Where We Go From Here: The 40th Anniversary of The Saint

by Alexander Cheves

On midnight of September 20, 1980, The Saint — later nicknamed “the Vatican of disco” — opened its doors at 105 Second Avenue in the Lower East Side. Its grand opening was delayed by many months. Off-Broadway impresario (and owner of the New St. Marks Baths) Bruce Mailman originally intended a summer opening, but his extravagant vision, along with the challenges of gutting the Fillmore East — a rock venue that hosted such legendary performers as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, and The Grateful Dead — proved a more extensive undertaking than originally planned. The seats of the theater had to be ripped up and the entire interior gutted to create a “high-tech temple” with a misleading facade. The exterior of the building was mostly left as it was — old, ornate, and a little ratty. Before it opened, a rumor floated around gay New York that the lights and sound system alone had cost 6 million dollars.

The Saint was conceived as more than the ultimate nightclub — it was a chapel erected to gay identity at time when gay men were institutionally relegated to second-class citizenry and second-rate gathering places. But that was changing: gay men in New York were becoming hip, well-connected, high-ranking, and highly-respected for the first time in history. Reflecting — or perhaps recognizing — this trajectory, Mailman designed the The Saint as a male-only and explicitly gay club that would purposefully outdo anything the straight world could offer, including the world-famous Studio 54.

On opening night, gay men lined up around the block — some waiting half the night — to enter a multi-sensory pleasure palace unlike any club before or since. The 4,800-foot circular dance floor was topped by a 76-foot high aluminum dome under which the club’s 1,500 lights darted over the walls and floor. A Spitz Space System projector was erected at the top of a tower in the middle of the dome that rose and spun on hydraulics. The planets and stars cast onto the dome were ten times brighter than a typical planetarium. Every element, designed by architect Charles Terrell, placed the dancer at the center of this severe, industrial world — and those dancers were exclusively gay men (most of them white, affluent, and very attractive). Its roster of famous regulars included Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Leonard Bernstein, Thierry Mugler, and countless other creatives and A-listers, but it’s perhaps best remembered by its regular attendees — men who worked office jobs during the week to become dance-floor gods on Saturday night.

The club’s sound system was powered by 32 amplifiers, and nearly 500 speakers generated 26,000 watts — a figure touted in The Saint’s publicity materials as being “the most powerful per square foot for entertainment purposes in existence.” These features collectively cost $4.6 million in 1980 dollars – over $13 million in modern currency. In the unfinished documentary Stories of the Saint, of which we have video fragments of interviews with iconic DJs and nightlife figures, Michael Fierman, who would later become a regular DJ at The Saint, describes the first song. “It was building up to something and all the house lights went up, so it was very, very bright. And at one instant the lights sank down when the first chord of Donna Summer’s ‘Could It Be Magic?’ hit,” he says. “And everybody knows what this is. And all of a sudden we’re out in stars. For miles around there are nothing but stars. And what you heard is, everyone in there gasped. There were no cheers. There were just gasps.”

“For the twenty seconds of those piano chords before the drum kicks in, everyone was just frozen,” he says in the video, shaking his head. “The gasp, I’ve never heard anything like it before. How many times do you hear 3,000 people gasping at once?”

The now-iconic poster for the first Black Party featuring photography by Robert Mapplethorpe.

The rest of the story has become gay canon — the club has been celebrated, lamented, derided, rued, remembered, mythologized, and absorbed into a history of two shocking parallel truths: triumph and ruin, deliverance and destruction, life and death. It was probably the greatest gay club that ever existed — and certainly one of the most decadent gay spaces ever delivered to our community. Unlike many clubs before it, it was public, not underground; it announced to the world, “We are here!” Thus the reality of its time is all the more inexplicable and devastating. The club opened in tandem with a strange new virus that led to the horrible deaths of thousands of gay men at the height of their youth and power. AIDS came into the world with The Saint and their histories are interwoven — for a time, the virus was called “Saint’s disease.”

Eight wild and brutal years later, the club closed. The production arm of our organization, The Saint at Large, was formed to continue the legendary parties made famous by The Saint, parties which attracted devotees from all over the world — and still do. The Saint Foundation was formed more recently to focus on a decidedly different task: to collect and preserve art, music, posters, and other nightlife memorabilia, accrued from our extensive archives and others, in an effort to celebrate queer artistry, achievement, and culture. Nightlife materials are generally considered discardable and rarely thought of as artifacts. We exist to assert their importance.

In a more nebulous sense, we also exist to ask questions. What is the legacy of The Saint? Why remember it? Bruce Mailman told our founder — who generally chooses to stay anonymous — that one should never look back, only forward. How do you do that as an organization linked inseparably to a forty-year-old club? The truth is, our organization is not really about The Saint or any single location. It’s about the assertion that the parts of queer culture that make us different — that make us exceptional — and that are rarely welcomed by the dominant heterosexual paradigm must never be lost. We are the harbingers of sex-positivity and free love. We have been at the vanguard of nightlife, theater, film, and entertainment since well before The Saint; the club is simply one great achievement on a gay timeline that extends into the present and will long outlive us. We are here only to recognize the works of our tribe and promote them, particularly when they challenge and discomfort the world.

Join us as we keep looking forward.

— The Saint Foundation

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