On an early spring night in Greenwich Village, over a thousand people were gathering for a family reunion. Some of them hadn’t seen each other in years, and they were eager to reminisce.
“When I was 19 years old in 1980, we used to go there and dance,” said one former member. Rob and his friends are waiting to get into the Paradise Garage anniversary party. The line outside host club Le Poisson Rouge stretched down Bleeker Street, buzzing with excitement.
At the door, a tall black man dressed in leopard print from his top hat to his platform shoes is peering under his sunglasses at a list of ticket holders. His name is Ricott. The party organizers put him up front because he was once a character at the Garage. They knew the faithful would remember him–or vice versa. Ricott remembers a lot.
“Boy George came one time,” Ricott said. “He had on pumps. Now this Boy George, in the 80s one of his pumps broke. And he was out there on the floor hopping around,” he continued laughing.
Inside, former Garagers, now middle aged, sing along to the music, playing tambourines and blowing whistles. To join the Garage family they had to answer questions… “Are you gay friendly? Are you open minded?” The membership cards issued at the end of successful interviews were valuable. Ricott says every night non-members loitered outside to bribe cardholder.
“They would pay you 3,4,5,600 dollars to get them into the club,” Ricott said. “And trust me, we took the money.”
Until the 1971, it was illegal for gay New Yorkers to publicly assemble to drink or dance. The change in law coincided with the rise of dance clubs in New York nightlife. The Paradise Garage was conceived as a club for black and Latino gays. But owner Michael Brody welcomed anyone who was accepting of that to join the party–which went from midnight to midday.
David DePino was a protege of the Garage’s resident DJ, Larry Levan. He says at the Paradise Garage he and Levan played for two different dance floors, a lounge, and a rooftop. It was a large space, but DePino says the club still felt intimate.
“It was a house party basically, you came to my house I feed you, you have beverages,” DePino said. “There was no charge for anything once you got inside there was no liquor. It was juice, food, the movies the movie theater was free.”
These amenities cost Garage members a monthly fee of under $20. For the first year the club wasn’t even finished, and hosted “construction parties”. For the first five years there was no sign outside. There was also no doorman to choose who was in or out of this club- quite the opposite of its glamorous contemporary.
“Studio 54 was glitzy, Garage was not glitzy,” DePino said. “Studio 54 was beautiful, mirrors and lights and this and the Garage was dark and incredible sounds and lights that enhanced your dancing, not lights that you would stand around and watch.”
There was a reason for this: owner Michael Brody thought that when dancers saw themselves in mirrors, they became self-conscious. The Garage was about escaping all that. You entered the club up a ramp that was lit like the hull of a space ship. Inside the pitch back walls and floors were insulated to prevent sound from escaping. Music blared from what was widely considered the best sound system in New York City, says New York DJ Bruce Tantum. Tantum also edits Time Out New York’s Nightlife section, and says Larry Levan was an innovator even on New York’s vibrant DJ community.
“What set him apart from almost every DJ then and DJs still to this day was the chances he would take,” Tantum said. “He would play any kind of music, didn’t matter what it was.”
Levan became a one-man scene with a cult following. Garage goers remember him as flamboyant and wiry with a flair for the dramatic. They say they could tell how he was feeling from his sets. Record labels took notice, and asked him to remix songs for them. The late Frankie Crocker, a radio jockey at R&B station WBLS, used to go to Paradise Garage to hear Levan play and leave the club with unlabeled, unreleased records to put on the radio. Those records became club anthems across the country, like “Is it all over my face” by Loose Joints.
Tantum says Levan and the Garage also championed a new kind of music coming out of Chicago… house.
“We tend to forget but house was pretty much exclusively a gay only music back then,” Tantum said. “The Garage and Larry were among the first New Yorkers to pick up on it. A lot of that was because Larry was such in important figure he was just getting the music before anyone else.”
And musicians wanted to play the Garage. Popular disco acts took the stage. Loletta Holloway and Grace Jones gave frequent performances. Some, like Mick Jagger and Diana Ross, just went to hang out with Levan. Again- no alcohol was served. But revelers might be taking amphetamines like poppers, sniffing ethyl rags, or spiking the punch with LSD. All to enhance the sounds of Garage favorites like the Peech Boys.
The free-for-all atmosphere of the Paradise Garage didn’t end with drugs: the club was also known for promiscuous sex. Robert Fullilove teaches Sociomedical science at Columbia University. He studies how minority communities are affected by the spread of HIV/AIDS…dating FROM the start of the epidemic in the 1980s. He points out that the unusually inclusive membership of the Garage meant more partygoers were exposed to the virus.
“It’s clear that the intersection of all these different demographic groups, the connections that were made between all these networks, provided a unique way in which people in which HIV could find new folk with whom they could interact,” Fullilove said. “And as a result of these interactions, created the perfect conditions, the perfect storm for the spread of HIV.”
Fullilove says that, at the time, a lot of blacks and Latinos viewed HIV/AIDS as a problem exclusive to gay white men. So they weren’t taking measures to protect themselves. And the virus spread rapidly. DJ David DePino watched this happen right before his eyes.
“I buried 15 friends in one month,” DePino said. “They had all these different excuses on why they weren’t coming out and then they would come out once and you wouldn’t see them for 2 or 3 weeks and then you’d hear so and so passed away.”
Outside the walls of Paradise Garage, the white gay community was rallying fight the disease.
In 1982, Mel Cheren, one of the initial Paradise Garage investors, donated his downtown bed and breakfast to Gay Men’s Health Crises (G-M-H-C), an organization founded to stop the epidemic and raise awareness about HIV’s transmission.
He also got Garage owner Michael Brody involved, and that same year the Garage hosted New York’s first AIDS fundraiser.
Brody himself was diagnosed with HIV in 1987. At the same time, the Garage’s lease ended. But the neighborhood was becoming residential and the landlord did not want Brody to re-sign. Brody was too weak to scout for another location, so the Garage closed its doors.
The Paradise Garage logo is a man flexing his bicep tattoed with the club’s name. When Brody died, Mel Cheren inherited the rights to it. Later, when Cheren was diagnosed with AIDS, he made his own plans for the logo, says Krishna Stone of the Gay Men’s Health Crises.
“He wanted the Paradise Garage trademark to forever be connected to AIDS activism and fundraising and true to his word that trademark was bequeathed to GMHC after he died,” Stone said.
The man on the logo is also holding a tambourine in his hand. His head is bowed, and the instrument resting next to his ear. Stone says that represents his close connection to the music.
“We really need to keep coming together as a community,” Stone said. “And keep dancing and singing to the songs that were played in these clubs because we all know the words, a lot of the folks who go to these parties. It’s a way of building community to keep doing the work.”
Gay Men’s Health Crises maintains other deep connections to the Garage: Larry Levan’s DJ protégés volunteer their efforts too. David DePino says it’s because what he witnessed in the 80s changed him forever. He’s still not sure how he survived.
“I was always the chubby one in my group and maybe if I wasn’t the chubby one and I had the beautiful body and all that I would’ve been more promiscuous,” DePino said.
He says he spins at these reunion parties to celebrate with those who are still here.
“Because we came through a war,” DePino said. “AIDS was a war, it was a battle.”
This is part of why DePino has mostly retired from DJing now. He says memories of friends he’s lost haunt him when he looks down at a dance floor. He’s interested in the new generation of DJs making their way. Some of them are carrying on the legacy of the Garage.
On a deserted industrial street in Bushwick, Mister Saturday Night is throwing one of its moving underground parties. They pop up in New York about twice a month–advertised mainly through word of mouth. Attendees come to dance until dawn. DJs Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin created the fictional host to throw a party that’s liberating and positive. Sometimes that means partygoers show up in Power Ranger costumes or clear a section to dance by themselves. Harkin knows that the Garage originated parties like this in New York, but no one here is nostalgic.
“I don’t really know what it’s like other than the legend,” Harkin said. “We’re not trying to replicate it, we’re trying to do something that is interesting and exciting for New York right now.”
New York right now is not a place of secret mega-clubs and mysterious epidemics. But people are still hungry for what the Paradise Garage gave them at its best. Inside Mr. Saturday Night, the music is front and center. People sip drinks and smile as they dance with their eyes closed. The floor is packed with 500 dancers, and there are no mirrors.
THE HISTORY OF HOUSE — FROM DISCO TO BURNING MAN
Play through or click on icons throughout the timeline for more information and samples of house music over the years.