These People Are the Harbingers of Culture: A Conversation With Howard Rosenman

by Alexander Cheves

Howard Rosenman is an American producer and film executive whose productions include Father of the Bride (1991), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), and, more recently, Call Me By Your Name (2017), starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer. Rosenman was also a founding member of The Saint. After his wild years, he created some of the most well-known documentaries examining the most difficult — and important — stories in queer history. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), which won the 1990 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, tells the story of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The Celluloid Closet (1995) — of which the above image is a still — showcases the evolution of gay and lesbian depictions onscreen, from demonizing portrayals to censored, “straight-washed” narratives. And Paragraph 175 (2000) chronicles the persecution of gays and lesbians by the Nazis under Paragraph 175, the sodomy provision of the German penal code (of an estimated 100,000 gay men sent to camps, only about 4,000 survived). I talked to Rosenman about The Saint and his star-studded career, and he delivered to me a withering mandate to learn and respect my own history as a gay man.

You were a founding number of The Saint? 

Yeah I was. They — I forget — they sold three package memberships, and it was a lot of money in those days. Something like $125. And they sold several of those, and then they started selling more expensive ones, but there was a waiting list to get the memberships. Or you had to know Bruce Mailman or something like that. And it was very hugely anticipated, because no one had seen it, but everybody had heard about what was going on inside.

What were the rumors? 

Well, the biggest rumor was of the planetarium. They didn’t say yes or no, but everyone said that it was the biggest planetarium in the world. And that it was a whole, like, high-tech temple. You know, everybody knew that because one of the other partners, Charlie Terrell, I think he was an architect or he was somehow involved in the world of design. And everybody knew that the sound system was gonna be fabulous. And you know, they were spending so much money. 

Yeah.

In those days, you know, it would have been expensive today, but in those days it was very expensive and unheard of. And at the time in New York, there were several nightclubs. There were several clubs that were great, and the Paradise Garage was going on then. But it didn’t attain the kind of popularity that The Saint achieved overnight. Um, Studio 54 was going on around then. And there were clubs, you know, dotting the city. But this club was supposed to be the club of all clubs to gay people. And don’t forget, it was the height of gay ascendancy in every area of the culture — music, architecture, fashion, art. If you were gay and talented, you went right to the top, and The Saint was gonna be the apotheosis of gay creativity. I think it was on Fire Island, um, they had that party that France Joli song that song, “Come To Me” — it was a party called “Beach” — 

Called what? 

Beach. B-E-A-C-H. And that was in 1977, I think. It was a party in Fire Island Pines to save the dunes. And it was on the beach at night, and there were 5,000 people there. It was gigantic. And there were three tents. It was three tents, three gigantic high-tech tents. Actually, one of them was on the cover of Architectural Digest. And again, it was the apotheosis of all gay parties. 

And that party predated The Saint? 

Yeah. But I think it stimulated but I think it stimulated the whole thing with The Saint because it was such a popular party. So it started, like, at one o’clock at night and went all the way to the next day. Let me try to think. It was exactly — it was July of 1979. It was July 7th, 1979. [Editor’s Note: The actual date was July 14, 1979.] And my friends Pierre and his lover made the poster, it’s a silver poster with an orange sun. And it became a very popular poster. I still have it, actually. And 5,000 people congregated to dance in one of the tents. One of the tents was dancing, one of the tents was gambling, and one of the tents was a lounge and had food. And it was the most incredible party ever.

And that whetted the appetite of the crowd? 

Yeah, for that kind of thing. And The Saint opened in 1980, I think, on the 7th? 

On the 20th. 

On the 20th. Of July? 

September. We’re actually coming up to the anniversary in seven days. 

Wow.

Yeah.

The 50th anniversary? 

The 40th. 

The 40th anniversary. Holy fuck. Yeah. And so that was in 1980. But I’m sure the plans for The Saint started way before. 

It was originally set to open in the summer, but It didn’t happen with the production costs. 

The preparation for The Saint must have predated Beach. You could look up Beach. It was the most famous party of all time and the height of that kind of party, which created the morning party at Fire Island, you know. That was, I think, one of the first. 5,000 people dancing on the beach. There was nothing like that. Um, the main event. My friend Paul Jabara wrote this song called “The Main Event” and got Barbra Streisand down for the summer to sing it and it became a gigantic hit. [Editor’s Note: The song was the theme for the film The Main Event starring Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, of which Rosenman was a producer.] And I remember the DJ was gonna stop at 5 a.m., and at the time I have a lot of money. I remember going up and I gave him $500. And I said, ‘Why don’t you play for another hour?’ And he played for another hour as the sun rose up.

Oh my God. 

Did you ever hear “Enough is enough”? 

I have. 

Well, “The Main Event” was before “Enough is Enough,” it predated it. It was written by the same guy. The same guy also wrote “Last Dance.” [Editor’s Note: “Last Dance” by Paul Jabara, who died from AIDS complications in 1992, was written for Donna Summer in the Oscar-winning film Thank God It’s Friday (1978).] Who also appeared at The Saint. They had all these acts. They had, like, 100 acts, maybe even more. 

Do you remember the best? Everybody talks about Grace Jones. 

Yeah. Grace Jones was one of the showiest. And um, Chaka Khan was great. Irene Cara was great. Patti Austin was great. Oh, and Thelma Houston. She had that one hit that was so great. Um, Gloria Gaynor. Oh, and Stephanie Mills appeared. You know, she had done a Broadway show called The Wiz and she was a big star. Um, who else came? Um, Vicki Sue Robinson came to The Saint, I think. She had an act then. Bonnie Pointer of the Pointer Sisters. But they had, like, 100 acts, maybe. They had every act in the world. They didn’t have Donna Summer. They wanted her but they never got her. 

That’s too bad. One of the guys here is working on a timeline of all the events and performers The Saint had during its run. He’s creating something like a digital timeline that links you to the digitized recordings we have so you could literally go listen through the years.  

Wow. 

And he said that sometimes he’ll be going through an old notebook and discover a whole event, a whole set list and list of performers we didn’t even know about. The records don’t appear to be very diligently kept so a lot of a lot of things we don’t even know about.

Wow. Amazing. So you can actually go on the internet and look up the party “Beach.” Look up “Beach” Fire Island Pines around 1977 and it’ll tell you all about it. 

I’ll look it up right now. So you became a member in 1980? 

Yes. That summer. I think, in September. Yes, early on. They had these early memberships, So I became a member. I still have the silver card. They had silver membership cards. I still have it.

Yeah, I think we have a few of them here. 

You do? 

Yeah. We have a lot of the mail, you know, the invitations they sent out to members. Just the design of the envelopes was — 

Just unprecedented. Amazing. 

Right? 

The invitations are incredible. They are beautiful. Beautiful. And that was because — who was that? Bruce had a good eye, but that was because of Charlie Terrell, who was a partner. He was the architectural designer. And, you know, high-tech was going to become the reigning way in architecture. Because when you walked — did anybody describe to you when you walked into it? 

Well, you actually did. Last time we spoke on the phone. I thought it was the most beautiful description. Would you describe it again? 

It was the site of the old Fillmore East, which I had been to a lot. It was a theater, a vaudeville theater, a Jewish theater, originally, in the Lower East Side on Sixth Street and, um, Second Avenue. And this building must have been built in the 18-or-1920s, so all the filigree of the original, the opening gate, was still there. The building looked old. So you thought you were walking through the old theater and it opened up into, like, an old lobby that was like, like, 12 feet long. Something like that. Tiles on the floor. It was like the old lobby of a theater. And then you opened up the doors to the theater and suddenly it was this gigantic, high-tech world where the first thing that you saw were these incredible coach check machines — you know the things that you have in the, um, at the cleaners? So there were these gigantic high-tech, modern, automated racks where you checked your clothes, okay? And then you walk down a little corridor and it opens onto this massive space, this huge atrium that — God knows it must have been, oh, like 30 feet high. And there were, like, several places to get drinks. You couldn’t serve alcohol so I remember there was free beer because they wanted to get around the license situation. 

So this is the lower level, right?

This is the lower level. This is when you entered. And then there were these two gigantic steel ramps, these elevated ramps, which went up, okay? And you went up these ramps, and at the end of the ramps, there was a circular staircase. You went up to a circular staircase and there you came upon this circular dance floor which was the second floor at 360 degrees, a dance floor which was huge. It occupied the space of the whole theater. And I remember I was approached later on this dance floor by this guy who had like, oh, God knows what amount of coke with him and he had it in his pocket. He didn’t check his coat and he put his coat down and we were dancing. And then we couldn’t find the place where he put it down because it was the 360-degree floor and there were no marks where you were. But then covering the dance floor was the translucent dome. And at the top of this dome there was this gigantic planetarium, and also on the pole, going down to the middle of the floor, he had all these lights and all these projectors, which were projecting film on the walls. And, you know, as you were looking up, these lights came on and projected stars on the walls, you thought you were actually in space. Right? And then the planetarium would start, and you thought you were traveling through fucking space. And not only that, but also, the third floor was, uh, carpeted, You know, like, a gray sort of industrial-type carpeting, and there were no seats. It was all, like, shelves where you just had sex. But you could look down into the dome from the third floor, look down into the planetarium, and see through it. But when you were dancing on the floor, you couldn’t see up. You could only see the stars and the projections and the planetarium. And it was just incredible. And so like, I lived on 19th, I had an apartment, so all my friends would come over at, maybe, midnight, and we would drop whatever drugs we were gonna take, and we took a lot of them, and we walked over to Sixth Street, Second Avenue, and so by the time the planetarium would would start, like around 3 a.m., your drugs would have kicked in. So not only did you think you were traveling in space, you were also high as a kite. And the music. It was the greatest sound system I ever heard. Ever. Because they had all these hundreds of sound boxes on the, uh, outer rims of the planetarium, of the dome itself. So it just reflects. Sound reflected. And it was the best — you’ve never heard sound like this. I never did. And they had the best DJs. They had, you know, all those great DJs that came out of that. Roy Thode. And who were the others DJs? A whole bunch of great DJs came out of that. Um Robbie Leslie. And Jim Burgess and Sharon White came out of that. And there was a competing club called the Paradise Garage which was on King Street, and it was in a parking garage. And that also had a very, very great sound system. And Frankie Knuckles was the DJ there. But that was mostly for black people and for drag queens. And for, um, people much more marginalized. It’s where Madonna got started and where — what’s his name? the artist? — Keith Haring used to go. But people would go to the Paradise Garage after — like you would go to The Saint Saturday night, and stay at the saint till, like, dawn, or just before dawn. And then you would go to the Paradise Garage if you were very hip, and they would let you in, and you would watch the sunrise on the fire escape of the Paradise Garage. And it was only black people and only drag queens. And it was incredible. And that was open from like, 1977 to like 1987. The Saint started in 1980 but that was for upper middle-class, white, good-looking gay men. You know, fairly wealthy. And I don’t think they gave memberships — I think they were very particular about who they gave memberships to, they would only give memberships to people that were really good-looking. So when you walk into The Saint, all these people are so damn — they all have great bodies. It was the time when working out in the gym started and it was the beginning of the circuit party. And the guys that went were upper middle-class white gays. And people would walk in there wearing leather harnesses and it was very rare at the time. Now every queen in the world, at any party in the world, has a harness with the red, green, and blue. And it’s like a bunch of fucking fairies — excuse my word — but in those days it represented a masculine ethos. 

One thing I’ve talked about with the owner of The Saint at Large is how The Saint, in his terms, commodified gay culture and created this standard that still is very present today. What do you say about that? 

It did commodify gay culture and created a template that still exists today. And that’s how it is all over the world. And it created the template for every gay circuit party all over the world, everywhere. And that culture originated at Fire Island in the mid-seventies with the morning parties on the beach. That was the beginning of it. 

Did you feel like other clubs tried to copy it? 

Well, Studio 54 was competitive with The Saint. It was around before, but after The Saint came along, [Studio 54] created a gay night on Thursday night. So you went to the gay night at 54 on Thursday night and danced till the morning. You didn’t go to sleep. You took a helicopter or a seaplane to Fire Island. You partied all weekend at Fire Island. Then you came back and went to The Saint. But I think The Saint was closed in the summer? 

Originally, yes, it was only open seasonally. 

Yeah, I remember that. But then later on, when AIDS began decimating the white upper middle-class guys who went there, they opened it up all year round, and then they even made it heterosexual, which is a fucking nightmare. Maybe not every night, but yeah, they did have a straight night, and I found that I couldn’t tolerate it. It was horrifying, the hought of it, because, you know, it was so representative of gay power and gay culture at its height, which still has reverberations in the world today, and there was nothing that matched it, nothing, in terms of the aesthetic of it, in terms of the whole way of it, you know. And now the Black Party is the only remnant of it that’s left. And even that, with the move away from, uh, the ballroom — the what?

The Roseland Ballroom? 

Yeah. So it’s changed a lot. Back then it was very special because the members that they pick were all good-looking and all at the height of their powers. They all had great bodies, and the sex was so free. So it had this kind of ambiance that it was exclusive and special, and that doesn’t exist anymore. I mean, there were lines around the block before it opened and all these guys were lined up and they were all gorgeous guys standing on the street waiting to get in. And I tell you something now, you know, I go to a club sometimes. I look in and I don’t see any good-looking men. At The Saint, everybody was so handsome, it was incredible. Everybody. Every single body. They didn’t let in people that didn’t take care of themselves and really put up a certain standard, you know. And it was so white, upper middle-class guys, clones, you know, that’s what it was. 

I have some notes from our previous conversation. You were there for the closing, right? Do you remember that whole process?

Yes, I do. 

And then you left New York City? 

No. I left New York before. I left New York City in 1973. But I would come in and I would stay for four months or five months at a time. Or I would fly in. You know, I lived on both coasts for a long, long time. I had an apartment in New York City and I had one in L.A. at the time. I was running big companies. So I was living very grandiose. I was making a lot of movies. I made a lot of movies. I made Father of the Bride and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the The Family Man and a movie with Dolly Parton and a movie called Sparkle. I made a movie that I later remade with Whitney Houston which was the story of the three black girls, you know, the former girl group in Harlem [Editor’s Note: this film was Sparkle, a remake of the 1976 original, both produced by Rosenman, the latter being Whitney Houston’s final film before her death on February 11, 2012.] Joel Schumacher and I wrote it together. But before that, I ran a company for Robert Stigwood. Robert Stigwood was the greatest impresario. He  managed the careers of the Bee Gees and, um Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. And, um, Eric Clapton. And so he started a company called RSO Films, that I ran and I made a lot of television movies. Then I went out and made Sparkle. Then I made The Main Event with Barbra Streisand, who was the biggest star in the world at the time. And then I made a movie called Resurrection. And that’s when I started to party. And when you look at my CV, you can see this, like, blank period of time from like 1979 to 1984 where I have no credits because I was so busy partying. And it got me into trouble because I eventually became addicted to a lot of drugs. And all my friends started to die, and my doctor told me that I had AIDS. And I went to Israel to die. I had a little spot and I sweated and I was fainting and I had diarrhea. And I asked my doctor to look at the spot, and he said, okay, you have to pack it up, you have about six months to take care of your things. So I moved to Israel. My parents were Israeli and that was how I was brought up, and my sister was living there, so I moved to Israel. And in January of, um,1983, what happened? Oh, I didn’t die. I kept on having the diarrhea and the sweating and the fainting. And I went to the doctor and he said, you know, if you have the virus, it’s a very attenuated form, because the hallmarks of the disease — all the opportunistic infections, kaposi sarcoma, you know — you’re not getting them. So you’re not gonna die. Go back to Hollywood and make movies. So I went back to Hollywood. I didn’t have any money, I went through all my money, and a friend of mine recommended me to Shirley MacLaine. You know who that is?

Mhmm. 

So Shirly MacLaine was doing her 50th birthday show on Broadway in 1984, called Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries. [Editor’s Note: the show was called Shirley MacLaine on Broadway, which debuted in 1984 at the Gerswhin Theater, but “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” was a musical number in the show.] And my friends recommended me to her. They recommended that she hire me to write jokes for the 30 days of previews. Because I was funny and I knew a lot about politics. So there I was with Bruce Vilanch, writing jokes, and Shirley MacLaine.

No way! 

Yeah. And every night I would go to the bathroom and I would faint, and she would pick me up off the floor and I would start to cry. I’d say, ‘Oh Shirley, I have AIDS and my doctor said I’m not gonna die but I’m frightened.’ And she looked at me and she said, ‘You don’t have AIDS. You have a fucking lactose intolerance.’ I said, ‘How do you know?’ She said, ‘Because you keep on eating these fucking cheese sandwiches.’ So I called up my doctor in L.A. and told him Shirley MacLaine tells me that I have lactose intolerance. And he asks, ‘Well, when did Miss MacLaine go to medical school? Before or after chorus girl school?’ So I say, ‘What should I do?’ He said, ‘Stop eating dairy and see what happens.’ I stopped eating dairy and the sweating and diarrhea was gone. And that was the summer of the Olympics in L. A. But I was in New York and I remember I was living on 9th street, and I remember there was a Good Humor truck outside of my apartment, and I said, ‘What the fuck does Shirley know? What the fuck does my doctor know?’ Like all arrogant. And I bought an ice cream cone. And then 45 minutes later, I fainted. I was lactose intolerant and this was before it was such a big topic of the culture. And that’s what I have. And then I didn’t die of AIDS. It was all guesswork back then because you have to remember, there was no test. Don’t forget, there was no test until like 1986, and the test for AIDS in 1986 was called the ELISA Test, and it was very, very expensive, like $800. Also, my doctor said to me, ‘I don’t want you to take the test because if you have it, you’ll never be able to deal with it because you’re too fragile. Emotionally still recovering. And then he said, ‘I’ll tell you when you’re ready.’ And a year later, I went to him and he took me across the street, I took the test, and three days later, it turned out that I was negative. And I was wilder than any of the people I know that died of AIDS. I just didn’t do one thing. 

What one thing did you not do?

I didn’t get fucked.

Yeah, that’s it. 

But, you know, I must have sucked 20,000 dicks in my day. And I had a lot of sex. A lot. I just didn’t get fucked. And it’s not that I was such a big top. I just didn’t like that. I tried it in 1967. When I first came out, I had a boyfriend with a very big dick, and I had a beautiful ass, and I let him fuck me, and I didn’t like it. I hated it, it was very painful. I just didn’t like it, and it saved my fucking life. 

Yeah. The numbers we have now are apparent that receptive anal sex is such a higher risk factor for HIV. 

Well, I think that’s one of the only ways you get it, you know? Like, you can get it as a top, but I mean, you get it as the top if you have a sore, you know? On your dick or in your mouth. The funny thing we know now is that it’s not that easy to get. You have to have a very low immune system. You have to have a very, um — you have to have a super infection. It’s an infection on top of an infection. 

It’s a very fragile virus. You know, it doesn’t survive outside the body for more than a few minutes. It’s incredibly delicate for how devastating it is.

Yeah, but you have no idea how devastating it was for us in those days. My friends started to get sick in the summer of 1980. It was right when The Saint was starting. That’s when it started to happen.

How quickly did people start changing their behavior? Was it a drastic response?  I’ve heard many people talk about parallels to this current pandemic. Do you see any parallels? 

My God, I feel now the same way that I felt then, you know, except now it’s everybody. And then it was just, it was just gay people, you know, and black people. And so, yes, it’s very, very similar. And people were in denial of that for a long, long time. And people really didn’t stop that behavior until 1983. Sometime about 1983 or 1984. And then, when Rock Hudson died in 1985, then everybody really changed their behavior. And then everybody starts knowing about the disease, even though the disease was written about in The New York Times from 1981, which is the first time they mentioned the word ‘gay.’ And then it was called GRID. Gay Reactive Immunosuppressant Disease. 

I think it was 1980 actually, the first headline, the famous ‘gay cancer’ one. Because it was just a few months after The Saint opened. 

Yes, exactly. Actually, on the boardwalk of Fire Island Pines, while I was waiting to get on the ferry, I saw Larry Kramer. He had a little card table, and he was shouting ‘gay!’ and “reactive!’ and ‘you have to stop your behavior.’ And he was, you know, raising money. And even though I hated him, I had a lot of money in those days, and I knew that he was the seer, you know, like a prophet. And I said to myself, ‘Is something wrong in the state of Denmark?’ Because I just went to a funeral  that summer — no, the summer of ‘79 I think — and the guy was laid out in white shorts and shirt and there spots all over his body. And it was the house that Randy Shilts wrote about in And The Band Played On, and there was patient zero, and then there was patient 1 through 19. And I lived across the street. And in the summer of 1979 I slept with every single one of them except the patient zero. But patient 16’s lover, he was laid out on a board at Fire Island and had this thing called “cat scratch fever” and had spots all over his body. And I knew that something was wrong. I went to medical school and I knew that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. And so I wrote out a check for $500 right there. And when I came back to California, there were three cases. It was after Labor Day of 1980. When I came back to California, there were three cases and one of my best friends, and I knew then that something was up. I knew then, actually, very early on. And I was very freaked out because, you know, you thought you can get it from poppers. They thought you can get it on the toilets, you know, because in New York they had these, uh, paper things we could put on the toilet. And everybody thought, if you’re in the same room with someone, you could get it, and it was very scary. Very scary. And in those days, once you’ve got it, you had six months and it was over. And it was brutal. It was a very brutal death. Everybody that had it died suffering. It was brutal, brutal. And, you know, at the same time, The Saint was flourishing because they were all in denial in those days. We were on the cusp of greatness, on the top of gay power and creativity that nobody could believe this could be happening and people weren’t buying it and, you know, then by 1981, ‘82, it got obvious that a really horrible thing was happening and everybody got really scared. And that’s why The Saint ended, I think. It was really very active for two seasons or three seasons. And then it ended. When did it close? 1987?

1988. 

1988? Yeah. It held on for all those years. But by that time, the glory of it was over, you know?

Were you surprised when it closed? 

Shocked, yeah. But I went to that, the closing party. It was like a weekend that never ended. They still have the soundtrack of that weekend. You can still buy it.

Yeah, it’s beautiful. 

Yeah. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, they owned the copyrights and they own all the mixtapes. And they put out mixtapes, um, starting from, like, 1983 or ‘84. But I think they have all the tapes. 

I don’t think they have all the mixtapes. We have a few here. This isn’t really my territory, I’m not the music guy, but we have a guy here who works with our original recordings, some of which, I think, are in bad condition, and we’re trying to digitize them right now. I don’t know the whole process about that but apparently it’s really tough. I guess because you’re dealing with very delicate things that have been sitting in storage for so long. So yeah, we’re working on digitizing all the music, and I know it’s taken the person working on it a very long time. But we have a lot of stuff here. We have the original blueprint, you know, that was sent to original members. 

Yeah, yeah, I remember that. I remember that. 

But the sad thing is, there is no museum, really — no place to put it. There is no nightlife museum in New York. And that is just amazing to me. 

No nightlife museum? Wow. In 1975, I think, was the first white party and black party, and it took place — it was a club called The 10th Floor. On Houston Street and Broadway, on the south side of the street. And that was the first, the first white party, because they used to have these parties at The Loft. We  used to go to these parties and before the parties, we would meet in my friend Jack’s place, Jack Morality who created the village people, and we’d go to these parties on, like, 11th Street and Sixth Avenue, and the host would give each of us two tickets and an Erlenmeyer flask full of drugs, all these mixed drugs that you would take. And then you would go with these two tickets to the 10th floor, to The Loft, and to other clubs, and you would find the prettiest boys and give them each a ticket and then you would bring them back to that apartment and after doing all that and party all Sunday until the night, and that was the beginning of all of that. And then Fire Island only boosted it because on Fire Island, my friends started to mix, um, records, you know, between two records, blending it together. Who started all of that? Okay, wait. It was Don Findley. He was the original DJ that did that. They all copied it from him and he used to DJ at a club called Aux Puce, which means “to the fleas” in French. That was the name of the club that was based on a club, I guess, in Paris. And he would play and do that thing on Fire Island in 1973 and 1974. Records would go from one record to the other, like, dissolved into each other. And he was the first. Cherry Vanilla was another one on Fire Island in 1973 and’74, ‘75. She was a figure at that time. She was in a Bruce Weber movie. He’s the foremost fashion photographer in the world. But yeah, Don Findley started that whole thing and he can really give you the timeline of how it all started, that party culture in Fire Island Pines around 1972, ‘71 even. I can give you his number. 

Wow, please. I’d love to talk to him.

You know, it started with the morning parties, you know, and then it reached a type of thing at Beach. Beach Party. Look that up too. And then Bruce Mailman commodified it with The Saint. And that was like the uptown version of of the gay world. And the downtown version was the Paradise Garage. 

A lot of people’s recollections about this time are very dark. Some interviews I’ve had have brought up, I think, some difficult conversations for some. But you describe it very fondly. It sounds like you had a really beautiful experience. 

How did they bring it up darkly?

Well, just from the people I’ve talked to, it seems a lot of people became addicted to substances and then had to leave New York and get sober, so they associated it with a time that — you know, I talked to a gentleman the other day who’s been sober in L.A. for a long time and this is what he said. He said that the minute he walked into The Saint and saw a beautiful guy with the boa constrictor wrapped around him, he decided this is too much, we’ve gone too far. And even before he knew about AIDS, he said he felt that this was the ending of something, and that for some reason we had crossed a threshold and could go no further. And he remembers it very darkly.

Well, I remember that Black Party as well with the boa constrictor, which wasn’t only wrapped around him, they were putting it in someone’s ass. 

Yep

And I remember thinking also that we’re crossing the line. And I also remember because they also have dark rooms, you know, at the, um — the place you mentioned where they had the parties, on Broadway? The place you mentioned before? 

Oh, the Roseland Ballroom? 

Yeah, that’s it. Yeah, they had the Black Party there, and there were all these back rooms that were janitor’s rooms and offices and whatever. And they’re all cramped and crowded. And all these guys were going in and having sex in all these nooks and crannies, in the dark spaces. And I remember thinking to myself at that time, ‘Wow, this is it.’ Just like at that Black Party with the boa constrictor. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, we’re at a crossroads here. You can’t go further.’ I remember saying that to myself, and I myself became addicted to drugs. By January 18th of, I think, 1983, I was addicted to 21 different substances, and I went through a very hard time. But The Saint at the very beginning, and the parties that I went to in the seventies in Fire Island, they were magic. I didn’t know the magic would turn into a nightmare from Hell until the excesses of the Black Party in 1982 or ‘83. I mean, I came from a religious Jewish background, so my whole youth was very suppressed. And it was so free when the freedoms came, you know, in 1969, at Stonewall, and, you know, I really enjoyed them to the max. And it was magic. It was a magic time that turned into a terrible nightmare. And I lost 2,750 friends to AIDS. Can you imagine? I keep a little book. Yeah, 2,750. Try counting to 2,750, then call me up tomorrow.

I can’t imagine. I don’t even know if I know 2,000 people. I can’t imagine losing that many people. 

Yeah, well, in those days you went to so many clubs, you met so many people. You exchanged so many numbers. The world was so social. It was so different than today, you know? And let me tell you something. If you were good looking and had a big dick, you had the world by the fucking balls, you know? And that’s the way it was. 

I think that’s still true to some extent.

Yeah. Yeah, it is true. It is true to some extent. To a big extent, actually. But today it’s different because, you know, everybody has a thing. So if you’re a daddy or overweight, you know, you have a place to go to find those people that are attracted to you. And they’re always people. No matter how good looking they are, you can always find those people that are attracted to you. And they’re always people. But in those days, unless you had that look, that white, upper middle-class look, of clones, essentially, or in those days it was bearded, good-looking guys, who — what’s the name of the guy that made those porno movies that were so famous? About all those masculine guys? He’s a friend of mine that made all those films. They were very famous films in those days, but they were all trucker — “Kansas City Trucker,” I think. And, um, they were all these very butch, manly, bearded guys that became the currency in those days. In, like, 1973, ‘74, ‘75, ‘76. You know, there are these two or three movies that were made by that guy that represented, um, that look, that very good-looking look. Plaid shirt. You know, jeans, beards. Tom of Finland, essentially. And that created the whole — it created our thought, an idea of culture and community. And there were two types in those days. There were the types of guys that worship masculinity and then there are guys that worship, you know, femininity, and are usually young boys, hairless. The ones who like Barbara Streisand and Judy Garland. And the boys that were with the idea masculinity do not like Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland and all that. 

What did they like? 

I don’t know. They liked, uh, hard metal. You know. Metal. Rock. They certainly didn’t like Barbra Streisand. I’ll tell you that much. And they certainly didn’t like Judy Garland. And they weren’t queens. They were queens and sissies. They were the guys which Andrew Sullivan wrote the greatest piece about bears. You could look it up. It’s one of the greatest pieces ever. You should read it. It was the defining article. You can find it if you look up Andrew Sullivan. But he wrote this a long time ago, and he defined that culture of the word. And you’re either one or the other. 

Which did you see more of at The Saint? 

Well, the The Saint was, well — it wasn’t so divided then. It was all-male. Although that culture existed on Fire Island in the mid-seventies, it was more about, um — it was a random mixture of both at the same time, you know? It was — it became divided a little later on. You know, the whole culture of tops and bottoms, when I first came to New York in 1967, ‘68, ‘69, that didn’t exist. No one asked you what you were. You just want to fuck. And it wasn’t so delineated. It was so much more open and freer, you know, and it became stratified and more rigid like in the mid-to-late ‘70s, ‘80s. Now it’s very, very stratified. Now you’re placed into these roles. 

Well, I think that technology is largely responsible for that.

You do? 

Yeah, I do. Because I feel like when you meet somebody in person organically, you don’t have a script to go by, you know? 

Right. 

There’s a little more guesswork involved. And you don’t have to be according to how you’re depicted online. But online, everybody sees your profile and sees if you’re, you know, a top or bottom. 

Exactly. 

And that gives you a pattern of behavior by which you’re supposed to behave. 

Yeah, it sucks. It’s awful. 

And because of that, there’s a whole swatch of guys who will outright reject me because I’m listed as one thing and not the other. 

Exactly. When I came out — I came out in 1967 — gay was still underground, and it wasn’t that way at all. And then even after Stonewall in 1969, when it became so free, it still wasn’t that way until much later.

Well, I have to say thank you for being so generous and telling such great stories. Also, I’m looking at the projects you’ve worked on, I didn’t even ask you about them. I mean, Jesus, I remember when I saw a Paragraph 175 when I was in college. It just destroyed me. 

Oh my God. Really? 

Yeah. So you obviously care about about gay stories and gay history. So I guess I should ask you — the whole goal of this, the reason why I don’t have a preset script or list of questions the same way a normal journalist interviews is because I just want a conversation, you know? Because I believe that these discussions need to survive. And the great struggle of gay hisotry is that none of this stuff is written down anywhere. Like, I researched the history of poppers, and there’s nobody to ask about that stuff. It’s difficult to even get a comprehensive history of it, because it’s oral. 

Are you writing a book about The Saint? Is that what you’re doing?

Not yet. Right now I’m just working on a blog. I want to have these conversations preserved in some way on a website so that future researchers or just people my age can read them. 

Okay, great. Did you see my first two documentaries? Common Threads and Celluloid Closet?

I know about Celluloid Closet but no, I’ve never seen it. 

Oh my God. Your mind will be flown. You’ve got to watch. Your mind will be blown. If your mind was blown by Paragraph 175, your mind will be shattered with Celluloid Closet, and then you’ll be sent to the floor with Common Threads. I won an Oscar for it. We follow six people from the time they get infected with the virus until the time to get on the quilt. And you cannot believe what you’re watching because it’s so tragic and sad. And Vito Russo, who wrote the book The Celluloid Closet, is one of the people that we interview. 

I will watch it. So I guess a good question for you is, why is this history important? If someone was new and unfamiliar with the scene, if they were just coming out now, and they were 17 and didn’t know anything about this and they were talking to you, how would you explain that this history is important?

Because it’s the canary in the coal mine. Gay culture is a predictor of the main culture. It just takes 20, 30 years to catch up. And so, because gay people have been at the forefront of all culture — well it was hidden during the fifties and sixties, you know, and early seventies. It was all hidden. All the great playwrights were gay. Tennessee Williams. Edward Albee. All those people that are now venerated in the regular culture, they were gay. They couldn’t write about it until Mart Crowley came along and wrote The Boys in the Band. And you started having Edmund White, and all of that. The culture, the uncovering and unlayering of the gay world with the freedom of Stonewall, with the taking off of the mask, of the shroud of the hidden-ness of gay culture — once it opened, it became the culture. And that’s still to this day. And it’s very important for a gay person to understand that. When you see Celluloid Closet, you will understand. Call me up right after you see it. I want to speak to you. 

I promise I’ll do that. 

Because, as a journalist, you will not believe what you’re watching. And that’s the problem with you young ones, you millennials, you don’t know — whatever you are.  What are you, Generation Z? 

No, I’m Generation Y. 

You don’t know anything about history. You didn’t know who Leonard Bernstein was. You didn’t know who Bruce Weber was. These are names that are iconic in the gay pantheon and it’s incumbent upon you as a journalist to know who they are, okay? Because you are the people that are going to present to the next generation who have to know how important these people were. These people are the harbingers of culture. I mean, West Side Story is the greatest musical ever written, all made by gay men who all hid their gayness. Leonard Bernstein got married. Stephen Sondheim is the only one that was openly gay. Arthur Laurents was gay. Jerome Robbins was gay but hidden. Hal Prince was married. All those people that are involved in that musical there were gay, it was the greatest musical in the history of musicals. And you have to know these things. You have to understand it because you can’t understand the culture unless you understand that. Unless you go back to that. 

Alright. 

And it’s very important for you to disseminate that because otherwise it’s going to be lost.

I think a lot of it is getting lost. That’s why I’m trying to do this.

Yeah. Okay. It’s good that you’re taking this area, but you’ve got to see — you’ll understand a lot more when you see Celluloid Closet and Common Threads

I’ll take you up on that. I’ll call you when I watch it. 

Fantastic.

This conversation has been very lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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