- Historic Sites
It began in the Paris underground of World War II and evolved over thirty years into a phenomenon that so overturned cultural norms that it could not survive
November 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 7
The first unabashedly hippie discotheque in New York was the Electric Circus, which opened on St. Mark’s Place in 1967. At that point New York’s East Village was a counterculture mecca second in size only to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, and the Electric Circus hoped to capitalize on the hippies’ affinity for colorful clothing and reputation for childlike, eccentric behavior. Advertising itself as “The Ultimate Legal Entertainment Experience,” claiming to be “Air Conditioned in more ways than one,” the Electric Circus distributed fliers inviting discoeoers to “Come. (Stoned).” Inside, it took Cheetah’s accent on the carnivalesque to its natural conclusion. The emphasis was on infantilism, charade, and masquerade. “Clothes, Furbelows, Feathers and Astonishments” could be purchased in the club, and the dancing took place amidst surrealistic cireus acts conducted on pedestals. As the disco chronicler Albert Goldman described it, “Yard-high hairdos, thrift-shop collages, Tussaud time-trips, and tattooed-lady body paint were the order of the day. When these human effigies got out on the dance floor, they resembled the figures on a mechanical clock designed by Salvador Dali.”
The Electric Circus was both the apotheosis and the death knell of 1960s discotheque culture. The vitality of nightlife pivots on the ratio of participants to observers: Too many drunk people dancing on tables results in anarchy; too many people there to watch makes for a dull evening. The counterculture initially broadened participation. Dancing was certainly still an option, but so was staring at one’s hand while stoned, or painting one’s face in Day-Glo colors, or playing with somebody’s hair.
Ultimately, the onset of movie projections, light shows, and live performances augured a creeping passivity, a tilt toward the observer end of the nightlife spectrum, which would soon imperil the discotheque. A case in point was Cerebrum, which opened in New York’s Soho in late 1968. Billed as “an electronic studio of participation,” Cerebrum was just the opposite. Patrons entering the venue took off their clothes and donned translucent togas, at which point they were seated communally on the floor around carpeted “islands” and fed music through stereo headphones. No one talked, because the idea was to “experience.” Ever so often “planned happenings,” like the release of balloons, intruded on the meditational mood. Time magazine called Cerebrum “a downy mattress for the mind,” adding that it offered “the sensation of being turned on to the point of being turned off.”
Dionysus had hired a press agent.
“Before disco, this country was a dancing wasteland,” says a twenty-something female character in the director Whit Stillman’s 1998 film The Last Days of Disco . “You know the Woodstock generation of the 1960s that were so full of themselves and conceited? None of those people could dance.” By the late 1960s the hippie ethic of “Do Your Own Thing” had effectively displaced the structured dances of mid-decade in favor of free-form body swaying à la Woodstock. At the same time, discotheques degenerated into seedier venues known as “juice joints” or “go-go bars”—shifty, often Mob-run last-martini stops for business commuters or aging drag queens. Yet by the early seventies the concept of the discotheque was being reanimated by urban contingents that had been suppressed in the sixties pop counterculture: newly liberated gay men of all ages and blacks and Hispanics. Together these groups redesigned and broadened the phenomenon, rebaptized it disco , and relaunched it as the most visible symbol of the hedonism of the 1970s.
In the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, gay men and women won the right to dance and otherwise intermingle in their own bars and clubs without having to worry about police raids and harassment or maintaining a heterosexual facade. Since Stonewall was largely about gays’ right to their own nightlife, it’s not surprising that the discotheque became the main site of gay liberation. Returning to its roots established some twenty-five years earlier in wartime France, disco entered a new underground phase characterized by cloaked, celebratory club life open only to initiates. Typical of the era was Aux Puces, in New York City, one of the first gay discos, where admittance was strictly speakeasy style: Only persons known to the maître d’ were let in. The most famous—and first unabashedly gay—disco of the early 1970s was the Sanctuary, located in a former German Baptist church on West Forty-third Street in New York. It had been started as a gathering spot for straight, moneyed celebrity types but then, under new management, inaugurated the seventies trend of mixing gays and straights together on one dance floor. Soon gay men predominated, so much so that when Jane Fonda entered the disco to film the nightclub scenes for Klute , she felt compelled to demand that women—at a bare minimum, gay women—be allowed into the club too.