Donna Summer: Celebrities Reflect On The “Last Dance”

New York Times
May 18, 2012
Memories of Donna’s Disco Nights

IN 1975, a 26-year-old singer who called herself Donna Summer floated onto the scene with “Love to Love You Baby.” Produced by the Italian disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder, it became a sensation, 17 minutes of a woman oohing and aahing as if in a state of ecstasy.

For the next half a decade, there almost wasn’t a nightclub in America that didn’t play Ms. Summer’s songs or anyone who came of age during the disco era who won’t forever associate her with that hedonistic time.

On Thursday, after news of Ms. Summer’s death, some of the last remaining denizens of the legendary New York dance clubs Studio 54, the Paradise Garage, 12 West, Flamingo and Xenon recalled their fondest memories of dancing to Donna Summer. At least, as much as they could remember.

Jellybean Benitez, D.J. and executive producer at “Studio 54 Radio,” at Sirius XM “You had this woman moaning and groaning, like she was having an orgasm. And it went on forever. But no one seemed to mind. You’d just play that record and turn the lights off. Seventeen minutes was enough time to fulfill a lot of fantasies.”

Patricia Field, clothing designer and stylist “Her music embodied that era. Dancing and drugs, it all went together like a beautiful salad. I was never that heavy a drug user. But poppers I used to enjoy when I was on the dance floor shooting for the stars. I was having a mad love affair with a woman named Dorothy that lasted a year and a half. We’d go to 12 West together and dance and get lost. We loved ”˜Love to Love You Baby.’ ”

Liz Rosenberg, publicist to Madonna, Cher, Stevie Nicks and, briefly, Donna Summer “Donna Summer was it. I went to Paradise Garage, the Loft and the Flamingo. Only gay clubs. The music was always better and you always heard Donna Summer. She also put on phenomenal live shows. The show I remember very well was the Greek Theater in L.A. They had this street lamp setup, and all these people who worked around Donna came out in outfits and did ”˜Bad Girls’ like they were hookers. It was a big industry audience and it just went insane. I knew at that moment I was at something historic. I could only equate it to Bette Midler in terms of those out-there concert extravaganzas.”

Bette Midler “I was working at the [Continental] Baths and we heard this magical voice. It was ”˜Love to Love You Baby,’ and you knew that something was in the air, that something was going to change. It was so revolutionary. It was quite provocative, really outrageous, this gigantic production, fantastic production. It wasn’t thoughtful. It was sexual.”

Stephen Burrows, fashion designer, Studio 54 regular “People would be on the balcony at Studio 54 actually doing it while that song was playing.”

Joel Schumacher, film director “I was doing a lot of speed. We were all out of our minds. Sweat and Speedos and Donna Summer and gorgeous beauty and being wrecked out of our brains. That’s what it was all about.”

Junior Vasquez, D.J. “Everything followed her. Everyone else did that sound after ”˜I Feel Love’ and ”˜MacArthur Park Suite.’ I remember in the ’70s, being in the Grove on Fire Island at the Ice Palace. I’d be out there every weekend, and that was all I heard. Loleatta Holloway and First Choice were great as well, but Donna Summer crossed all barriers.”

Kim Hastreiter, editor, Paper Magazine “I moved here in ’76, and Joey Arias and I used to go to Studio 54 every night before the Mudd Club opened. Joey worked at Fiorucci and I worked at Betsey Bunky Nini. I was a salesgirl. We would wear leopard twin outfits and go out and dance to Donna Summer. Every night. All night. ”˜Last Dance’ would come on, and forget about it. How many poppers were taken to that song I can’t even imagine.”

Joey Arias, performance artist “It became a ritual when that song came on. Find that person in the club you could go home and sleep with. Or make love to. That new partner. That’s what the ”˜last dance’ was. It was the last chance for love, so go on the dance floor, shake your booty one more time and make sure you find that person. And you usually did. And then you’d pass out, and wake up and do it all again.”

Deborah Harry, lead singer of Blondie “There’s a live recording somewhere of us doing ”˜I Feel Love.’ We played it all over the place. I know we did at CBGB at first and then various shows all over the world. I was crazy about that song. You couldn’t help but love it. It was so fresh.”

Danny Tenaglia, D.J., Paradise Garage regular “It was amazing seeing the drag shows to Donna Summer. People would do incredible performances lip syncing. They were always doing ”˜MacArthur Park Suite.’ Somebody would come out with a cake in the rain and the umbrella, just like in the lyrics, and it would turn into a very messy stage.”

Ian Schrager, an owner of Studio 54 “The drag queens would get up on stage and emulate her, but they were never as pretty.”

Hal Rubenstein, fashion director of InStyle “I had my own catering business, and Casablanca records, Donna Summer’s label, was a client. ”˜Heaven Knows’ was my favorite. I think I first heard it at the beach, at the Sandpiper. They had all the great disco records before everybody else.”

Karen Erickson, a founder of Erickson Beamon “I moved to New York in ’79 and I went to Studio 54 all the time. There was Andy Warhol and Halston and Disco Sally and Rollerina, and there was no difference between who was famous and who was not famous. If you were there, you thought you were famous. Everybody would be sitting and drinking and having a good time, and when ”˜Last Dance’ came on, you’d run to the floor. To this day I hear that song and I want to start spinning around.”

Howard Rosenman, movie producer: “There was one night at the Saint. Do you know that club? It was a planetarium on Second Avenue in the East Village and at around 3 o’clock in the morning, suddenly from the stars, out came this woman. And it was Donna Summer. She sang one of her songs and the dancers went totally insane. People were tripping out of their minds and there she was. I can’t remember the song. Maybe it was ”˜Dim all the Lights.’ Or else it was ”˜Bad Girls.’”

Terry Sherman, a Saint DJ: “Donna Summer did not perform at the Saint. She wanted too much money.”

Diane von Furstenberg “ ”˜Last Dance’ was the song of that era, and of course it actually was the last dance. It was a moment of freedom that was never to be repeated again because there was no AIDS, and that makes all the difference.”

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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