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Downtown New York in the 1980s: Nelson Sullivan archive debuts at NYU

I was going to post a short notice about these two sure to be interesting evenings at NYU this week, but I thought the story told by the press release was worth presenting here in full.

Of mild interest to DM readers, my own tape-recorded recollections of the late Nelson Sullivan are part of this archive (I knew Nelson and rented a tiny room from him for about 6 months in his ramshackle house at 5 Ninth Ave. when I was 21). Robert Coddington, who valiantly cataloged this amazing collection and kept it together, is a friend of mine and someone I hold in high regard. It’s really a tribute to his scholarship and tenacity that this collection is going to be housed at NYU, where it belongs, for future scholars who want to understand what happened “downtown” during the 1980s (I can’t help but to add “...before NYU drove up the property values and forced all of the bohemians out!”). Robert, and the wonderful Dick Richards, the real hero of this story (and a man who should have a documentary made about him) have done history a big favor, they really have.

The 1980s were the plague years in NYC, make no mistake about it. A lot of us had close friends who died. But it was also a fun, decadent and deeply weird time to have been young. Sullivan’s tapes capture that time like literally nothing else could.

Long Days’ Journey Downtown—Nelson Sullivan’s Video Archive Back in NYC After 23 Years

Completing a trek across many miles and more than two decades, a remarkable trove of video tapes chronicling the golden age of New York’s 1980s club scene is back where it was created—in downtown Manhattan. In October, New York University’s Fales Library & Special Collections accepted the Nelson Sullivan Video Archive as a donation from Atlantans Dick Richards and David Goldman, and Robert Coddington of Durham, N.C.—operating collectively as the 5 Ninth Avenue Project.

On April 25, the Fales Library will host a panel discussion to mark the archive’s official entry into its collections. Coddington will talk about Sullivan’s body of work, and how he and his partners worked to preserve it. Several artists featured in the video tapes also are expected to attend and add their recollections of Sullivan and the scene he documented. The event begins at 6 p.m. on April 25 at the Fales Library, third floor, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South. This event is free and open to the public.

In the early 1980s, Nelson Sullivan began using then-newly available portable video technology to document the highs and lows of downtown’s world of invites, catfights, train wrecks and rising stars. The equipment was heavy and expensive, but night after night Sullivan lugged it along from SoHo to Coney Island and all points inbetween—from huge discos (like Limelight and Tunnel) to tiny dives (like the Pyramid) and private parties (where he circulated with Warhol-era superstars and freshly minted celebrities like RuPaul and Deee-Lite).

Sullivan’s video archive grew rapidly, taking up shelf after shelf in the creaky three-story townhouse he rented in the Meatpacking District (at 5 9th Ave. and Gansevoort, today site of the restaurant 5 9th). And while he accommodated friends’ requests for copies, he jealously guarded the original tapes—confident he would one day devise a way to present them to the world. Finally, in the spring of 1989, Sullivan decided to make the collection his life’s work: He quit his job at the famous Joseph Patelson Music House (just across from Carnegie Hall’s stage door) and set out to launch a public access cable program showcasing his tapes. But tragically, after completing just one episode, he died of a sudden heart attack in the early morning hours of Independence Day. Seven years after it began, Sullivan’s quest to document the downtown scene was over.

Sullivan’s one-of-a-kind archive might have been picked apart by souvenir-hunters—or worse, left on the curb—had it not been for Dick Richards. Though grief-stricken at the loss of his lifelong friend—the two grew up together in rural South Carolina—Richards acted quickly, flying to New York, securing the collection, and shipping it to the Atlanta home he shared with his domestic partner David Goldman and his business partner Ted Rubenstein (co-founder, with Richards, of Funtone USA, which released RuPaul’s first three recordings).

“The video archive Nelson had created was so extraordinary that I knew I had to do whatever I could to save it,” Richards recalls. “What Nelson was doing was entirely unique. When you watch the tapes, you’ll search in vain to find another person who’s video taping these events. With AIDS ravaging the community and changing it forever, his was basically the only personal video testimony of a scene that was rapidly disintegrating.”

Back in Atlanta, Richards publicized the tapes by showing selections on “The American Music Show,” the weekly public access cable program he co-produced with Potsy Duncan and Bud “Beebo” Lowry.

Then, on a 1993 trip to tape the show at Foxy’s Lounge in Chicago, Richards and Goldman met Robert Coddington, who was involved in the Windy City’s club scene and burgeoning Queercore movement. Coddington, 23, longed to learn about the wild days that had preceded his own coming of age in the gay community, and upon hearing about the archive was eager to learn of the lost landscape it revealed.

“As a young gay man at the time, I had this acute sense that I was arriving at a fabulous party—five minutes after the lights came on,” Coddington says. “I knew that AIDS was ripping apart the gay culture that had existed before. I began to ask myself What was that world and what were those people like? Upon experiencing Nelson’s tapes, I began to learn the answers to those questions.”

Beginning in 2001, Richards and Coddington worked together to organize and chronicle the collection, producing four highlight DVDs (“Mad About Manhattan,” “The Club Kids,” “Nelson Sullivan’s Fabulous Friends,” and “Legends of New York”). In 2004, Coddington edited Sullivan’s “My Life In Video” for the New Museum’s East Village USA exhibition, which also featured works by Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and Nan Goldin. In 2007, Coddington presented and discussed archive highlights at Atlanta’s Eye-Drum Gallery. Richards launched a YouTube channel dedicated to the collection: To date, it has logged more than 750,000 views.

Sullivan’s videos have been shown in more than 20 solo and group shows and film festivals across Europe, Australia, South America and North America. Videographers from Switzerland and France produced short documentary films on Sullivan for Europe’s ARTE channel. Los Angeles-based World of Wonder created a film on Sullivan for Britain’s Channel 4.

But as the collection’s fame spread, its ultimate survival was far from certain. The archive of more than 600 tapes remained boxed in a back room at Richards’ and Goldman’s century-old house in Inman Park (site of the 1864 Battle of Atlanta). Without an institutional “forever home,” the three partners feared the tapes’ initial escape from the dumpster might have been only temporary.

That’s when Sullivan’s videos got a powerful champion in the form of the Fales Library. The addition of the archive brought an exciting new dimension to Fales’ Downtown Collection, which already included the papers of such influential entities as the Gay Cable Network, the Red Hot Organization, Dennis Cooper, Michaelangelo Signorile, Richard Hell and Ande Whyland.

“Nelson Sullivan was the chronicler of the demimonde downtown New York scene,” said Marvin J. Taylor, director of the Fales Library. “He was everywhere that was important at just the right time. But, he was more than that. When Nelson turned his video camera on himself as flaneur of downtown, he found his own artistic, queer, postmodern voice. We’re honored to have Nelson’s videos here at NYU.”

“Seen on the Scene”

Here are a few of the personalities of note featured in the Nelson Sullivan Video Archive. Click on the links to view selected clips.

RuPaul, entertainer
Sylvia Miles, Academy Award nominee
Lady Miss Kier, lead singer of Deee-Lite
Michael Musto, author and columnist
Michael Alig, the “King of the Club Kids,” whose murder of a drug dealer is chronicled in the film “Party Monster”
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Broadway and film composers
The Lady Bunny, entertainer
Jayne County, transgender punk rocker
Holly Woodlawn, Warhol Superstar and comedian
Quentin Crisp, author
Ethyl Eichelberger, performer

A lecture/screening presented by Robert Coddington will take place on Wednesday April 24 at the Einstein Auditorium in NYU’s Barney Building on Stuyvesant Street. It is free and open to the public and will feature videos of Keith Haring, Rock Steady Crew, RuPaul, Leigh Bowery, Ethyl Eichelberger, Fran Lebowitz, Michael Musto, Lady Miss Kier and more…

The following evening, Thursday April 25th, at the third floor Fales Library at the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library on Washington Square South, there will be a celebration of the life and work of Nelson Sullivan with Michael Musto, Lady Miss Kier, Robert Coddington, drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys, performance artist Flloyd and photographer Paula Gately Tillman.

Both events begin at 6pm.

Swiss television on Nelson Sullivan:

Posted by Richard Metzger
07:22 pm
Nelson Sullivan: Pioneering chronicler of NYC nightlife in the 1980s
09:12 pm

Nelson Sullivan (center) turns his ever present video camera on himself, LaHoma VanZant and and RuPaul

Today, on what would have been his 65th birthday, Nelson Sullivan’s World of Wonder, a documentary directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato about the life and work of their friend (and mine) New York-based first-person video diarist Nelson Sullivan, is being released on iTunes by World of Wonder.

Here’s a flashback to a 2010 post where I discuss Nelson. Robert Coddington, the archivist/historian mentioned below, told me yesterday by email that Nelson’s archive is becoming a part of the Fales Library collection at NYU on April 25th. I think this is fantastic news:

I spent the better part of the afternoon and evening conversing with a brilliant historian and a delightful guy by the name of Robert Coddington. Robert is an accomplished Queer studies scholar and archivist for the late Nelson Sullivan, a video artist who captured hundreds of hours of NYC’s nightclub and drag scene during the 1980s. Wigstock, Limelight, Area, Michael Alig and the club kids, the drag scene at Boy Bar, the infamous “outlaw party” at the Times Square McDonalds outlaw party immortalized in Party Monster (I was there), the Pyramid Club, early Dee-lite performances… I could go on and on and on and on. Nelson documented all of, a permanent fixture on the lower Manhattan club scene with his ever-present video camera: If Nelson wasn’t there taping the action, you were at the wrong party.

I knew Nelson, and when I was 21, in 1986, I rented a room from him for about six months in the ramshackle old carriage house he leased at 5 Ninth Avenue, smackdab in the middle of New York’s now trendy meatpacking district (Today it’s all about high fashion and boutique hotels, but back then, it was patrolled by cruising leather daddies, crossdressing hookers and smelled like… rotting carcasses). Nelson’s house was a whirlwind, creative environment complete with a colorful cast of characters that included actress Sylvia Miles, Michael Musto, fashion designer Albert Crudo, party giver Erich Conrad and Lady Bunny. When I moved out, soon after RuPaul, Larry Tee and Lahoma Van Zandt made their way to New York from Atlanta and moved in to 5 Ninth Ave. It was that kind of place.

Nelson Sullivan created an ultra important historical archive that has yet to be recognized in this country—which is a real shame—although it has been exhibited in many places outside of the US on a museum level. Not to be deterred, Robert Coddington and Dick Richards (Nelson’s friend since childhood) have put together a growing online video archive called The 5 Ninth Ave. Project on YouTube.

Below. club kids at one of Susanne Bartsch’s parties at Bentley’s. Note Leigh Bowery huffing amyl nitrate:

The most fabulous and glamorous queen of all, International Chrysis, performing at Boy Bar on St. Mark’s Place sometime in the mid-80s with Perfidia and Cody Ravioli

More of Nelson Sullivan’s New York nightlife of the 1980s after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger
09:12 pm
Notes from the Niallist #2: Tranarchy in the UK

I ended my first Notes from the Niallist column by mentioning the collective I am a co-founder of, and performer with, called Tranarchy.

Frankly, it’s Tranarchy that has been taking up most of time, and distracting me from mining the cultural coal face for Dangerous Minds. But that’s the trade-off I guess, as Tranarchy is helping to create the diamonds people discover under all that dust.

As the name would suggest, Tranarchy is a drag-and-trans-heavy collective interested in subverting, and commenting on, normative gender roles. I know that all sounds very serious, but Tranarchy is dedicated to putting the fun first, and letting people discover the message for themselves, without having it rammed down their throats. There’s just too much hectoring in this world already, and not enough people willing to lead by example, i.e. living the life they want to live regardless of what society says. Sniff all you like at the supposed frivolity of drag queens and the “feminine” aesthetic, as historically has been the case with male-dominated, straight society, but always remember how much guts it takes to flaunt your otherness in public.

Besides the political aspect, however, there’s something almost magical going on with Tranarchy. And I mean “magical” in terms of seeing dreams and desires become a reality. We started the collective just over a year ago, and as we have grown at a surprising rate, we have managed to put on events and happenings that, just 18 months ago, we (literally) could only have dreamed of.

So far, we have hosted Manchester’s first ever vogue ball, called Vogue Brawl (now into its second year.) We’ve held a number of interactive film screenings in the style of the legendary Peaches Christ’s Midnight Mass in San Francisco (Showgirls, Zoolander, Mad Max: The Road Warrior with Empire Drive-In and Abandon Normal Devices.) We have created promo videos and photos shoots for our events that show off much of Manchester’s untapped talent, and these are beginning to get attention in the States and further beyond. Our most popular film so far is the promo for Vogue Brawl 2: Pride Is Burning, which can be basically summed up as “The Warriors in drag.”

The collective is very aware of gay and trans history and we want to celebrate that. We’ve held a few outlaw parties inspired by the original New York club kids James St James and Michael Alig, and documented them in the style of the sadly-missed pioneering NYC videographer Nelson Sullivan.

This is where it gets interesting, though. Our first outlaw party was a reclaiming of the Manchester tram system, which, as anyone who has ever used public transport will know, can get pretty hairy if you stand out in any way. Our last outlaw party was even bigger, in terms of execution and impact. It was an invasion of, and statement about, Manchester’s annual “Pride” festival of gay culture and awareness.

Every year, Manchester Pride is held in the city’s Gay Village and attracts up to 40,000 people, making it one of the flagship gay Pride festivals in the UK. However, the amount of money raised for charity as opposed to the amount of money raised for personal profit has been a major, running issue for a while, as has the fact that a festival celebrating gay visibility, and interaction with the wider, local community, is held in a walled-off compound that charges people to enter.

However, the one thing the Manchester Pride organizers don’t have control over is the large canal that runs right through the Gay Village, and along side Canal St, where much of the festivities take place. So, as a bit of a lark, Tranarchy took a barge down to the Village this year, and crashed the Pride party to perform a few numbers and make a basic point.

We have issued an official Tranarchy statement detailing some of the problems with Manchester Pride to accompany the YouTube video, and here is an extract from that:

Freeing Pride is not an attack on Pride as a party, and it is not just about the fences and the ticket prices. Its about setting Pride free from the businesses and individuals who seek profit before the well-being of our community. It’s about asking what the event is really about, who benefits from it who should pay for it, and remembering why we do it in the first place! Its about asking whats more important; extra cash for an organization reaching out to the most vulnerable among us, or getting to see Steps [90s pop band] one last time before they slip into room 101?

In short, we were all incredibly nervous about pulling this stunt, but it turned out better than we could have hoped. Check out the old voguing queen we encountered at the end of the video, in the Piccadilly basin, which is a well-known cruising ground:

Our YouTube video channel is here, and for regular news updates, subscribe to Tranarchy on Facebook.

For more info on Tranarchy, and past event pics, visit

A much longer piece, detailing the objections to how Manchester Pride is run, can be found at Manchester Pride Investigation.

You can find the Niallist at and on Facebook.

Posted by Niall O'Conghaile
09:52 am
Happy (Belated) Birthday to Lady Bunny

We couldn’t let the occasion of Lady Bunny’s birthday pass without doing a post to mark it (even if it was yesterday.) She ain’t no spring chicken, but she’s as rulin’ as ever.

And here’s the proof, some seldom-seen footage of Lady Bunny performing in 1986, filmed by New York nightlife chronicler, and friend of DM, Nelson Sullivan. The “psychedelic disco” act is called SHAZORK and also features Sister Dimension and DJ Dmitry (later of Deee-Lite.) Who knew Bunny could sing this well? And I love Sister Dimension’s smurf-like outfit!

Here’s to you Bunny!

Previously on Dangerous Minds:

‘The Ballad Of Sarah Palin’ by Lady Bunny
Lady Bunny’s ‘West Virginia Gurls’
Nelson Sullivan: pioneering chronicler of NYC nightlife in the 1980s

Posted by Niall O'Conghaile
08:11 pm
Cruising the West Side piers in 1976

A series of decaying wood and steel structures extending into the Hudson River along the West Side Highway from Christopher Street up to Chelsea, the piers were popular gay cruising spots back in the 1970s. The vibe was open, loose and sexy.

The years between Stonewall and the advent of Aids were a period of sexual freedom and celebration in the West Village and the piers were at the center of a scene that in retrospect seems bittersweet.

Nelson Sullivan’s “The Piers in New York City in 1976” is a short 8mm clip which captures a transitional time between hope and harsher realities.

Until his fatal heart attack in 1987, Nelson Sullivan spent much of his life documenting the Manhattan downtown scene of the the 1970s and 80s. You can see his work at the 5 Ninth Avenue Project on Youtube. It’s a treasure trove of videos, including Lady Bunny, RuPaul, Larry Tee, Michael Alig and the Club Kids, Sylvia Miles, Michael Musto, Albert Crudo, John Sex, the Pyramid Club, the Limelight and Palladium.

Posted by Marc Campbell
04:55 pm
Nelson Sullivan films Quentin Crisp at the Flaunt It Club, 1988

Nelson Sullivan was a highly talented and prolific videographer, who documented New York’s art, club and youth scene of the 1980s. His filming style was fluid, raw and breathless, with jump-cuts and in-camera editing, all fabulously complimented the city’s dynamism, as it focussed on luminaries Keith Haring, Michael Alig, John Sex and RuPaul.

Just as he was about to produce his own cable TV show, Sullivan died of a heart attack in 1989. It was a sad demise to such a genuine talent

Back in December 1988, Sullivan filmed Quentin Crisp at the Flaunt It Club.

The Flaunt It Club was another brilliant publicity stunt created by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey to promote their disco act The Fabulous Pop Tarts. It was was presented every Sunday night at LImelight NYC and gave other aspiring performers the chance to appear alongside established personalities in a talk show format broadcast, broadcast later that week on Manhattan public access television. Quentin Crisp was the celebrity guest this night, and the event was documented on video by Nelson Sullivan. Robert Coddington edited this from Nelson’s original videotape.

The brilliant Fenton Bailey once pitched a documentary on Nelson, where he described “Nelson’s epic canvas of Downtown” as an:

“...anthropological documentary that takes us beneath the fashionable surface and shows us the reality.

The reality is that Downtown is a tribe, a loose-knit collection of cultural refugees socially bonded by their rather anti-social ambition to make it. Although not an apple-pie Main Street nuclear family, it is an extended family much like a chorus line. Indeed Nelson’s work shows us, in addition to the glorious highs when the show goes on, the individual lows when its all over, the lonely moments of vulnerability. He was able to do this because most of those he filmed were his friends who trusted him, and who - given that Nelson’s camera went wherever he went and was for at least ten years as natural an extension of his body as his arms or legs - simply forgot that the camera was there.

And so the most captivating and poignant part of Nelson’s work is not the famous who have emerged from Downtown, but the people who are left behind and who strive in vain for the limelight. One of them himself, Nelson filmed the wannabees, the never-will-bees and the has-beens. While he captured the glorious orgy of self-invention of those seeking fame and fortune, he also captured the price it often exacted, the despair and self-destruction that followed repeated frustration and failure.

This is Sullivan’s film of Quentin Crisp at the Flaunt It Club, which reveals a delightfully at ease Mr. Crisp, enjoying the company of NY’s young things.

DM’s Richard Metzger writes about Nelson Sullivan here.

Previously on Dangerous Minds

Inside Quentin Crisp’s Apartment

Quentin Crisp on Gay Kiss-In

Nelson Sullivan Pioneering Chronicler of NYC Nightlife in the 1980s

Part 2 of Quentin Crisp at the Flaunt It Club, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
05:00 pm