That Eighties Show

As nostalgia for the fun-filled Studio 54 era kicks in, don't forget Reagan, Boesky, and nuclear winter

For the kinder, the Eighties are one long Cyndi Lauper video, all asymmetrical haircuts, striped leg warmers, and fun, fun, fun 'til daddy takes the DeLorean away. For those of us who actually lived through the decade, however, that imaginary nostalgia is leavened with a bit more ambivalence -- a filmography that includes the post-nuclear wasteland of The Day After as well as the fresh-faced Brat Pack, and a soundtrack that owes as much to flailing punk and sheer rage as the chilly New Wave and angstful navel-gazing so beloved by the electroclash crowd. Moreover, having a queer eye in the Eighties may have landed you a lot of things, but a network television show wasn't one of them.

Accordingly, at the recent Raleigh Hotel party for Manhattan shutterbug Patrick McMullan and his new bookSo80s: A Photographic Diary of a Decade, the Eighties vets in attendance were more bemused than celebratory. Drag queen extraordinaire Elaine Lancaster, hardly one to suffer fools lightly, kept her elbows in check while threading her seven-foot-tall frame through the velvet rope crush -- a mix of Art Basel visitors and the usual South Beach gang, which can smell an open bar from a mile away. "I don't usually stoop to your level," Lancaster offered dryly, crouching over to exchange air kisses with Kulchur and his companion, "but for tonight, I'll make an exception."

Even Rudolf Piper, co-owner of Nerve and holder of a storied resume stretching back across the nightlife annals to Danceteria and Studio 54, held his usually caustic tongue. "Some people just keep doing it," he shrugged when asked how he had managed to remain a clubland fixture all these years. As for his erstwhile dance-floor partners, "they're all real estate agents now." With just a hint of wistfulness he added, "They've become so respectable."

Nightlife impresario Rudolf Piper, circa 1985 -- just one 
of the Miamians photographed in Patrick McMullan's 
So80s.
Nightlife impresario Rudolf Piper, circa 1985 -- just one of the Miamians photographed in Patrick McMullan's So80s.

Informed that his pictures in So80s possessed an eerie Dick Clark quality -- neither impresario appeared to have aged a single year in the intervening decades -- Piper merely gave a mock bow. "I'll just take that and say thank you," he quipped before slipping off to mingle with fellow Eighties survivors Debbie Ohanian (looking equally age-defying), painter Mark Kostabi, and author Brian Antoni.

Former Level honcho Maxwell Blandford, now orchestrating events for the Delano Hotel (whose owner, Studio 54 co-proprietor Ian Schrager, has his own share of war stories), wasn't sure what to make of all the Reagan-era revivalism either. But he had a personal sign of the times. His newly lucrative sideline? "I guess you could call me a bar mitzvah party planner," Blandford explained, as unsure as Kulchur on whether this post-Eighties transformation was a positive career development or the eighth sign of the apocalypse.

Crobar, a frequent site for underage debauchery, was the venue for Blandford's latest rager, the emergence into Jewish manhood of Jonathan Gross, son of Miami Beach Commissioner Saul (usually referred to in this column as the "sane one" on the dais), and whose devotion to Eighties rap icon Grandmaster Flash seemed as profound as that for his Haftorah section. The VIPs in attendance may have tended more toward Uncle Morty and Grandma Freda than P. Diddy and Lil' Kim, but Blandford's DJ was under strict orders to spin a steady diet of hip-hop. "You wouldn't believe it," Blandford continued, mimicking the sea of thirteen-year-olds grinding away underneath crobar's glitterball and throwing mock gang signs: Boychicks in the Hood. "It even went after hours," he recalled with a smirk, "until 9:00 p.m."

Don't expect to untangle the decade's meanings via McMullan's photos in So80s. Not that his shots aren't evocative, by turns playful and -- with the realization of how many of his subjects have passed away -- poignant. It's just that McMullan's visual aesthetic is as all-inclusive as the glib hagiography that passes for so much of today's cultural history on the period. A Calvin Klein-hosted party for Elton John competes for attention with Robert Mapplethorpe and East Village break dancers. A picture of graffiti artist and proto rapper Futura 2000 follows one of grizzled Kiss guitarist Paul Stanley. Indie film guru Jim Jarmusch, fresh off 1984's convention-shattering Stranger Than Paradise (his arm draped around a barely post-adolescent Courtney Love -- the amorous road not taken), is given the same respectful spotlight as then-Hollywood titan Sylvester Stallone.

In fact the only common denominator among these disparate scenes is McMullan himself. After a bit of prodding, he admitted as much. "It's not a book of the Eighties, it's a book of my Eighties," he conceded, though he's loath to wholly dismiss the myth of the decade's signature blend. "Uptown people would come downtown. Downtown needed their money." And once there, spontaneity ruled, a mood that allowed him access to shoot a who's who of boldface names, from John F. Kennedy, Jr., to Jack Nicholson: "Once you were in, you were in. Nowadays Britney Spears arrives with a whole layer around her -- a wall of security and her publicist."

True to form, though, McMullan remains the one figure gliding among today's varied milieus, from Paris Hilton's tabletop shimmying to Park Avenue's more sedate gatherings. When the Martha Stewart insider-trading scandal broke, it was McMullan who had the sole pictures of Stewart smiling alongside her now-indicted stockbroker, society walker du jour Peter Bacanovic. So did he feel an Eighties flashback to the federal takedowns of Wall Street-ers Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky? Not exactly, McMullan explained sheepishly: "Peter was my broker too."

 
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