Downtown Comes Uptown: Visiting the ‘Club 57’ Exhibit at MoMA
The East Village of the late ’70s and early ’80s never ceases to fascinate. Maybe it’s because that was the era when downtown New York really felt like a separate city, filled with struggling artists and performers who were more interested in making their art than in getting famous. It was a time when people started bands without any idea what they were doing. And it was a time when people could hold down part time jobs and pay their rent while working on artistic projects.
In this era, many people really didn’t go above 14th Street. This was before bottle service, before chain stores, before luxury condos and massive overdevelopment. Despite the burned-out buildings and the crime, despite the fact that you had to walk 10 blocks to find a cash machine or a drugstore, it’s no wonder that so many of us are nostalgic for it.
Plus, it was a time when you could open up a wildly fun performance and art club in the basement of a Polish church.
That’s what Club 57 was. The Holy Cross National Polish Church, located at 57 St. Mark’s Place, needed to raise money, and asked Stanley Strychacki, a neighbor who was known for putting together community and cultural events, to do something in the basement of the church. They wanted a space for the “younger kids” to congregate and be creative. Worlds collided, but in a good way.
Strychacki brought in performer Ann Magnuson as manager, along with film programmers Susan Hannaford and Tom Scully. Exhibition organizer Keith Haring, an SVA student whose artwork would soon help define the era, joined in. The club was not really furnished (though it did have a – most likely illegal – bar), and it had a scrappy appeal. One-time manager Kai Eric described the crowd as “the crème de la crumbs.”
Club 57 was a place where you could, on any night of the week, see something exciting: art shows, horror movies, live music and theatrical performances. It became known for hosting offbeat and irreverent shows and theme parties. The more ridiculous, the better. Many went there for live music by under-the-radar acts like Sonic Youth, the Fleshtones and Afrika Babaataa, for horror movie nights on Tuesdays, and for poetry nights on Wednesdays where Keith Haring would switch gears and read his work from inside a fake TV.
The club has now – finally – received some long overdue recognition. On Halloween, “Club 57: Film, Performance and Art in the East Village, 1978 – 1983” opened at MoMA. Maguson, who was brought in by MoMA as the guest curator for the exhibit, described the crowd at Club 57 as “suburban refugees who had run away from home to find a new family…who liked the things we liked – Devo, Duchamp, and William S. Burroughs – and (more important) hated the things we hated – disco, Diane von Fürstenberg, and The Waltons.”
For this reporter, attending the show brought back vivid memories of the club: seeing live performances by Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, going to horror movie nights, seeing the vivid work of Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat. (The latter was not a big fan of the club, and found it to be “silly.” He didn’t respond to the sarcastic takes on 1950s suburbia, nuclear war, and Ronald Reagan.)
We also remembered going to many, many parties. In fact, we used to throw record release parties at Club 57 for a band which, well, didn’t really exist. We were called the Synthetics. We were Lori Acrylon, Donna Orlon and Kim Krylon. We didn’t ever play anywhere, but we would come up with names for our latest “single,” handmake some flyers, and invite loads of friends. We got offered gigs, and many people insisted they had heard us perform live.
Club 57’s influence permeated the neighborhood. Chip Ruhnke, who lived across the street, came home one day to find that Keith Haring had painted a few of his Radiant Babies on the stairway. Referring to the club, Chip said, “I appreciated the bohemian prices for admission and bottles of Bud and the fact that you could go out and come in again to get pizza at Stromboli’s, or a nickel bag on 9th Street. The ambiance made you feel like you were young and bad and partying in your parents’ basement. It was a dance club created by force of will where there really should not be one.”
DJ Dany Johnson remembers the inventive use of day glow in the nightclub. “It was dark with black lights; I used to love how my gin and tonic glowed,” she quipped. “I also used Dippity Do on my hair, which also glowed.”
One of the horror movies screened for the MoMA exhibit is Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 cult classic “Basket Case.” Emily Armstrong, creator of GoNightclubbing (and who shot videos of many great band performances along with co-creator Pat Ivers) talked with us about Henenlotter. “Frank was one of the early Monster Movie Night folks at Club 57. But before that he was my high school friend. I appeared in his films and we did stuff like go to 24-hour drive-in horror film festivals and watch the movies without sound from the adjacent parking lot. Having seen every horror movie ever created, he narrated the story.”
“In 1980, Frank asked me and Pat Ivers to appear in his new film Basket Case. We would appear in the last scene and play hookers. Pat and I were running our Video Lounge at Danceteria at the time so we went to the set in our nightclub work clothes. Accompanying us was [videographer] Robin Schanzenbach, who has a lot of video and photo in the Club 57 show.”