The Black Party :: Thriving Into 35

by Steve Weinstein
Sunday Mar 16, 2014

How has the Black Party, the annual New York City mega-dance event survived and thrived for 35 years? While other branded parties, and even the concept of the "Circuit" itself, have fallen prey to changing times and tastes, the Black Party has managed continually to re-invent itself.

What began at the original Saint as a strictly leather-S/M event evolved into a more broadly defined fetish party. Since moving to Roseland, its home for a quarter of a century, the Black Party has become, in the words of Stephen Pevner, an "arts experience, a cultural festival expression of sexual expression. Now, it’s an art form, combining entertainment, theatrical storytelling, postmodern but also subversive. It’s taken a long, hard route."

Even so, he added, what keeps thousands of men (and, more recently, women) returning year after year is that the Saint at Large, the producing organization that Pevner heads, has stuck to fundamentals while broadening the party’s scope and ambitions. "The party hasn’t changed that much," he said. "It’s accepted on its own terms."

For many of us, the Black Party represents the glory days of the gay club, which reached its zenith with the Saint. Open only to members, it incorporated so many innovations and superior design that even today, there’s a general consensus among lighting designers, architects and sound engineers - gay and straight - that it was the greatest nightclub that ever existed.

One Last Hurrah(?)!

Almost from the time it opened in 1980, however, the Saint had an uninvited guest, a disease that would eventually claim so many of its members that it was forced to close only six years later. The Saint at Large spent a few years wandering from venue to venue before settling down at Roseland Ballroom, a gargantuan converted ice-skating rink in Midtown Manhattan that boasts the largest dance floor in the city, nearly a quarter of an acre unobstructed by columns and a ceiling height that can accommodate the most elaborate lighting displays.

Although it is one of the most popular mid-sized venues for rock acts and events like "Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS" hugely popular burlesque revue, the building continued to fall into disrepair. Finally, word leaked out last year that Roseland would go under the wrecking ball.

The club is marking its closing with a series of Lady Gaga concerts, the last on April 7. But the pride of the place for the last dance event will be the Black Party, which takes place from Saturday night, March 22, well into the next afternoon.

So it’s entirely appropriate that, for its final hurrah at Roseland, the Saint at Large has chosen the theme "A Ruined Paradise." SAL’s promotional video and artwork are tributes to the vast Indian subcontinent, the theme also works perfectly as a homage to Roseland itself.

Designing the Den

In typical fashion, SAL’s creative team worked backwards from a highly edgy idea, in this case bestiality, or at least the fetishizing of animals. "I love the idea of combining man and beast," Pevner said. "We settled on an elephant head on a muscle boy.

"Oddly enough," Pevner added, "other things happened. We heard in September that Roseland was closing. So we incorporated the whole funeral procession that they do so ritualistically in India as part of the theme. Also reincarnation: While something is dying, something else is being born."

According to Pevner, the party definitely imbibes the theatricality of the surrounding area: "Everyone gets a rise out of being smack in the middle of the theater district. It’s so subversive." Anyone who has emerged from the sensory overload of the Black Party into the all-too clear light of tourists flocking to a matinee performance of "Jersey Boys" right next door knows exactly what he’s talking about!

Dan Osach, the party’s creative director, promises to transform Roseland into a visual feast. "We are doing everything we can to make this a party one that will be unforgettable."

Osach isn’t giving away any details -- and who would want him to? The "wow" factor has always been one of the elements that makes this party so special.

He did tell EDGE that the DJ and light person, who for years had taken over the front of the balcony that sprawls along the length of the club and more recently was on the side of the dance floor, this year will be even closer to the dance floor. "We’re turning the booth into part of our set decoration," Osach said. "It’s its own little outpost."

Of course, there will be the "strange live acts" that have contributed so much to the party’s notoriety. And a "harem of boys" will be gyrating throughout the balcony. (The attendees in the balcony will be a harem of boys, too, but they’re not getting paid.)

When the Lights Go Down...

For an entire generation of partygoers, Roseland itself has become synonymous with the Black Party. As someone who remembers all the initial grousing in the early years (endlessly discussing - and bitching about - every aspect of the party, especially the DJs and music, is a tradition as old as the party itself), I’m amused at the proprietary feelings people have attached to this glorious ruin of a ballroom.

"Its bones were familiar enough that people accepted it on its own terms," Pevner said. "Any other venue is going to be a huge compromise in terms of familiarity and accessibility" - not to mention that fabulous dance floor.

For those who believe that the Black Party will never be the same, well, that’s just fine with Pevner and his team, who see the inevitable move as an opportunity once again to re-invent a party that has brought together men from all over the world. You’re as likely to be dancing next to a couple from Sydney or a posse from Milan as a gaggle of Brooklynites.

Wherever it goes and whatever it becomes, I hope that the Black Party remains the one event where everyone, regardless of age, body type or ethnicity, feels, at least for one night, like a unified body of celebrants.

SAL’s Mike Peyton speaks for all of us when he recounts his first Black Party: "People told me it was life changing, that there was nothing like it in the world. I went to the balcony at the changeover of DJs and looked at the mass of people.

"The lights went down, Michael Fierman, [for several years the party’s DJ] came on and started ’O Fortuna.’ The lights went up. It was so special. It changed my understanding of what nightlife could be.

"When I looked at the crowd, I understood that we were a tribe."

Next week: A Black Party Guide: The DJs, the scene, the logistics, tips of preparation, time maintenance and etiquette.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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