DJ Terry Sherman had decided to go for a soulful, R&B vibe at the 1989 Black Party, with records like Diana Ross’ “The Boss,” Grace Jones’ “Walking in the Rain,” and Al Green’s “You Ought to Be With Me” spinning on his turntables. Despite the break from hipper house music, the dance floor was packed, wall-to-wall, with many men sporting the leather look of the moment—chaps, harnesses, vests, peaked caps—and moving to the beat of Sherman’s set. His sound was nostalgic, even then—almost like he was trying to hold onto something that was slipping away. It was, after all, the first Black Party held “at large,” as the marketing put it, because of the closure of the Saint, its legendary, longtime home, the previous year. Instead, the party was housed at the Red Zone, a newer but smaller venue in Hell’s Kitchen.
The closing of the Saint marked the end of an era for many gay men. Its loss added some measure of volume to the void left by the ongoing AIDS epidemic, which had taken the lives of more than 89,000 Americans by the end of the decade. Even though the Black Party would continue “at large” for 30 more years—making 2019’s edition, the first to rove into New York’s Bronx borough, an anniversary of sorts—its shelf life at the time was unclear. There wouldn’t have seemed to be a whole lot to celebrate for those arriving at the ’89 edition that Saturday night in March (or, given the party’s legendary 10-plus-hour run time, the Sunday morning following). The city’s nightlife was fading, beloved friends were dying, and queer people were living through a harrowing epidemic. But it was for that very reason that the party proved invaluable for many who went that year.
Bruce Mailman was the mind behind the Saint, and after opening its doors in September of 1980, his club quickly dominated the scene. It sported a 4,800-square-foot circular dance floor, about 500 speakers, and an aluminum framed dome overhead that famously projected the constellations. “It was the closest to something supernatural and magical that I’ve ever seen in brick and mortar,” DJ Robbie Leslie told Red Bull Music Academy in 2015.
The club hosted the Black Party annually in March, starting in ’81. From its inception, it allowed men to live their leather and kink fantasies on the dance floor and to indulge in more explicit acts on the balcony beyond the dome. “The Black Party was dark and sexy and tribal and kind of menacing,” Tom, an attendee who asked to use only his first name, tells me. He started going to the club in 1984 and went to his first Black Party the following year.
Tom saw the Black Party as “one flavor in a spectrum of flavors of this secret, gay male, hedonistic lifestyle” that the Saint offered. The club hosted a series of parties, including the White Party and a Halloween party, but the black variant was a “heavy” leather flavor. “I think a lot of people who were at the Black Party went there with an agenda of releasing their inhibitions,” Tom says. But that, of course, was going to change.
The history of the Black Party at the Saint runs parallel with that of the HIV/AIDS crisis. (A black party was held at Flamingo in ’80, but the Black Party as we know it today began the same year as the first documented cases of HIV in New York, in ’81.) Their histories are so intertwined that in the early days, HIV was sometimes nicknamed “Saint’s disease” because many of those who fell sick had danced at the club. Author Andrew Holleran told A&U magazine that he was even convinced back then that one could acquire the virus just by drinking from the club’s water fountain or from someone’s sweat.
As the epidemic became more pronounced, local governments began closing bathhouses, bars, and other venues where sex was going down. The Saint stayed open, but there was a decline in overt sexuality. The staff would break up any man-to-man contact that went beyond kissing or a hand job, and in 1986 they even changed the theme of the Black Party to “Black Magic” in an effort to make it less sexual. Rather than having a man shove a boa constrictor’s tail up his ass—which was one of the Black Party’s most infamous live acts—they brought in fortune tellers, soothsayers, magicians, and the like. The relative chasteness didn’t last long, though. The following year they went back to the original concept: “THE RETURN OF THE BLACK PARTY,” the ’87 flyer read. It included a condom: “BUT SAFER.”
As more gay men died, it became difficult for Mailman to make a profit from the club. He wrote in a letter to the club’s members in February 1988, “Although in our 8th year the party attendance is still extraordinary, regular attendance has fallen for complex social and economic reasons. … It is, therefore, with great regret that I am writing to tell you that THE SAINT will close this Spring.”
“The gay party scene after the Saint closed was not much of a party scene at all,” Tom recalls. “I think we were all sort of in mourning, almost, for what had been lost.”
At the Red Zone, DJ Sherman played many other tracks, including the instrumental side of Supertramp’s “Cannonball,” Barry White’s “It’s Ecstasy When You Lie Next to Me,” and Passengers’ “Hot Leather.” Charlie Carson, another Saint patron who had gone to the Black Party throughout the ’80s, also remembers hearing Donna Summers’ new song, “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” fresh that night.
In the opinion of those present, the move to the Red Zone was a step down for the party. The dance floor was no longer circular, and there wasn’t a dome overhead. “It was OK,” Carson tells me over email, “but I don’t think anyone looks back at it and wishes the Red Zone was still operating.” Tom adds: “There was a qualitatively different experience that the space itself had on the inhabitants that could not be reproduced with corners and right angles and traditional, conventional architecture.”
There was still no effective HIV treatment in 1989, so the uninhibited Saint days were long gone. Ora McCreary, who also had been going to the party throughout the ’80s, recalls that there were curtains at one end of the Red Zone with “a few people fooling around behind them,” but that it was “nothing like the bacchanal that it later became in the Roseland era and later.” (The Black Party was held at the Roseland Ballroom for 24 years following its run at the Saint, and was there reputed for its raw sexuality.)
Tom has no memory of the sex or sexual energy that night, but that made sense: “I think by 1989, a lot of us were certainly not feeling particularly comfortable giving free expressions to sexual energy the way we had been just a few years earlier.” According to Tom, some people within the LGBTQ community thought that continuing the Black Party throughout the epidemic was inappropriate, and “associated it purely with unchecked and unhealthy sexual energy.”
Despite the judgment, having the Black Party go on the way it did offered hope to some in an otherwise hopeless era. “It gave a sense of possibility that some sort of thing could endure, despite all the forces working against it,” says Tom. “And that people could still be brought together in this underground, tribal setting at a time when circumstances were pulling people apart and bringing them together in much more difficult settings instead.”
“I understand the sentiment of people at the time because I lost dozens and dozens of friends,” Carson says. “I also can vouch that many of those same friends danced and danced and danced—and would be glad to know that we’re still dancing today.”
The theme for this year’s event is “Caligula, the Last Party,” and there’s a chance that the theme is apt. The Black Party hasn’t had a permanent home since Roseland, nor has it made money in recent years. Stephen Pevner, the executive producer of the event, is also involved in a costly court case which, if it’s not dismissed, could jeopardize the future of the event. However, the “father of all circuit parties” has already endured many hardships and made it through periods bleaker than this. So with enough luck, passion, and persistence, there may yet be many more years of dancing at the Black Party, wherever it roams next.