Sexual Expression and its Subsequent Suppression: Kingdom of a Saint

painting music on a blank cAnvas

After the First Party, the Saint dance club became the “hottest, most exclusive ticket in town,” partly because of its astounding technology. The Saint set “new standards for lighting and sound,” that showcased the truly unique properties of a club with a planetarium inside of it (McEwan, 39). According to Jason McCarthy, the former night manager of the Saint, the planetarium dome of the club “was like a canvas” (qtd. in McEwan, 39). Lights “aimed at the [dome from the] mothership, from the base of the walls and from the catwalk that circled the outside of the dome” (qtd. in McEwan, 39). The effect of the multitude of lights cast onto the dome was breathtaking; splendid stars and psychedelic designs delighted audiences as they danced beneath the large dome. Susan Tomkin, Bruce Mailman’s assistant, states that “being under the dome on the crowded dance floor with the lights and the stars was a spectacular visual experience that if you didn’t have, you’ll never know” (qtd. in McEwan, 40). Tomkin’s declaration demonstrates the impossibility of conveying any true experience of the Saint to a person who has neither seen, felt, heard, nor entered the club. Essentially, without experiencing the Saint firsthand, men and women will never truly know what it meant to dance under the Saint’s dome. 

Image Credit: Saint Promo
Image Credit: Saint Promo
Image Credit: Saint Promo

worship

The Saint aroused a spiritual thrill in its masses. Many have described the disco as a deliverer of near religious rapture. Frank Courson, a management consultant in Manhattan, describes the Saint as a temple (McEwan, 40). Author Jonathan McEwan expounds upon Courson’s claim in his 1994 article entitled “The Saint Goes On.” McEwan explains that the Saint had “four opposing entrances that led to the circular dance floor, an icon of worship (the mirror ball) and even an altar (the DJ booth). The DJ played a liturgy designed to engage the congregation in ritualistic dance” (40). Thus, the Saint seemed to provide the services a traditional church would. Going to the Saint certainly provided experiences that many would call religious; however, devout members of the Saint were not puritan men solely concerned with enjoying the night’s music or getting emotionally stimulated (McEwan, 40). Men chased the high of unreserved worship, which lasted for hours, beginning Saturday night and concluding on the following Sunday afternoon (McEwan, 40). During this time, deliciously “decadent” drug use and sexual pursuits sinfully silhouetted the Saint against its rather innocent namesake (Rist, 18). Author Darrell Yates Rist remembers “a perpetually euphoric storm of orgies in the balcony above the planetarium dome” as well as an “endless fountain of drugs from […] men who themselves were intoxicating” (18). What was saintly about Mailman’s disco was not its innocence, but its absolute embrace of male pleasure.

Stories of the Saint – Chapter 3: The Trip

to be special, to be beloved

Open only on Saturdays and Sundays, the Saint made sure to wow crowds with unique experiences every time they attended the club (McEwan, 40). Former manager of the Saint Joel Teitelbaum notes that on Saturday the staff of the club would “set up art installations or fill the club with balloons and cotton clouds. Then, right after the last dancer left on Sunday afternoon, a crew would remove all traces of the Saturday night party and reset the lights so that Sunday’s would be completely different” (qtd. in McEwan, 40). The continuous production of remarkable art for the promotion and adornment of the Saint gratified members and visitors by making them feel “special” every time they walked into the club (qtd. In Rist, 17). Other discotheques attracted celebrities as famed, esteemed guests, yet at the Saint, “no one looked at other people” (qtd. in Rist, 17). The people themselves “were the stars,” and the Saint devoted every passionate night to its audience so that each person there could receive the best experience possible (qtd. in Rist, 17). Parties at the Saint were planned ahead to an impressive amount of detail;  (McEwan, 40). DJs contained playlists of songs to which they envisioned specific staging cues (such as the descent of the mirror ball, or the appearance of the stars) being enacted. The Saint dance club’s unique holiday schedule also challenged staff members to entertain crowds according to different themes (McEwan, 40)

DJ performances at the Saint also contributed to the club’s dominion of disco. In Brooks Peters’ 1994 article “The Sexual Revolution Mailman Delivered,” Michael Fierman, an esteemed DJ of the Saint, explains that DJs had a responsibility to “make a musical statement” (qtd. in Peters, 140). At the Saint, evenings were given structure by the DJ’s desire to “take the crowd someplace” (qtd. in Peters, 140). Their desire to establish a musical journey developed into a methodological procedure for eliciting various emotions from their audience. First, lighter fare music escalated into Hi-NRG music (now known as EDM or electronic dance music in 2017). Then those Hi-NRG “hard-driving beats” would melt into “melodic morning music,” before concluding with songs later classified as “sleaze” (Weinstein). Sleaze described the swoon of romantic ballads that cascaded from the Saint’s planetarium dome like stardust.

transcendence

Joel Teitelbaum witnessed the transcendent nature of music and dance in the Saint. He states that dancing at the Saint was “a kind of trip […] that started around midnight and didn’t reach its destination until 2:00 the next afternoon” (qtd. in McEwan, 39). The trip that Teitelbaum references symbolizes the ability of the Saint to transport crowds to a spiritually resonant realm. Carol Cooper cites Chaka Khan, the Emotions, and The Talking Heads, as famed performers of music traditionally played at The Saint (162-163). According to author Jonathan McEwan, songs fitting the club’s “interstellar” theme such as “Rocket to Your Heart” by LISA and “Trippin’ On The Moon” by Cerrone were also “instant Saint standards” (38). 

Unfortunately, despite all the liberation the Saint stirred in its gay members, many populations in the queer community never directly received a similar hearty welcome. John Preston recounts that at the Saint there was “a sense of exclusion of those [individuals] who weren’t pretty enough” (qtd. in Peters, 141). Author Brooks Peters states that black people “complained” that they were discriminated against at the Saint because they did not fit the culturally-imposed ‘ideal’ gay man or woman, who were white (141). Peters also notes that “drag queens were definitely not welcome” at the Saint and that lesbians were just “not included” (141). Others steered clear of the Saint by their own volition; the sexual nature of the club was off-putting to them. Critics of the Saint believed that gay liberation should not be equated with promiscuous and anonymous sex, however, others felt that their physical excursions in disco clubs like the Saint were freeing and necessary (Peters). 

The Saint was nevertheless highly influential despite these internal debates.

“Rocket to Your Heart” by LISA

“Trippin’ On The Moon” by Cerrone

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Sexual Expression and its Subsequent Suppression: Bruce Mailman Emerges, An Entrepreneur of Ingenious Artistry

oasis of desire

Bruce Mailman was an entrepreneur based in New York City, U.S.A. who was integral in providing sensual havens for the gay community during the 1970s and 1980s (Peters). In the eras of the Sexual Revolution and of disco culture, Bruce Mailman endeavored to engineer an oasis of open desire and free expression in which gay men could engage (Peters). To do this, Mailman first created the St. Marks Baths, a bathhouse described by author Jonathan McEwan as an “exciting place in which to enjoy the pleasures of the then unhindered sexual revolution” (36). Later, Bruce Mailman founded the Saint disco club, which, to many, came to represent the apotheosis of the disco era.

Mailman’s inventiveness sculpted the Saint into a matchless, mammoth disco. Born in Chester, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. to a family of merchants, Bruce Mailman first developed his creative spirit through thespian engagements. In high school, Mailman became involved in art, theater, and music. He went on to attend Temple University and the Tyler School of Fine Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Later, after he graduated with a master’s degree from New York University in the early 1960s, Mailman met his long-time partner, John, a cardiologist. Together, Mailman and John began to invest in real estate, whilst Mailman started producing his own creative works and plays (Peters, 140).

Mailman’s enterprising attitude helped him succeed as both an entrepreneur and an investor; importantly, many of Mailman’s businesses were spaces that encouraged the gay community to live openly and freely (McEwan, 36). Several experiences in Mailman’s life inspired him to create such liberating environments. When he was four years old, Mailman observed a man wearing a “suede jacket without a shirt on underneath” walk into his father’s store. He remembers wanting the man to remove the jacket; he “knew it wasn’t right, [but] didn’t know why.” (qtd. in Peters, 140). Additionally, though he knew of other gay men in university, Mailman still “had to hide” his sexuality. He pronounces that, at the time, being gay was “mysterious, like being part of a private society. […] There was no openness” (qtd. In Peters, 140). Mailman despised this obligatory charade and desired to counter his lingering internalization of the country’s homophobia. For many, the 1969 Stonewall Riots realized Mailman’s aspiration for he and other gay men to be out and honest. Mailman hoped the fierce resilience that arose in the gay community during this time would create an unapologetic sentiment among gay men. It was time to be frank, and it was time to have pride (Peters, 140).

come as you are

At first, gay men did not seek familiarity from one another; most preferred to remain closeted by keeping their nightly escapades private and maintaining their anonymity, even in seemingly safe spaces. Mailman knew well that being gay was “dangerous,” but the shame of some of the men he saw was disheartening (qtd. in Peters, 140). Mailman found it strange, and sad, that “people wouldn’t sign their own names [at gay bars],” and that men were “very embarrassed to see someone they knew on the street” (qtd. in Peters). His observations demonstrate the stifled nature of gay identity during his youth in the 1960s, which Mailman yearned to combat. He intended to untie the fists of gay men bound to closetedness by creating a community where people could be “honest” with each other and with themselves (qtd. in Peters).

Mailman’s particular philosophy of honesty generally manifested itself as a type of sexual expression; at Mailman’s own St. Marks Baths, the physical rapture and release from oppressive confinement exhilarated many customers (Peters, 80). Attracting millions of dollars per year, the St. Marks Baths became synonymous with the 1970s gay and queer culture. Visitors and staff members indulged carnal pleasures on every one of the bathhouse’s five floors; the sexual revolution was truly ablaze (Peters). One visitor to the Baths states that “if you didn’t like the baths, you had to examine yourself. Maybe you had a serious case of self-loathing, or maybe you hadn’t gotten the message. It was part of the culture to have a lot of anonymous sex” (qtd. in Peters). This quote shows how Mailman’s equation of genuineness with uninhibited sexuality was a commonplace ideology in the 1970s.

However, the men who attended the Baths connected more than just their bodies. Mailman’s bathhouse was also a “gay social scene” that affirmed the identity and increased the fraternity and camaraderie among the young men there (McEwan, 36).

Stories of the Saint – Chapter 4: The Era

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Sexual Expression and its Subsequent Suppression: An Introduction

Block 1087 of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt is a quilt block that memorializes the staff members, DJs, and associates of the New York City Saint disco club.

According to Janece Shaffer, the Communications Director at the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, the size of the Saint disco club’s singular memorial panel is much larger than the average panel submitted to the quilt. Typically, panels are 3×6 feet (0.9×1.8 meter); however, the size of this quilt is that of an entire 12×12 foot (3.7×3.7 meter) “block” (“AIDS Memorial Quilt”). Blocks are usually composed of eight individual 3×6 foot (0.9×1.8 meter) panels, yet this block is its own individual dedication (“FAQs”).

The primary colors featured in the quilt are black, burgundy, and silver, though there are exceptions; the quilt’s inky colors evoke a funereal quiet. Many of the objects on the block have been stitched onto an expanse of either black or burgundy felt material, which raises them from the quilt’s flat surface. 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 this block).

Saint Dance Club Memorial Block; Image Credit: NAMES Project

In this essay, I intend to address how disco clubs liberated the gay and queer community in New York City by offering a historical account of the disco movement as well as a narrative of its seeming culmination in the creation of the Saint dance club. This paper will examine the effect of AIDS on the gay disco generation by honing in on remembrances and discussions of the Saint and other disco clubs in New York City.

My position on this topic will address the complexity of the influence of erotic social scenes, such as the Saint or founder Bruce Mailman’s other creation, the St. Marks Baths, on the spread of AIDS. I will attempt to answer the question that dominates Bruce Mailman’s controversy: did he condone the spread of AIDS through his refusal to close down his businesses? Was Mailman really a “merciless profiteer” who continued to ruthlessly benefit from the sex that took place in his establishments, despite growing awareness that HIV/AIDS was sexually transmitted (Peters, 82)? Neither a ruthless villain nor a sinless business owner, Bruce Mailman is a man who believed that he was protecting and affirming the civil rights of his customers.

My essay will first begin with a description of Bruce Mailman’s biography as well as a discussion of his philosophy towards gay male identity. Then, I will detail Bruce Mailman’s inspirations for the Saint dance club and examine the evolution of the extraordinary discotheque. I will conclude with an analysis of the impact of Mailman’s creation, as well as reactions to the onslaught of AIDS in the gay community and what that meant for the reputation of the Saint.

By describing the lifetime of the Saint, I will expand upon the current general knowledge of the disco era and make the details of disco’s presence in the 80s known. I will display the interaction between the gay community and the disco community by demonstrating the formation of the gay community around gay clubs that embraced the sexual liberation of the disco era (“Chapter 4: The Era”). As discos became cultural emblems of the gay community, their musical, physical, and emotional embrace liberated both young men and women by providing the space for their self-determination and youthful exploration (“Chapter 3: The Trip”).

I hope to increase awareness of the different ways that AIDS destroyed disco culture and the continuation of gay history. Once the disease disseminated throughout disco clubs and the larger gay community, AIDS ruptured the vitality of gay oral history. Death, sickness, and the isolation of the epidemic’s survivors disrupted the narrative of the gay disco generation (Peters, 143). Block 1087 captures only a fragment of the Saint’s significance.

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