In our October 'Nowstalgia' issue
we're taking a look at 100 Years of New York Nightlife, tracing
after-hours trends to their beginnings and analyzing the ways our
nocturnal habits of the past continue to influence our habits of the
present. We've already kicked things off with the Roaring '20s, the exclusive Post-War era, and the glittery, disco-tinged 1970s. Today we focus on how the 1980s amplified mega-clubs, mixed crowds and the rise of the "celebutante." Check back for future decades each day.
A girl at The Roxy. Photo by Steve Eichner
The 1980s were a time of wealth, greed, activism and great nightlife. In
lieu of celebrity-driven clubs like Studio 54, downtown developed its
own hot spots filled with its very own celebutantes like Dianne Brill
and Elizabeth Saltzman, all willing to help create a good time, not just
look for one. Danceteria was a multi-floor haven for big hair and music
acts like Romeo Void, the Beastie Boys and an up-and-comer named
Madonna, as the witty German co-owner Rudolf Piper schmoozed the VIPs
and handed out drink tickets. Area was an ambitious club owned by
cucumber-cool Eric Goode and company, who redid the place every five
weeks with elaborate themes. (For "Confinement," the invite was a
Chinese finger trap, and for "Childhood," a friend and I cavorted in
adult diapers, posing by the gigantic plushie teddy bear, while sensing
that the club's energy had finally diffused. Sure enough, that was their
last theme.) And at the sprawling Palladium, 54's Steve Rubell had his
last incarnation, catering to trend-seeking downtowners through the hot
art of the day (Jean-Michel Basquiat in the Mike Todd Room, where DJ Anita Sarko ruled, and eye-popping murals in the aptly named Kenny
Scharf Room downstairs).
Ann Magnuson outside Club 57, 1980. Photo by Harvey Wang
Bridge-and-tunnel people ran rampant at places like Limelight, and
yuppies had their own playpens (like the Surf Club) at which to act all
rich, drunk and proud. Picture guys in suits with their top shirt button
open and gals in little black dresses, all cavorting under the great
God vodka, an antecedent to the Meatpacking crowd. But the primary
strain of nightlife consisted of gigantic dance clubs like the
aforementioned Area and Palladium, filled with downtown socialites
looking to get photographed while flouncing around in glitzily eclectic
get-ups. Fortunately, there was a counter-strain -- the East Village
scene, which fostered performance artists, drag queens and anyone else
willing to go out on a ledge and creatively dangle there. Club 57 hosted
art shows, performances, parties and theme nights where you were apt to
bump shoulders with Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat or
the space's vivacious manager and ringleader, Ann Magnuson. At
comfortably ragtag clubs like the Pyramid, you could try out material,
offend people, titillate them and do just about anything except bore
them to death.
But AIDS started rearing its hideous head in the
early '80s, and in '87 the activist group ACT UP formed to stage
protests, roll around in the streets and generally call attention to the
ways in which the epidemic was totally ignored by the Reagan
administration. Sex became terrifying, so clubs were more valuable for
networking and self-advancement than for hooking up, with some people
dressing up to get media attention while scaring potential suitors away.
And a certain militancy infiltrated nightlife, especially when Dean
Johnson -- a 6'6" bald guy in a dress -- yelped angry but funny raps at
wildly lived-in places like the World, where he threw the weekly Rock
'n' Roll Fag Bar. Meanwhile, gays of color found their own place of
worship at the Paradise Garage, the long-running dance club where DJ
Larry Levan hypnotized them with "Heartbeat" and other songs that made
them never want to leave.
RuPaul at Pyramid Club, 1989. Photo by Linda Simpson
The same year that ACT UP was created, everyone's favorite spiritual granddad, Andy Warhol, died, leaving a creative abyss that led to everyone taking time off before the nightlife regrouped to make way for an onslaught of club kids, who picked up where the celebutantes had left off. And then the decade was over, having left us with a head-spinning batch of press clippings.
But the '80s nightlife ethic lives on in today's use of clubs for multimedia (visual art, projections, performances), as well as in the renewed appreciation for the mixed crowd, an '80s idea that brought unlikely bedfellows together and created nocturnal magic. Nightlife is always cyclical, so I'm sure someday Manhattan will even be home to lots of big dance clubs again, and though I doubt they'll be as brilliantly carried out as the '80s ones, they'll definitely try.