Newsday entertainment reporter Rafer Guzmán looks back at the glory days of disco on Long Island. Credit: Linda Rosier, Gary Licker; Photo credits: Newsday archive, Meryl Meisler, Getty Images, AP, Everett Collection

She had heard the Donna Summer songs, she had watched John Travolta ooze across a dance floor in “Saturday Night Fever” and she had amassed an impressive collection of 12-inch dance mixes. But in the late 1970s, Laura Poggi, of Valley Stream, was too young to get into a bona fide disco. So it didn’t take her long after turning 18 in 1980 to put on a pair of Capezios and head down to Escapes, a nightclub on Sunrise Highway in Merrick. Poggi recalls being awed by the dance floors on two stories and the swimming pool in the basement.

“There would be a bar, and you could see the pool through the glass at the bar,” says Poggi, now 62 and living in Long Beach. Back then the drinking age was 18, so Poggi would knock back an Alabama slammer and boogie until 3 a.m. “You can’t beat that stuff,” she says of the classic disco tracks that she still enjoys today. “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”

The dance floor at Uncle Sam's  in Levittown. in 1978.

The dance floor at Uncle Sam's  in Levittown. in 1978. Credit: Newsday/Gerald S. Williams

Nearly 50 years after its late-'70s heyday, disco will be memorialized in a three-part PBS documentary, “Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution,” which begins June 18. Featuring interviews with many disco icons — from singer Anita Ward (“Ring My Bell”) to pioneering drummer Earl Young of The Trammps (“Disco Inferno”) — the series traces the history of a rhythm-driven genre that empowered Black, Latino and queer communities even while enduring a sometimes vicious popular backlash. Though New York City’s notorious Studio 54 nightclub was the music’s epicenter, nearby Long Island followed close behind, with new clubs opening almost weekly and no shortage of young dancers to fill them.

“There was so much freedom. It was pre-AIDS, it was a wild time,” says Loretta Sears, 69, who grew up in Amagansett and frequented such East End discos as The Attic and Club Swamp. “Everything was on the table.”

In the beginning

Philadelphia's Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' "The Love I Lost,"...

Philadelphia's Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' "The Love I Lost," produced by Gamble and Huff, helped lay the foundation for disco music. Credit: Redferns/Gilles Petard

In the early '70s, “disco” — short for discothèque — would have referred generically to just about any venue with a dance floor. Rock fans at the time largely preferred live concert halls, but Black, Latino and gay clubgoers were grooving to funk, soul and R&B records. Those genres began developing an elaborate, orchestral sound thanks to producers like Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the now-legendary Philadelphia duo; some of their tracks, including The O’Jays’ “Love Train” (1972) and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “The Love I Lost” (1973), laid the foundations for the coming disco craze.

As such songs gained popularity in urban nightclubs, a complex culture began to emerge. Partly it was an escapist reaction to the Watergate-inspired cynicism of the era; partly it was aspirational glitz. But it was also a full-throated embrace of the new-found freedoms that the 1960s had ushered in.

“We’re talking just eight years after Stonewall, a little over 10 years after the Civil Rights Movement and women’s liberation,” says Meryl Meisler, a photographer who grew up in North Massapequa and chronicled Fire Island’s gay disco scene. At a time when Long Island was mostly segregated, she says, discos offered a “refreshingly diverse” alternative.

“Everyone was welcome, and everybody came,” recalls Meisler.“People were just celebrating being alive. And you could make friends regardless of whether you were exactly identical.”

On Shoulders dance contest at Westhampton's Wilson’s Garage in  August 1977.

On Shoulders dance contest at Westhampton's Wilson’s Garage in  August 1977. Credit: Meryl Meisler

A gay bar on Long Island is where Billy Stewart, the lead singer of a long-haired rock band called Calhoon, first heard the mostly Black music that would become disco. Stewart remembers the year as 1972 and says, “there was a DJ spinning records that nobody had heard. They weren’t on the radio or anything. We told our manager, and he jumped right on it.”

The six young members of Calhoon quickly went from playing shaggy rock to rhythmic dance-funk, complete with sleek new trousers and open-necked shirts. A move to hedonistic South Florida followed, then came a record deal with Warner-Spector, an imprint launched by producer Phil Spector. That led to Calhoon’s one major single, “(Do You Wanna) Dance, Dance, Dance,”  which was released in 1975.

Before Calhoon could fully capitalize on the coming disco trend, management problems and an aborted full-length album stalled the band’s momentum. But Stewart, 72, remembers the early years fondly. “A lot of bands were laughing at us,” he says. “But we were definitely ahead of the curve. It was cool — you’d listen to the radio and you’d hear your song right next to Elton John.”

The fever begins

John Travolta hits the dance floor in "Saturday Night fever,"...

John Travolta hits the dance floor in "Saturday Night fever," the movie that also relaunched the Bee Gees' career.

It was “Saturday Night Fever,” of course, that launched disco into the mainstream. Released in December 1977, it featured John Travolta in a star-making turn as Tony Manero, a working-class Brooklyn teenager whose entire life is wrapped up in a local disco called 2001 Odyssey. Based on a New York magazine article by Nik Cohn and directed by John Badham, “Saturday Night Fever” had surprising authenticity and depth (the storyline touched on subjects such as suicide and abortion) and critics raved over what had initially appeared to be a superficial “youth” movie.

(Few knew at the time that the magazine story was actually a fiction. Cohn, a Brit, had merely looked back to London’s early-‘60s mod scene — another working-class youth-culture obsessed with flashy wardrobes — and transplanted it to Brooklyn. “My story was a fraud,” he admitted years later.)

It probably wouldn’t have mattered. Audiences were awe-struck by Travolta’s macho yet sensual dance moves and galvanized by the propulsive yet dreamy soundtrack — especially the opening song, “Stayin’ Alive,” a hip-swiveling track from the Bee Gees.

Comprised of the brothers Gibb (Barry, Robin and Maurice), the Bee Gees were a floundering soft-rock trio that — much like Calhoon — had recently shifted to soul and R&B. It was one of the savviest pivots in music history: The “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack sold 40 million copies, turned the Bee Gees into superstars and established their harmonious falsettos as the very definition of disco.

 Donna Summer performing in Los Angeles in 1979.

 Donna Summer performing in Los Angeles in 1979. Credit: AP

Other disco anthems followed, including “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, “Good Times” by Chic and “Bad Girls” by Donna Summer. Even classic rockers got into the act: The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” (informed by the band’s frequent club-going) and Rod Stewart’s slinky “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” both came out in 1978.

LI CATCHES THE FEVER

Uncle Sam's in Levittown was one of LI's  hottest discos.

Uncle Sam's in Levittown was one of LI's  hottest discos. Credit: Uncle Sam's

On Long Island, the disco floodgates opened. For the remainder of the 1970s and into the ‘80s, scores of new clubs proliferated. One of the first was Decameron, on Hempstead Turnpike in Levittown, which featured a heart-shaped dance floor and a restaurant that served late-night dinners and wee-hours breakfasts. Others included 2001 in East Islip, Cherry’s in Glen Cove, Zachary’s in East Meadow and the iconic Uncle Sam’s — tricked out with multiple bars, moving light fixtures and a smoke machine — on Hempstead Turnpike in Levittown. (That thoroughfare boasted so many clubs that it became known as “the Disco strip.”)

“Seventy-eight was one of the best years of my life,” says Diane Fuccello, 63, who grew up in Williston Park and became a platform-shoed regular at many Long Island discos. Fuccello says she even took hustle lessons at an Arthur Murray dance studio. “My first question when I met a new guy was: One, do you like the Bee Gees? And two, do you like to dance?”

(Clockwise): Four scenes from 1978: Steve Giorgio, Jr. and Carol...

(Clockwise): Four scenes from 1978: Steve Giorgio, Jr. and Carol Flaccamio, both of Floral Park, dance at Creations in Mineola; Discogoers take a break at Uncle Sam's; The Trammps perform at Cherry's in Glen Cove; Dancers hit the floor at Bubbles in Huntington.

Mitchell Karduna, who grew up in Brooklyn, says Long Island’s discos were more welcoming than their big-city counterparts, where fashionably dressed celebrities ruled the roosts. “If they didn’t like the way you looked, they didn’t let you in,” says Karduna, 65, now a talent manager based in Oceanside. Long Islanders were “more easygoing, less pressured than city people,” he says.

As the disco-industry boomed, an ambitious 22-year-old from Roslyn named Gary Brustein spotted an opening. “I saw all the young kids seeing what their older brothers and sisters did,” says Brustein, who now runs FlexWealth, an asset-based lending firm in Jericho. With a partner, he opened an under-18 disco — no grownups and no alcohol — called Guys and Dolls in Franklin Square. Inside, it featured a dance floor, food court and arcade-game area; outside was a taxi stand where young patrons could catch a ride home. The captains of local high school sports teams served as bouncers, according to Brustein.

“We ended up doing 1,500 kids a night at $10 a shot,” he says. “It was more or less a sophisticated babysitting service,” he admits, but adds: “It was a lucrative business, and it was needed.”

Backlash!

Fans storm the field at Chicago's White Sox Park on...

Fans storm the field at Chicago's White Sox Park on Disco Demolition night July 12, 1979.  Credit: AP Photo/Fred Jewell

Not everyone embraced the new trend. Rich Branciforte, founder of the long-running Long Island rock magazine Good Times, was not a fan. “Disco almost put Good Times under,” he says, explaining that while rock fans wanted to read every scrap of information about their favorite bands, disco fans did not. “They wanted to listen to the music. They don’t really care about the personalities.”

Michael “Eppy” Epstein, owner of the Roslyn rock club My Father’s Place, admits he “absolutely” felt threatened by the disco craze and even owned a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt. “It was so overground, it was as big as rock,” he says. “Every single disco act played the Garden, and they sold out one after the other.”

Fuccello, the young disco fan, recalls shopping at Record World in Uniondale's Roosevelt Field mall and spotting an anti-disco item for sale at the register: “They had bumper stickers saying ‘Shoot the Bee Gees,’ ” she says.

The antipathy came to a head in July 1979 with Disco Demolition Night, a stunt organized by the Chicago White Sox of Major League Baseball. Between games of a twin night doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, a local shock-jock blew up a crate of disco albums on the field. The advertised event drew an unexpectedly large crowd of 50,000, many of whom spilled onto the field after the explosion; riot police were called in to disperse the revelers and the second game had to be canceled.

Disco is still here

It’s hard not to see undercurrents of racism and homophobia in the backlash against a music known for its Black, Latino and gay fan-bases. (That topic was itself the subject of a PBS documentary from last year, “The War on Disco.”) After the Comiskey Park debacle, disco began to fade.

“People wanted to dance and have a good time,” Karduna says, “but after a while that got old.”

As the 1970s came to an end, New Wave and hip-hop edged out disco as the hot new sound. Yet disco never fully died. Some Long Islanders can recall going to '70s-themed discos well after the era had wound down. “They were still around even through the '80s and the early '90s,” says Jordan Brachman, a 57-year-old graphic designer and onetime DJ who grew up in East Meadow. “There were so many clubs, and they were all fighting for people.”

Over the decades, the music has perennially reentered the public consciousness, whether on the soundtrack to 1997’s “Boogie Nights,” in Abba’s “Mamma Mia!” musical (and movies) or in Dua Lipa’s 2021 hit with Elton John, “Cold Heart (Pnau Remix),” which set “Rocket Man” and other John-penned songs to a disco-ized beat. There are also disco-themed cruises and nationally touring disco cover-bands such as Montreal’s Boogie Wonder Band and New York City’s Disco Nights, who'll play The Paramount in Huntington in July.

Locally, Meisler, the photographer, will show her disco-themed pictures as part of “Fire Island: The Art of Liberation,” an exhibit that will run July 18 through Dec. 15 at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook. And Earl Young, the drummer widely credited with defining the disco beat, will play a free concert with his iconic band The Trammps (supported by Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes) on July 12 at Huntington’s Heckscher Park.

“It is still such a popular genre that people of all ages are into,” says Ethan Maccoby, a co-owner of Burwood Media, a live-event company that holds themed dance nights at nightclubs across the country. Five years ago, Maccoby says, Burwood launched Gimme Gimme Disco, “which has far and away been our most popular and successful party.” Most of the company’s events might peak at 2,500 tickets, Maccoby notes, but a recent Gimme Gimme Disco party at Pier 17 in Manhattan maxed out at 4,000 tickets — the company’s biggest show to date.

“It’s happy, it’s positive, and I think people love having that kind of positive energy in their lives,” Maccoby says of the music. “There’s just this insatiable appetite for disco.”

YOUR ESSENTIAL DISCO PLAYLIST

If an alien landed on Earth, how would you explain the cultural phenomenon known as disco? Here’s a start — 10 definitive songs, in chronological order:

“Soul Makossa,” Manu Dibango (1973). This supremely funky single, originally released in 1972 by a Cameroonian singer-saxophonist, was basically disco before disco. Discovered in a Brooklyn West Indian record store by DJ David Mancuso, who played it at his infamous Loft parties, the song became a street-level hit that was covered by scores of bands. Michael Jackson nicked the refrain for his 1982 song “Wanna be Startin’ Somethin’.”

“Rock Your Baby,” George McCrae (1974) McCrae’s debut single is another early example of the coming disco sound: soulful, with an easy-moving rhythm and romantic lyrics. The dreamy production is by Harry Wayne Casey and Richard Finch, of KC and the Sunshine Band.

“The Hustle,” Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony (1975) An oddity on radio at the time, “The Hustle” was an orchestral yet groovy instrumental whose only vocals came from an ebullient chorus: “Do the hustle!” The namesake dance was already known to Latino clubgoers, but McCoy’s No. 1 hit turned it into a bona fide craze.

“Disco Inferno,” The Trammps (1976) Drummer Earl Young is widely credited with inventing the disco beat: a heartbeat rhythm, a slippery high-hat and a tasty snare (obtained by placing his wallet on the drum head). Put on a Trammps record anywhere, anytime, and you’ve got a party.

“I Feel Love,” Donna Summer (1977) Produced by Giorgio Moroder almost entirely with synthesizers (only Summer’s voice and the kick drum are organic), this pulsating, six-minute epic became a disco favorite — and ushered in a new era of electronic music. As Brian Eno told David Bowie after first listen: “I have heard the sound of the future.”

“Stayin’ Alive,” The Bee Gees (1977) Rarely has a song so perfectly suited a movie — and summed up a decade — like the opening-credits theme from “Saturday Night Fever.” The strutting rhythm and the Gibb brothers’ impossibly high falsettos almost single-handedly turned disco from a subculture into a global phenomenon.

“(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real,” Sylvester (1978) Slightly speeding up the bpm of Moroder’s “I Feel Love,” this single helped define disco and also another coming dance-genre, high-NRG. It also reached No. 1 on Billboard’s dance chart — a triumph for its proudly gay Black singer and for the queer community that helped create disco in the first place.

“Got to Be Real,” Cheryl Lynn (1978) For sheer vocal power, this single is tough to beat. On her debut single, Lynn gives it everything she’s got: blasts of gospel, operatic highs and gutsy lows. The horns are hot, the rhythm track impeccable — and let’s not forget guitarist Ray Parker Jr., of “Ghostbusters” fame.

“I Will Survive,” Gloria Gaynor (1979) With its American Songbook-style intro and lush orchestration, Gaynor’s rousing single became a No. 1 hit after its initial release in 1978. An anthem of triumph over heartbreak, it has a universal appeal that hasn’t faded after nearly half a century. The roller skater in the video was filmed at Manhattan’s Xenon Discotheque.

“Good Times,” Chic (1979) Bandleader Nile Rodgers didn’t invent disco, but he might have perfected it with Chic’s blend of bright guitars, female-forward vocals and funky bass lines (you can hear this one repurposed on “Rapper’s Delight,” the iconic hip-hop single released the same year).  An irresistible, seemingly endless dance track, “Good Times” gave a soon-to-fade era one of its finest moments. —  Rafer Guzmán

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