As New York’s Roseland prepares for the demolition ball in April 2014, the storied Manhattan dance hall hosted Black Party one last time for the 35th anniversary of the LGBT circuit event that has become synonymous with strange live acts, leather fetishists, libidinous music, and sex.
For the past 24 years, Manhattan's largest ballroom has been Black Party's home and the scene of 42 events produced by the Saint at Large, the successor to what was, arguably, New York’s most legendary gay club, The Saint.
Opened to great fanfare at midnight on September 20, 1980 in the East Village at the erstwhile home of the Fillmore East, the Saint produced the first Rites (aka Black Party) in 1981: a two-night affair that stretched into three nights, with entertainment by Grace Jones (as well as an anal-compliant boa constrictor).
Since then, the Black Party has evolved into a weeklong celebration of the vernal equinox and its priapic excesses, attracting more than 5,000 revelers from around the globe to Manhattan for the Saturday night signature 18-hour bacchanal at Roseland.
This year’s 35th edition of Black Party was a sold-out event subtitled “A Ruined Paradise: Un-Holi Rites,” a subversive take on the Hindu Holi festival of colors that transformed Roseland’s signature rose carpet and gold-brick arches into an amalgam of Bollywood and the Taj Mahal, overseen by a massive Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of beginnings, rituals, and ceremonies.
The thunderous musical soundtrack was provided by a sextet of illustrious deejays, including Jason Kendig, Tom Stephan (aka Superchumbo), Nita Aviance, ND_Baumecker, and local favorite Boris, whose infectious sunrise set ushered in the party’s second half.
The closing set went to Robbie Leslie, who recently played Berlin’s uber-club Berghain and who, from 1980-88, was one of the original Saint’s most beloved resident deejays. Lighting wizard Guy Smith created a resplendent spectacle of such color and movement as to rival the Northern Lights.
Each year, the Saint-At-Large's executive producer/owner Stephen Pevner and his crackerjack team of artists and designers create the equivalent of a sexual Neverland for a carnal crowd of concupiscent dancers. With a history of salacious shenanigans and an atmosphere as surreal as a film by Dali or Buñuel, the Black Party has a reputation for extremism and pushing the boundaries beyond the comfort zone, such as a live circumcision or a groundbreaking performance by a transgender porn star.
This year’s theatrical extravaganza featured more than 100 performers in a series of provocative performances that included aerialists and fetishists.
As always, what elevates Black Party into the pantheon of world-class events is its enthusiastic crowd of lustful devotees who romp and wander and dance in a spirit of collective joy (in the words of feminist Barbara Ehrenreich) befitting the spirit of Bruce Mailman, the creator of the original Saint. Or as Pevner said modestly, "We hang the wallpaper; the crowd brings the magic."
Originally built in 1922 as an ice-skating rink, Roseland was also a roller-skating rink and, since 1981, a concert venue for everyone from the Pet Shop Boys to Beyoncé, the Rolling Stones, and Madonna. After a final seven-show gig by Lady Gaga in April 2014, Roseland will close for good.
Those who attended the legendary 40-hour closing party of the original Saint in April 1988 (where Leslie played the final set) might have imagined that it was the end – and yet, nearly thirty years later, Black Party lives on.
When asked what the future holds for Black Party, Saint-at-Large co-producer Mike Peyton answered, “Reinvention.”