‘Saturday Night Fever’ at 40: Remember Palm Beach County’s discos, boogie nights?

11:51 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 Community
Disco dancers at Binky’s, a disco club on Datura Street in the 1970s. (Akira Suwa/The Palm Beach Post)

— “Night Fever,” The Bee Gees

It was a riotous explosion of slinky dance rhythms and propulsive beats, accompanied by some of the most singular fashion horrors ever inflicted on the American public in the latter half of the 20th century.

Forty years ago, we were all swept up in disco fever.

We boogied. We hustled. We got down. We wore silk shirts, flared pants, stacked shoes and flashy chains. We Farrah-ed our hair. We danced while using our arms to spell out the letters Y-M-C-A.

We were macho men and bad girls. That’s the way — uh-huh, uh-huh — we liked it. Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
1979: Trippin’ the light at Pete’s Attic, a disco night spot in Boynton Beach. Dan Vargas and his partner, Mary Ellen Riegel, were unpaid but expert disco dancers, and often inspired customers to try it themselves. (CJ Walker/The Palm Beach Post)

When “Saturday Night Fever” came out in December 1977, it was merely a spark to an already hot craze that sent disco into the forefront of national consciousness for two more years, until the fever started to burn itself out by late 1979.

South Florida and Palm Beach County were hardly immune. In fact, we were an incubator.

The Brothers Gibb crafted the most famous disco music — the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack — at Criteria Studios near their homes in Miami. West Palm Beach native George McCrae had one of disco’s first hits — 1974’s “Rock Your Baby.” It was co-written by Miami’s Harry Casey, whose K.C. and the Sunshine Band taught a generation of suburban kids what a booty was and how to shake it.

And, of course, there was ground zero: The discotheques. New York’s Studio 54 was the Taj Mahal of disco. But Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast had its palaces of pulse, too.

How many of you remember PB’s? Or Club Marakesh. Ricky D’s. The Stutz Club. Peter Dinkel’s. Le Cabaret. Binky’s. The Magic Time Machine. Horsefeathers. The Boardwalk. Ichabod’s. Pete’s Attic. The Town Tavern.

The Palm Beach Post was all over the discotheque craze as early as August 1975, noting how it was springing up in Florida after emerging in Northeast cities and the West Coast.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Turning the beat around on the floor at PB’s, a New York style disco, in 1979. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Palm Beach Post)

Post writer Alan Jenkins gave the scene a Dionysian spin: “Blinding strobe lights. Ear-splitting sounds. Teeming bodies writhing. It is madness, at once earnest yet carefree. Discotheque madness.”

But the madness, as always, was rooted in a method: making money. “Club owners are finding it cheaper — and more reliable — to hire a disc jockey rather than a group of entertainers,” Jenkins reported.

And the cutthroat dance competitions that fueled Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero were happening here, too. At Binky’s, a Datura Street disco, if you didn’t have the moves, you stayed off the floor.

“If you goof up dancing The Hustle, you lose your image,” a Palm Beach Junior College student explained. “It’s important to look graceful.”

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A late ’70s disco ad for the Horsefeathers dance club. Let’s boogie.

By 1977, disco was in full flower. The Post’s business section reported on its financial aspects. The Accent section covered dance-floor fashions. And advertisers found the word ‘disco’ had magical buy-me properties.

Newspaper ads for local department stores touted “dazzling disco jeans” and outfits for “your on-the-go disco life.” A liquor store sold a “disco cocktail.” Big Daddy’s Lounge promoted its Disco Mondays: “Hustle On Over.” Gray’s Pharmacy had “Disco Dust” makeup. Woolco sold a disco mood light.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
K-Mart, yes K-Mart, caught the night fever, too.

Everybody wanted in. The Village of Palm Springs, the town of Okeechobee and the Jewish Community Center offered disco classes. Local charities held disco-thons. The Palm Beach Flea Market had a disco dance contest. A Boca Raton woman teaching belly dancing called it — what else? — “belly disco.”

Dance music diva Grace Jones even performed at a West Palm club in 1977, years before she was a memorable Bond girl in “A View to A Kill.”

And then if disco music wasn’t enough, the skating rinks had their a-ha moment: Roller disco!

A Lantana salon capitalized by offering “roller disco hairstyles,” advertising models in disco fashions and stylists “on wheels.”

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
This Lantana salon offered roller disco hair styles.

Local skateways spent thousands of dollars installing light systems to lure the teen set to perfect their disco moves, the Post reported in 1979. But the word was starting to lose its cool: “In West Palm Beach, they call it The Shuffle. But it looks like roller disco,” wrote the Post’s Shari Spires. “It’s a new dimension to the disco phenomenon, even if the skaters don’t want to call it disco.”

The backlash (remember Disco Sucks?) was setting in. The Post ran its first story on punk music sweeping New York. And in February 1979, the Post reported on a man sentenced to 15 years for murdering his friend outside of the nightclub Disco Dom’s in Vero Beach. Writer Anne Krueger noted that he showed up for his sentencing looking very Manero-like:

“The top of his shirt was unbuttoned to reveal a heavy cross pendant. His gray suit and neatly trimmed beard fit right in with the disco look.”

And, in January 1980, as it must to all trends and fads, the Post ran disco’s obituary. Writer Bob Brink reported that two West Palm clubs were playing music other than disco and one stopped promoting itself as a disco club. Club owners said patrons were bored with the relentless thump and wanted something different — a little more slow dancing or rock and roll.

Trained dancers were even ordered off the floor at Club Marakesh in Palm Beach. The owners didn’t want to encourage an atmosphere where people sat and watched Manero-like showoffs anymore. They wanted everybody to boogie.

“It isn’t a place where people have to wear Danskins and flashy clothes and be fancy dancers,” the club’s manager said. “We have dropped the word disco.”

National newspapers began noting incidents of violence at disco clubs. In February 1980, Studio 54 was shuttered, its owners convicted of tax evasion. In Miami, the Associated Press reported a scary new style: “outlaw disco,” with club patrons brandishing guns.

The disco ball had stopped glittering.

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