Sexual Expression and its Subsequent Suppression: Media Library

media from “Introduction”

  1. The photograph below depicts the Saint dance club’s memorial block on the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Archived by the NAMES Project Foundation, the photograph displays a high-quality image of the entirety of the Saint’s memorial block. The club’s quilt block inspired the research present in this essay, and honors the members and staff of the Saint. The primary colors featured in the quilt are black, burgundy, and silver. Three prominent features of block 1087 are its moon-like mirror ball, its expanse of golden five-pointed stars, and its colorful light structure. Read more about the Saint’s memorial block here.
Saint Dance Club Memorial Block: Image Credit: NAMES Project

media from “bruce mailman emerges”

  1. The Saint-at-Large is an organization that has revived famed celebrations of the Saint discotheque every year since the disco’s closure. The Saint-at-Large hopes to sustain the fiery spirit of the Saint through annual commemorations of the four holiest celebrations of the Saint: Halloween, New Years Eve, the White Party, and Black Party. On its YouTube channel, the Saint-at-Large provides trailers for its parties and other documentary footage. The video embedded below is a part of a series of five videos entitled “Stories of the Saint.” Chapter 4 of “Stories of the Saint” is the fourth installment in this series.

Chapter 4 describes the exuberant era of gay nightlife that preceded the Saint. Gay people had formed their own “ghetto” in New York along Christopher Street during the 1970s, where nightclubs, shops, gym clubs, and health clubs were owned, frequented, and appreciated by the gay community. By the time of the Saint’s arrival, an “emboldened” community of young gay adults had already eagerly embraced the untroubled, jovial spirit of the Sexual Revolution and further civil rights liberation. Hal Rubenstein, a cultural commentator, describes this legendary era as a “world without guilt.” Photographer David Morgan states that “there was no fear of sex [and] no fear of holding hands in the street.” The 1970s was a “really blissful time [and] a simpler time.” It was a decade “based on sheer innocence” says Hal Rubenstein.

media from “birth of a saint”

  1. The second installment of “Stories of the Saint” discusses the characteristics of and inspiration for the architecture of the Saint. Robbie Leslie, an esteemed DJ of the Saint, describes the Saint as the “manifestation of Bruce Mailman’s vision.” Leslie believes the Saint was the “greatest nightclub because it was conceived as the greatest nightclub.” Susan Tomkin, Bruce Mailman’s longtime assistant, remembers that Mailman thought gay people were entitled to have a fabulous place to go to where they could dance, be themselves, and be a part of a community.

According to Susan Tomkin, Mailman particularly did not want gay men to be “relegated to the backroom in a bar.” When the Saint opened, it was immediately clear that the club was like “nothing that had ever been seen.” According to Steve Casko, Bruce Mailman’s business partner, Mailman did not desire to create the best gay disco. Mailman searched for the qualities that would shape the best disco ever, and Casko asserts that “[the best disco ever] is what [Mailman] got.”

The Saint was a “great piece of architecture” whose physicality contributed to an overall fantastic experience. Hal Rubenstein affirms that the Saint was a “physical knockout.” The club’s planetarium design truly served its intended purpose, which was to enhance the experience of the dancer and attendee of the Saint. Bruce Mailman’s club delved into a new dimension of discotheque design and incited awe among its witnesses.

2. The following image can be found on the Saint discotheque’s memorial block; the photograph displays a representation of the Saint’s planetarium projector and light structure. The stitched-on representation of the light structure is a weathered gray color that has been topped by an orderly row of circular bulbs that exude colors of red, green, orange, purple, turquoise, yellow, and pink. The structure juts from the bottom of the quilt panel and is comprised of a material that feels sturdy and thick, a composition that demonstrates its purpose of strength, support, and vibrant bedazzlement. The actual Saint contained a “lighting tower with about 1,500 fixtures, topped by [the] planetarium-style star projector” in the center of its dance floor (Dunlap). The memorial block’s encapsulation of the Saint’s lighting architecture demonstrates its significance to the memory, legacy, and life of the Saint.

light structure representation found on the quilt

3. The first installment of the Saint-at-Large’s “Stories of the Saint” details the Saint’s opening night. Robbie Leslie, one of the club’s famed DJs, compares opening night of the Saint to a “movie premiere.” Before the Saint’s disco debut on Saturday, September 20, 1980, Robbie Leslie had only ever seen long queues of people waiting on the streets in Hollywood documentaries. Leslie believes that some of the men who were in line may have waited half the night to get into the Saint. The anticipation of the crowds drawn together by curious excitement did not prepare attendees for the appearance of the planetarium projector’s celestial surprise.

Once the opening chords of Donna Summer’s hit song “Could It Be Magic” began to play, “all of a sudden [the crowd was] out in the stars.” For miles around, it seemed that there was “nothing but stars” according to Michael Fierman, another great DJ of the Saint. Everyone in the club “gasped” in complete “astonishment.” For the twenty seconds of the piano chords of “Could It Be Magic” before the song’s percussion kicks in, Michael Fierman remembers that everyone was”basically frozen.” Then the crowd cheered “insanely madly.” Robbie Leslie describes the “rush of excitement” that overtook the crowd as “amazing.” The cheer of the crowd “defies words.” The Saint’s opening night was truly spectacular.

4. When crowds first entered the Saint and began exploring the newly opened club, George Gershwin‘s Rhapsody in Blue “swelled” from the sound system and encased the public in a luxurious mood of classical music (McEwan, 38). I do not know if the orchestral rhapsody or piano version of Gershwin’s composition was played during the Saint’s opening night, so both versions have been included in the essay. Both versions are also embedded below.

5. “Could It Be Magic” by Donna Summer was played during the Saint’s premiere on Saturday, September 20, 1980. The song is also included in the Saint’s promotional video. According to Michael Fierman as expressed in Chapter 1 of “Stories of the Saint,” “Could It Be Magic” is based on Chopin’s twentieth prelude. The song begins with “minor key dance chords” that are zapped by an orchestral melody before they are accompanied by Donna Summer’s gorgeous voice.

media from “kingdom of a saint”

  1. The photograph embedded below is a still taken from the Saint’s promotional video. In the photograph, a large half-naked crowd presses close together in a mass embrace inside the Saint. Bare skin greets the viewer in the form of blurry faces and shirtless chests. The photograph has an orange tinge to it due to the disco lights that shone at the time the photograph was taken. One can also clearly see that the Saint’s planetarium dome has been illuminated from behind. According to David W. Dunlap, the “The skin of the dome was porous, acting like a theatrical scrim; solid when lighted from within, translucent when illuminated from behind.” In the photograph, the dome appears to be a translucent orange color.

2. The photograph embedded below is a still taken from the Saint’s promotional video. The photograph depicts a psychedelic light pattern of the Saint of violet, indigo, and pink color. The photograph is an example of the colorful choreography of the light technicians at the Saint, presenting a white cross extending from a dark circle on the ceiling of the Saint, capped by four glowing pink circles. Glittery stars dot the entire formation.

3. Souvenirs by Voyage is the last song to play in the Saint’s promotional video. The immense crowd depicted in the photograph below appears as the Voyage’s song plays. Bare skin shines under the lights within the photograph. Taken from above the crowd, perhaps from the Saint’s balcony, the photograph captures only the upper bodies of the dancers shown. The multitude of lights cast onto the dome reflects on the audience as they dance underneath the dome. Red and blue spotlights tinge the crowd different colors in different spots on the photo.

4. The third installment of “Stories of the Saint” describes the light choreography and musical performances that contributed to a marvelous experience at the Saint. Robbie Leslie, a DJ of the Saint, describes audiences of the Saint as “talented, expert, and knowledgeable.” Hal Rubenstein, a cultural commentator, describes the club experience as a united journey of the masses. At a disco, Rubenstein states, “everyone comes in [and takes] in the same medicine at exactly the same time.” Rubenstein argues that this uniform structure is a “DJ’s dream” because a DJ can “bring everybody up [and then] bring everybody down” simultaneously. DJs had incredible power and influence over their crowds’ sensory stimulation.

Micheal Fesco, owner of the Flamingo nightclub, describes the DJ’s musical journey as a type of choreography. One piece of music follows another in a sequence similar to the methodical steps of an intricate dance. DJs at the Saint invigorated crowds to the point of screaming elation before gently bringing audiences back down from their high. Michael Fierman, another esteemed DJ of the Saint, observed that the structure in which music was played was oftentimes more crucial than individual records. Robbie Leslie describes a great musical journey as meeting the requirements of great sex: a good musical trip in the Saint was “all in foreplay.” The ‘orgasm’ does not matter nearly as much as the journey towards it; according to Leslie, “it’s about how you get there.”

Michael Musto, a nightlife columnist, states that the Saint offered a religious experience to some people through its power to unite crowds to the “beat of dance music.” Jorge Latorre attests that attending the Saint was an “experience on every level.” Latorre states that at the Saint, “all of your senses were […] exploited.” Susan Tomkin, Bruce Mailman’s longtime assistant, discloses that the energy of the Saint was “amazing.” She remarks that there “is no energy like [it] in the world; […] you couldn’t send a man to the moon on that energy.” After a night of dancing, Robbie Leslie asserts that there was a “wonderful feeling of release brought about by a musical catharsis of sorts.” This musical catharsis allowed attendees to express themselves, according to Leslie.

5. The Saint’s planetarium projector projected the club into an otherworldly realm. According to author Jonathan McEwan, songs fitting the Saint’s “interstellar” theme such as “Rocket to Your Heart” by LISA and “Trippin’ On The Moon” by Cerrone were similarly “instant Saint standards” (38). Both songs are included below. “Rocket to Your Heart” begins with a robotic mumbling before transitioning to a rapid drumbeat and playful synths and keytones. “Trippin’ on the Moon” opens with more mellow vibes as a relaxed drum beat accompanies the repeated choral sounds of what may be an organ. The beat picks up around 1 minute with a rhythmic melody.

media from “afterlife of a saint”

  1. In 1988, the Saint’s surviving DJs and lighting technicians enlivened the club for the last time. The “Last Party” of the Saint spanned “three days and three nights,” with Saint regulars attending 30 of the 36 hours (McEwan, 42). Jimmy Ruffin’s song “Hold On To My Love” played near the end of the Last Party; appropriately, the words HOLD ON TO MY LOVE have been stitched onto the bottom of the Saint’s memorial quilt. The words’ ash-colored lettering overlay a thick strip of the same shiny, silver material found elsewhere in the panel. The day after the Last Party, the public noticed that the words “Hold On To My Love” had been spray-painted over the main entrance to the Saint. Bouquets were left in front of the door to the Saint on the sidewalk according to Frank Courson. Shown on the Saint Promotional Video, the following image likely depicts the textual memorial of the Saint, represented by Jimmy Ruffin’s song.

“Hold On To My Love” evokes a sense of celebration with an upbeat tempo, but also a sentiment of farewell as Ruffin asks an unknown subject to hold on to his love. Ruffin’s song has appeared many times in reference to the Saint, and is clearly a favorite track of the club. The song begins with bright high notes and a joyful beat. Ruffin’s voice is soulful and sunny. Ruffin passionately declares “our love will live on for the whole world to see.” He animatedly shares his love for the subject of his affectionate lyrics.

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Sexual Expression and its Subsequent Suppression: The Afterlife of a Saint

staying afloat

Bruce Mailman made a number of changes to the Saint in order to keep it afloat in its sea of controversy. In 1985, Mailman began to sell liquor at the club; though he later opened the disco to heterosexual people on Fridays, attendance at the club still waned dramatically (McEwan, 42). The “ghosts of friends” haunted many members of the New York City gay community (Rist, 18). Most of the crowd that had frequented the Saint were older gay men who had either died from HIV/AIDS or were grappling with the grief of knowing those who had (Rist, 18). Many people avoided the Saint.

The younger crowd that began to populate the Saint didn’t come as often as older members once did because they didn’t have as much money; financial troubles swiftly appeared on the horizon, and Bruce Mailman began to feel that he could only own the Saint “for so long” (Rist, 18). Soon thereafter, the Fillmore East Village Associates Ltd. offered to buy the Saint from Mailman for 6.5 million dollars; by the Saint’s 1987 Halloween Party, the sale of the building had already “passed the point of no return” (qtd. in McEwan).

In 1988, the Saint’s surviving DJs and lighting technicians enlivened the club for the last time. The “Last Party” spanned “three days and three nights,” with Saint regulars attending 30 of the 36 hours (McEwan, 42). Jimmy Ruffin’s song “Hold On To My Love” played near the end of the Last Party; appropriately, the words HOLD ON TO MY LOVE have been stitched onto the bottom of the Saint’s memorial quilt. The words’ ash-colored lettering overlay a thick strip of the same shiny, silver material found elsewhere in the panel.

Jimmy Ruffin’s “Hold On To My Love”

reincarnation

Gay nightlife was “quiet” without the Saint (McEwan, 42). The Paradise Garage and Flamingo dance club had already closed when the Last Party took place, so, when Halloween came around after the Saint’s official closing in April of 1988, Bruce Mailman decided to host a party (McEwan, 42-44). This Halloween Party commenced a series of parties that became known as Saint-at-Large events (McEwan, 44).

Saint-at-Large parties now annually commemorate the four holiest celebrations of the original Saint: Halloween, New Years Eve, the White Party, and Black Party; the White and Black parties are the most popular events of the year (McEwan, 44). This annotation describes the Saint-at-Large’s 2016 Black Party trailer, whose wicked marine imagery elicits awe from the viewer. Further showcasing the living legacy of Bruce Mailman’s inventive artistry is the 1998 poster advertising the Saint-at-Large’s White Party.

Though the Saint-at-Large seeks to “keep the spirit of the original [Saint] alive,” many people have noted that the Saint-at-Large celebrations are mere “shadows” of what the Saint’s parties used to be (Peters, 142). The permanent loss of the euphoric disposition of the Saint’s heyday emphasizes the irretrievable nature of the past. Memories can never be replicated; the Saint will always maintain a “mystique” that is impenetrable even by vigorous research (Peters, 141). Generations now will never learn the liveliness of the original Saint; young gay men will never enjoy the “wonderful playground” that was Bruce Mailman’s very own haven of vices (Peters, 141). Though men still dance beneath dazzling lights and kiss in rhythm with Hi-NRG melodies, they cannot relish the gratification of the hours upon hours men their age spent in the original Saint (Peters, 142). They cannot travel back in time. To Jason McCarthy, the former night manager of the Saint, this restraint on any true comprehension of the Saint is lamentable (McEwan, 44). Younger gay generations who never experienced the original Saint “don’t know what it was [or] what they’ve missed” (qtd. in McEwan, 44). The naivete of this generation is astonishing to him given that they are grossly unfamiliar with the brilliant spark of their antecedents (Peters, 143). 

The disconnect that exists between the disco generation and the grunge youngsters saddened Bruce Mailman (Peters, 143). Mailman worried that his generation would not get to share its “collective wisdom” with the next generation of queer youth because of the devastation of AIDS (qtd. in Peters, 143). The sense that the “young [gay population] arrived newly born and can’t benefit from anything that went before them” is upsetting to Mailman (qtd. in Peters, 143). For the men and women who emerged out of the disco era and the sexual revolution, it seems the Saint is best appraised in recollection rather than revival (McEwan, 44). For them, nothing can compare to the original Saint and the original high of liberation (McEwan, 44). The freedom of the 70s never included the burden of AIDS now attached to gay identity; Mailman feels that the epidemic has darkened an otherwise beautiful expression of gay sexuality and identity (Peters, 143). He hopes that future gay generations will find the “same freedom [his generation] once had,” otherwise the community will continuously struggle to recover its historical vitality (qtd. in Peters, 143). 

Even if the Saint cannot be relived, its narrative must still be retold. The Saint is not irrelevant, even if, as Frank Courson acknolwedges, there “are entire portions of the city where [the gay community] can be comfortable” (McEwan, 44) The magnetizing majesty of the Saint comforted young gay men and offered them a “safe place” to be themselves and to love their significant others and lovers (McEwan, 44). The Saint shone like a beacon within the gay community, offering shelter and a supportive celebration of patrons’ self-hood that may seem unfit for the currently saturated generation (McEwan, 44). However, even despite the progress of civil rights within the LGBTQ+ community, the dissemination of the Saint’s story is still necessary.

Saint Dance Club Memorial Block; Image Credit: NAMES Project

The unusually large size of the Saint’s memorial block attempts to communicate the club’s extraordinary impact on New York’s gay history. The quilt’s size symbolizes both the magnificent breadth of the physical Saint as well as its metaphorical significance in history. 

The Saint was a sinfully sexual disco that manifested the spiritual realization of an unapologetic existence (Peters). Serenading its customers with the rapturous anthems of a liberated generation, the Saint dance club was emblematic of the entire disco generation (“Chapter 4: The Era“). Primarily, the Saint bestowed a jubilant embrace of unrestrained, open desire upon its gay patrons (“Chapter 4: The Era“). In the Saint, desires and dreams were set free as a hot revolution of self-respect unfastened the binds of closeted men and women and turned them towards self-acceptance and sexual liberation (“Chapter 4: The Era“). The lifetime of the Saint embodies the rise and fall of the gay generation during the 1980s due to the AIDS epidemic by encapsulating both the heroism and vulnerability of New York’s gay community. The Saint’s memorial block fails to communicate the tremendous culture of the Saint, however its archival materials convey the club’s life span well.

As Carol Cooper acknowledges, the lack of firsthand documentation from the people “most qualified” to tell the story of disco threatens to diminish the presence of the “rich social history of New York club life” (Cooper, 164). If future generations cannot access firsthand accounts of disco’s growth, transformation, and divergence into various cultural expressions, then “myths and rumors” will begin to dilute and destroy the truth (Cooper, 165). Cooper laments that writers purporting to be “authorities on cult clubs like the Paradise Garage never interviewed its visionary owner Michael Brody, or its principal deejay Larry Levan” (Cooper, 165). However, quite a few of the materials cited in this essay involve direct quotations from the Saint’s founder, Bruce Mailman. Darrell Yates Rist, Brooks Peters, and Jonathan McEwan are authors whose invaluable articles contain interviews with Bruce Mailman himself as well as interviews of other close associates of the Saint. Though direct experience is the only way one can truly understand disco clubs or feel the true impact of disco music, written narratives still provide a crucial glimpse of the nature of the disco revolution. Without the circulation of firsthand documentation on the Saint, Mailman’s concern that there is no “continuity in the gay population” will come true (Peters, 143). To communicate across generational lines the struggle, liberation, and resilience of the gay community (particularly in New York, U.S.A.), the story of the Saint must be shared, as it both explains the importance of discos to the gay community as well as the role of uninhibited sexuality in the community’s freedom from oppression.

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