauty of sight, sound, and flesh. For me, it was just f*cking fun.
Drug-induced group euphoria may taint the legitimacy of the unity we had felt there. And I don’t know how important this particular club or particular picture of gay life is. All I know is that a song will play—like Lama’s Love Is on the Rocks or Soft Cell’s Tainted Love—and I’m transported back to a time when I’ve never been happier. My buddies are alive, and we’re dancing under a galaxy of stars at The Saint.