At first blush, most people probably wouldn’t consider a documentary about New York City’s most notorious public sex club the ideal “date movie.” But that’s exactly what Mathew Kaufman calls “American Swing,” the nostalgic, often amusing film he co-produced and co-directed with Jon Hart about the legendary swingers’ haven Plato’s Retreat.
“The movie’s got everything,” Kaufman said during a conference call with Hart from Manhattan. “And sex will definitely be the topic of conversation on the ride home.”
Kaufman and Hart (no connection to the famed playwriting duo of the ‘30s) met in 2003 when a mutual colleague thought documentarian Kaufman might be intrigued by veteran reporter Hart’s stash of audiovisual materials from the hundreds of hours he once spent interviewing Larry Levenson, Plato’s brash, Bronx-born founder.
“I looked at all this stuff and realized no one’s ever told the real story behind Plato’s Retreat,” Kaufman said. “No one remembers Larry Levenson, but he was a groundbreaker. He really changed the way people thought about sex.”
Levenson’s decidedly heterosexual club became an international destination after its 1977 opening in the basement of the Upper West Side’s ornate Ansonia Hotel (and the former site of the gay Continental Baths). A quick tour of the adult playground would include a maze of walled-off “private” areas, a party-sized Jacuzzi, swimming pool, dance floor and, for the orgy set, the infamous “mattress room.” There was also a hot-and-cold food buffet for, well, sustenance.
The clientele, a mix of participants and observers -- with couples preferred -- included workaday bridge-and-tunnel types as well as fast-lane Manhattanites. Celebrities such as Sammy Davis Jr., Richard Dreyfuss, Buck Henry and the cast of “Saturday Night Live” would drop by to check out the action. If the celebrities participated, Hart noted, “it was behind closed doors.”
Self-styled “King of Swing” Levenson soon gained dubious fame not only for the wild success of the club he dubbed “a monument to sexual freedom” but also for the three-year prison sentence he served for tax evasion.
In 1985, beset by diminishing crowds, prostitution arrests and the exploding AIDS crisis, Plato’s (which had by then relocated to a midtown warehouse) shut its doors.
By the time Hart met Levenson in 1995, the sex-obsessed, limelight-loving entrepreneur had become a rotund cab driver, estranged from his three sons and living in a basement apartment.
“I was intimidated by Larry at first,” said Hart, who wrote about Levenson and Plato’s for the New York Times and the Village Voice. “But then he started to talk and the warmth shined through. I could see a beautiful person was inside. I developed a really strong bond with him.”
Levenson died in 1999 at 62 following quadruple bypass surgery.
Convinced the Levenson-Plato’s saga would make a “fabulous, fascinating portrait of historical New York,” Kaufman spent a year -- and $50,000 in life savings -- working with Hart on a “sales tape” to help advance a potential documentary. The reel eventually caught the eye of HDNet Films’ Mark Cuban, who provided funding for the full-length feature which, according to the filmmakers, came in at under $500,000.
Kaufman and Hart say finding, clearing and then assembling the vast, eye-popping Plato’s Retreat archival footage seen in the film was a grueling process. They ended up hiring an associate producer to help wade through more than 100 hours of dusty three-quarter-inch videotapes, most of which came from the raunchy Manhattan Cable show “Midnight Blue,” which, in its heyday, regularly covered the Plato’s scene.
The sexually frank footage in the film, which opens Friday, includes copious nudity and shows various states of bliss, yet stops short of being hard-core.
But it’s the interviews Kaufman and Hart shot with original Plato’s Retreat patrons -- plus several ex-employees -- that provide the heart and soul of “American Swing.” Tracking down these free-thinking folks was also no easy task, so the filmmakers ran a “casting call” for them via newspaper ads in New York, Los Angeles and Florida. There was one caveat though. “We didn’t want to make a film with blurred faces and obscured eyes,” Kaufman said. “We needed people willing to be themselves and tell it like it was.”
They ultimately landed a colorful conglomeration of surprisingly ordinary sorts who reflect on their glory days of partner swapping, group sex, same-sex experimentation and basking in Plato’s if-it-feels-good-do-it, disco-era zeitgeist. “We were amazed at how honest people were, how forthcoming and warm they were,” Kaufman said. “It seemed like no one talked badly about their experiences at Plato’s even though it probably wasn’t as great for some as it was for others.”
The Plato’s experience didn’t take hold in Los Angeles when, in 1979, Levenson opened Plato’s West as part of a failed attempt at franchising.
“It didn’t really translate well to the beautiful crowd in L.A.,” Kaufman explained. “Swingers in general aren’t the most beautiful people.” The Ivar Street club was raided multiple times and, after six months, “was basically harassed out of business,” he said.
And how will younger moviegoers, who missed the sexual revolution entirely, view Plato’s Retreat today?
Answered Hart: “Just like I first thought, they might wonder, ‘How could this exist?’ ” He laughed and added, “Then again, they might think, ‘It seems like a great place, I wish I was there.’ ”