Saturday, March 22, 2014

Rites I + Rites II
Frank Diaz
Photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe

The Saint, NYC
The Original Black Party, 1979

RITES XXXV | The Saint At Large
The Roseland Ballroom | NYC

The Saint was a gay discotheque in New York City that operated from 1980 to 1990 in New York City's East Village.

It opened in the old premises of the Fillmore East, a 1926-built, former-theater-turned-classic-rock-and-roll venue of the late 1960s and early 1970s, at 105 Second Avenue in New York City's East Village at 6th Street. The Saint was opened by Bruce Mailman and his business partner and his genius architectural designer, Charles Terrell. The original opening date was set for July 30, 1980, but construction delays forced a deferral to September 20, 1980, with Alan Dodd as DJ. The club was a success even before it opened. Membership packs with floor plans were distributed and before the club opened 2,500 memberships had been sold at $150 each for the first 700 members and for $250 for the rest, with a waiting list established. It was financed in large part by Mailman's other gay venture, the nearby hugely successful St. Mark's Baths - a gay mecca at the time. The Saint renovation cost $4,500,000, being $2,000,000 over budget. Money was spent repairing the roof, paying six years of back taxes to the city and fitting out the interior. It opened initially as a private membership gay nightclub (returning the idea of a club to "nightclub"), and set the standard for disco presentation, lighting, sound system, hydraulics and technical support.

However, by the end of its second season, AIDS had begun eating through the fabric of gay life in New York and began to take a heavy and relentless toll on the Saint's membership. Change came quickly. Membership costs were lowered and the season extended into the summer so that the club was open almost all year round. By its seventh season, membership costs had fallen to $50. It also opened weekly for a straight crowd. Furthermore, by 1985, the famous Black Party performers were for the first time required to perform safe sex. By 1987, the performance emphasised masturbation, phone sex and mud wrestling, all a far cry from the club's early days which, on one celebrated occasion, a boa constrictor was used as a prop.

The Saturday night DJs at The Saint were at the top of their careers: Jim Burgess, Roy Thode, Alan Dodd, Robbie Leslie, Mark Thomas, Terry Sherman, Shaun Buchanan, Michael Fierman, Warren Gluck, Wayne Scott, Chuck Parsons, Michael Cavalone, Nao Nakamura and Sharon White all had their time in the booth. The lighting was operated by Richard Tucker, Mark Ackerman, Jorge Villardell, Richard Erskine, Bob Braucci, Tony Devisia and Richard Sabala.

The Saint was also known for the quality of its performers. At showtimes a part of the dome would retract and stars from the pop music and theater worlds would perform. The club became the standard against which all New York clubs were measured - many opened, closed and remodelled in the shadow of this giant. It was renowned for its invitations, design, annual makeovers, and even for its extravagant floral arrangements.

The Saint was, therefore, technically and creatively one of the best dance clubs of its era. The circular dancefloor was topped by a perforated 76-foot diameter by 38-foot-high planetarium dome. In addition to hiding the speakers, the dome served as a spectacular palette for the lighting effects. A circular opening at the top of the dome could be automatically opened and closed to allow a large mirrored disco ball to be lowered into the space. The speaker cabinets were located on, and attached directly to, the outer surface of the dome, creating a very euphonic "surround sound" effect. In the center of the dance floor was a circular light tree constructed on a hydraulic lift. It contained 1,500 lights and as its centerpiece was a rotating, dual Spitz Space System hemisphere star projector, ten times brighter than those used in planetariums. Mailman had initially approached Zeiss regarding the purchase of a star-projection system, but the company refused to sell one, believing its use in a gay club would be an inappropriate use for their system.

Directly underneath the dance floor level was a large lounge with several juice bars. Beer on tap was sometimes served for free to avoid the licensing oversight of the New York State Liquor Authority. Above and outside the dome was what would become the controversial balcony, where patrons could see down to the dance floor, through the scrim of the dome. It was there that men relaxed and, according to the sexual mores of the times, could indulge in sexual activities.

Several times during the year themed parties such as the "Black Party" and the "White Party" attracted celebrities from around the world. These Saint parties are considered by most disco historians to be the precursors to the Circuit Party.

Monday, March 17, 2014