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The first days of disco.

A former New Yorker recalls the true birth of an era

Before Studio 54, before the Saint, Hurrah's, the Garage, Flamingo, Crisco Disco, and the Gallery, there was the Loft and the Tenth Floor. They were Manhattan's granddaddies of the gay after-hours clubs. Back in 1971 and 1972, in those very first days of disco, neither the Loft nor the Tenth Floor really got going until after 3 a.m. on a Sunday; that's when the legal liquor-selling discotheques like the Limelight in Greenwich Village and Tamborine on the upper east side closed their doors--as required by law--and the ambulances were called in to carry away the near corpses who had almost overdosed on Quaaludes and Parest 400s. Some wicked brew, that booze and downers. Those of us still standing cabbed it to either the Tenth Floor, located in the garment district, or the Loft, on Broadway just north of Bleecker. These clubs didn't shut down until 6 or 7 a.m.

The Tenth Floor was strictly the Fire Island Pines crowd. At this early point in post-Stonewall history, the Hamptons did not yet figure into the gay high-visibility equation. The Hamptons, as it was explained to me back then, existed for "homosexuals between the ages of 35 and death." Anyway, the Tenth Floor had a very restricted membership, since its two smallish rooms could hold 200 max. When the club closed its doors in the spring of 1973--just before Fire Island season--we were suddenly left to make do with the very occasional one-shot Saturday night "parties" hosted by disco impresario George-Paul Rosell. Eventually the spacious Flamingo in SoHo took up the slack, opening its doors in 1974 and later morphing into the Saint. But until those halcyon days of dance arrived, Rosell was the George Balanchine who made men dance in Manhattan.

Fellini Satyricon had come out in 1969, the same year as Stonewall, and obviously it had been a seminal moment for Rosell--the movie, that is, not the riot. His parties, hosted everywhere from the Rainbow Room to the atrium at the Citicorp building, were always billed as "Satyricon This" or "Satyricon That." It got very old very fast--the borrowed, manufactured decadence of it all--but obviously the bad seeds of all those ubiquitous "black parties" that sprout up to this day had been planted. Rosell's parties usually got going around 11 p.m. and petered out around 3 or 4 in the morning. It took Flamingo--and the switch from downers to speed, acid, and poppers--to teach most homosexual men how to party to sunrise.

That was hardly the case over at the Loft. Friends would ask what I was doing at that club "with all those blacks." Even in the very beginning, gay discos were notoriously segregated. Too many women in the mix and you'd attract the straight guys--the beginning of the end obviously for any gay club. Too many blacks or Latinos, and the more moneyed Fire Island boys would bolt. Actually, the Loft was that rare exception, in fact, the most exceptional club in terms of a sexual and racial mix that I've ever encountered. The Loft wasn't overwhelmingly black; it just appeared that way to Caucasians who weren't accustomed to holding a minority status. Women were more than welcome; there were plenty of them, and I don't ever recall straight guys going into the kind of testosterone overdrive that usually sends queers running. The Loft had a membership, as all after-hours discos did, and it was flee. Admission was a very affordable $3. But as the Loft's popularity grew, it became evident that the club's fabled mix of black and white, gay and straight, male and female wasn't exactly a thing of serendipity. Early on I noticed that my white friends were more likely to secure memberships; later only the women I introduced to the management got to be members. And then, of course, when the inevitable limousines started pulling up outside, it was over: The police closed the place down sometime in 1974.

That was because of the other thing that made the Loft special: It was someone's home, but apparently it was someone's home upstairs too, and the thump-thump-thump of the O'Jays had worn the ceiling thin after all those long Saturday nights/Sunday mornings. Until it closed, however, it was a terribly civilized place to lose your inhibitions. Shirts weren't abandoned at the first glow of sweat. There was a well-lit Christmas tree in the corner year-round. The back room hadn't yet been invented. Fruit punch and cookies were free, as was the coat check, which had a long line even if no one was checking his coat: One finger raised meant one tab of acid; two fingers raised for two tabs. One or two, the admission at the door covered it all.

And then there was the music. It was the first place I'd ever heard a disc jockey actually "mix" records--who can forget the Hues Corporation's "Rock the Boat" or Love Unlimited Orchestra's "Love's Theme." It's hard to imagine today that at discos like the Sanctuary or the Tenth Floor or the Ninth Circle (in the basement for one brief winter) the music simply faded out on one song and then they'd bring up the volume on the next. At the Loft the music kept overlapping from one record to the next, and so the beat never stopped.

Until it did. Complaints from the neighbors upstairs did the club in, and I can still remember that fatal night. JFK's assassination was one thing, the closing of the Loft quite another: I'd arrived there alone, a little later than usual, an emigre from some tedious party uptown. My hand on the door handle, I kept shaking it in the belief that it had to open to let the waters part. Instead, right there on Broadway and Bleecker at 4 in the morning, I spiraled down into severe disco withdrawal, unable to accept what I already knew to be the truth: Saturday night would never be Saturday night again,

Based in Los Angeles, Hofler is an entertainment reporter for Reuters News Service and the Miami Herald.
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Title Annotation:birth of disco era
Author:Hofler, Robert
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 21, 1998
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