Pavilion :: Anatomy of a Nightclub
What may very well be the most famous gay nightclub in the world is being readied for its rebirth.
Make that re-rebirth. The original Pavilion arose on the site of its predecessor in Fire Island’s Pines Harbor. In 2007, a sleek, modern version replaced the decaying older structure, which in turn was destroyed by a devastating fire that consumed much of the island resort’s commercial area in 2011. As if that weren’t trauma enough, last year’s Hurricane Sandy flooded the work site of Pavilion 3.0, preventing the nightclub’s scheduled opening over the 2013 Memorial Day weekend.
Over the past 23 years, the Pavilion’s reputation has continued to grow to legendary (one of the few times I’ve felt free to use this word without feeling like a huckster). A night at the Pavilion could make the reputation of a budding DJ, or break the reputation of an established one. At its best, a sweating multitude of hot men was taken on a spiritual musical "journey" from late Saturday evening well into Sunday morning. It has been a "safe space," where boldface names from entertainment, media, fashion, Wall Street and even politics can freely mingle with some of the hottest gay men in the world.
Before the Pavilion, there was the Sandpiper, a typically raffish 1960s restaurant of rattan furniture, animal prints and other groovy, exotic touches. Fire Island Pines was itself barely a decade old when the Sandpiper opened in 1965.
Since its founding, the Pines has been unique among the 17 communities that dot Fire Island in that it is the only planned community. A little over an hour by train from Midtown Manhattan, Fire Island itself is a thin barrier reef off the southern coast of Long Island that stretches 32 miles. All of its uninhabited parts are under the jurisdiction of the Fire Island National Seashore, itself under the aegis of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In the popular imagination, "Fire Island" is synonymous with "gay," but only two of its 17 communities are primarily gay: Fire Island Pines and the much older and smaller Cherry Grove. The only way to get to either community is by passenger ferry from Sayville, an exurb on Long Island’s "mainland."
The 20-minute boat ride to the Pines represents a clear break from the rest of the United States. It’s a truly seasonal town: During the worst of the "R" months, only a handful of year-round residents risk being isolated by the ice that brings to a halt the already sparse winter ferry schedule. There are no cars, deer roam freely, and the only protection anyone needs is a plus-15 sunscreen.
With but 600 homes and 120 co-op apartments, the Pines has had an outsized influence on gay history, the collective gay culture and the wider world. More than anyplace else in these United States, gay men here have long reveled in their splendid isolation. A sarong, sunglasses and sandals are considered overdressed when a Speedo and trucker hat will do. Men transport such essentials as flower bouquets, cases of booze and designer beach towels along the elevated wooden boardwalks in wheelbarrow carts or children’s red wagons.
The original developer of the Pines intended it as a weekend getaway for families of the World War II veterans streaming into hastily built Long Island suburbs like iconic Levittown. However, gay men from Cherry Grove, which since the 1920s has been known as a gay resort, started infiltrating the Pines almost as soon as the first boardwalks were hammered together. By 1965, enough of New York’s gay A-list streamed into the Pines that it was able support a gay nightclub, even if local law still mandated that a woman had to be dancing between two men, and police rounded up in midnight sweeps gay men cruising the nearby wooded area.
The Sandpiper became the eastern outpost of the first generation of New York City nightclubs catering specifically to gay men, with those like the Sanctuary becoming prototypes for discos like Studio 54. Tom Moulton developed the concept of the EP at the Sandpiper, helping to pioneer dual turntables and mixing records and eliminating the need for DJs to jump from one record to another in imitation of a jukebox. DJs like Robbie Leslie cut their teeth playing for the crowds that arrived when the restaurant tables were cleared away. But on Saturday nights, the Ice Palace, a dedicated disco in Cherry Grove, remained the place to be. During the 1970s, troupes of sweaty, exhausted, ever-horny men would trudge back home to the Pines through the "Meat Rack": the forested quarter-mile stretch between the Pines and Grove whose name is forever synonymous with recreational sex in the great outdoors.
Pavilion 1.0: Birth of a Legend
All that changed in 1980, when a consortium of gay men tore down the Sandpiper and erected a glamorous new mega (at least for Fire Island) club. It was essentially a big room with speakers planted in all four corners. A balcony afforded a good view of the writhing, sweaty bodies below, while the outside second-floor deck gave dancers a chance to cool down and enjoy the moonlight dancing off the waves that gently rocked the private boats moored in Pines Harbor.
When John Whyte - a former model who already owned a decent chunk of the Pines’ tiny commercial area - bought the Pavilion, he installed mirrors along the walls and crystal chandeliers bought at an estate auction (of a man who was the "house mother" of this writer’s first share on Fire Island, it so happens). Whyte was an inveterate snob, a starfucker of the highest order who name-dropped everyone from screen goddess Hedy Lamarr to ABC weatherman Sam Champion. But Whyte was an astute businessman who knew his clientele.
Whyte would have been the first to admit that his knowledge of popular music ended with Cole Porter. He wisely left that part of his affairs to astute managers who ferreted out the best of New York City’s new crop of DJs. Dancers (and flaggers!) who packed the Pavilion on weekends became a real force in dance music: They could break open a new dance song or sink it. Among the Pavilion’s clientele were America’s tastemakers, but everyone felt free to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to songs and DJs.
The club gave many up-and-coming DJs a place where they could bump up from "promising" to "arrived." A successful gig at the Pavilion guaranteed "white party" bookings from Miami to Palm Springs, as well as every color of party in between. Among the DJs who made giant career leaps at the Pavilion are Susan Morabito and Victor Calderone.
Whyte had amassed nearly all of the commercial property fronting Pines Harbor. The Pavilion abutted a few ramshackle converted railcars housing mom-and-pop (or pop-and-pop) businesses: liquor, cut flowers and real estate - the three major engines of commerce in the Pines. Behind them and protected from looky-loos was the outdoor gym, the Pines’ version of a public square. Its largest swimming pool was also back there, part of the Botel, the town’s only hotel. Whyte’s pride and joy was the Blue Whale, a restaurant that hosted afternoon teas that became town meetings. Beside the restaurant is the town’s grocery store, famous for its superbly "edited" selection of food and sky-high prices.
Actually, everything on Fire Island is expensive, even by New York City standards. Commodities, as well as those who sell and service them, must be boated in from the mainland. Any profits come from the brief "season" that lasts only a few months. Summer weekends washed out by rain are a misfortune; the very occasional hurricane can be catastrophic.
Whyte made hay while the sun shone, as they say. He helped keep his overhead low by plowing little money back into capital improvements. By the early part of this century, the Pavilion had become nearly as well-known for the Black Hole of Calcutta-level heat on busy Saturday nights that resulted in sweat beads that completely covered the wall-length mirrors, and a broken urinal left lying on the floor like a Marcel Duchamp exhibit on acid. The wooden pilings that, as with every other building on the island, supported the entire structure became weak, tilting the dance floor enough to make dancers appear less like Calvin Klein at Studio 54 - and more like Shelley Winters grabbing a chandelier in "The Poseidon Adventure."