The late 1970’s and early 1980’s have gone down in counter-cultural history as the time when New York City was at its most challenging, energetic and artistically innovative. The city was broke, rent was cheap and there was plenty of space to create and party for those who were not afraid of tagged up subways, muggers and the used hypodermic needles littering the streets of the Lower East Side. A well-defined narrative names the important artists, musicians and scenesters of the time, as well as the places where they hung out and partied: Max’s Kansas City for the rockers, Studio 54 for the wealthy and famous cocaine people in glittery clothing; The Mudd Club for new wave hipsters and CBGB’s for anti-fashionable downtown punks and students. For some reason, Club 57 is rarely mentioned although it was an important meeting place and venue for much of what made the downtown scene so vibrant during that era. Artists such as Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and occasionally Jean-Michel Basquiat hung out there, lots of crazy performances that straddled the boundary of art, poetry and music went down. There were wacky activities like Tuesday night monster movie showings, Elvis birthday parties, lady wrestling and reggae mini golf in the basement. The Club 57 scene first coalesced during an event at Irving Plaza, at a 4 day festival in 1978 called the New Wave Vaudeville Show, put together by Ann Magnuson, Susan Hannaford Rose and Tom Skully and emcee’d by artist David McDermott. Performers included Ann Magnuson, Klaus Nomi, John Sex and Kristian Hoffman of no wave band The Mumps. At that time, Irving Plaza was associated with the Polish community and the man who ran the space approached the young New Wavers about programming a smaller and more alternative club he ran out of the basement of the Holy Cross Polish National Church at number 57 Saint Mark’s Place. Hence, Club 57 came into being.
The goings on at Club 57 were certainly not very holy. Fueled by psychedelic mushrooms and polymorphous perversity, the club was a raucous late-night drop in center for the wacked-out artists, musicians and personalities of the East Village scene. The managers of the space were open to all sorts of ideas, as long as they were creative, weird and fun. Like club Area that would come after it, theme nights were a hallmark of Club 57 and ran the gamut from casual occasions where people would dress up in costumes to elaborate multi-level environments that would take up the entire space with set pieces, videos and bands that were created just for the night (“enviroteques”). Some of the more memorable themes included “country and western”, “Depravnik Island night” (a Russian-themed party), Tammy Faye religious revival night and Ammo’s Universal Action Night in which something like 30 performances took place simultaneously.
Club 57 was only open for 4 years but in that time it played host to the alternative side of an already alternative neighborhood. Hostess Ann Magnuson refers to the club as a kind of “low rent” version of Andy Warhol’s factory, where the line between participant and observer was blurred. People who were regulars are fond of saying that if you remembered Club 57 at all then possibly you weren’t there after all. Melanie Cohn writes that what made the club so remarkable is that it was truly a space where experimental culture happened without being simultaneously co-opted.
Writing in ArtForum, Magnuson recalls those “joyful, jobless days when the only objective before sundown was to create art and pull that evening’s outfit together. Rent was nothing, and since you knew every doorman and bartender downtown, the nightlife was free. Money just seemed unimportant.” As Club 57 closed, some of its regulars became more and more successful and some were on the brink of losing their fight with the still-mysterious HIV virus or familiar deterioration of drug addictions. Several of the participants from the Club 57 scene died young, including Klaus Nomi, Keith Haring, Wendy Wild and Basquiat. Others went on to be very successful in their chosen creative fields, including Ann Magnuson, Kenny Scharf and Lydia Lunch. As Ann writes “we were forced—reluctantly and painfully—to grow up.”