By Leah Churner
Dir. Jon Hart & Matthew Kaufman, U.S., Magnolia Pictures
The “mat room” at Plato’s Retreat was a cushion-floored, crab-happy enclosure with space enough for fifty couples to swing in the strictest sense. A sign on the wall read NO ONE ADMITTED FULLY DRESSED/WHEN FEMALE LEAVES, MALE MUST ALSO LEAVE, enforced by a cross-armed bouncer known as the Matman, to keep tourists clear of the coital path and maintain gender equilibrium. Located in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel on Broadway and West 73rd Street, the Manhattan nightclub served up a dinner buffet, dancing and a nightly show, a swimming pool and a waterfall, and private, “mini-swing” cubicles for inhibited voyagers. Josh Alan Friedman described Plato’s down to the last dirty towel and roll of flypaper in his 1981 essay in Screw, now published in his book Tales of Times Square: “What Plato’s philosophy really reflects are plain old middle-class values, gone a bit haywire. I see poolside furniture, mirrored walls, Advent TV screens playing hardcore loops, a pool table, video games, and a live, blaring disco, the equivalent of any suburb, except the bodies are toweled or starkers. The disco here even contains a live disco DJ, spinning his platters of shit while rapping along.”
Plato’s opened in 1977, along with Studio 54 and Saturday Night Fever, the Son of Sam killings and the notorious blackout. It was New York City’s first hetero swingers’ club to facilitate sex on site, and it was mostly legitimate. A Time magazine article from 1978 provides statistics: “Open five nights a week, Plato’s attracts some 6,500 fun seekers—and grosses $90,000—a month . . . Most of the patrons appear to be between 20 and 45 years old, and the staff estimates that 65% are married suburbanites, who are presumably interested in sex that does not threaten family stability.” The cover was $50 per couple. No single men were admitted, but solo ladies were welcome for $10. Because Plato’s never obtained a liquor license, the bar served only juice and soft drinks during the eight years of its operation, evidently liquid courage enough for the Tri-state area crowd. Larry "The King of Swing" Levenson, the club’s founder, appeared on Donahue and The David Susskind Show, pushing his defense of Plato’s as a nonprofit organization devoted to helping “free-thinking, adult couples” to upgrade their marriages. Plato’s TV commercials—aired on Al Goldstein’s Midnight Blue public access program—had a jingle, "The pleasure and the fun will keep you feeling young. It’s for you!"
Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart’s documentary about Plato’s Retreat, American Swing, runs up against an old conundrum: the juicier the story, the messier the film. The leap from printed word to moving image removes the anonymity factor. The weekend sexual revolutionaries, the PTA members who motored in from Hackensack and Port Washington, were wary of going on record in print or on film as practitioners of "the Lifestyle" back in the Seventies, and they are even more reticent now that they have grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The club respected patrons’ privacy, and it would have been impossible to capture their own video with any measure of stealth back then, the average Portapak being upward of forty pounds. One can only imagine the clumsy encounters—the eyeglasses, the shapes, the giggling, bow-legged florists with Aqua Net up-dos and pot-bellied orthodontists—because American Swing contains no footage of actual swingers swinging. Instead, porn scenes shot at Plato’s serve as proof of the club’s existence; softcore festoons of oiled limbs and old-pro approximations of ecstasy. The filmmakers also turn to oral history, but predictably, the only people on hand to discuss their experiences are age-encrusted midtown hookers and sideliners on furlough from the VH1 punditry circuit (Annie Sprinkle, Ron Jeremy, Jamie Gillis, Melvin van Peebles, Helen Gurley Brown), who don’t represent the demographic of married suburbanites that the film insists was Plato’s bread and butter.
Even in the absence of bridge-and-tunnel voices, American Swing parks itself at the clean end of the smut spectrum—it’s a premium-cable-ready package—buoyed and punctuated by the Emotions “Best of My Love” and other disco standards. Cleaner than Friedman’s account, the film does retain a glimmer of the insipid gloom and existential despair that is the downside of debauchery. Al Goldstein, a fixture at Plato’s, points his cigar at the camera and sours the proceedings with a blunt epitaph for Levenson, who died of a heart attack at 65: “Larry was boring . . . his world was genitalia. He never read a book, he never had a thought.” One hollow-eyed interviewee: “We called Plato’s ‘the McDonald’s of Sex’ because it was across the street from a McDonald’s.” In fact the King of Swing’s last job title was general manager of a McDonald’s in Brooklyn, and he planned to sell Plato’s franchises. Like Hooters, Plato’s would take pride in its menu. The managers of the club, a still-married septuagenarian couple identified as Charlie and Annie, blithely lean back on their Florida-room sofa and enumerate the buffet options: “Chicken, ribs, lasagna, macaroni, chow mein, meatballs, cole slaw, cold cuts…did I say chicken?”
The economy-sized pleasure dome was democratic by nature; it was not ruled, like Studio 54, by draconian velvet rope. Anybody with cash could get in to Plato’s, where celebrity regulars included Richard Dreyfuss, Jerzy Kosinski, Sammy Davis Jr., Robin Leach, quarterback Dan Pastorini, and Abbie Hoffman, who couldn’t get laid there. Despite Levenson’s assertion that Plato’s was a 501(c), the club was underwritten by the mafia (this probably had something to do with the night Larry was found bleeding in a Queens parking lot with both of his legs broken, though one observer attributes this to his live-in girlfriend, Mary, who was rumored to have convinced his chauffeur to beat him up; she ended up in the psych ward at Bellevue—Dirty Larry, Crazy Mary!) and he spent three years behind bars for tax evasion.
American Swing is mostly noteworthy as a chronicle of the early AIDS epidemic. Rather than the clichéd roll call of the disease’s martyrs, the film explores the tabloid horror and the blind confusion about how the disease spread and who was at risk, as well as the city government’s struggle to control the epidemic. Levenson crusaded against Mayor Ed Koch. "With the smell of chlorine in the air at Plato’s Retreat, the AIDS virus does not have a chance, " he announced on a talk show. ABSOLUTLY [sic] NO ANAL SEX OR FELLATIO PERMITTED ON PLATO’S PREMISES, ruled a new sign at the club, but it had little effect on the increasingly hardcore crowd (Goldstein estimates that half of the women at Plato’s were prostitutes who advertised in Screw). “People who cared about their lives stopped going to sex clubs,” says one woman. In 1985, Levenson lost his battle with the city. The New York City Health Department shut down the club temporarily in November on charges on prostitution, then permanently the following month, for high-risk sexual activity, making Plato’s the first non-gay spot to be shuttered by the city on that charge.
But the film does not elaborate on what happened to American swinging, other than AIDS. The sexual revolution fizzled out; today, to be progressive is to eat slow food out of an eco-tote, and one need only turn on the television to notice that sex has migrated from the political and the spiritual spheres to the pharmacological—erectile dysfunction drugs, the cancer-preventing HPV vaccine, diabetes treatments, and any number of surgical corrections are the new avenues to libidinal health and happiness. No matter how poorly the New York Stock Exchange performs, the Giuliani municipal cleanup is unlikely to be fouled any time soon. While swingers of yore thought monogamy was the root of romantic woe, most young adults have grown up witnessing enough divorce to identify matrimony as the real problem. Swinging, like taking out a mortgage, is something that occurs to married people, calling for deliberation, choreography, and planning—but ours is a disorganized generation. Even as we hit thirty with no health insurance and no washer-dryer, we can shake our heads and cluck our tongues in pity for those poor boomers sweating out the last days of disco.