PRINT October 1999

Club 57

Club 57 was born in the basement of the Holy Cross Polish National Church on St. Mark’s Place, back when there were fewer than a hundred pointy-toed hipsters skulking around the East Village streets and a boy could get the shit beat out of him for dyeing his hair blue. Girls fared a little better. We could parade about in our rockabilly petticoats, spandex pants, and thrift-store stiletto heels and get away with just a few taunts (“Hey, Sid Vicious’s sister!”) from a carload of Jersey assholes.

That was in the late ’70s, when the Bee Gees ruled the airwaves, Brooke Shields peered down from every billboard in town, and the nefarious isle of Manhattan still had a wild side to walk on.

We were suburban refugees who had run away from home to find a new family, a family that liked the things we liked—Devo, Duchamp, and William S. Burroughs—and (more important) hated the things we hated—disco, Diane Von Furstenberg, and The Waltons.

I met Tom Scully and Susan Hannaford at CBGB one night, and before you could say “Moveable Feast,” we were bonding over Dadaism and Russ Meyer. Tom and Susan wanted to produce a New Wave vaudeville show. I wanted to direct. (Doesn’t everyone?) So we gathered together a like-minded menagerie of punk rockers, wayward art students, and assorted local eccentrics at Irving Plaza to sing and dance between the strip acts and Planet of the Apes movie trailers.

Stanley, the middle-aged Pole who worked at Irving Plaza, needed some “alternative” entertainment over at a smaller club he had on St. Mark’s Place, so Tom and Susan started the Monster Movie club on Tuesday nights, while I managed the joint the rest of the week. Soon Keith Haring was curating erotic Day-Glo art shows, and folks like Kenny Scharf, John Sex, Wendy Wild, Klaus Nomi, Joey Arias, Tseng Kwong Chi, Tom Rubnitz, David McDermott and Peter McGough, Fab Five Freddy, and countless others got in on the fun.

The punk Do-It-Yourself aesthetic extended to every medium. Artists performed, performers made art, musicians made movies, fashion designers started bands, everyone picked up a video camera. We turned the club into a center for personal exorcism, devising theme parties (or “enviro-teques,” as one drug-dealing-conceptual-artist ex-boyfriend liked to call them). There was Putt-Putt Reggae Night, where we played miniature golf on a course made of refrigerator boxes designed to resemble a Jamaican shantytown; Model World of Glue Night, where New York’s hippest built airplane and monster models, burned them, and sniffed the epoxy; and Elvis Memorial Night, where local juvenile delinquents threw beer on the faulty air conditioner, which burst into flames, sending all the Elvis look-alikes outside to gyrate on the fire truck until the angry Polish immigrants living upstairs doused us with dirty bathwater and the NYPD broke up the fun while Jean-Michel Basquiat snickered from the sidelines.

Jean-Michel was not a frequent visitor to the club. There was a rivalry between us goofballs at Club 57 and the cooler customers over at the Mudd Club. We were all about mushrooms and laughing like hyenas, while they were all about heroin and Nouvelle Vague films.

Today, I smile when I see an old Mudd Clubber, and we silently congratulate ourselves for surviving while reminiscing about the “good old days”—joyful, jobless days when the only objective before sundown was to create art and pull that evening’s outfit together. Rent was nothing, and since you knew every doorman and bartender downtown, the nightlife was free. Money just seemed unimportant, until around the end of Reagan’s first term, when the pockets of Jean-Michel’s paint-splattered Armani suit were overflowing with hundred-dollar bills, Madonna was hitting it big on MTV, and Keith Haring was treating us all to our very own bottle of Cristal at Mr. Chow’s.

Ironically, about the same time money and fame entered the picture, so did AIDS. By that time, Club 57 was winding down. The place closed around 1983.

After that, a good third of our surrogate family died from the Plague and we were forced—reluctantly, and painfully—to grow up.

Somehow it seems appropriate that during the ’90s the place reopened as a mental health outpatient clinic. I often wonder if any of the hallucinations some of the new crazies are seeing there aren’t just a bunch of goofy New Wave hipster ghosts—forever frugging, forever young.

Ann Magnuson is a writer, actress, singer, and part-time performance artist.