RITES XXX: THE BLACK PARTY
Still Going Wild After All These Years
Written by Steve Weinstein
Thousands of years ago at the Spring Equinox, men would go into the woods wearing animal skins to dance ecstatically to drumbeats. They would remain there all night to ensure a good planting season. That’s how Bruce Mailman, the impresario behind the original Saint, conceived the Black Party. Whether or not Druids actually took to the forest, Mailman must have tapped into something deep in the collective gay unconscious. Because after thirty years, the Black Party remains a unique experience. Ask anyone who’s had the luck to attend. This is the modern ritual of men (and women!) who annually dress in animal skins and dance through the night in a secret location.
This is much more than a typical Circuit party. On the sprawling dance floor of New York City’s Roseland Ballroom, you feel part of a tribe. The Black Party is a celebration of sexuality, carnality, music and freedom.
Stephen Pevner, who produces the party with his Saint-at-Large team working out of a loft space in the East Village, took over Mailman’s role in 1996. A distant cousin of Mailman’s, he had the good fortune to attend the closing of the original Saint in 1988. That party, which lasted three days, has become legendary, as was the Saint itself. Mailman took the old Fillmore East, a rock concert venue, and spent millions of dollars to transform it into the ultimate disco, with a sound system, lighting and dance floor that have never been equaled.
When the Saint closed for good, the Saint-at-Large produced parties around the city before finally settling on Roseland, a former dance hall turned rock venue with the largest dance floor in New York. Every year, Pevner and his team transform what is essentially a “black box”—an empty shell of a space—into a state-of-the-art nightclub. The light shows and sound quality rival the original club—or any extant club, for that matter.
“We basically have one day to do everything,” says Guy Smith, who has been the Black Party’s lightman for the past several years. “Everything has already been planned out to the minute: set decorations, talent, lighting, sound. It’s all planned on paper. It’s a one-night event, with no corporate sponsorship, and all based on ticket sales.” Walk into Roseland, and you’re transported from the big city into a fantasy world of the hottest men, poured into their form-fitting uniforms, assless chaps, jockstraps, latex bodysuits or just nothing at all. And all of them are primed for a night of fantasy. This year, for Rites XXX, Pevner promises to pull out all the stops.
It will be hard to top the themes of the past few years. Last year’s “Dangerous Black Party for Boys” was a chance for every grown-up gay man to act out all those Boy Scout fantasies. “Lucha Libre” meant go-go dancers and porn stars dressed as Mexican wrestlers, and a live donkey, chickens and a Mexican musician. The next year’s “Nascar Holy War” blended the macho subculture of race cars with Americans’ obsession with brand names. The most talked about, however, had to have been 2006’s “Schwarzwald,” or “Black Forest.” Female-to-male transsexual porn star Buck Angel overlooked the dance floor in a makeshift castle, as he aroused himself and participated in group scenes with the other actors to the roars (and groans) of the crowd.
Pevner sees the evening as a “story arc” made necessary, he says, by shifting tastes in spectacle—and music. It’s part of a movement from a leather-themed event to more of fetish fest. “We made a conscious decision to give it some context, because the leather scene was important in its time but doesn’t relate to a new generation,” he says. “Fetishes can be sexy. Fetishes evolve. It’s not your uncle’s Black Party.”
The most (in)famous aspect of the party has to be the live acts on a second-floor stage. The acts began at the original Saint, along with legends like the live adult circumcision. There have been strange uses of boa constrictors, pool balls, firecrackers, food, various body fluids and all manner of role-playing. The emphasis increasingly is on kink rather than the merely sexual. Mike Peyton works for the Saint-at-Large and is a well-known player on New York’s fetish scene. “Fetish keeps changing,” he says. “Young kids coming up are wearing latex, gear—scuba, hockey—head to toe, right down to the cleats. A major change is away from leather.” The sex isn’t limited to the stages either. The dance floor can get quite frisky, and as for the upstairs Love Lounge—well, the name speaks for itself.
Above all, however, this is a dance party, and the choice of DJs to spin this party inevitably becomes the subject of gossip among party boys weeks before the Saint-at-Large’s official announcement, after President’s Day. A lot of the effort to keep the party fresh goes into the music, and Pevner believes that the DJs must respect the party’s traditions while keeping it current. For many years, original Saint DJ Michael Fierman spun this party solo. But 18 hours is a lot for anyone, and in recent years, there have been three DJs: a warm-up, usually a newer or lesser-known talent, from the Saturday night opening until about 2 a.m.; then a headliner, who goes until about 10:30 a.m.; and a closer, who spins the Morning Music and Sleaze that’s identified as the Saint Sound. The party usually closes around 4 p.m. on Sunday. The DJ roster reads like a “Who’s Who” of the music world. But before the party, they’re all thoroughly prepped on how to spin: dark and sexy.
The Black Party strives to keep the vibe, musically and in every other way, as an underground event. This is not a typical “Circuit weekend,” with a pass, tea dance or souvenir booklet. That said, other venues piggyback on the Black Party. Alegria Xtreme, which acts as an unofficial “closing party,” takes the boys well into Monday afternoon.
Amidst a torrent of change in the gay scene over thirty years, the Black Party has managed to remain so popular because it blends the best of the past—both our recent gay past and a past lost in the mists of time—with the current scene. To attract younger revelers, Pevner has been charging only $40 after 4 a.m. for younger guys. For the thousands of men who fly in from all over the world, this remains the party of the year. “The scale of the party, ticket price and number of people we get allow us to give value for the money and give one hell of a sound and light show,” Pevner says.
Speaking from personal experience: in all fairness, credit for the Black Party concept should be given to Michael Fesco and his associates at Flamingo, *the* fabulous dance club that held sway in the 70’s, in a loft on Bway & Houston in lower Manhattan. Flamingo held the first Black Parties as a way to honor the rites of Spring, just as Bruce Mailman intended in his continuance of them. Back in the 70’s, the Black Party was also the last big party of the season, since people would soon after start heading out to Fire Island. (consider the idea of indulging in the darkness at the Equinox and then moving into out into the light). Flamingo closed the year the Saint opened. The core of the original Saint crowd were those who went to Flamingo (including Bruce) - and thus the traditions that began at Flamingo were carried forward, expanded, and glorified by the Saint.
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