04.07.09

The Studio 54 of Sex

From its nude Jacuzzi to the orgy-filled “mat room,” at Plato’s Retreat you could have sex next to Sammy Davis Jr., a porn star, or even a bus driver, writes Jon Hart, the director of American Swing.

It started with a cab ride on a frigid December afternoon in the West Village. The driver pushed on the gas pedal and proceeded west through the labyrinth of downtown streets. “We were degenerates,” he said in a hoarse voice. “But we were good people.”

Less than a decade earlier, the driver, Larry Levenson, had owned a large part of midnight. While CBGB was ground zero for punk and Studio 54 was the focal point of celebrity nightlife, Plato’s Retreat, which Levenson owned, was the first public swingers club. It was where celebrities like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Richard Dreyfuss—to name just a very few—partied alongside the everyman.

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By the time I met Levenson, it was a decade after the demise of his empire. He was resigned to life as a hack, trolling for fares. I was a young journalist pursuing a piece on cab drivers. I had never heard of him, but I vaguely recalled seeing his club’s commercials on public-access television as a youngster. As he picked up fares, I peppered him with questions. It was the first meeting in what would become a close friendship that lasted until the day he died. During these years, Larry disclosed to me a wealth of memories that would ultimately enable me to co-direct American Swing, the new documentary about his infamous club.

At Plato’s, clothing was strictly optional, Levenson told me that first day in the cab. There was a buffet, a game room, a dance floor, an enormous Jacuzzi, and a mammoth swimming pool. In the back, there were private rooms for intimate acts. And right off the dance floor, sectioned off with plants, was Plato’s piece de resistance: the mat room, where exhibitionistic couples engaged in group activity.

Richard Dreyfuss, who lived several floors above the club, took more interest in adult performer Jamie Gillis, male star of Deep Throat, than the cuisine.

It was a different era—after Woodstock, before safe sex. Times Square was a pit of vice. Elected mayor on the strength of an anticrime platform, Edward I. Koch had just taken office. On the conservative Upper West Side, across the street from Fairway, the city’s well-known gourmet supermarket, Plato’s became a phenomenon mere weeks after its September 23, 1977, opening.

Just a year earlier, Levenson was struggling to get by. Twice-divorced and unemployed, he was selling soft drinks and ice cream on the beach at Coney Island. One night at the Golden Gate Motel, a downscale pit stop in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, Levenson met Ellie, a very married, adventurous housewife, who introduced him to the neighborhood’s subterranean clubs, where couples arranged intimate encounters at alternate locations. Soon after this, Levenson had a eureka moment: He decided to host parties, where everything could take place at one venue. “I wanted to make things more convenient,” he explained. A caterer with organized-crime connections took notice of Levenson’s soirees and inserted his claws. “Right now you got a grocery store,” said the caterer, Frank Pernice. “I can turn it into a supermarket.”

Levenson took the bait, and moved his shenanigans to the Ansonia Hotel, a majestic building on Broadway that had formerly housed the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse where Bette Midler used to sing. For the Ansonia’s opening night, though, he feared no one would show because it was pouring rain. He prayed for a crowd, and when he opened the Ansonia’s door, Levenson viewed a mass of humanity that stretched around the block. “I cried,” he told me. “It was the happiest day of my life.” Not everyone was thrilled. Bacho, Plato’s DJ, was alarmed by the lascivious activities. “Bacho ran over to me. He could not speak. He just pointed to the mat room,” Levenson recalled. “He did not know what kind of club this was. He thought it was a plain disco and people were just gonna dance.”

Once inside, couples participated in an unspoken tango. “If you wanted to make it with somebody, you reached over and caressed their leg,” said Levenson. “If your hand was not removed and the leg did not move away, you knew you were in.” After Dan Dorfman featured Plato’s in a New York magazine cover story, throngs from around the world descended upon Levenson’s dimly lit, adult fantasy land, where there were no clocks, no windows, and no velvet rope pretense. “Once you take your clothes off, everyone’s the same. Nudity is the great equalizer” said Levenson. “Bus drivers were partying with doctors and Wall Street people. No one cared about materialistic things or how much money you made. It was all about having a good time and making each other feel good.”

Unlike Studio 54, located a mile south, Levenson, who was kind and very funny, did not have a discriminating door policy. “I did not turn people away. I’ve always believed that there’s someone for everyone,” he said. “I had some uglies there. A girl could come in and say, ‘Hey, if she can get undressed, so can I.’ If you had all beauties there, it would be very intimidating.”

A hands-on proprietor, Levenson took particular pride in introducing timid neophyte couples to his lifestyle. “I’d introduce myself and show them around. I never wanted anyone to feel any pressure to do anything,” he recalled. “Forty-five minutes later, they’d be going at it in the mat room. Plato’s had tremendous pull.”

The club pulled in its fair share of celebrities, but they were not the stars of the party. “They just blended in,” said Levenson. "No one was there to see celebrities." Sammy Davis, Jr. was the exception. When he danced with the ladies, he created quite a stir. “Everyone loved Sammy,” said Levenson. After their shows, screenwriter Buck Henry and the Saturday Night Live crew popped in. Henry was amused by Plato’s hot-and-cold buffet—an offering Levenson extolled as if it were a feast fit for Dionysus. “The food there was great,” he insisted. “We had barbecued chicken and spare ribs. We had salads: chicken salad, shrimp salad, egg salad. We had everything.” Richard Dreyfuss, who lived at the Ansonia several floors above, took more interest in adult performer Jamie Gillis (male star of Deep Throat) than the cuisine. “He really wanted to meet Jamie,” laughed Levenson. “You’d think it would be the other way around.” Future governor (then grappler) Jesse “The Body” Ventura strutted the Plato’s premises. (He was so taken with the club that he reportedly wore his Plato's T-shirt in the ring.) But radio DJ Wolfman Jack didn’t care much for the salacious scene. “I introduced him to everyone at the Jacuzzi and they gave him a standing ovation,” recalled Levenson. “He was stunned. He did not say a word for the rest of the night.”

Meanwhile, Levenson became a mini-celebrity, appearing on talk shows like Donahue. “I was a regular guy that just wanted to have fun,” he said. “People related to me.” Back at the club, he put on sunrise shows. Adorned in a velour robe and jeweled crown, Levenson lip-synced Elvis’ “The Wonder of You.” After he turned on the lights to signal the club’s closing, he served breakfast. “After experiencing Plato’s, you can’t just go out to the real world. You gotta wind down,” said Levenson. “If any employee asked someone to leave, they were fired.”

Back in the real world, things were going awry for Levenson. In 1981, he and his two not-so-silent partners, Frank Pernice and Hy Gordon, and the Plato's accountant stood trial for skimming $2.3 million from the club. When the prosecutor asked Levenson—who was the only owner to take the stand—why Plato’s kept its accounting records off the premises, Levenson replied, “Where would I keep them, in the swimming pool?” He got some laughs—as well as eight years at Allenwood federal prison, a haven for ex-politicians and white-collar convicts in Pennsylvania. “It was camp,” recalled Levenson. “I sucked up the benefits. I joined every team. I won the pinochle tournament. I joined AA and I don’t even drink.”

When he returned to Plato’s in 1984, the party was just about done. AIDS was on everyone’s radar and attendance was in freefall. “People were scared,” Levenson said. After witnessing high-risk sex acts on Plato’s premises, law enforcement padlocked the club on New Year's Eve 1985. It never reopened.

Levenson wound up driving a cab and living in solitude in a modest studio basement. An optimist at heart, he was wistful rather than bitter. Right until the end—before he passed away following quadruple bypass heart surgery in 1999—he recalled Plato’s fondly. When we would discuss the mat room, he got a particular gleam in his eye. “The people in the mat room would just gel together. All you saw was 40 or 50 bodies—silhouettes,” he remembered. “It was some sight.”

Jon Hart has written for numerous publications, including the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and Time Out New York. American Swing is his first documentary. It's playing at the Quad in New York City and the Sunset Five in West Hollywood.