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June 11, 2004 - Image 36

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-06-11

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Funky Jews

The disco era — with its strong Jewish connection —
is explored in new exhibit at Henry Ford Museum.


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isco: A Decade of Saturday Nights," running June 15-
Sept. 15 at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, is a
multimedia blowout featuring interactive and inter-
pretative exhibits covering "the disco decade": 1970-1980.
A traveling exhibit of the Experience Music Project, the
Seattle-based music museum which communicates the essence
of music's influence on America, "Disco" includes the history
of disco as a musical and social movement; a collection of arti-
facts, featuring outfits worn by the Bee Gees, an invitation for
Studio 54's premiere party, a dress worn by disco diva Donna
Summer and a letter from Barbra Streisand to famed disco DJ
Nicky Siano; and a great deal of material — including John
Travolta's white suit — on Saturday Night Fever, the film that
stands out as the most influential icon of the disco era.

in the 'Boardwalk Plaza



Jewish Antecedents

Regine Zylberstein, later known as Regine, was the force
behind the Paris club (1947) credited as the first disco.



The Belgian-born daughter of a Polish-Jewish family and a
Holocaust survivor, Regine was a great social host who was
able to attract celebrities to her clubs. In 1958, she had
enough friends to bankroll her own place: Chez Regine.
Her new Paris club broke huge when she introduced "the
Twist" to France. She followed Regine's with "New Jimmy's,"
a club that still exists.
Stateside, the dance-club craze took off in 1962 at Shirley
Cohen's New York City club, the Peppermint Lounge, where
the hip and rich twisted away. But as rock exploded during the
rest of the '60s, the live concert put the nightclub/disco into
decline. An exception was New York City's Electric Circus,
founded in 1967 by Jerry Brandt.
He copied a lot of what impresario Bill Graham, a Gerrrian-
Jewish refugee; was simultaneously doing at the Fillmore rock
palaces in San Francisco and later New York — except
Brandt's club was much more dance-oriented than the
Fillmores. (Jewish lighting designer Josh White did the
Fillmores' lighting effects and many a disco would later copy
his work.)
Brandt sold out in 1970. Meanwhile, Graham closed the
Fillmores in 1971, when leading rock artists demanded so
much money he had to move to bigger arenas.
Circa 1970, if you wanted to dance, you had to boogie in a
stadium, in a Woodstock-size cow pasture or before a second-
rate- bar band.

Rock Falters/Disco
co Rises

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From original clothing to pinball machines and dance lessons,
disco permeated nearly every aspect of society in the 1970s
and early '80s.

Part of the oft-heard, anti-disco "disco sucks" mantra is based
on the myth that disco replaced some Woodstockian utopia.
However, circa 1970, rock was decidedly a mixed bag in terms
of quality and equality.
On the up side, rock at least paid lip service to "changing
the world." Moreover, the early '70s was the heyd a y of the
singer-songwriter. Even artists who used to write catchy dance
tunes, like (the Jewish) Carole King, were now turning out
really intelligent ballads.
On the down side, '70s rock was mostly straight white
males playing mostly "un-danceable" guitar anthems. While
these musicians were lionized, Carole King, Joni Mitchell and
other women singers were viewed by a large part of the rock
audience as "chicks" who turned out music for rock "wussies."
Also disturbing was the fact that blacks had almost disap-
peared as rock performers.
But people want to dance, and disco filled that void.
As Jewish music journalist David Nathan says, "Disco is
• dance." Often, he adds, there is a fine line between rhythm
and blues, soul and disco. But if you cannot dance to the
tune, it ain't disco.
Disco didn't set out to save the world. However, it did
change the scene by thrusting gays, peoples of color and
women to the forefront of the music world.
This dance revolution began, circa 1970, in the gay clubs of
Manhattan, where gays owned the clubs — and no longer had
_ to go to bars run by organized crime. Coming out of this same
scene were Bette Midler and her piano player, Barry Manilow,


on page 38

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