March 26, 2009 / 6:39 PM / 10 years ago

Just a Minute With: the makers of "American Swing"

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - There was a reason the 1970s were called “The Swinging ‘70’s,” and a big part of it was the rise of a New York City nightclub called “Plato’s Retreat” — a sort of disco for open sex.

Swinging had stayed mostly underground until the club, run by New Yorker Larry Levenson, became popular. Soon, Plato’s was written about in Time magazine and Levenson appeared on Phil Donahue’s television talk show touting the swinging lifestyle.

Eventually, the Internal Revenue Service came calling and jailed Levenson for tax fraud. The spread of HIV caused health officials to close the club in 1985. Levenson went on to drive a New York cab and eventually died after heart surgery.

Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman have made a film documentary, “American Swing,” about Plato’s and Levenson. It opens in some U.S. theaters Friday. They talked to Reuters about their film.

Q: Matthew, you spent three and a half years and your own savings to make the movie? What about the topic interested you. Was it the swinging lifestyle or was it the club?

Matthew: This was a story that had never been told. It contained a fabulous protagonist, Larry Levenson, who had it all, from the highs to the lows. ... I knew people would gravitate toward the film initially because of the titillation but ultimately because of the story.

Q: So, it really was about the club and rise of club. It wasn’t about the lifestyle.

Matthew: I’m not a swinger, I never have swung. But I am a voyeur of sorts and that also appealed to me.

Q: What about Plato’s made it culturally different or significant from other swinging clubs of the time?

Jon: Before Plato’s, it was underground. People would meet at private parties. Plato’s was public. It was mainstream. It was out in the open and then it spawned imitations that came.

Matthew: Plato’s became an international destination. Tourists from around the world had heard about Plato’s and wanted to see it. People would party all night at Studio 54 and then make their way to Plato’s. And you didn’t have to participate. You could just go and eat or swim in the pool and watch people engage and just be part of the party.

Q: What stopped the party? You talk about HIV/AIDS in the “American Swing,” but what else?

Jon: I think it was primarily health issues. Plato’s was so out, so high profile, so conspicuous. It was closed, and they could’ve reopened. But it was an enormous venue and business was down ... it had become passe and dangerous.

Q: Is it fair to say swing clubs went back underground?

Matthew: In every city in every country there are swing clubs that exist. They just aren’t as high-profile as Larry was. Larry was the carnival barker. And when you get too big, and become too conspicuous, you are going to attract a negative image. There are still organized clubs and groups. It’s out there, just not as in your face.

Q: Plato’s was in its heyday three decades ago. Was it difficult finding people, and then getting them to talk about going to a club for sex?

Jon: It was extremely difficult. When I first started talking to Larry about his life, Plato’s was a taboo subject.

Matthew: I wanted to make a film that did not have faces obscured. I wanted this to be an honest film, and to do that I needed to find people willing to talk. We put ads in newspapers across the country, any place where we thought there might be transplanted New Yorkers of the age, 55-plus. In talking people, they’d sometimes tell us these great stories, but in the end, they’d say I don’t want to be on camera.

Q: Of the people you encountered, what would you say is a common characteristic that caused them to go to the club?

Jon: They wanted to be part of something. They wanted to be part of a party. They might have expected it to be a blast and got in there and were appalled. Then, it happened the other way around where they were terrified first and then thought, ‘Wow, this is good.’

Matthew: Some people were just sexually adventurous. This was a no harm — or sometimes harm — no risk outlet to try something different.

Q: Is the tale of Larry Levenson a cautionary tale of excess, in that he was on top of the world and spiraled down in money and drugs and partying.

Jon: You could perceive that. But we were telling the story as it happened, an historical piece, a forgotten time capsule. It was a great untold story, and that’s first and foremost.

Matthew: I do think that Larry, almost in a way, stumbled upon this and in the beginning, his grass-roots swing clubs were innocent. If you think of a cautionary tale, it’s how you can be corrupted by power, ego and sex.

Editing by Doina Chiacu

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