Why you should care
Because your grandparents weren’t always old.
Gay cats, pre-AIDS but post-Stonewall, had all the fun. Twenty-four hours a day bathhouses like the Big Apple’s Continental Baths housed more than 1,000 men, a disco, a cabaret where the likes of Bette Midler, Chubby Checker and Frankie Knuckles performed, saunas, pools, beds, alarms to warn if the cops showed up and oh, yeah, nonstop sex.
If only a place like that, post–Deep Throat but pre-AIDS, existed for heterosexuals.
And … BAM!
Just that quickly Larry Levenson, a former McDonald’s manager from Brooklyn and a high school chum of Al Goldstein, the publisher of New York’s decidedly downmarket and pornographic Screw magazine, opened Plato’s Retreat. Not only in the same location — the Continental Baths closed in 1975 — but with the same mission: sex clubbing. So in 1977, if you had a hankering for mingling with celebrities, the well-heeled, sex fiends and/or porn stars, the place to see and be seen was Plato’s Retreat, which at $60 to $80 a pop was pretty pricey for the ’70s.
Maybe some would have been excited about partying naked with Buck Henry and Melvin Van Peebles.
“Limos would be lined up down the block,” said Doug Danzig, a longtime New York resident who lived around the corner from the Ansonia Hotel, the basement of which hosted all the fun, courtesy of the little-less-than-philosophical Plato’s Retreat, complete with a poolside waterfall. The club’s entry policy rivaled Studio 54’s exclusivity and was designed to keep the number of women high and the number of men manageable and to encourage hetero and lesbian activity while discouraging man-on-man action. This, combined with the continual throb of disco and all manner of party pharma (though officially forbidden), made this the E-ticket ride of the late ’70s for the more adventurous.
Now, several decades and a few books and documentaries later, Plato’s Retreat, a later victim of New York’s closure of sex clubs amid AIDS panic in the mid-’80s, still generates a sleazy remembrance of things past and prurient. “Maybe some would have been excited about partying naked with Buck Henry and Melvin Van Peebles,” said Judge Roy Bean, former editor for porn review site SkullGame. “But when I think of the sheer volume of pubic hair on display back then I get a little nauseous. But if that was your thing I’m sure you’re excited remembering it.”
That’s a 2016 opinion that skirts around how cool things could’ve been before sex started equaling death and people looking for a good time actually started dying. Of course, how cool things were was partly a product of window dressing because behind the facade of celebrity glitz and glamour it was really just business as usual. And the business from the business end of Levenson’s cramped, cluttered and dirty office at Plato’s Retreat was booming.
So much so that Levenson eventually got popped for tax evasion. Josh Alan Friedman, author of Tales of Times Square (Feral House), a hothouse walk through New York sleaze, describes the so-called King of Swing’s last days there before he headed to jail for an eight-year term as a bacchanal to end all bacchanals. “He bet a bunch of mob guys that he could blow his load 18 times a day,” says Friedman from Dallas. Fourteen hours and 25 minutes after the money had hit the table, Levenson reached his number; passed off the business to his partner, Fred J. Lincoln; and dropped the mic, eventually shuffling off this mortal coil about 15 years ago.
“After about 200 years of sexual repression, it was a great release and good while it lasted for some, I guess,” Friedman says. Which is about all the rest of us can do too.