American Swing: The heyday of Plato’s Retreat

Larry Levenson, a brisket wholesaler, started the swing club Plato’s Retreat in 1977. Charging between $25 and $36 for admission (which included a dubious buffet), Levenson later that year moved Plato’s to a former gay bathhouse in the basement of Manhattan’s Ansonia Hotel. From then until 1981, Plato’s was like the Studio 54 for the working class, a backyard barbeque where everyone happened to be naked.

American Swing is the compelling and surprisingly sweet culmination of three years of research and interviews by filmmakers Matthew Kaufman and Jon Hart, and the documentary features a Who’s Who of disco-era New York and Golden Age porn, from Buck Henry, Betty Dodson, and Melvin Van Peebles to Freddie Lincoln, Jamie Gillis, and Ron Jeremy.

“We were degenerates,” Levenson said, “but we were good people.”

The doc cannot avoid a certain “Behind the Music” formula: Until Levenson and his partners were busted for tax evasion in 1981 (petty cash was kept in large bags), Plato’s was the playground of plumbers, judges, celebrities, lawyers, parents who’d left the kids with babysitters for the night, visiting porn stars and, most importantly, people you’d never expect to see flouncing around in towels.

“(The Mattress Room) was 200 bodies writhing together like a bucket of worms,” said Leg Show editor Dian Hanson.

“No one batted an eye if you looked different,” said another patron.

The impression is that Plato’s was a family business. Husband and wife managers Charlie and Anne Grippo are one of American Swing‘s many highlights; even in period photographs (both are now in their late 60’s), the Grippos seemed an unlikely pair to run a swing club.

And for a while, Democracy prevailed at Plato’s. There was even a Plato’s West for four months in Los Angeles (you could imagine Robert Evans and Jack Nicholson being the only patrons).

By the time Levenson was released from prison in 1984, however, Plato’s was a different place. Prostitutes had moved in where sex had been gratis, and the specter of AIDS kept attendance down. It did not help that Levenson tried to calm public health concerns by saying things like “with the smell of chlorine in the air, the AIDS virus does not have a chance; it’s a factual thing.”

Plato’s Retreat was finally shuttered by Mayor Ed Koch in 1985, and Levenson seems to have lost his mooring. He got heavier, started driving a cab, and died shortly after undergoing a quadruple bypass in 1999.

But the voices in American Swing fondly describe what sounds like a very pleasant time, where even getting crabs seems quaint compared to what the 80’s held in store. Despite a jacuzzi that Screw Magazine founder Al Goldstein described as “chemical warfare,” you might even call the late 70’s at Plato’s Came-a-lot.

American Swing opens tomorrow in New York and next Friday in Hollywood.

  • See a gallery from American Swing here.

Previously on Porn Valley Observed: Lemon cream facials and champagne milk baths; When is a sex party not an orgy?
See also: Magnolia Pictures’ American Swing

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