The Freaks Came Out to Play at Disco Legend Nicky Siano’s Bumper Car Birthday
This represented a different era of New York nightlife--one where clubbers of all races, genders, and sexual identities mixed freely on the dancefloor.
The premise for Nicky Siano's birthday bash was almost too good to be true. A disco party? In a bumper car arcade? With a sound system designed by the same guy behind Studio 54 and Paradise Garage? Wait... and it's in Coney Island? With free food and drinks? Could this really be happening?!
Luckily, this party recipe of extremely unusual ingredients wasn't the acid-induced reverie of some brain-fried raver. The once-in-a-lifetime event was real—and it was unforgettable.
On Saturday evening, the DJ's 60th birthday bash drew hundreds of guests to Coney Island's Eldorado Bumper Car Arcade, a perfectly retro carnival attraction that looked straight out of the 70s. Hopping through the turnstiles, I found a pitch black dancefloor flashing with neon lights and sirens.
From the African-American gentlemen leaning stoically against the DJ booth ("These songs are older than you are!" one of them told me with a grin), to the strutting queens in head-to-toe tropical print, the regal lesbians in Afrika Bambaataa bomber jackets and the gap-toothed grandmas, the arcade was packed with beaming specimens of another era, giving it up for their unbridled love of disco.
Nobody should be surprised that Siano threw one hell of a party. The trailblazing DJ established one of New York's first discos, the Gallery—a private club where Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan worked, blowing up balloons and spiking the punch with acid before they too became house music legends. As one of Studio 54's resident DJs, Siano pioneered techniques that would become indispensable for future DJs, such as the art of smooth mixing and beatmatching.
However, he mostly chose to play records from start-to-finish at this party, leaving long pauses between songs in a reminiscent of David Mancuso at the Loft. Some of the younger guests were puzzled by this: "This is the worst mixing ever. Just choose a song, dude!" said one guy in an Opening Ceremony jacket next to the skee-ball machine. But other guests applauded with delight between songs, hooting "Happy birthday Nicky!" while wiping the sweat from their brows.
Many of these attendees were present at the birth of disco, and nothing could stop them from sing-shouting every word to classics like Debbie Jacobs's "Don't You Want My Love," Odyssey's "Native New Yorker" and Vicki Sue Robinson's "Turn The Beat Around." Their jubilation was contagious, and the energy in the room was nostalgic, celebratory, and often dizzyingly ecstatic. It certainly helped that the dancefloor was sprinkled with a thin layer of baby powder, making it that much easier to spin in circles while doing the Funky Chicken.
This music and its people represented a different era of New York nightlife--one where being a freak was chic, and clubbers of all races, genders, and sexual identities mixed freely on the dancefloor. As survivors of the AIDS epidemic, and pioneers of the nightlife scenes that evolved into what we have today, their effortless embrace of diversity was a beautiful reminder of a bygone era. In today's gentrified and often segregated club worlds, dancing next to white-haired sextagenarians who couldn't give two shits what you looked like or what circle of the city's hierarchy you occupied wasn't just refreshing, it felt like an honor.
As 2 AM approached, people started filing out, some heading to the subway for a long ride to the next party or back home, others stopping for a hot dog at the iconic Nathan's stand next door. But in the words of one guest draped in a bubblegum-pink fur coat, "this party is already epic."
Michelle Lhooq is THUMP's Features Editor. Follow her on Twitter.