‘It’s arguable whether New York used to be better than it is now, but it was definitely wilder — a time when crack addicts outnumbered strollers and bohemian life was so vital that major club events would have even more people waiting to get in than line up today for organic clam dip at Trader Joe’s. Comic Nora Burns has tapped into this reality by throwing a series of rollicking, nostalgia-drenched events at Stonewall Inn called New York Stories, whereby survivors of the golden age hobble to the stage and remember the good, bad, and ugly of a time when the only rule was to not be boring.
At last week’s edition, Burns began by admitting that she doesn’t want to be one of those people chronically complaining about NYC’s changes. “If you’re 22,” she said, “it’s still exciting, with the artisanal beer gardens and Brooklyn things. But when I was young, it was this wonderland of freaks and weirdos and little old Italian ladies leaning out of windows.”
Writer Anthony Haden-Guest talked about walking around covered in fake blood after shooting a cameo in a 1980s Troma film. “No one batted an eyelash,” he marveled. “This was crazy New York.”
Moving on to other bodily fluids, fashion publicist James LaForce remembered going to the raunchy gay sex club the Mine Shaft in the 1970s, dryly admitting, “I really envied the guy who laid in the bathtub there every night. He really owned it. The Mine Shaft was his Cheers.”
Writer/actor Ryan Landry spoke about another sexually charged gay club, the Anvil, where he would go cruising at the age of 15. To look older, he said, “I put mascara on my upper lip, on the few hairs that were there.” One night, a hot stud asked Landry to dance, so he obliged, and as they were bumping to the beat, the guy started spraying ethyl chloride on him, apparently a common practice in those parts. “He accidentally sprayed it across my eyes,” related Landry. “I kept dancing as I was crying, and it was really painful, but I was trying to keep my cool. After a while, he looked me in the face and walked away. The mascara had run down my face! I looked like Fu Manchu! I realized it was all over.”
But the nightlife stories kept coming. Performer Clark Render sprayed metaphorical ethyl at us by recounting the horribly funny tale of a skankhole called the Fallout Shelter, a hard-hat clubbing experience for those who dared. “It was on 43rd Street in a building that was later condemned,” he said. “The entranceway was strewn with garbage and dead birds. There was no plumbing, as we think of it, so they had rented Port-o-sans. The bar was a folding card table. The cash register was a cigar box. And if you worked there, you had a 50/50 chance of getting paid.” Remembering a night when the Port-o-sans exploded, thereby “spewing chemicals and feces over the entire street,” Render decided that Fallout Shelter was the best club ever! It was certainly more interesting than a trip to the Olive Garden.
Jackie 60 legend Chi Chi Valenti talked about the feeling that permeated the creative, pre-Giuliani clubs in the early ’90s. She said that involved “doing something with terrible tech and taped-together shoes and a sense of doing something so important it was bound to succeed.”
Jump ahead to 1985, when Sally was working for another designer, Norma Kamali, who doled out a wake-up call of her own. At one point, Kamali handed Sally a pink slip and a phone number, saying, “I love you, but you’re a terrible sales person.” The number was that of former 54 co-owner Ian Schrager, who was opening the splashy new Palladium on 14th Street. Sally promptly met with Schrager and suggested she do PR for him, but he said, “No. I know who you are. You wear wigs and are friends with [scene queen] Dianne Brill and you really know Raquel Welch. You’re the doorperson. You’re the bridge between two worlds.” And they called it the birth of the clipboard.
And finally, Jorge Socarras, who worked for the high-concept Tribeca club Area, remembered the night when a 40-something man in a suit collapsed unconscious while dancing there. Knowing that drugs could be bad press for the club, Socarras called 911, then ran to the bathroom to warn staffers that the EMS workers were coming. “I hoped they’d make it look like a real bathroom by time they got there,” he said, laughing. When the help arrived, patrons started realizing this wasn’t part of the club’s monthly theme, but most of them kept dancing anyway. But by time a blanket was thrown over the corpse, “a concentrated hush” came over the room, and it threatened to interfere with the fun. They dragged the guy out on a stretcher, and at just the right moment, DJ Johnny Dynell pumped up the hot Madonna song of the moment, “Holiday,” as the crowd went wild. Said Socarras, “No one who walked in at that moment would have known someone had just died on the dance floor.” It was to die for.
By the way, I also spoke, reading a 1992 column about Grace Jones throwing cake at clubbies and pouring champagne on them too, warning, “Close your eyes. It burns.” Oh, and it makes your lip mascara run.’