Date: September 30 2023
Venue: Burns Court Cinema
Duration: 94 min
Director: Marc Saltarelli
Studio One Forever
| USA | 94 MIN | English
STUDIO ONE was more than just a disco; it was a mecca for gay men looking for identity in a world that saw them as outcasts. Its adjoining nightclub, The Backlot, merged the gay community with the Hollywood elite for the first time. From 1974-1993 it became the center of nightlife in West Hollywood and the staging ground for the rise of the LGBT rights movement and the fight against the AIDS crisis.
Marc Saltarelli is an award-winning director with both narrative and documentary credits. He has directed seven narrative films that have collectively screened in over 250 major film festivals, including OutFest Los Angeles, Palm Springs ShortFest, Hollywood Film Festival, BFI London, Barcelona, and Mumbai Film Festivals. His short doc “I Knew Andy Warhol” was the centerpiece of the Warhol exhibit at the Palm Springs Museum of Art and won Best Documentary at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. Marc produced the KTLA telethon film packages for several years, telling the stories of Project Angel Food and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. He recently completed a short film with actress Pauley Perrette (NCIS), RED RIBBONS OF LOVE, about the Hollywood church that placed AIDS ribbons on their towers at a time when people with AIDS were shunned. That film won the 2023 Best Documentary at Toronto LGBTQ Film Festival. His feature documentary STUDIO ONE FOREVER, the untold story of America’s first gay disco, will world premiere at Outfest 2023 on July 18 followed by its Southern US premiere at OUTSOUTH North Carolina in August.
When the former Studio One building – home of the first gay disco – was on the verge of demolition in 2019, we realized we were on the verge of losing a major piece of LGBT history. Over two years – through Covid and other delays – we shot interviews with those who lived, played, and survived those wonderful and turbulent years from 1974-1993. This film is about our gay history, as seen through the lens of this iconic club. But it’s also a universal story since it was the first club to integrate gay culture with the Hollywood elite many years before Studio 54, and was the site of the first major fund raiser for AIDS, hosted by Joan Rivers. The Backlot – Studio One’s performance space – became Los Angeles’s “must-play” venue, and became the hang out of celebrities too numerous to mention, and the launching pad for many more. And as AIDS decimated the community, so went the club. As LGBTQ+ stories are on the verge of being forgotten (or even banned), the film preserves this remarkably unknown history as told by the people who lived it.
Marc Saltarelli (Director, Editor, Cinematographer)
How did this project come about for you?
In 2018, I heard about plans to develop a hotel/restaurant complex on Robertson Blvd. in West Hollywood at the site of the former Studio One Disco. Lloyd Coleman, a backlot producer in the 80’s, was planning a final farewell reunion show and asked if I had interest in potentially making a documentary about it. When I began researching, I learned that when the developer announced plans to demolish the factory building an outcry from the community swelled up and a movement to SAVE THE FACTORY came about. I realized there was an incredible untold story about a time and place that had so much significance not only to the local community but for LGBTQ history. We filmed several days inside the factory building (which had become a straight hip hop club), and then the reunion event happened on November 9, 2019. That kicked off the production, followed soon by the Covid lockdown. In that quiet time, I was able to nurture the story and find more people willing to share their experiences. There was no shortage of passionate people wanting to tell their story.
What is your personal connection to Studio One?
I moved to LA in 1983 from Illinois to finish my undergrad film studies at Loyola Marymount University. I had recently come out and heard about the famous Studio One disco in West Hollywood. Every weekend this good Catholic boy would make the trip from Westchester to visit Studio One. I remember going up those stairs and entering a fantasy world of lights and sound and men. I wasn’t in Illinois anymore! Not bold enough to rip my shirt off and join the jumping mass of men, I enjoyed watching the show from the sidelines. This was right on the verge of the AIDS epidemic. I enjoyed my times there, but I had no idea of the history that happened before I arrived and what was to happen in the coming years. It would have been a shock to my 19-year old self that I would be tasked with telling this story so many years later.
The film beautifully balances archival footage with contemporary interviews, what were the challenges in weaving these sections together?
It was quite a challenge to locate archival footage from that time. LGBT people were mostly in the closet and didn’t want to be caught on film. Fortunately, since Studio One and the Backlot became a mainstream club, many major events and several film/TV shows provided footage, along with several folks who offered their personal home movies/videos. The largest archive of photographic stills were shot by Studio One’s official photographer Rose DeCastro who left over 100,000 stills from the club’s entire 19-year history. Every weekend she photographed patrons and the following week those photos were projected on a rear screen projector as patrons entered. Rose has since passed, and we were only able to find a handful of her photos. The search provided an interesting contemporary angle since one of the themes of the film is protecting and preserving our LGBT history before it’s lost forever. (This has gained new relevance in this political climate that wants our history banned). By a lucky chance, I was introduced to Natalie Garcia, a young lesbian woman who found a stash of hundreds of slides from Studio One that were ready to be thrown out in a garage next to her building. An animal rescuer, TV host and artist, Natalie took it upon herself to rescue this piece of gay history that was on the verge of being lost forever. When we met through a series of improbable connections, she didn’t know exactly what the slides were of, but they intrigued her. Michael Koth, one of the first bartenders and a major character in our film, confirmed that they were indeed Studio One. He helped her identify many of the people in the photos, most of whom had passed from AIDS. The film weaves in and out of flights back in time, and the present-day preservation struggles that keeps it contemporary. So we get a fast-paced excursion of LGBT history from the early 70’s when the gay civil rights movements was in its infancy and through the AIDS era when the club became ground zero for AIDS activism, courageously hosting the first AIDS fundraiser by Joan Rivers and Sylvester despite death threats. Melissa Rivers powerfully talks about being with her mother at that event.
The pace of the film is entertaining and fast moving. As the director and editor, what was your goal in creating and telling such a kaleidoscopic story, with so many stories and archival periods woven together?
I wanted to not only tell the story of a club and its fascinating founder Scott Forbes, but of an entire nearly 20-year era when the club existed. I filmed over 50 interviews and over 80 hours of footage from a variety of people who had a role in making the club happen as well as the patrons who experienced it. It truly was a place where, for the first time, gay men could feel free to express themselves without fear inside these walls. Standing in line meant frequent drive-by abuse and even bottle throwing by homophobes. But inside it was nirvana and it was safe. Initially I had a basic structure in mind, but it evolved as I progressed. There are so many wonderful stories that I couldn’t include in this 90-minute film, but I’m hopeful that they will be seen at some point. The potential for a doc series is great! The club held over 1000 people every night for 20 years. Each one of those people has a valuable story to tell.
What is the importance of this film as LGBTQ+ history?
The MAGA right wing extremists that have taken over the Republican party are trying to ban our history and with it our long-fought struggle for civil rights. Now more than ever, films like this are critical. For the younger generation of LGBTQ who are coming of age in this age of social media have no idea of the struggle that so many endured to give them the freedoms they currently enjoy and take for granted. As West Hollywood city councilman John Duran so poignantly says, “There would not be wedding cakes today, had it not been for the struggles of the men and women who danced in Studio One.” So many gave their lives during the AIDS crisis. I hope this film will honor that lost generation, our angels, and pass on their heroic stories to future generations. Our rights and freedoms are hanging on by a thin thread now… we need to remember where we came from.
The sections documenting the AIDS crises are heartbreaking, how did you approach the shooting and editing of this portion of the film?
I wanted the first two acts of the film to be joyful and celebratory before the devastation of AIDS began taking so many. The same people who experienced nirvana at Studio One, rallied together to help during the crisis. As survivors of that time, our participants were passionate and anxious to tell their stories. The hour-long interviews were structured much like the film. After taking the subject on a journey through joyful memories, a catharsis happened when it came to the AIDS crisis. At times, we needed to stop filming if the emotions were too painful. It was unavoidable. The lingering effects of that time will never go away.
How is the history of Studio One a universal story?
It’s not just a story about a club, but about the joy and struggles and pain that we all lived through during those turbulent times. Since the Backlot Theater was host to so many great performers like Chita Rivera, it brought in the Hollywood elite from the golden era to come and see the shows in this gay disco. From Bette Davis, to Jimmy Stewart, to Cary Grant, the club integrated for the first time the gay community with the mainstream world of Hollywood. I believe that this created acceptance and understanding that trickled into the art and movies they created that influenced the world. It’s also about the humanity of our film’s participants. I think that’s the most important element in the film as dark forces in the world today seek to dehumanize our community. The Backlot also served as a launching-pad for talent that would be culturally influential.
I hope that people will take a ride with us and either re-live or learn for the first time what those times were like. It’s important to remember our past before it’s lost forever. And if you weren’t around to remember it, it’s even more important for younger generations to learn where we came from.
Burns Court Cinema Downtown Sarasota 506 Burns Ct, Sarasota, FL 34236
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