Spring Awakening

A decades-long tradition, New York's Black Party gets set to herald the season

Stephen Pevner still vividly remembers the two-day closing party of The Saint, the storied gay New York nightclub.

”I would say unequivocally it was the most emotional event of my entire life, up till then and even now,” Pevner, 48, says about the closing in 1988. ”It was still the height of the AIDS crisis. Anyone left standing was very emotional. The spirit was just overwhelming.”

Once the mega-club closed, organizers established the Saint At Large organization to carry on some of its most popular theatrically minded events. Pevner, a noted film and theater producer (”Your Friends and Neighbors,” ”The Vagina Monologues”) took the helm of the organization in 1996, becoming producer for its seminal event, the Black Party.

Annually produced since the Saint’s first in 1981, the Black Party is now held at the city’s largest dance space, Roseland Ballroom, attracting approximately 5,000 partygoers. The event carries on an ancient tradition of heralding the energy and fertility of spring and the vernal equinox. ”It signifies darkness into light, winter into spring, and renewal,” explains Pevner. The party also carries on the three-decades-old tradition, christened at The Saint, of gays reveling for hours on end in the face of adversity and trying times. The Black Party is one of the original circuit parties, in more ways than one.

Each year, Pevner and company create elaborate sets and hire stage performers based around a specific theme. ”We kind of take things that are happening in popular culture and create a twisted version of them,” says Pevner, a Baltimore native who studied business at George Washington University before moving to New York. This year’s theme is based on the bestselling Dangerous Book for Boys, an instructional book focused on non-digital, scouting-type activities and adventures such as rope-tying, building a treehouse and playing participatory games. Pevner reveals that this year, ”The whole place will be decorated along the lines of a campsite at the base of the Matterhorn on the Italian-Swiss border in 1967 during the Cold War,” adding, ”We’re looking to underscore some of the tribal rituals that go along with the Black Party — a return-to-basics sensibility.”

Once identified as a leather event, Pevner says the tradition has ”grown and evolved over time” to include fetish wear of all types, including sports gear and military uniforms. Given the theme, expect to see many naughty Boy Scouts this year.

The party goes from late Saturday night until Sunday afternoon, but the music and the energy vary throughout. This year, Montreal’s tribal-tipped Stephan Grondin is the ”up-and-coming star” that the Black Party has tapped to kick things off, or as Pevner puts it, ”lift the motherlode off the ground.” Progressive house heavyweight Jonathan Peters will take over in the middle of the night playing ”deep, sexy sounds” until about 7 a.m., when the music will get lighter to let the sun shine. Circuit star Joe Gauthreaux then comes on mid-morning to gradually bring things down and close the disco.

Pevner says he personally prefers the ”downtrip” period, ”after 7 in the morning.” The downtrip comes closest to the original Saint sound, steeped in disco and New Wave. By that point, things should have been running smoothly for hours, and Pevner says he should have been able to squeeze in a quick disco nap. Then, by sun up, he can ”come back and just basically dance like everybody else.”

Rites XXIX: The Dangerous Black Party for Boys takes place Saturday, March 29, at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, 239 West 52nd St. Doors open at 10 p.m. Tickets are $140 at the door. Visit www.saintatlarge.com for more information.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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