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”
Gay nightlife was “quiet” without the Saint (McEwan, 42). TheParadise 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.
Theunusually 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.
Peters, Brooks. “The Sexual Revolution Mailman Delivered.” Out, 1994.
Bruce Mailman was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, a “poor industrial town outside Philadelphia” (Peters, 140).
Mailman’s parents were merchants.
When he was four years old, Bruce Mailman experienced his “first sexual experience.” A man had walked into his father’s shop wearing a “suede jacket without a shit on underneath.” Though Mailman “knew it wasn’t right, [he] didn’t know why.” However, he remembers wanting the man to “take off the jacket. [He] was consciously interested” (qtd. in Peters, 140).
Growing up, Mailman became aware of the “town queer,” Snookie, but knew he didn’t want to be like Snookie (qtd. in Peters, 140).
Alone in high school, with no gay friends, Mailman worked through his self-identity on his own. He became involved in art, theater, and music in high school, and went on to attend Temple University and the Tyler School of Fine Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the Tyler School, Mailman met other gay men, but still “had to hide” who he truly was. He pronounces that being gay was “mysterious, like being part of a private society. […] There was no openness.” Yet to Mailman, being gay was “as dangerous as it was interesting” (qtd. in Peters, 140).
After Bruce Mailman moved to New York to attend graduate school at New York University, he graduated with a master’s degree in the early 1960s. Mailman began working as a caseworker after graduation, and soon met his long time partner, John, a cardiologist. Together, John and Mailman began to invest in real estate, whilst Mailman began producing his own creative works and plays.
Mailman’s first production of a play took place in 1970.
The play was entitled The Dirtiest Show in Town, and was written by Tom Eyen. Starring a cast that was mostly naked for the entire production, the play nevertheless required costumes, which Mailman designed. Mailman also designed the set of The Dirtiest Show in Town.
The first production enjoyed over 500 performances, attracting a memorable review from critic Clive Barnes who stated that another controversially nude play of the time Oh! Calcutta! was practically “Little Women” in comparison (Peters, 140).
Bruce Mailman soon opened the Fortune Theatre with collaborator Andy Warhol, which Mailman claims to be the first place in New York City to showcase gay porn “commercially” (Peters, 140). Mailman also co-wrote a textbook, and became the manager of another theater. After Mailman created his infamous bathhouse, he became invested in the gay disco scene and excelled in similar fashion there with his creation of the Saint disco club of New York City.
a trip in the saint
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).
a sexual revolution
Andrew Holleran, a prominent novelist, describes Bruce Mailman in the following way:
“‘The thing about Bruce Mailman is that he is the eminence grise, the Cardinal Richelieu behind the scenes in the gay world. He culminated and codified and realized physically the climax of the 70s. He provided the settings, literally the theater, for all of these fantasies'” (qtd. in Peters, 80).
Given that he rarely grants interviews, Bruce Mailman’s reputation generally proceeds his name in any conversation, however in this article published in the July/August 1994 issue of Out magazine, author Brooks Peter hoped he would finally “set the record straight” (Peters, 80).
Following the 1969 Stonewall riot, “more and more gay men and lesbians were organizing support groups and demanding equal rights. And businesses-bars and bathhouses in particular- began to cater openly” to the gay community (Peters, 80). At the time there were several bathhouses that Mailman remembers vividly offering a range of experiences such as steam baths, massages, and rooms where one could get hit with “birch branches” (Peters, 80). The Russian Baths, the Penn Post baths, and the Continental Baths are all famous bathhouses that Mailman remembers from his youth.
However, Bruce Mailman presents some criticisms of the gay bathhouses and community fixtures of the his time. To Mailman, the “whole gay scene was unattractive [and] freaky.” People did not seek familiarity from one another, nor did they want to even meet people. Mailman noticed that at gay bars, “people wouldn’t sign their own names. They were very embarrassed to see someone they knew on the street.” Mailman’s hope was to create a community in which people could be open and “honest” with each other and with themselves (qtd. in Peters).
Mailman also argues that “camp” gay men were “buying into the typical, straight-imposed ‘nellie’ stereotypes” that were self-deprecating and demeaning. He recalls being “outraged” when a young man called him “hon.” Mailman felt that campness demeaned the gay community, and sought to create spaces that manifested masculinity.
Mailman eventually charmed his way into ownership of the existing St. Marks Baths by convincing his backers that they were investing in a “viable proposition” (qtd. in Peters). When he remodeled the St. Marks Baths, Bruce Mailman invited a younger generation of gay men to his establishment, and they lost themselves to the liberation of New York’s sexual revolution. The bathhouse had five floors, a video room, and a luncheonette. It was magnificent.
Larry Kramer, a prominent activist, playwright, and author acknowledges that Mailman “succeeded” in giving the gay community the “nicest baths” (qtd. in Peters).
Attracting millions of dollars each year, the St. Marks Baths became synonymous with gay and queer culture.
One visitor 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.” Attending the Baths affirmed one’s identity and increased the fraternity and camaraderie among the young men who were there (qtd. in Peters). The baths were a “sexual” gathering where men could meet celebrities, plumbers, even nuclear physicists. Anyone and everyone seemed to belong (qtd. in Peters).
the disease, his controversy
The St. Marks Baths were “always spotless” (Peters, 82).
Inspections were conducted every 15 minutes in the bathhouse to ensure everyone’s safety and to guarantee that there was no injury. Sadly, a member drowned in a hot tub at the St. Marks Baths, however, this is the only time that things went “wrong” (Peters, 82).
Staff members of the Baths were fired “on the spot” if they were caught having sexual relations with guests or members of the Baths, though such relations continued on anyways.
To Mailman’s staff, Bruce was “not easy to work for” because he “had more respect for the clientele than he did for his employees” (qtd. in Peters, 82). Yet Mailman does not see himself as “tough or ruthless;” he is “goal-oriented.” Mailman cares about how he presents his work and simply wants things “done the way [he] want[s] it done” (qtd. in Peters, 82).
However, soon the St. Marks Baths (and later on, the Saint) became known as the “epicenter” of a deadly disease: AIDS (Peters, 82).
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).
Things got worse.
The Saint disco lost club members, employees, and DJs to AIDS. The club eventually closed, a mere reflection of its former glory.
In 1991, drug and tax evasion charges were brought against Mailman.
An unjust investigation led by federal prosecutor James J. McGuire. McGuire and a team of IRS agents attempted to unravel the drug scene at Fire Island by targeting Bruce Mailman. Mailman eventually pleaded guilt to the charges of tax evasion, but he “vigorously” denied the raised drug charges (qtd. in Peters, 143).
No one in the gay community defended Mailman during his legal troubles, a fact that severely disappointed Mailman. The community’s easy abandonment of him hurt.
In 1992, Mailman’s case was thrown out of the court of law.
The Justice Department determined that fabricated evidence and homophobic motivations had significantly corrupted the investigation against Bruce Mailman. All charges against him were dropped, including those he pleaded guilty to.
Sadly, Mailman describes the entire experience as “being struck by a car” (qtd.in Peters, 143). What began with the closing of the St. Marks Baths swiftly “escalated” (qtd. in Peters, 143).
He experienced a lot of grief.
ghosts of the saint mystique
in 1994, Bruce Mailman decided to start cleaning out, stating that he was “slowly getting rid of most of what [he] owned” (qtd. in Peters, 143). He was in the middle of “downsizing his operations,” and was already selling his house in the Pines.
Author Brooks Peters believes that Mailman’s decluttering is a physical embodiment of Mailman’s “disenchantment with New York’s gay scene.”
Andrew Holleran, the novelist, had recently visited Fire Island at the time of this article’s writing; once there, Holleran states that he “felt like a ghost.” He believes that Mailman is in a transition, just as he is. Holleran proclaims the following:
“You have to start seeing yourself in a different way. It’s like molting and growing a new skin. One’s ship is changing course, reorienting and using a different compass” (qtd. in Peters, 143).
Bruce Mailman knows that his generation was dramatically affected by the onslaught of AIDS.
To Mailman, being gay “today is to walk around with a burden which certainly wasn’t the case in the 70s” (qtd. in Peters, 143). Mailman hopes that future gay generations will find the “same freedom [his generation] once had.”
Another mournful result of AIDS is the disconnect which resulted from it. Mailman feels that his generation did not get to share its “collective wisdom” with the next generation of queer youth because of the disease. He feels that “There is no continuity in the gay population.” 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).
By 1994, Mailman owned the restaurant 103, was a silent partner in HX, a gay guide to sex clubs, discos, and bars in New York City, as well as the owner of several other real estate and theater investments.
Of course, Mailman still was involved in hosting for the Saint-at-Large, which for those old enough to remember the original parties at the old Saint, were only “shadows” of what they used to be. However, the Saint-at-Large parties remained a spectacle of “go-go dancers [and] horny bubble-butt boy-toys.” The “young, affluent men” who were allured by the Saint-at-Large in the 1990s were described as the “gay-geoisie” (Peters, 142).
discussion of Brooks Peters’ Article
Author Brooks Peters goes on to describe the lasting influence of the Saint in the nation’s queer community in the 1990s even after the club’s closing. Bruce Mailman’s presentation of erotic, masculine images in his establishment’s marketing during the 70s and 80s guided the creation of posters, ads, and book covers in the 1990s as they pay homage to the “scintillating spectacles and libertine sprawl of the Saint” (Peters, 141).
Party Promoter Dallas Boesendahl declares the following:
“Bruce was the king of New York night life. There is a mystique around the Saint that still exists today. It was a truly brilliant entertainment complex. A wonderful playground for gay men.”
This source does well to expand upon the argument mentioned at the end of Carol Cooper’s article, Disco Knights: Hidden Heroes of the New York Dance Underground. If one has not experienced a disco like the Saint for oneself, then the true impact and emotion of the club can never be felt. In other words, you had to be there.
The Saint-at-Large’s revival of the Saint’s parties seem like mere “shadows” of their original forms to the older men who remember the original Saint in its heyday. Their perception of shadowed, or weakened versions of the experience spun by the Saint through the Saint-at-Large’s party revivals, further emphasize the permanent loss of their youth’s pure euphoric freedom. Their memories can never be replicated.
This source also helpfully provides details about Mailman’s childhood, which I was unaware of beforehand.
Peters’ article addresses the history of the St. Marks Baths with extreme clarity, and provides needed information about his legal troubles, investments, and emotional response to the highs and lows of his life.
Peters’ portrayal of Bruce Mailman is also well-rounded. There were statements of Mailman’s that I disagreed with, yet by the end of the article I do not dislike him. I simply feel like I understand him more.
Some of the drawbacks to the source are its frayed edges. This is a physical copy of the 1994 article that appears to have been torn out of the magazine itself. Some words are missing from the text because of the uneven ripping, however, I do not believe those missing words significantly alter the narrative.
The source also quotes other opinions often, which helps to provide further context and thoughts on the particular subject being dressed.
McEwan, Jonathan. “The Saint Goes On.” Metrosource, 1994, pp. 36-44.
secondhand qualities of the source
This magazine article has likely been scanned into a digital format and subsequently printed out. The article does not appear to be in its original form for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the photographs contained within the article are black-and-white, blurry depictions of the Saint disco club. Even the ads scattered throughout the text are in black and white, which seems to suggest that the article text has been reprinted from an original, colorful format.
The article was published in New York City in 1994; color photos and text would have been common in the USA’s mainstream media by this time. This source surely would have made use of color, given its subject of the sensual Saint disco. Though I cannot be sure that the article first appeared in color, its lack of color seems to suggest that the material I possess is a reprinted copy of the original source.
Additionally, the pages of the article are out of order. Beginning with page 36, and ending with page 38, the article has been stapled together in an haphazard fashion. The last page of the article, page 44, can be found in the middle of the packet. Pages 41 and 43 are missing, though their absence fails to interrupt the article’s narrative oddly enough.
The paper materials cited in this annotated bibliography have all come from The NAMES Project Quilt Gallery located on 117 Luckie Street NW, Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A. The tangible materials I cite in my bibliography (including this one) are secondary copies of the NAMES Project’s archival materials relating to the Saint’s memorial block, block 1087. Thus, it is possible that this article has been reprinted by a staff member of the NAMES Project, and stapled in the wrong order. It is also possible that the original owner stapled the pages in the wrong order, and the NAMES Project maintained the owner’s array. I can not be certain of either claim.
Regardless, the text contained within the article presents captivating details about the Saint’s demanding beginnings, the disco’s subsequent euphoric popularity, and the gay culture within which the Saint boomed and later withered, only to be gloriously revived once more.
the closet, the underworld
Author Jonathan McEwan opens his article with a description of the “dark and underwordly” nature of gay clubs such as the Flamingo and The Paradise Garage at the time of the Saint’s origination.
Though the late 1970s enjoyed the “height” of the disco era, exclusively gay clubs “were often dingy holes-in-the-wall” that were “hidden from view.” The “gay community was still tinged with the musty odor of a deep, dark closet,” whose liberation during the sexual revolution had yet to see an open representation of or welcoming of its population (McEwan, 36). Gay dance halls insinuated “criminal refuge” much the same as the “speakeasies of the twenties” did (McEwan, 36). To McEwan, they hardly evoked festivity or “dreams” (36).
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.
bruce mailman’s gay social scene
Bruce Mailman sought to “perfect what already existed and claim it for the gay community alone” (McEwan, 36). Multiple heterosexual bathhouses sprung up in New York City during the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, yet there were hardly any bathhouses marketed towards the gay community.
To fulfill his endeavor for a perfected gay haven of free expression and community, Mailman created the St. Marks Baths, described by author Jonathan McEwan as an “exciting place in which to enjoy the pleasures of the then unhindered sexual revolution” (36).
The St. Marks Bath inspired Mailman’s next business venture, or rather, its name did.
By the end of the 1970s, Mailman had begun to fantasize about owning an exclusive disco club. When his otherworldly disco came to fruition, Mailman named it the Saint, after the St. Mark’s Baths.
Before the saint
Upon arriving at the Loews Commodore movie theater (which later became the Saint), Bruce Mailman’s long-time business partner, Steve Casko, noted that the place looked like a “disaster” (qtd. in McEwan, 36).
Once one of the sixth largest movie theaters in New York City, the Commodore theater experienced quite a few transformations before its regeneration into the Saint.
For a while, the theater was lonely and abandoned, until it became a rock haven called the Fillmore East in the 1960s. In 1979, the old theater was considered by a man with a fantastic vision, and eventually unveiled as NYC’s hot new disco.
But the Saint had a rough beginning.
Aside from the fact that “it looked like someone had detonated a bomb in the orchestra pit,” according to Steve Casko, there were also quite a few strings attached to the theater that required tedious bureaucratic untangling (qtd. in McEwan, 36).
Casko informed author Jonathan McEwan that it took thirteen months for he and Mailman receive permits to construct a disco club in the former theater.
An additional nine months were then devoted to the actual construction of the Saint, which included the removal of the theater’s seats and a demolition of a part of its balcony.
Due to a sudden revelatory insight, Mailman decided that his disco would be a planetarium in which men could dance, lit by projected images of the stars. His stunningly unique vision necessitated the implantation of a planetarium dome, which, upon its completion, spanned three stories above the dance floor.
Though originally estimated to be 2 million U.S. dollars, the Saint’s entire construction ended up costing a little over 4.5 million U.S. dollars (McEwan).
But not everyone approved of Mailman’s new business.
When he first tried to purchase a planetarium projector for his club, Bruce Mailman solicited Zeiss for the projector. At the time, Zeiss was the leading manufacturer of planetarium projectors. Zeiss denied Mailman.
Zeiss’s rejection of Mailman’s request was explained as an “inappropriate use for their equipment,” yet Steve Casko asserts that Zeiss just “didn’t want to be associated with a gay disco in New York” (qtd. in McEwan).
Fortunately, the two business partners were later able to purchase both a planetarium dome and planetarium projector from Spitz Space Systems. Through the use of mobile lenses in the club’s projector, hundreds of unique slide images could be projected onto the planetarium dome and reflected off of the Saint’s dancing crowds, illuminating them with bright images of starlight and other exciting designs.
the first party
The Saint’s premiere, entitled “The First Party,” was postponed until July 30 1980 due to a series of untimely impediments. However, during this word, the buzz surrounding Mailman’s mysterious new club grew exponentially.
To announce the opening of the Saint, Bruce Mailman sent out a blueprint of the club; the flyer demonstrated sketches of the Saint’s basic layout and informed readers of the benefits of membership at the club.
A $175 membership purchase guaranteed buyers a reduced cost of admission into the Saint as well as a locker in the club. The benefit of a locker applied only to the first 700 members. By the time the Saint opened, the club had 2500 members. Word about the Saint had spread fast. The Saint’s legendary opening night began with a line of men “wrapped completely around the block and back up to the door and into the street” (McEwan, 38). The Saint had officially become a hot commodity. Read more about opening night here.
Then, the doors opened.
As crowds explored the newly opened Saint, George Gershwin‘s Rhapsody in Blue “swelled” from the sound system and encased the public in a luxurious mood of classical music. I do not know if the orchestral rhapsody or the piano version of Gershwin’s composition was played during The First Party. I have included both versions below.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue on the piano
Original version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue
A spacious lounge dominated the main floor of the Saint, with metal stairways leading up to the the dance floor. The top floor had been devoted to a viewing area.
A fenced-in balcony overlooked the dance floor below it through a “porous aluminum dome.” A “knee-lighting array” called the mothership encased the planetarium projector found in the center of the dance floor (McEwan, 38. As the projector splashed light across the planetarium dome in “spectacular patterns of orange and rose,” men continued to explore Mailman’s new club (McEwan, 38).
As the night progressed, classical music slid into “slow and sexy dance music,” and sometime after 2:00am, the pace of the club “picked up” (McEwan, 38).
The mothership, mounted on a hydraulic lift, was able to rise and fall on its axis.
After 2am, the mothership rose above the heads of the dancers. Andrew Holleran, who wrote a remembrance of the Saint in the May 1988 issue of the New York Native reviewed the Saint’s 1980 opening party for Soho News. He remembers that as Donna Summer’s “Baby I Love You” began to play a little after 3:00am, “the stars appeared above and, as the song took off, the galaxies began to rotate. There was nothing to do but scream, throw up your hands, and keep screaming” (qtd. in McEwan, 38).
Joel Teitelbaum, the former manager of the Saint and passionate organizer of GMHC fundraisers, states that by the time the Saint opened, mirror balls had become “de rigeur – all the clubs had them” (qtd. in McEwan, 38). However, upon arriving at the Saint, the night dancers noticed that there was no disco ball. The stars “rotated” and the “galaxies and planets appeared and disappeared and lights strobed in tempo with the rhythm and vocal tracks,” and people began to assume that the club simply did not have a disco ball, given its marvelous overhead display (McEwan, 38).
Yet when the “music again appeared to crescendo, four spotlights shone dramatically into the center of the dome. An octagonal hole opened and, to the reverlers’ sheer delight, after a few minutes an enormous mirror ball began to lower into the space above them” (McEwan, 38-39). An otherwise anonymous attendee named Charlie describes the moment as “fabulous.” Charlie states the following:
“Up until then we were dancing in the Hayden Planetarium and that was cool. But the ball-it made it a disco!”
The mirror ball’s lighted revolutions n the planetarium dome was “Simply dizzying, dazzling, amazing…” (qtd. in McEwan, 39).
The First Party of the Saint proved the club was a king of discos.
the saint is king
From that moment, the Saint dance club became the “hottest, most exclusive ticket in town,” that “set new standards for lighting and sound” (McEwan, 39). Mark Ackerman “designed and operated the lighting for the first few years,” and later hired a young technician named Richard Sabala (he operated the lights for the 1998 White Party) to hold the brilliant reigns of the disco’s transportive illumination (McEwan, 39).
The planetarium dome of the Saint “was like a canvas” according to Jason McCarthy, the former night manager of the Saint and the manager of Roxy at the time this article was written in 1994 (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 Saint was revolutionary in its phenomenally immersive technology.
Joel Teitelbaum explains that “Dancing at The Saint was like nothing else then-or even today. [At the Saint,] It wasn’t just a night out. It was a kind of trip. A trip that started around midnight and didn’t reach its destination until 2:00 the next afternoon” (qtd. in McEwan, 39).
Susan Tomkin, Bruce Mailman’s assistant of thirteen years by 1994, similarly 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).
“Carol Cooper cites Chaka Khan, the Emotions, and The Talking Heads, as famed performers of mid to high frequency music, which was traditionally played at The Saint.”
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 similarly “instant Saint standards” (38).
“Rocket to Your Heart” by LISA
“Trippin’ On The Moon” by Cerrone
DJ performances at the Saint also provided a unique experience.
A stage within the planetarium dome had a wall that could slide up and down; the deejay resided behind this wall and, thus, remained hidden from the crowd for much of the musical journey that he or she weaved into the night.
DJs generally just blended the crowd “into the beginning of [a] song,” but sometimes the wall blocking the DJ from view would recede and the DJ would give a “performance” (qtd. in McEwan, 39-40). The spectators who could see the DJ would “scream and applaud;” after “the performance was over the wall would come back up and the DJ would mix right into the next song-and the boys never stopped dancing,” according to Joel Teitelbaum (qtd. in McEwan, 40).
Open only on Saturdays and Sundays, the Saint made sure to wow crowds with unique experiences every time they attended the club. The club provided crowds with different experiences between Saturday night and Sunday night on the weekends. Former manager of the Saint Joel Teitelbaum notes that 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).
Parties at the Saint were planned ahead to an impressive detail. 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. On Saturday, “a seamless performance shaped to build until five or so and then taper off slightly before pausing for applause around seven” (qtd. in McEwan, 40). Sleaze music would then carry the club into the Sunday afternoon.
According to Jason McCarthy, the Saint “was an entire environment.” The club was a “safe place removed from the often difficult hetero world outside” (qtd. in McEwan, 40).
dance dance dance worship
Frank Courson, a management consultant in Manhattan, describes the Saint as a temple.
Author Jonathan McEwan expounds upon Courson’s claim. He 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” (McEwan, 40). The Saint certainly seemed to provide the services a traditional church would, and going to the Saint provided experiences close to what some might call religious.
Frank Courson states that “a lot of guys […] planned their entire lives around the seasonal calendars sent out by The Saint. There were people who leased apartments in New York, just so they could have a place to stay when they came to events” (qtd. in McEwan, 40).
The Saint was a big deal.
a saintly schedule
The Saint dance club had a unique schedule.
The club opened only on Saturdays and Sundays, and would present a special party for each month of its season of opening.
September brought the Opening Party of the season.
Halloween showcased yet another celebration, and the night before Thanksgiving boasted the Night People at Thanksgiving party.
During the month of December, the Christmas Party occurred, and in January, the News Years Eve party took place.
In February, the White Party embraced love.
In March, the “passage of spring” exhibited the “S&M and fetish tinged Black Party” (McEwan, 40).
Easter was celebrated with a Land of Make Believe party in April, and the Closing Party ended the Saint’s season in May. When summer approached, many “Saint boys” left the city to vacation at Fire Island or in the Hamptons (McEwan, 40).
Frank Courson notes that the “high holy days” of the Saint’s season were Halloween, New Years Eve, the White Party, and the Black Party (qtd. in McEwan, 40). DJs became famous for their performances at certain holiday parties at the Saint. Robbie Leslie always played the White Party, and Michael Fierman always played the Black Party.
This was their signatures.
Yet the Saint soon became known for more than just its music; what of its carnal celebrations?
The Saint was known to host frequent balcony sexcapades. The “narrow spiral staircases” led up to a “dark sexual scene” that came to haunt the Saint club’s memory in the eyes of many (McEwan, 42).
When AIDS struck, it decimated the Saint’s community; around 700 membership renewal forms were sent back through the mail bearing the message “Return to Sender. Occupant Deceased” (McEwan, 42).
DJs, staff members, and technicians at the Saint also fell ill.
Charges of tax evasion and a drug-dealing conspiracy were held against Mailman (though later dropped due to proven bias) at the same time that attendance in dance clubs and bars began to “radically” decline (McEwan, 42). Mailman became “disenchanted with the gay community,” according to Steve Casko, when he found himself fighting conservative city bureaucrats alone.
Though the club had a capacity of 5400 people, once the AIDS epidemic swept through the country, Saturdays at the Saint drew in at most 500 people.
Members were sick, and those who weren’t sick, were afraid to go back.
In 1985, Bruce Mailman began to sell liquor at the Saint.
Mailman later opened the club to heterosexual people on Fridays. To Susan Tomkin, Mailman’s assistant, straight people “just didn’t appreciate it” (qtd. in McEwan, 42).
Soon an offer to buy the Saint for 6.5 million dollars from the Fillmore East Village Associates Ltd. was extended to Mailman. By the Saint’s 1987 Halloween Party, the sale of the building had already “passed the point of no return” according to Joel Teitelbaum (qtd. in McEwan).
The final party at the Saint in April of 1988 lasted 36 hours.
the last party. the last party?
in 1988, the “surviving DJs and lighting technicians and a roster of live performers” enlivened the Saint one last time.
Saint regulars attended 30 hours of the 36 hour-long party, only going home to “bathe and change clothes,” according to Frank Courson (qtd. in McEwan, 42).
The Last Party spanned “three days and three nights,” evoking yet another Christian motif.
All things that are sacred come in threes.
Jimmy Ruffin’s song “Hold On To My Love” played as the Saint’s last party “drew to a close” (McEwan, 42).
After Jimmy Ruffin’s song ended, Marlena Shaw, a famous American singer closed the Saint with “Suite Seventeen,” a medley of the following songs: “It Was A Very Good Year,” “Love Dancing,” “Thank You,” and “Touch Me In The Morning.”
Shaw sang softly to a “tearful crowd” (McEwan, 42).
As Marlena Shaw’s performance culminated, “lightning flared in the [planetarium’s] night sky, the stage closed and the stars slowly circled over head. It was over” (McEwan, 42).
On the following day, 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.
Gay nightlife was quiet without the Saint.
The Paradise Garage and Flamingo club had already closed; Spike and the Eagle’s Nest were “really cleaning up” according to Jonathan McEwan (42).
Yet when Halloween came around after the Saint’s official closing in April of 1988, Bruce Mailman decided to host a Halloween party that, due to the circumstances, was not located at the Saint.
This Halloween Party, held outside of the Saint’s physical reach, began a series of parties that became known as Saint-at-Large events.
During the first Halloween party without the Saint, too few restrooms and an inefficient coat check hampered the novel Saint at Large event. Fortunately, they got over that.
The four holiest parties of the original Saint (Halloween, New Years Eve, The White and Black parties) are currently hosted every year and are annually commemorated celebrations of the Saint’s legacy. In 1994, the White and Black parties were the most popular Saint holiday parties to be revived, and they remain so today.
Curt Wagner states that when he goes to the Saint-at-Large parties, he cannot “find a familiar face anywhere” (qtd. in McEwan, 44). Wagner believes that there is a whole “new generation out there-maybe two” (McEwan, 44).
Jason McCarthy laments that “so many of these young guys out there dancing never saw The Saint itself. They don’t know what it was-what they’ve missed” (qtd. in McEwan, 44). McCarthy believes that it is possible to bring the Saint back, but Frank Courson disagrees.
Though life without the Saint “seems somewhat stark and somber,” the world and all its people can “never go back” according to Courson (qtd. in McEwan, 44). Susan Tomkin cannot imagine the expense it would cost to build the Saint today, when it already cost 4.5 million dollars in 1979.
Today, there “are entire portions of the city where [the gay community] can be comfortable,” according to Frank Courson (44). During the 1980s, Frank Courson states that “we needed a safe place where we could be who we were and love as we wanted,” however Courson believes that the world has changed for the better since that decade.
discussion of The saint goes on
The Saint at Large continues to dazzle crowds the same way the Saint once did.
A “sea of muscular men [dance] in the darkness beneath incredible lighting” and the music “follows the same programming format” as before, which was described in Steve Weinstein’s article. Parties don’t end until “well into the afternoon” (McEwan, 44).
This source is valuable because it includes interviews from people who experienced the Saint directly, whether through working there, or attending its celebrations. Interviews of people who experienced the Saint’s phenomenon firsthand are critical to presenting an accurate narrative towards one’s audience.
This source is also valuable because it provides more detail on the season of the Saint, and of what its celebrations entailed.
The article is also helpfully aware of the importance of multi-modality, and utilizes pleasing visual, spatial, and linguistic modes appropriately.
Unfortunately, one drawback to the article is the blurriness of some of its images; many of the photographs included in the article are indistinguishable lumps of black and white. However, the photographs I recognize, though in black and white in this article, appear in color in the Saint’s promotional video.
This article provides critical personal experiences from people close to Bruce Mailman (his assistant and business partner), and from people who enjoyed his creations.
Though none of my sources contain interviews from John, Mailman’s partner, I believe this source, in particular, provides detailed narratives of the Saint that showcase both familiarity and fond remembrance.