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: 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: And So Disco Begins

black RADIO BECOMES BLACK DISCO

In the 1930’s and 1940’s of the United States, white broadcasters owned black radio, and white announcers stifled black music (Cooper, 159). Air time dedicated to black musicality featured gospel music because it contained “nothing offensive or potentially seditious” (Cooper, 159). By failing to hire black announcers, white broadcasters deprived black musicality of its cultural context as well as of “any power to affect America’s social status-quo” (Cooper, 159). Radio refused autonomy over the black community’s own musical history. The struggle for authentic space and expression driven by members of the black community 

speak for yourself, be yourself, and create your own context and community, find a space that is your own, embrace your rights to be loud, open, and honest about your identity and your

Image credit: iHeartRadio

Yet, when the WDIA station of Memphis, Tennessee became the first “all black-formatted station featuring black on-air announcers,” black DJs began to thrive.

Spinning storied tracks that conversed with their audiences, black DJs demonstrated the talent, complexity, and necessity of black music. They became “community leaders” around the nation (Cooper, 159); along with black entrepreneurs, black DJs helped to engender a new culture of music: disco.

diverse disco cults

According to Carol Cooper, the author of “Disco Knights: Hidden Heroes of the New York Dance Music Underground,” the “1960s and 1970s were the golden decades for diversity in radio, and the 1970s and 1980s were years of tremendous progress and diversity in clubland” (160).

New York’s five boroughs were “particularly full of social and technological experimentation” (Cooper, 160). Black entrepreneurs began to transform college frat fundraisers and town rent parties into professional entertainment platforms.

The Manhattan clubs of Leviticus, Othello’s, Pegasus, and Down Under were birthed from the “art of throwing a party people would pay to attend” (Cooper, 160). And though these “black-oriented clubs” were strongly influenced by popular black radio, none of these clubs attracted the same audience (Cooper, 160). They were diverse.

Carol Cooper believes that “The biggest myth of late 1970s disco portrayed the disco audience as homogeneous in attitude and composition” (Cooper, 160). Disco has always been a “vast, multiethnic subculture” of music, whose various establishments served particular communities.

Disco “cults” fell along certain group categories such as gay discos, “new wave” discos, or “black mainstream discos” (Cooper, 161).

The Saint Dance Club is seen by many as the culmination of gay disco.

setting the stage for the saint

Stories of the Saint – Chapter 4: The Era

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.

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.

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.

Saint Dance Club Memorial Block; Image Credit: NAMES Project

The unusually large size of the Saint’s memorial block attempts to communicate its 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.

Stories of the Saint – Chapter 5: The Clubs