The Real Saturday Night Fever

Everyone here has seen Saturday Night Fever right?

The 1977 drama film, directed by John Badham staring John Travolta as Tony Manero, a working-class young man who spends his weekends dancing and drinking at a local Brooklyn discothèque. It also included Karen Lynn Gorney as Stephanie Mangano, his dance partner and eventual confidante; and Donna Pescow as Annette, Tony’s former dance partner and would-be girlfriend.

While in the disco, Tony is the champion dancer. His circle of friends and weekend dancing help him to cope with the harsh realities of his life: a dead-end job, clashes with his unsupportive and squabbling parents, racial tensions in the local community, and his general restlessness.

The film delivered a classic disco music tract by the Bee Bees.

The film opens with Travolta strutting down 86th street in Brooklyn  where my mom grandma and aunts shopped for groceries.  My wife lived on 85th street, just one block over.  The kids from my school, Lafayette High hung out at the Famous Cafeteria – “See you later at the Famous!” – and we had ice cream sundaes at Jahns.

As a kid I walked to the public library on 86th street and was introduced to Hector, Breaker of Horses and I met Marlene Dietrich while working in the Oriental Theater as an usher.

The film was shot at another local hangout – the Club 802 –  originally named because it was located at 802 – 64th street in Brooklyn.  Originally it was the home of the Norwegian Soccer Club and it was a time when the Bay Ridge sector of Brooklyn was populated by Italians and Norwegians.

In the mid-seventies, with acts like Jerry Vale and Christine Jorgensen,  the club was not doing to0 well.   Under financial pressure, it was transformed into a discotheque, following the newest craze and renamed “2001 Odyssey,”  complete with Mylar on the walls, multi-colored spheres hanging from the ceiling and a blazing disco ball.

And in the process, the club changed disco. On top of starring in the Citizen Kane of dance music films, 2001 Odyssey brought in all sorts of up-and-coming talents to perform, like Gloria Gaynor and the Tramps. The clientele itself defined what we might call one of the Italian “Guido disco archetypes”. Or as defined by the owner Chuck Rusinak:

We used to call them cuigines.  A cuigine is somebody that would wear a huckapoo shirt, a pair of dance shoes. Very secure of himself, a womanizer, a little bit of a tough guy too. “Don’t mess my hair up, otherwise you got a problem. I get a baseball bat.”

If Manhattan disco was drug-fueled, glitzy and celebrity-driven, the Brooklyn disco scene was the world of the ‘regular joe’, with the focus more on sex and appearance and less on glamor and notoriety.

The guys back in those days, even though they were broke, they were dripping with their gold chains. …. Back in those days, the girls got dressed up. They got decked. The girls liked the tough boys. The toughest, meanest guy always got the girl. It’s kind of like the animal kingdom.”

And then Hollywood came calling, wanting to use the club in the film.

Now this “club” wasn’t exactly film ready.  When you entered you went down a couple of stairs; to the right there was a U-shaped bar, a go-go dancer and a pinball machine.   Straight ahead was a small lobby, bathrooms and a coat check.  To the left was the disco.  As soon as you opened the door you saw the dance floor.

It was originally stainless steel.

And there was a little balcony which appeared in the film.

But the floor was not deemed Hollywood enough.  It was replaced by the legendary  disco dance floor seen in the movie which had over 300 flashing lights and was installed by the movie makers just to improve the “look.”  The floor measured 24 X 16 X 1 and was composed of a dozen 4 X 8 foot plexi panels atop a wooden frame matrix housing over 300 light compartments with the colored bulbs illuminated by the rhythm of the music.

Saturday Night Fever was shot in and around the club; a number of dance regulars were hired as extras for the dance scenes.

The movie of course was a smash and made the club 2001 Odyssey the go-to place for all the young Brooklyn guidos” on a Saturday night.  John Travolta strutted his stuff here.  The film opened at the Oceana Theater in Brighton Beach on December 16, 1977 and the premier after party was held at the Odyssey.

“A huge commercial success, the film significantly helped to popularize disco music around the world and made Travolta, already well known from his role on TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter, a household name. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, featuring disco songs by the Bee Gees, is one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time. The film showcased aspects of the music, the dancing, and the subculture surrounding the disco era: symphony-orchestrated melodies; haute couture styles of clothing; pre-AIDS sexual promiscuity; and graceful choreography.”

In 2010, Saturday Night Fever was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

The movie is based upon a 1976 New York magazine article by British writer Nik Cohn, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”; in the mid-1990s, Cohn acknowledged that he fabricated the article.  A newcomer to the United States and a stranger to the disco scene, Cohn was unable to make any sense of the subculture he had been assigned to write about; instead, the character in the article who became Tony Manero was based on an English mod acquaintance of Cohn.

There was however a real Tony Manero at the Odyssey; a blond guy named Eugene Robinson, who worked in a supermarket.

Disco died and so eventually did the discotheque.    Later Odyssey became Spectrum, a mostly gay club, still maintaining the disco ball and the dance floor while catering to an entirely different audience..  On February 12, 2005 the last dance steps were taken at the old headquarters of the Norwegian Soccer Club.

Lots of places in Brooklyn I knew in my youth have disappeared.

The Famous Cafeteria is long gone as is Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor. The Oriental Theaer is no more.  Lafayette High School was closed  due to gang violence.  Hinche’s Luncheonette where I met JoAnn.   Still around is Lenny’s Pizzeria where Travolta got 2 slices and ate them as a sandwich strutting down 86th street.

Nor is the Club 802 – now preserved forever at the Library of Congress.

A bouncer at the club claimed to have bought the dance floor but I cant find anyone who knows its whereabouts.  There is a copy of in the Guggenheim Museum of Art.

.

 

.

About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Real Saturday Night Fever

  1. beetleypete says:

    I have to confess that I loved that film. I already had a white suit, bought for a wedding, in 1970.
    And I preferred Donna to Karen. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Maggie says:

    What a great read although I know it can be difficult seeing all our familiar landmarks disappear. Your youth was much more culturally rich than was mine.

    I loved the movie, too. I was quite the dancer in my day but never this type of partner disco.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toritto says:

      Hi Maggie! I was 35 years old in 1977 – married with a couple of kids. I was in the club once – just to look around and see where the film was made. I watched the “kids” dance for awhile, smiled and then feeling older – I left.

      🙂

      Regards from Florida.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jennie says:

    I loved this post, Frank. Great story!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. toritto says:

    Glad you liked Jennie. Best regards

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.