Rich Wandel: A Brief History of The Saint; New York City, September 20, 1980-March 31, 1990
Written by Rich Wandel. Copyright (c) Rich Wandel, 2008. All rights reserved.
Anthony Haden-Guest in his book The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, says "The Saint opened in 1980 in what had once been Bill Graham's Fillmore East. It was started by Bruce Mailman, a short man with the pursed-up look of a loan officer. No alcohol was served in The Saint. It was about music, and drugs, and sex, all in settings of splendid theatricality."
The Saint's first season opened on September 20th 1980. According to the poster announcing its inception "Since the Beginning of recorded history the male members of the species have Joined together in ritual dance. Adorned, semi-naked with rhythm instruments, they used this tribal rite to celebrate their Gods and themselves. The Saint has been created to perform the mystery — to continue the rite." The Saint opened as a private club for men, although a few memberships were held by women. Membership was available only to the specially invited. Charter members paid an annual subscription fee of $125, with non-resident members paying slightly less. In subsequent years the charter members paid less than others but over time the subscription fees went up to close to $300 for some classes of membership. Members were allowed to bring in guests, usually no more than two, but only guests of the same gender as the member were allowed. Guests paid a higher nightly fee than members for entrance to the club.
Owner Bruce Mailman provided the concept; architectural designer Charles Terrel brought The Saint to life. There were no pillars, no obvious physical limitations. The focus was on the guests, the lights, the music. The main architectural feature was the "pleasure dome." Larger than New York's Hayden Planetarium, the dome was the canvas for two star projectors as well as a host of other lights, a "star machine creating tens of thousands of stars," according, to the clubs first announcement. The 5 million dollar renovation transformed the old Filmore East into a dance palace with a 4800 square foot dance floor, three levels of light and sound totaling 50,000 square feet which could accommodate as many as 3500 people at a time. Surrounding the dome was a viewing balcony. Softly lit and carpeted it provided a spectacular view of the dancers below. It also provided space for more private activities.
By May of 1983 the AIDS crisis had already gripped the gay male community. While the exact cause was unknown, the epidemiology was clear enough. AIDS was spread by intimate contact. The Saint received what Bruce Mailman described as a "confused and frightening" anonymous letter. The writer was upset that persons with AIDS were using the bathrooms. Further the writer asked "...are you unaware of the current health problem and what goes on in the balcony?" Mailman responded in an editorial published in The Saint's Star Dust. The balcony was designed as a viewing platform; to brighten the lights there would destroy the dome lighting. In any case Mailman had no intention of having his staff act as policemen. "If the balcony disturbs you, DO NOT GO THERE, but do not name those who do. This is FASCISM, and we will close The Saint before we tolerate it." The Saint over the next few years participated in AIDS education, notably by contributing financially to the Gay Men's Health Crisis and by providing the space for their 800 Men Study which investigated effective means to teach gay men about safer sex. They also became a bit less strident in their defense of the balcony. While sticking to their principles as outlined in the May 1983 editorial, a 1986 flyer distributed to members and guests simply noted: "The balcony was designed as a viewing platform — PLEASE USE IT THAT WAY."
The Saint was a members-only club. It was also a male club. By the 1982-83 season some change had begun to take place. A survey of the members in the spring and summer of 1982 received an amazing 70% return. The September 1982 Star Dust reported that half the members felt that women guests should be admitted on all nights, while half did not. A majority did agree that Wednesday and Sunday nights would be a good time to admit women, but not on Saturday. As a result, Saturday and special party nights remained a male preserve at The Saint, no women guests were allowed. On Sunday women guests were admitted with special permission of the management. Wednesdays would be a time for experimentation.
The 1986-87 season saw further changes. A survey in September of 1986 revealed an increasing willingness to share The Saint with women and to produce specifically women's events. A flier distributed to members in November acknowledged that some members feared that traditional male Saturdays would be "threatened" by a women's event, however, a majority of members were accepting of more women in The Saint. Accordingly a few women's events were planned for the season. Members would be notified in advance when such events were scheduled on a Saturday or Sunday night, such events would not coincide with membership hours. They would be scheduled earlier (for example 8 PM to Midnight), but the women would be allowed to stay on for the regular membership hours which followed. Special events were not new. The Saint's advertising for the inaugural 1980-81 season announced that there would be 12 major parties and a separate concert series in addition to regular Saturday and alternate Sunday club nights. Some events were to be members only. Many of the special events became annual celebrations. The Black Party, The White Party, The Land of Make Believe, Night People and others became annual events. In addition a number of benefits for AIDS related or other gay and lesbian organizations were held at The Saint.
Alcohol was never a focus at The Saint. It opened in 1980 without alcohol and remained that way for the most part, although on occasion spirits were served. The Saint's membership rules merely noted "Beer, and/or alcoholic beverages, when served, will be stopped by 4:00 AM, in accordance with the laws of the State of New York". Star Dust reports a 1982 survey in which 53% of the members did not want a cash bar. This doesn't imply that the patrons of the dance club were uniformly sober, merely that there are highs other than alcohol. The dancing and music itself would have provided a sufficent high for some, while many others used other kinds of drugs. The Saint did not have the same reputation for drug dealing and intoxication as some of its predecessors had, notably Studio 54, but undoubtedly there were drugs for sale on the premises, and many if not most partrons would bring their own into the club.
In April 1988, The Saint sent out a letter to its patrons announcing its closing. On the 25"' Saint-goers were invited to "share stories, reminiscences, and laughter with and about the people we've danced with." There would be no music or dancing. Several times a year the party would reconvene at various venues around the city. On March 31, 1990 The Saint-at-Large, as the productions were called, would even return for "The Last Party at 105 Second Avenue." Eight seasons of The Saint had come to an end. At the end of the second season, in an editorial for the newly produced Star Dust: News from The Saint, General Manager Elliott Siegel wrote: "The Saint was about... continuity. An evolution of collaboration between the ritual, those performing it and those partaking of it. When the collaboration is strong, the ritual cannot be outmatched or outranked or even outmoded. Instead, it continues to grow, reaching new intensities, and bringing new fulfillments."