Opening its doors in April 1966, The Cheetah Club was New York City's first massive multimedia mega club. With its roots in many earlier dance ballrooms dating back to the 1920's, dancing was the only thing the walls and floors of this building had ever known. According to Steven Watson's book Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, it “was the granddaddy of the big commercial disco”:
The most elaborate discotheque was Cheetah, on Broadway and 53rd Street, where everybody, according to LIFE, looked like “a kook in a Kubla Khanteen.” The three thousand colored lightbulbs dimmed and flicked and popped into an infinity of light patterns, reflecting off shiny aluminum sheets. Cheetah held two thousand people and offered not only dancing but a library, a movie room, and color television. “The Cheetah provides the most curious use of the intermedia,” wrote Jonas Mekas. “Whereas the Dom shows are restricted (or became restricted) to the In-circle, Cheetah was designed for the masses. An attempt was made to go over the persona, over the ego to reach the impersonal, abstract, universal.”
Brewster and Broughton’s Last Night A DJ Saved My Life describes the place as follows:
This had been opened by Le Club’s staid Frenchman, Oliver Coquelin. Situated on the site of the Arcadia Ballroom near Broadway’s theatre district, it threw its doors open on May 28, 1966. The cavernous space had a dancefloor with circular podiums scattered randomly like outsized polka dots. Each supported a girl frugging. Above, a cavalcade of 3,000 colored lights palpitated gently, while a boutique at the back sold the latest Carnaby Street fashions. And there was smooth and soft black velvet everywhere—except the bar, which was covered in fake fur. In the basement there was a TV room and on the upper floor a cinema showed the latest, strangest, underground movies. Variety got rather excited about this new boite: “GOTHAM’S NEW CHEETAH A KINGSIZED WATUSERY WITH A FORT KNOX POTENTIAL.” A striking Puerto Rican teenager, Yvon Leybold, clad in hot pants and fishnets, ventured down from Spanish Harlem. “Cheetah was the first real disco club I went to,” she recalls. “That was a lot of fun. It was a very mixed atmosphere. It was the first time I went into a place and you see lights and you see atmosphere, instead of the rinky-dink places I was used to.”
Joel Lobenthal’s Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties offered this description:
By the time Cheetah opened near Times Square in April 1966, the discotheque had become a self-contained Aladdin’s Cave, in which the visitor surrendered his or her everyday identity in search of Dionysian transport. Cheetah employed many conspiring elements to bedazzle its switched-on congregation. Banks of colored lights shone on its patrons. Suspended high above the writhing crowds, huge sheets of chrome—a giant mobile created by industrial designer Michael Lax—undulated rhythmically, while at the club’s opening night the customers echoed the mise en scene: “each girl was more electric than the next,” Eugenia Sheppard reported. “The swinging hair. The wild colors. The mini-mini-skirts.”...Cheetah initiated a trend by selling earmarked discotheque attire in a boutique included in a multi-level complex consisting of dance floor, underground-film screening room, and hot dog stand. The proprietor of Cheetah’s boutique noticed that many customers were purchasing clothes to exchange for those they had arrived in, so the checkrooms were specially expanded.
Even among the endless psychedelic distractions in the club (seperate bars, stores, library, TV room, etc), it was still all about dancing, to DJ’s and to live bands.
Apparently the club had its own dance, according to this guy named Larry who posted about his experiences: He had to pay for the dance classes, but he learned more about moving his feet from his job at the Cheetah - New York’s first discotheque. In between checking coats, Larry got his feet wet, so to speak, on the dance floor at the hottest of hot spots in the hottest of hot cities on the planet. “It’s time for ... the Cheetah Shuffle!” That was the rallying cry—an approximation of it, anyway. Gangs of dancers would hit the floor at the call and perform the line-dance like moves and grooves that constituted the Cheetah Shuffle. The regulars, such as they were, got so attuned to the fancy footwork that they actually gave their motions names and numbers. “Cheetah 1!” “Cheetah 2,3!” “Cheetah Cheetah!” With a word or two and a number or two or three—and don’t forget the exclamation point—the gangs would move in sequence. And Larry, because he was there every night, checking coats, was soon their leader.
At this time the small but prolific record label called Audio Fidelity released an LP with the Cheetah logo on front, featuring the house bands at the time The Esquires, Mike St. Shaw & The Prophets, and The The Thunder Frog Ensemble doing very hip (by today’s garage snob standards) hits of the day by the Rolling Stones, James Brown, etc. The LP cover is at the top of this article. Amazingly, I just noticed the LP is available on Amazon in MP3 form, click here for sound samples and to purchase Where It’s At - Live At The Cheetah.
The Squires played there in 1966, featuring Curtis Knight and pre-fame Jimi Hendrix (dig those site-specific cheetah-print shirts!). Richie Havens reminisces about young Jimi’s performance here.
The Velvet Underground and Tiny Tim played the Cheetah on April 11, 1967. This event, a benefit for WBAI, was billed as “An Imperial Happening” to mark “the coronation of his Serene Highness, Prince Robert, first American Emperor of the Eastern Byzantine Roman Empire.”
A Dark Shadows costume party was held there, possibly on a Halloween night, with cast members in attendance and between its Public Theater debut and its long Broadway run at the Biltmore Theater, HAIR had an engagement at the Cheetah from December 22, 1967 through January 28, 1968.
There were also Cheetah clubs in Los Angeles (in the former Aragon Ballroom on Lick Pier in Venice Beach), Chicago, and Toronto, all having incredible shows with the most legendary bands of the 60’s (especially the one in Los Angeles).
The Cheetah later enjoyed a very successful second life as the center of Boogaloo and Salsa music. “Salsa” is a term that was possibly first used—but definitely made popular—at the nightclub.
Suzanne de Passe was the Cheetah’s talent booker before embarking on careers as a Motown executive and later as head of her own television production company. WABC-TV filmed a documentary short called “Cheetah, The Mod Mecca,” unseen for decades, it has been found and uploaded to YouTube. It strikes me as quite odd that the lion’s share of this 23 minute documentary is straight up live footage of great frat/club bands The Esquires and The Jewels just doing their set while people dance. An amazing slice of pre-hippie, early LSD era life not usually seen outside of very short edited clips. The Cheetah Club was indeed “where it was at” for many thousands of people in the perfect pop culture year of 1966 and could only have really lasted a short time (a couple years) in its original form, as the world at that time was spinning too fast and moving faster than any wild cheetah could.
A tip of the hat to the It’s All The Streets You Crossed Not So Long Ago blog.