Although John Travolta received top billing in Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 film contained another, equally charismatic and significant star: 2001 Odyssey, the Brooklyn dance club that served as the inspiration for the movie and the location for all those gyrating Travolta dance scenes. Dark, smoky, pulsating with a macho sexual energy, the club came to epitomize the era of the Huckapoo shirt and the Hustle.
Hollywood tends to play fast and loose with the truth, or exaggerate to suit its own needs, but Fever‘s depiction of 2001 Odyssey was remarkably accurate. Half of the film’s extras were club regulars (including the go-go dancer) and Odyssey was, in fact, the headquarters for a generation of working class Brooklynites who lived and breathed for Saturday night. Like the music it helped to popularize, the club lived and died on the disco beat, entertaining swelling crowds during the mid to late ’70s before changing formats in the face of the disco backlash. In 1987, under new ownership, the club became Spectrum 2000, a popular gay disco that remained open until this past February, when the building was sold, the club closed, and the lighted dance floor auctioned off. We open the doors and light the dance floor once more to let the people who worked and hung out there tell the club’s story. — Steven Kurutz
RALPHIE D’AGOSTINO, DJ 2001 Odyssey: Odyssey was a Brooklyn disco for the Brooklyn lifestyle. It was about going out on the weekends. Meeting girls. Having fun. You had to look the part. You had to talk the part.
The staff of 2001 Odyssey. Bottom row, left to right: unknown smoothie, Denise Rusinak (owner’s daughter), Charlie Rusinak (owner). Second row, left to right: Joe Adario (security), Sheri (coat check), Robin (coat check), Vito Bruno (bouncer), Anthony (security). Third row, left to right: unknown, Bruno (security), Joey (security). Top row: unknown
CHUCK RUSINAK, DJ and manager at 2001 Odyssey: My father opened the 802 Club in the fall of 1948. It was formerly a Norwegian soccer club. He opened it along with Lou Douhly, his brother-in-law. He had nightclub acts. On the weekends, there was a band and a comedian who did his routine. He introduced a dancer, which was a stripper or a belly dancer. A lot of Italian singers came out of there. You had your Jerry Vale, Al Martino. We had Jimmy Rosselli. The comedian Pat Cooper started there. In the ’50s and ’60s it was basically couples. Maybe it was somebody’s anniversary or birthday party. His claim to fame early on was that he had the first sex-change girl, Christine Jorgensen, at the club. She got shunned by the Copacabana. It caused a lot of notoriety and publicity.
VITO BRUNO, party promoter, 2001 Odyssey bouncer: The story that I remember hearing from Charlie was that the 802 Club was dying and New Year’s Eve would pull them out every year. Disco was the salvation for many of those clubs.
CHUCK RUSINAK: The Lou Montis and the Jimmy Rossellis were getting older. That whole world faded. In the early ’70s, I was coming of age. I was in college at the time. I was into disco music. My father gravitated to the change in format. We kept the stage. We put mylar on the walls and hung big, multi-colored plastic balls from the ceiling to give the illusion that you were out in space.
ALEX MARCHAK, club regular, extra in Saturday Night Fever: You’d walk in and go down a couple of stairs. To the right was a small room with a big U-shaped bar and a pinball machine. There was a go-go dancer in that part of the bar. Some people would hang out there and never go into the disco. If you went straight when you walked down the stairs it was like a little lobby. There were bathrooms and a coat check and down the hall to the left was the disco. As soon as you opened the doors you saw the dance floor. In 1975, the lighted dance floor wasn’t there. It was some kind of metal floor. Then when they did the movie they put the famous floor in and extra lighting on the ceiling.
CHUCK RUSINAK: I had seen a club up in Montreal called the Limelight that had a stainless-steel metal floor. I noticed that the sound coming off of it was funky. So we put a stainless steel dance floor in. To kick it off we started booking acts. The first act we had was Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. We used to book the acts for five days — Wednesday through Sunday. We had the Stylistics. We had the mainstays like Gloria Gaynor. We had the Trammps every six weeks or so.
“It wasn’t the type of club where people were having sex in the back. The backseat of a nice Electra or Monte Carlo would do."
ALEX MARCHAK: The Trammps were the big thing at the time. That was the hot band. The club would get four or five hundred people there. Sometimes it’d be so crowded that you couldn’t get in.
ED CERMANSKI, keyboards the Trammps: We had been at Studio 54 and we all heard about what that was like. But Odyssey wasn’t like that. It was people having a good time. Guys coming to meet girls. People were well dressed and they really took their dancing seriously. I was from the ’60s era. Touch dancing didn’t exist in the ’60s. And then during disco people were actually touching, whether it was the Hustle or whatever.
RALPHIE DEE: Odyssey was mostly a singles place. There were couples, but they were mostly the curious types who came because of the movie. For me, it was a different outlook. I really didn’t have to do much of anything because I was the DJ. I’d tell one of my friends, “See that girl with the black top on? Tell her I want to talk to her.” But being a patron of the place, you would have a better chance of getting anywhere if you knew how to dance. You had to be dressed nice. And clothing wasn’t very expensive in those days. Quiana shirts were, like, $10 a piece. You’d buy one with a print, one solid. People wore the suits in Brooklyn not because they had to, but because they wanted to. That was the formula.
VITO BRUNO: It was a young crowd. The guys back in those days, even though they were broke, they were dripping with their gold chains. It’s like it is today, when you go to the club you show off. Back in those days, the girls got dressed up. They got decked. The girls liked the tough boys. The toughest, meanest guy always got the girl. It’s kind of like the animal kingdom. There was a fight every hour, a huge guido ball. Those fights were over everything from a girl to why did you look in my general direction? Testosterone, teens and alcohol.
BILLY AMENDOLA, drummer Mantus: Odyssey and L’Amour were the hottest clubs in Brooklyn. 2001 was always packed. There used to be some wacky guys. They were just living that fantasy of going out on the dance floor. Some of them really could dance and then other guys were just in their own world. I remember the girl that used to dance in the front. I have this vision of sneaking into that front room and seeing her dance on that little stage. A lot of the owner’s friends would hang out there. Looking back, it was an older crowd in that room. I knew the DJ, Ralphie Dee, so I would hang out in the DJ booth. Later on, Mantus played there a few times. Everybody had short hair and gold chains. We used to call them cuigines.
CHUCK RUSINAK: A cuigine is somebody that would wear a huckapoo shirt, a pair of dance shoes. Very secure of himself, a womanizer, a little bit of a tough guy too. "Don’t mess my hair up, otherwise you got a problem. I get a baseball bat."
PATTY SOFIA, 2001 Odyssey regular, reformed cuigine: A lot of people got dressed up in those days. We used to buy the silk Quiana shirts. We used to put gold chains around our necks and blow our hair back. I drove a ’77 Coupe De Ville, Triple White. Everything was white except for the dashboard, which was red. I had the only true spoke wheels in Brooklyn. It’s true.
RALPHIE DEE: Girls traveled in packs. It was mostly three or four girlfriends. How did they dress? It was always heels. And women used to wear these lycra body suits with a skirt over it, or really tight dungarees. Sergio Valente jeans. But makeup was the thing. You’d look at a girl’s pocketbook in those days and there was twenty-seven different kinds of lipstick and eyeliner. Sex was a lot more open. It wasn’t the type of club where people were having sex in the back. I saw it occasionally. But it wasn’t a sex club. It was very common to leave the club at 3 a.m. and see somebody in the back of a car. You didn’t have motels. People were young and still living with their parents. The backseat of a nice Electra or Monte Carlo would do.
VITO BRUTO: There was no sex going on in the club like there was in the city. Manhattan was a cocaine scene. That wasn’t happening in Brooklyn. People definitely hooked up in cars. The cars were the thing. I guess we learned that from the people in the 1950s who learned it from the rumble seats in the ’30s.
CHUCK RUSINAK: They would do the cuigine lean. That’s when you get into your car, which was generally a big Oldsmobile. The driver is leaning out to the left with one hand on the wheel. The passenger is leaning out to the right, looking for girls. If they were some place they shouldn’t be and saw somebody they’d duck. "Look out, there’s your aunt! You’re supposed to be at the pasticceria." All you’d see was half of a head. It looked like two midgets driving. It was a fun time.
VITO BRUNO: It was Joey B, Bobby Rotella, Tommy Fabian, Joey Viola, Patty Sofia — those were the regular kids. Then you had Anthony the security guard and Joe the cop. Then you had Buttons and her brother Joey, who were dancers in the movie. Then you had Alex Marchak. He was a relative of Chuck. He was in the movie. In the coat check you had Robin, Snapper and Sherry.
PATTY SOFIA: You had another guy, Jimmy the Perv. When he sang to the girls he used to put dirty words in the songs. Then there was Charlie, the owner. Charlie was a wonderful man. He liked to dance. My friend Ralphie D’Agostino, Ralphie Dee, used to be the DJ there. We were there Friday night and Saturday night.
RALPHIE DEE: I had just gotten my first DJ job at a bar on the other side of Brooklyn called the Drift In. I’d say this was early ’77. I remember I had to go to a wedding and I stopped in to 2001 Odyssey. I was amazed at the size of the club and all the people because I was used to working at a bar. The DJ’s name was Chuck Rusinak. We hit it off immediately. I was always into equipment and we started talking EQs and mixers. It was the first big club where I got into the DJ booth. But, truthfully, the place was a dive. It had been there for forty years.
NIK COHN, writer: I remember the first night I ever saw the club. I was doing a story on Tu Sweet, a disco dancer. He told me about this club in Bay Ridge. As we got closer, Tu Sweet began to forget the directions and we got lost. It was the dead of winter. There was no heating in the car we were in. In those days, that whole area was a wasteland. There were automotive chop shops and nothing else except storage spaces with attack dogs. Finally, we see in the distance this light. This was a biblically bitter night. And these guys were standing outside wearing those skintight disco shirts. One guy came over and leaned in the window and threw up on my trousers. At which point I didn’t think this was my night.
CHUCK RUSINAK: Nik Cohn approached my father. He came down for a couple of weekends and observed. He looked out of place — squirrelly guy with an old trench coat. He questioned some of the people in the place. It became a cover story for New York magazine.
"There was a real Tony Manero. His name was Eugene Robinson. He had blonde hair. He didn’t work in a paint store. He worked in a supermarket."
NIK COHN: I had just arrived in America. I had no real journalistic standards. I wrote novels. I had a few conversations at the club and I couldn’t get below the surface. I was out of my depth. It was completely a masculine dominated world. Girls just kind of waited around this dance floor for male pleasures. When the Hustle came on the boys didn’t face the girls, they faced forward in a military phalanx.
RALPHIE DEE: The prime hours at a club are from midnight to around 2:30. The club offered me the backup job, playing Friday and Saturday. I would come in at ten and play at twelve. Then I would come back on and play from three to four. They were paying me more at the bar. Do I stay at my job at the bar? Or do I take a $25 cut to play at Odyssey? I chose Odyssey because there were more people. That move changed my life. About two or three weeks into the gig I came in one night and saw all these lights. Somebody said, "They’re going to be filming this movie here." The production started in the middle of ’77. One of the last places they filmed was the club. The original movie was called Saturday Night.
NIK COHN: The story in New York magazine came out on Monday and I had tea with Robert Stigwood [the film’s producer] on Monday. He had signed Travolta to a three-picture deal and was looking for vehicles. I had no instinct when I was writing the article that it was going to be anything. I thought it was going to be a little film that might get made.
CHUCK RUSINAK: Two guys from a production company approached us, Milt Felsen and John Nicolella. They said, "we’re going to film a movie on Saturday Night Fever. We’d much rather use the original club." We asked who was in it. Being in the nightclub business, I didn’t know who John Travolta was.
BILLY AMENDOLA: During the filming of the movie you couldn’t even drive on Eighth Avenue because traffic was insane. Everybody was there to see John Travolta.
CHUCK RUSINAK: Fifty percent of the people in the dance scenes were club regulars. You’ll see a girl being spun around like a top. That’s Buttons. Her real name is Elizabeth Curcio. She and her brother were a dance team.
RALPHIE DEE: I went to the club one night when they were filming one of the dance floor scenes. They needed some extras and some guy asked me to be in the scene. So I stood in the corner and they did a bunch of takes. I was in another scene where Travolta bolts out of the club and calls the place a shit hole. If you freeze-frame you can see all 140 pounds of me with a leather jacket on.
ALEX MARCHAK: When they were shooting, I was down there every day. I didn’t think anything was going to happen. It looked like such a low budget film. Being there and watching them doing it you never thought it would be what it became.
RALPHIE DEE: The premiere was December 16th, 1977, at the Oceana in Brighton Beach. Once the premiere was over, there was a big party at the club. That was the beginning of everything. After the movie came out, the club was packed beyond belief. You couldn’t move. I was becoming a mini-celebrity. Going out during that time I got carte blanche. It was good to be my friend.
CHUCK RUSINAK: The producers offered us one-tenth of one percent, or a flat rate. We figured we would take a flat rate. I wish I had that one tenth of one percent. You wouldn’t be talking to me. You’d be talking to my agent. I’d be on a boat somewhere in the Caribbean.
LORI PEDONE, club regular, late ’70s: There was such a fascination with 2001 Odyssey. I was a little bit younger but I would do anything to get in there. A little bit of makeup and a bit of padding and heels and it worked. I loved to Hustle. I was mesmerized by the dance floor. It was just amazing. The way it lit up from one end to the other, just seeing somebody from across the dance floor?
VITO BRUNO: At one point, it was so busy that people would come in for three hours, we’d empty the club and then line everybody up again. It was two different worlds. Pre-movie I was a kid hanging out there and it was a little scene. After the movie came out the room was bright with the new dance floor and the lighting. Then you had all these new people. The kids that were there prior to the film felt territorial. It was their place. One kid tried to sue Paramount saying he was the real Tony Manero. He walked around the club with a lawyer and a white suit.
"We sold chairs: ‘John Travolta sat here.’ I sold many chairs. I once caught two guys trying to sneak out the back with a table."
RALPHIE DEE: There was a real Tony Manero. His name was Eugene Robinson. He didn’t captivate the club like Travolta. But the guy was a really good dancer. He had blonde hair. He didn’t work in a paint store. He worked in a supermarket. He’d come in to Odyssey with agents and lawyers and people would take pictures of him. I never saw him in any movies, but you can’t blame the guy. Nobody thought that it would ever be a cultural phenomenon.
NIK COHN: Tony Manero was a complete invention. I never pretended this was journalistically sound. What I was schooled in was the mods, in London, in the late-’60s. What struck me was the rites, the rituals, were the same. The sense above all that the rest of life may be shit, but come Friday night the weekend is here and you’re king of the night. There are models for the characters, but they were West London mods, circa 1965. But anybody who fancied themselves king of the disco for twenty miles around could say, "They told my story."
CHUCK RUSINAK: We had a lot of foreigners coming in. One time we had five busloads of people coming in from Montreal. We sold chairs: "John Travolta sat here." I sold many chairs. I once caught two guys trying to sneak out the back with a table. "Fellas, what are you doing?" "We’re trying to get some memorabilia."
RALPHIE DEE: I would say the tourists didn’t start coming until ’79. But the rest of ’78 was when the over exposure of disco started. You had disco pizza, disco jeans, disco Kool-Aid. Odyssey started the first ever kiddie disco, on Saturdays from twelve to five. They wanted me to come in and DJ. I’m like, "guys, that’s my beach time." It became not cool to go to Odyssey. Other clubs opened in Brooklyn. I started meeting other DJs who were envious of me, but they were getting our core crowd and we were getting the tourists.
Today. Ralphie Dee (top), still a DJ. and Vito Bruno, now a party promoter.
PATTY SOFIA: Other clubs started opening up. You had Penthouse. Night Gallery. Also, TJ Bentley’s or was it Jasmine’s? People started going to those places.
CHUCK RUSINAK: In 1980, I was on the golf course in Miami with my dad and this promoter Eddie. He said to my father, "you remember that club on Biscayne Boulevard? During the day they have male dancers there. The women go crazy." So we started having male strippers at the club. Friday night was ladies night only. On Sundays, we had rock.
BILLY AMENDOLA: That club went through so many changes. I remember seeing Twisted Sister there. I remember laughing and thinking, this is where disco was at its height?
CHUCK RUSINAK: Twisted Sister took about twenty Saturday Night Fever albums and burned them on the stage. One of the regulars ran up and tried to salvage them. She got into a big ruckus with Twisted Sister’s girl roadie.
RALPHIE DEE: I worked in Odyssey from ’77 to right around ’80. The club had a nice little run. In ’80, everything started to change. The attendance had gone down to a minimum. The music changed. I started to DJ at clubs in Staten Island. Then I went to a place in Manhattan called the Rooftop.
CHUCK RUSINAK: My uncle had a retirement party in July of ’83. Not long after, my father was changing a light fixture in the club and he fell and hit one of the banisters. He got multiple fractures on his hip and his leg. He chose to go to the Veterans’ hospital. Someone put the cast on too tight and he died of a blood clot. My uncle didn’t want to continue with the club. I didn’t have it in me to continue. The nightclub business was turning sour. Drugs were rampant. Studio 54 was closing. There was no direction in music. You had everything from new wave to rap. There was nothing that you could finger and say, "I know where to go with the club." There was no more dancing. No one was doing the hustle. n°
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
|Steven Kurutz is a writer for The New York Times. His work has also appeared in Salon, Details, Spin and the Sunday Telegraph Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn.
©2005 Steven Kurutz and hooksexup.com