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New York City: Remembering "The Saint" (1980 - 1988)

Those Were The Days – New York City: Remembering “The Saint” (1980 – 1988)

The Saint (or Saint)was a legendary gay disco that operated in New York City’s East Village from 1980 to 1988. It was founded by entrepreneurs Bruce Mailman and Mark Hetrick, and quickly became one of the most popular and influential clubs in the city’s gay scene. With its cutting-edge music, stylish decor, and commitment to providing a safe and welcoming space for gay men, The Saint embodied the spirit of the era’s underground culture.

 Opened in the old premises of the Fillmore East, a 1926-built, former-theater-turned-classic-rock-and-roll venue of the late 1960s and early 1970s, at 105 Second Avenue at 6th Street.

The club’s name was inspired by the Roman Catholic tradition of saints, which celebrated individuals who had achieved spiritual enlightenment and performed miracles. The Saint’s founders saw their mission as creating a similarly transformative experience for their patrons. They wanted to offer a space where gay men could feel empowered and liberated, free from the social stigma and discrimination that still plagued the community in the 1980s..

Membership packs with floor plans were distributed and before the club opened 2,500 memberships had been sold at $150 each for the first 700 members and for $250 for the rest, with a waiting list established.

Mailman’s other gay venture, the nearby New St. Marks Baths – a gay mecca at the time paid for the nightclub’s renovation cost $4.5 million, being $2 million over budget ($17 million at 2017 prices).

The original opening date was set for July 30, 1980, but construction delays forced a deferral to September 20, 1980, with Alan Dodd as disc jockey.  

One of the most striking features of The Saint was its design.

The circular dance floor (5,000 square feet or 460 square meters) was topped by a perforated planetarium dome. 76 feet (23 meters) in diameter and 38 feet (12 meters) high. In addition to hiding the speakers, the dome served as a spectacular palette for the lighting effects. A circular opening at the top of the dome could be automatically opened and closed to allow a large mirrored disco ball to be lowered into the space.  In the center of the dance floor was a circular light tree constructed on a hydraulic lift. It contained 1,500 lights and as its centerpiece was a rotating, dual Spitz Space System hemisphere star projector, ten times brighter than those used in planetariums.

Another key feature of Saint was its music. The club’s DJs, including the legendary Frankie Knuckles and Robbie Leslie , played a mix of disco, house, and funk that was both danceable and experimental. They were known for their innovative mixing techniques, which created a seamless and hypnotic flow of music that kept the crowd moving all night long.

The Saint also hosted live performances by some of the biggest names in disco and dance music, including Grace Jones, Chaka Khan, Patti LuPone, Eartha Kitt, Divine, Sylvester and many many more.

Directly underneath the dance-floor level was a large lounge with several juice bars. Beer on tap was sometimes served for free to avoid the licensing oversight of the New York State Liquor Authority. Above and outside the dome was what would become the controversial balcony, where patrons could see down to the dance floor, through the scrim of the dome. It was there that men relaxed and could and did indulge in sexual activities. Several times during the year, themed parties such as the “Black Party” and the “White Party”. are considered by most gay historians to be the precursors to the circuit party.

But perhaps the most important aspect of The Saint was its role as a safe space for gay men In an era when homophobia was still rampant, and many gay men felt isolated. The Saint provided a space where they could come together and express themselves freely. The club’s founders were committed to creating environment where gay men could come together and have a good time. Something that is sorely missing in todays community.

Tragically, Saint’s run was cut short by the AIDS epidemic, which devastated the LGBTQ+ community in the 1980s. Mailman and Hetrick both died of AIDS-related complications, and the club’s closure was a devastating blow to the community. But Saint’s legacy lived on, both in the memories of those who had danced there and in the impact it had on the culture of New York City’s gay community.

The Saint closed permanently on April 30, 1988.

*Dedicated to Kevin Beck