Rist, Darrell Yates. “A Scaffold To the Sky And No Regrets.” New York Native, 2 May 1988, pp. 17-18.
controversy at the new york native
The New York Native is responsible for publishing the first public report on AIDS, with an article headlined “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded.” In this May 1981 article, the Native’s medical correspondent, Lawrence D. Mass, wrote that the rare cancer that had struck some gay men was “ubiquitous.” The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had denied the rumors of a “gay cancer” on a phone call with Mass, after which Mass wrote that most people have an immunity to the viral subject of the rumors. How wrong Lawrence D. Mass was proven to be later on. Nevertheless, the Native’s article, which dismissed the severity of HIV and AIDS, stands as the first published report on what became a horrific epidemic.
However, Larry Kramer, a playwright and distinguished activist during the AIDS epidemic and onward, wrote in the New York Native in March 1983. His piece, entitled “1, 112, and Counting,” was a fierce criticism of the contemptible inaction of healthcare organizations in the United States in response to AIDS. Thus, the Native once expressed rally cries for the queer community being afflicted by the violent, deadly disease. The newspaper was historic in its coverage of AIDS, and possessed a circulation of 20,000 in the early 1980’s, meaning that the Native distributed 20,000 copies on an average day. However, the newspaper’s circulation dropped to 8,000 as time went on.
Though the newspaper once hoped to increase awareness of the AIDS epidemic by writing on the injustice of the government and national media’s silence on the public health crisis, the New York Native later descended into an ugly mire of controversial theories. Hosting conspiracy theories about the real cause of AIDS, which was apparently not HIV but the African Swine Fever Virus (or was it Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?), the newspaper officially closed in 1997 due to “financial difficulties” (Pogrebin). Founder Charles Orteb oversaw the newspaper as a publisher and editor for over sixteen years, yet even he could not deny that the paper’s controversy contributed to its financial decline. The paper’s “insane tangent” even denied that AIDS existed (Pogrebin). ACT UP, the now international action advocacy group that serves and advocates for people living with HIV and AIDS, boycotted the New York Native in the mid-1980’s.
goodbye to the saint
Written in 1988, the following article by Darrell Yates Rist belonged to a newspaper that had by then descended into troubling, controversial conspiracies surrounding AIDS. While this article deals directly with the founder of The Saint dance club and the St. Mark’s Baths, Bruce Mailman, it is important to note the controversy surrounding not only the article’s subject, but also the article’s place of publication. However, this article is still valuable despite its controversial container paper. The article was written on May 2nd, 1988, a mere two days after The Saint officially closed. May 2nd, however, is also the day that the Saint’s last celebration ended, during that Monday’s “early afternoon” (Dunlap). The interview is a primary source given right at the moment of The Saint’s closing, when Mailman’s emotions were fresh.
Issue 263 of the New York Native, which Rist’s article is a part of, features an extended spread of articles categorized by the header GOODBYE TO THE SAINT. Darrell Yates Rist wrote about an interview with The Saint’s founder, Bruce Mailman. Other “remembrances” were written by Andrew Holleran, Jan Carl Park, R.J. Markson, and J.P.David.
In all caps, the words GOODBYE TO THE SAINT have been printed in a non-serif white font over a 9.75 inch (24.8 centimeter) narrow black strip. Underneath this header is a blueprint of The Saint dance club, which has the article’s title in white serif font in the top row of the map. At the bottom, the words An Interview With Bruce Mailman On the Occasion of the Closing of the Saint appear in smaller, italicized font similar to the font of the article’s title.
The blueprint of The Saint is dominated by a plan for its central sky-like dome and light platform, beneath which is the dance floor. The Saint itself contained a “4800 square-foot oak surface” as a dance floor, and “a lighting tower with about 1,500 fixtures, topped by a planetarium-style star projector.” A mirror ball could be lowered from the ceiling, and The Saint’s dome acted as a “theatrical scrim” (Dunlap).
a dreamer’s beginning
Around 1980, Bruce Mailman decided that he no longer wanted to spend money on his vices. Mailman “loved dancing,” and would often haunt the Flamingo dance club to do so. To Mailman, Flamingo represented the “zenith” of dance’s physicality. The club’s “hard-driving, sexual” beat fueled Mailman’s romance with his disco dancing vice.
Studio 54, a famous nightclub and discotheque, possessed “imagination and theatricality.” Together, these combined elements provided a formative experience to Mailman and prompted him to create his own haven of vices that he could go to for free. Mailman wanted to build a home for his vices so he could indulge them “for nothing.” He says that the urge to create his own space always occurs if he has a particular vice or desire; he never wants to continue paying money for something he could design or engineer himself.
Bruce Mailman’s desires were elevated by his intention to add a new dimension to the disco scene.
Mimicry was unacceptable; Mailman wanted to devise something new, but, at first, he could not figure out what to do. One night, Mailman went to sleep pondering ideas for his new club of vices. The next morning, Mailman awoke with the image of a planetarium in his mind.
The club he envisioned wouldn’t be “limited to a stage.” What would become The Saint would be “completely round,” with a large dome sky. To Mailman, this feature would make it seem like club-goers were dancing outside. Mailman immediately began calling planetarium companies to see if his fantasy could become a practical and affordable reality. Was there any place big enough to hold a starry dome?
Fortunately, there was. Mailman revolutionized the Loew’s Commodore Theater for nearly $5,000,000 US dollars in 1980. Located on Second Avenue and East Sixth Street, the Commodore Theater underwent a truly heavenly transformation for The Saint’s opening. A modeled hemisphere of earth and the Milky Way contributed to the The Saint’s otherworldly allure, whilst sophisticated lighting platforms and hydraulic floors advanced the club experience to an enlightened level.
The Saint’s eventual opening is an unforgettable story. In order to spread awareness about his new club, Bruce Mailman asked ten people he knew went out regularly to ask ten people they knew who went out regularly to come to the Saint. Open only to gays, The Saint attracted many gorgeous gay men on its opening night who all shared a love for dancing and having a good time. At midnight on a 1980 September morning, nearly 3500 men lined almost an entire square block hoping to get into The Saint. The fire lieutenant came to shut down the commotion, but Mailman’s lawyer defended his club by stating that it cost a lot of money and would surely “be around [for] eight seasons.”
So The Saint was born. Mailman stated that the appeal of The Saint was that “it was a place where you were special if you came.” Other discotheques attracted the stars and celebrities as famed, esteemed guests. Yet at The Saint, “no one looked at other people.” The people themselves “were the stars,” and their “anonymity” made their experience all the more exciting. The Saint was a place of drugs, sex, and “decadent” sin. Darrell Yates Rist, this article’s author, remembers “a perpetually euphoric storm of orgies in the balcony above the planetarium dome” as well as the “endless fountain of drugs from […] men who themselves were intoxicating.” Yet soon controversy began to swirl around the Saint’s owner, Bruce Mailman.
accusations against mailman
People began to accuse Mailman of condoning the transmission of HIV and AIDS. Some said Mailman was liable for his inaction. Others called him a “killer” because of the known sexual acts that took place in the balcony of his club’s haven. No one was safe once the “Saint’s disease” struck; people accused Mailman of not doing enough to stop HIV and AIDS from devastating the community of clubgoers and other persons associated with the Saint (Dunlap).
In his interview with Rist, Mailman insists that the balcony was never intended to be used for sex. He swears that he tried time and time again to get people to stop using the balcony for sex by writing to members; however, Mailman certainly did not desire to police people’s behavior by metaphorically “hosing [them] down.”
Mailman is “not happy” if “someone was harmed” in his club by contracting HIV, but he has “no regrets.” Mailman does not believe that people should look back and say that they shouldn’t have engaged in sexual activity in the clubs or elsewhere; he feels that gay men “fought hard to be at that level of liberalization,” and that such free expression was not inappropriate or foolish, but delivering.
Mailman does not feel that gay men should be sorry for what they did when they engaged in sex at clubs like The Saint. He states that “we [gay people] needed to be there,” declaring that he does not think that “we can look at [our behavior] with what’s happened to us, with this thing that’s marched into our lives and say, ‘Well, we shouldn’t have done that. We were what we were for very good reasons, and we’ve changed – for equally good reasons.'”
the saint was revered
There is no denying that Bruce Mailman created a phenomenal institution.
According to author Darrell Yates Rist, the club’s “divine” DJs “transformed” the souls of dancers. Bruce Mailman notes that the DJs at the Saint all had a unique style and flavor, and often were allowed to “experiment with the crowd.” The DJs “had something special that was their own.” The way they dealt with different currents of music was electric. Some of the DJs Mailman lists as “big DJs” are Terry Sherman, Robbie Leslie, and Michael Fierman. Shawn Buchanan is another DJ from the club, who “to some extent,” was also a big-name act. Buchanan has been memorialized on the AIDS Quilt on Block 1087. Read a description of this panel here.
To Mailman, music at The Saint was “much more important than at the other places.” People came to The Saint to dance, and would remain there for six to eight hours. Unlike Studio 54, where people “had a drink,” or Palladium, where people “danced two dances and talked,” The Saint was where people came to dance. There was a “group energy” that connected people to each other and to the lights and to the sound. There was a “euphoric” atmosphere in The Saint when things were “really connecting.” Though euphoric escapades did not embrace The Saint’s dancers every night, the rapture of the club’s energy happened often enough for people to continue coming back. Yet rapidly, the excitement of clubbing turned to a dreadful misery.
With the sudden onslaught of HIV and AIDS, many people who went to The Saint, began dying in mass numbers. Many others had friends who had fallen ill or worse to the disease, including author Darrell Yates Rist.
The “ghosts of friends” haunted the lives of many people in the gay community of New York City. People stopped coming to the Saint because of the fear of AIDS. Most of the crowd that had frequented the Saint were older gay men who had either died from AIDS or were grappling with the devastating grief of knowing those who had died from AIDS.
Though a younger crowd began to populate the Saint, they didn’t come as often to the club as older members once did because they didn’t have as much money. Financial troubles began to appear on the horizon. Bruce Mailman began to feel that he could only own the club “for so long.” The stigma attached to The Saint did not help its case either, which repelled people away from The Saint with the knowledge that the members who had “made such an impression” on the club were now dead because of AIDS.
In the article, Mailman acknowledges that he no longer has “[his] finger on the pulse of what [the] market is” for the disco lovers now dispirited and demoralized by the ruins AIDS spread across the country. Both with his raunchy bathhouse, St. Mark’s Baths, and his discotheque, the Saint, Bruce Mailman has been wrapped in the controversy of whether or not he acted morally as the descent of AIDS began to devastate his establishments. In response to his known controversy, Mailman states the following:
“Revision [..] is a big problem in gay life. People want to say ‘Oh, it shouldn’t have been this way.’ I think they should say, ‘What we had was wonderful. Then something walked in and disrupted it and we’re building something else. And we’re going to make that wonderful, too. No one asked for this. […] Of all the things that happened in the Saint, maybe the number of membership letters that came back stamped ‘deceased’ got to me. I mean, maybe that is responsible for my overload or for the fact I’m so fed up, and maybe if that hadn’t happened, I would have gone on and on doing it-and loved it.”
And you do get tired of being in the center of all the controversy with it, too. I mean, you know-the baths and whether or not my positions were right or wrong. There’s that whole things that’s disheartening and eventually wears you away and eventually, you just…you don’t want to do it any more. It’s not that you don’t believe in it or you don’t believe it was good. You just know it’s over.”
See photos of The Saint
These are other photographs from the newspaper that date it to the 80s (aged paper, dated photographic quality) as well as inform the observer that the New York Native is a gay newspaper (it features many ads of hot hunks waiting for a call).