Music Journalist Barry Walters Looks Back At Manhattan’s Legendary Saint Disco

Veteran music journalist Barry Walters has penned a fascinating look back at Manhattan’s much-storied Saint nightclub. It begins:

From September 1980 to May 1988, The Saint defined gay nightlife in New York during its most tumultuous and literally plagued decade. Conceived by off-Broadway impresario Mailman, who had just scored a runaway success with The New St. Marks Baths, The Saint set such high standards that it soon rendered its competition redundant.

“When it opened, it just sucked the life out of all the other clubs,” says Robbie Leslie, the most popular of the disco’s surviving DJs. “Everyone abandoned these clubs they professed loyalty to. It only took a week or two, and they just flocked over to The Saint.”

Housed in the three-story former site of the psychedelic rock concert hall Fillmore East, The Saint offered multi-sensory pleasure like no other venue before or since. It featured a circular, 4,800 square foot dancefloor topped by an aluminum dome 76 ft. by 38 ft. under which much of the club’s 1,500 lights would shine, as well as constellations from a Spitz Space System projector ten times brighter than one in a typical planetarium. Designed by architect Charles Terrell, The Saint pointedly directed one’s attention skyward. Its experience was clearly meant to be uplifting – visually and otherwise.

The perforated dome hid the last and largest of the revered Graebar sound systems: Powered by 630 drivers and 32 amplifiers, nearly 500 speakers generated 26,000 watts – a figure touted in The Saint’s publicity materials as being “probably the most powerful per square foot for entertainment purposes in existence.” All this splendor ultimately cost $4.6 million in 1980 dollars – well over $13 million in today’s currency.

You don’t have to be an eldergay to enjoy the full piece.

AUDIO: There are many recordings of Saint DJ sets floating around. In the above-linked piece Walters includes this set from closing night DJ Jim Burgess.

  • Jake Patton Tinsley

    I’ve been listening to the live sets all summer!!! so good!

  • TommyTune

    Never made it to The Saint back in the day, not even once. Every time I was in that neighborhood I just kept heading down East 4th St. until I got to the New Saint Mark’s and never looked back, that is, until it was time to head back uptown the next morning on the subway, utterly spent.

  • TJay229

    I missed the Saint… Only heard about it. But i did get to dance, jump and shake at The Garage though… So, I did live!

  • 2karmanot

    Oh, those were the days. The Saint was one of a kind. What visuals: mechanical and human!

  • pj

    id like to record one vote against the word eldergay. there must be a term that dosent make us completely non sexual. the bears figured it out…

    • Octavio

      Tired Old Queen is still available if that’s what you would prefer to be called. 🙂

      • pj

        thanks for understanding

        • Octavio

          You know I’ll always love you. 🙂

    • barracks9

      Help me out, if you don’t mind: what about Eldergay is non-sexual?

      • 2karmanot

        Having to pee four times a night. Without the Mindshaft it’s no fun anymore.

      • pj

        just check out the comments here…that should give you an idea why. for me elder gay is another way of saying old gay. and i dont know about you but calling a gay guy old is about the worst thing you can say right? sorry but there must be another term for gay men who have survived what we have besides eldergay. youd fuck richard gere right? well hes pushing 70.

        • As a 60 year old, I can think of worse things one could be called than old.

          Dead comes to mind….

          And I like Eldergay. Think of us as the Elders of the Tribe. I don’t mind that one bit.

          • 2karmanot

            Exactly so

          • vorpal

            Not an eldergay myself, but I do love me some eldergays. They are fucking sexy, IMO!

    • 2karmanot

      I’m 70, so Methuselah comes to mind.

      • Octavio

        And you still look good in a white white T and faded 501s. 🙂

    • Ragnar Lothbrok

      Grey twinks ?

  • Ragnar Lothbrok

    Define ” Elder gay “.

    • pj

      really tired of that reference. and while we are at it…daddy is another one. im not your fucking daddy dont put me in some box.

      • Octavio

        We know dear. It’s daddy who is fucking you. 🙂

      • Ragnar Lothbrok

        True, but some daddies, pre-daddies and non- daddies love love love it.

        • 2karmanot

          But it’s so hard being a daddy while wearing natural fibers and heavy gold.

      • Chuck in NYC

        That’s fine, pj, and your attitude about it will be so noted by all your acquaintances. Many of the rest of us at retirement age respectfully feel differently.
        [insert raspberry here]

        • pj

          nice

      • stevenj

        I felt a little strange at 45 to be called a “daddy” but some of the younger guys that were coming on to me were so hot I didn’t care what they called me.

    • Octavio

      Someone who spends their entire SS check on keeping the dogs groomed.

      • pj

        not funny

      • 2karmanot

        ROTFL

      • Chuck in NYC

        LOL.

    • 2karmanot

      Someone who does color blocks on the balcony garden.

      • Octavio

        (cough – wheeze!)

        • 2karmanot

          Oh, and did I mention mood color canes?

  • another_steve

    Oh the early New York City queer club scene. [sigh]

    I came out in NYC in 1972 and moved out of the city in 1979, but what a seven years those were. The pre-plague years. Many JMG readers reading here never experienced the pre-plague years, but they were real and they were glorious.

    NYC sisters and brothers: Do you remember the fabulous Saturday night dances at the GAA Firehouse on Wooster Street? I met my husband at one of those, in 1974. Or the once-monthly Gay Alliance of Brooklyn dances held in the fabulous ballroom of the fabulous Brooklyn Heights hotel, “The Bossert”?

    Or the “Limelight” in Manhatten?

    Or the “Odyssey” in Bay Ridge Brooklyn, where disco scenes from 1977’s “Saturday Night Fever” were filmed?

    Such fun we had.

    Such fun.

    • TommyTune

      I experienced it, and you’re right – it was quite the party.

  • sfbob

    I left NYC the same week the Saint opened. Never did get to go there. On the other hand I did spend considerable time at the Fillmore East when I was in college. And of course in between at the Saint Marks Baths.

  • Ragnar Lothbrok

    The audio is 4 HOURS, 21 mins !

    = Awesome !

    • Jim in TO

      Many of the major parties would last 16 hours with a single DJ playing. The Last Party went from midnight Saturday to noon Monday with each DJ playing around 4 hours. Of that 36 hours I was there for around 30 hours (and paid for it over the next week).

  • Octavio

    I worked in Manhattan from June 1980 to July 1981. I was never cool enough or popular enough to be invited to this place. So I moved to Texas!

  • Clungeflaps

    I read about the Saint awhile back. Sounds like it was incredibly WASPy. And there was an annual membership fee of, like $1000, so $3000 in todays dollars. I’m not into sacharrine sweet Hi-NRG or italo, like Fun Fun – Happy Station or Stock Aitken Waterman productions, but most of the Saint’s clientele were completely titless on pure, powdered sacks of MDMA, so the music probably made sense.

    I would have been a Paradise Garage person though. Far better music, and better mix of classes and races than the Saint, who were all just white closeted doctors and lawyers. Yaaaaawn.

    • Chuck in NYC

      Must not have read the article, sir, because it addresses things like membership and admission costs in detail. But you sure seem to feel comfortable passing judgment about it. Many of us appreciated both The Saint AND Paradise Garage for the fun, different experience of each. And have lived to tell the tale.

      • 2karmanot

        The Paradise Garage was the Mother of the Saint

  • D. J.

    The White and Black party invitation/announcements unfolded into posters. A Saint membership card would get you a membership into any private gay club in the world and yes, memberships were expensive, but the experience was worth every dollar.

    • 2karmanot

      That was a great party….some men in cages if I remember correctly.

  • John Boily

    I was so fortunate to have this venue in my twenties. It allowed me an appreciation of music like no other.The DJs were so knowledgable and creative. The camaraderie was amazing. The sound clarity will never be duplicated. Thank you Bruce Mailmen for your vision of a perfect club.

  • e’ville_globeguy

    These were my club years, but I never made it to NYC, only Chicago. But I live in a small metro center, where at that time, the discos—straight/gay/whatever—were the places where I felt most alive. It’s just a whole different situation now, but the music from those days gets played regularly at home, even (mostly) when I’m alone.

    It’s so sad that the set Joe linked to ends with GK&Pipp’s “Neither One Of Us”, ending with the line “…this is goodbye”.

    No, I’m not tearing up…it’s just something in my eye…

  • Villager

    In the 80s I lived on St Marks Place around the corner from The Saint. When I’d go out Sunday morning to buy the papers at the Gem Spa, cabs were lined up for blocks on Second Avenue to pick up the men leaving the club.

    I also remember walking up my block and seeing protestors outside the St Marks Baths demanding it be closed..

    Damn this music is good. Takes me back. Wish my gay male friends from that period were still around.

  • Captain Jack

    Ahhhh the good times…im so glad I can remember some of them ..:-)

  • Nice to see that Mr. Walters is still around. We dated briefly in the late 90s, but we ultimately lost touch with each other through my series of interstate moves. He’s a good guy.

  • Puckfair52

    Curious I just threw out an old basket that was left from Bruce Mailman memorial service in 1994. Makes me want to go read dancer from the Dance Again. Listening to this brings tears as Abba’s Lay All Your Love on me hands swaying in the air above heads just out the corner of my eye around me they are all there sweat driven by music.

  • Chuck in NYC

    Not everyone who danced at The Saint is dead. Yeah, we miss our late friends very, very much. But there are some thousands of us in the New York area and elsewhere who remember the club fondly. Many of the New York locals who do remember it will be at the Pines Party this weekend. The music will be different and contemporary at the main event, but some of the old tunes and newer music in the same vein will be played at house parties during the days. So we will get the best of the old and the new.

    There are several things I might have added to Barry’s article. First, as a private club during its first four years, beer was free with the cost of your entry. The attendants at the back bar downstairs gave you one or more upon request — and some nights the beer came in little half cans. The attendants made fresh popcorn all night and people would grab that to blunt their beer buzz. Some might disagree, but I swear drug use went up when they switched to a pay-per-drink bar. My understanding is the fully stocked bar system was forced on Mailman when the State Liquor Authority ended the ability to serve complimentary beer at The Saint and a handful of other clubs around the state — would welcome anyone with knowledge adding details here.

    The coat check may have been crowded the first night, but generally it was a breeze. There were, what?, six or eight stations with automated conveyor belt systems like at a dry cleaners. It’s the only club where coat check wasn’t consistently a real drag on your evening.

    The White Party is mentioned in passing, but during the 80s and on through the first several Saint-at-Large seasons in the early 90s the White Party was bigger than the Black (you could fool around at either, if you wanted). There was some kind of communal backlash to “pretty”/Eurodisco music in the mid 90s and people started acting like it wasn’t cool to go to the White Party. Their loss, especially now that a pop sound has bounced back the last several years.

    • 2karmanot

      Oh, the Pine’s Parties! I think the last one I remember was The Pink Party. Didn’t someone parachute in?

    • Jim in TO

      I would say the majority of us are still alive, though many of my friends did die in the 80s. And most of the DJs are still alive and many are still working. A tribute to the staying power of DJs who actually knew HOW to play for their audience.

  • John P Egan, PhD

    I went to the Saint a couple of times—I think, the 80s were rather messy for me—in 87/88. I was a newly out feygele who had (has) a major clone fixation. Oh my lord so many beautiful men there! I found it all a bit overwhelming, but in a good way. The “balcony” wasn’t as wild as a few years earlier, apparently. But waddling around the dance floor and running into pr0n stars was intimidating.

    • 2karmanot

      I bet that PhD stands for Personally hot Dude! 🙂

  • Photo by JMG:

    • 2karmanot

      Oh my gosh, I remember you—-the cakewalk when Falcon walked in!

    • stevenj

      I am currently reading Live From The Fillmore East and West by John Glatt and thought the address sounded familiar. 105 2nd Ave started out as the Commodore Theater in 1926, was taken over by Loew’s in 1927 and showed movies until the early 60’s when it became a Yiddish theater with movies and vaudeville called the Village Theater. Bill Graham took over the theater in 1968 and opened the Fillmore East before closing it in 1971. In ’74 it became the New Fillmore East but the name was changed to the Village East Theater. The Saint opened in 1980, the auditorium was demolished in 1996 for apartments and condos. The original narrow facade and lobby became Emigrant Savings Bank.

      • The Loew’s Commodore was Marty Scorsese’s neighborhood movie house and he watched the great classics there.

  • RobNYNY1957

    About half of my friends who died of AIDS thought they might have been infected there. Hard to know, but it was their suspicion.

  • TKW

    A friend I used to work with would spend the whole weekend at the Saint with his boyfriend. Monday morning he would be depressed with a blank stare. Tuesday, slightly sociable. By Wednesday he was pretty much normalized. Thursday positive, smiling. Friday, excited and giddy, as he counted down the hours until he went back in. I went with them once. Was over the top to the point that the rest of life was just a pale shade of grey, so I only went a few other times. It was like going down the rabbit hole.

    • CanuckDon

      When Monday comes around
      I’m always feelin’ low cause it ain’t movin’
      Tuesday is a drag ‘cause things are kinda slow
      when they ain’t movin’
      Wednesday lets me down if it doesn’t ease the pain
      Thursday gets around but there’s still another rain
      But Friday is my friend
      Because I know that soon, it’s gonna’ be Saturday

      Here comes that sound
      Here comes that sound
      Here comes that sound again!

  • TKW

    BTW, “Eldergay”…sounds like one of those tree creatures from Lord of the Rings.

  • Wilberforce

    The saint was great. So was Xenon. But the best far and away was The Troc in SF.

  • Jim in TO

    I was a member all 8 seasons, and moved to NYC from Toronto just so I could go every Saturday (and a lot of Sundays). I still have all my membership cards (except the 1st year) and most of my party invites. Also, my locker tags from the later years when we had those. I have recordings of nights there by Robbie Leslie, Michael Fierman, Warren Gluck, and others. So many great memories of my youth.

  • JCF

    I really enjoyed this article (about a subject of which I knew nothing: I’m old enough, just wrong chromosomes!). It’s still difficult for me, not being a gay man, to wrap my head around some of it, though (that embedded “Walk The Night” video, w/ “Cruising” clips: did that capture some of it?)