Author Jonathan McEwan wholeheartedly believes that the Saint’s founder, Bruce Mailman, “gave the community something extraordinary” when he constructed the St. Mark’s Baths and the Saint dance club. Mailman created something “wonderful” that sadly lasted only for a “brief shining moment” (McEwan, 36).
Yet when the Saint shone, it radiated like a beacon, and drew crowds and crowds through its doors. Bruce Mailman’s inventive vision of the gay community’s liberation did not only include a thriving, gay disco. First, Mailman founded a steamy, gay bathhouse.
In the article, Michael Fierman, an esteemed DJ of the Saint, explains that DJs had a responsibility to “make a musical statement.” At the Saint, evenings were given structure because of the DJ’s desire to “take the crowd someplace” (qtd. in Peters, 140). Fierman describes the Saint as a “decadent place” in a “non-negative way” (qtd. in Peters, 141). Yet of all the liberation the Saint appeared to have stirred in its gay members who reveled in the club’s hot parties, not everyone was 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, given that they did not fit the culturally-imposed ideal gay male figure. Peters continues on to say that “Drag queens were definitely not welcome” and that “lesbians were not included.”
Others steered clear of the Saint by their own volition. The sexual nature of the Saint was off-putting to them. Critics of the Saint believed that promiscuous and anonymous sex should not be equated with gay liberation, however, others feel that their physical excursions in disco clubs like the Saint were freeing and necessary. The sexual liberation of the Saint was rooted in Mailman’s precursor business, the St. Marks Baths, whose origination inspired a generation to be “honest,” according to Mailman (qtd. in Peters).
The musical journey
At the Paradise Garage, the concept of the musical journey emerged; at the Saint, the musical journey evolved into a methodological procedure for stimulating various emotions of the crowds. First, lighter fare music escalated into Hi-NRG (high energy, now known as EDM or electronic dance music in 2017) beats and vibrations. Then those “hard-driving beats” would melt into “melodic morning music,” before concluding with songs later classified as “sleaze” (Weinstein). Sleaze was a swoon of romantic ballads that cascaded from the Saint’s planetarium dome like stardust. Sharon White made a name for herself at the Saint, but that was only after a lucky circumstance propelled her to the club’s DJ booth.
Though invited to join a pre-opening tour for the Saint, Sharon White states that it soon became clear that Bruce Mailman, owner and founder of the Saint, did not want her to occupy the DJ booth. Mailman envisioned the Saint as a male haven; nearly all of the club’s members were male, and female guests had to be pre-approved before attending the night’s festivities. That didn’t stop White from attending Jim Burgess’s last official
performance as a DJ. The Saint threw his going-away party in January of 1981, which famously ended in his sudden desertion of the deejay booth.
As the last record Burgess was playing ran out, the crowd turned confused.
Burgess had simply “stopped the music, left the DJ booth, got into his Bentley, and left” (Weinstein). People wandered the dance floor, utterly perplexed. The Saint’s coat check then broke down and exacerbated the situation. A manager at the Saint noticed White was in attendance, and commanded her to DJ the crowd. Sharon White asserts that she was “in the right place at the right time” when she instructed a few other staffers at the Saint to go to her home and bring back the bags of records that she had color-coordinated (Weinstein). White played until 1:30pm and caused quite an uproar. Until the Saint’s closing in 1988, Sharon White succeeded as one of the club’s most popular DJs, though she is not cited as a “big” DJ by Bruce Mailman in his interview with the New York Native. Yet she was “big” and her talents attracted the attention of Lenoard Bernstein, a renowned composer and conductor. Bernstein approached White in the booth one
night and discussed his pleasured with her adaptations of “a few of [his] pieces” (Weinstein). She “had made a medley of things […] into a dance project,” which her audiences loved. Yet, White didn’t stay local and loyal to the NYC crowds.
After the Saint closed, Sharon White toured clubs in Tokyo, Berlin, even
merciless or innocent?
Bruce Mailman was accused of being an exploitative, “merciless profiteer” when he “resisted shutting down the baths early in the AIDS crisis” (Peters, 82). Many people, including Larry Kramer and other vocal writers and leaders in the gay community believed that Mailman took too long to close the Saint in the wake of the mounting evidence that AIDS was a sexually transmitted disease. Larry Kramer advised young gay people to avoid sex clubs and reduce their number of sexual partners, even to try abstinence. Yet Mailman did not want to “give up the freedom he had fought for so many years to establish” (Peters).
To Mailman, the Baths was a “hard-won symbol of fraternity, equality, and liberty.” Author Brooks Peters explains that the “right to be a homosexual man without harrassment from society was closely linked to the right to have promiscuous sex.”
Civil rights was on Mailman’s mind when he failed to close the Baths as early as critics wanted him to. Anyway, Mailman believes that more would have been done to “control the epidemic” during the virus’s germination period in 1980, but no one knew of the public health crisis to come back then (qtd. in Peters, 82). To Mailman, the accusations against him promote an argument based on hindsight bias.
Tom Steele wrote that AIDS was like a “shark attack” (qtd. in Peters, 82). For a while, New York experienced a “dreadfully grim” period of despair in which a “sexual shutdown” created a sort of emotional “black hole” (qtd. in Peters, 82).
Two conservative commentators at the time, Pat Buchanan and William F. Buckley, began to advocate for “quarantine camps,” and “tattooing,” in response to the AIDS crisis, procedures reminiscent of the protocols of Nazi concentration camps. By condemning him and “not supporting the baths,” Mailman believes the gay community was “really feeding into the hands of the right wing” (qtd. in Peters, 82).
Bruce Mailman insists that in 1983 the Baths were doing more good than harm in the gay community. His bathhouse offered counseling and distributed condoms in packages that read: “The contents of this envelope can save your life” (qtd. in Peters, 82). Yet, he continued to be villainized.
To Mailman, it is clear that the media hoped to villainize a distinguished gay business-owner in New York City in order to “appease people’s hysteria.”
In 1985, Mailman was forced to close the St. Marks Baths due to increased political and legal pressure.
Mailman states that he spent $300,000 U.S. dollars defending his right to keep the St. Marks Baths open. He lost.
Some writers in the gay community did defend Mailman’s desire to keep the St. Marks Baths open. Bruce Mailman never “sat there with a shotgun and forced people to have sex” says Marc Berkeley, a club promoter in New York who later worked at the Saint during its closing years (qtd. in Peters, 82).
Marisa Cardinale, the executive director of Community Research Initiative on AIDS (CRIA) in 1994, believes the following:
“Our right to privacy and our right to gather are two of the most important things, as gay people, we have. And I don’t think anything, [not] even AIDS, is worse than voluntarily giving up those rights” (qtd. in Peters, 82).