Break out the bell bottoms--this month marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Saturday Night Fever. John Travolta launched his career playing Tony Manero, the movie's disco-crazed main character, and the movie's soundtrack was the vehicle for the Bee Gees’ comeback. Saturday Night Fever also put Bay Ridge on the national map.
Since the movie’s release, a lot has changed in Bay Ridge (I should know since I've spent most of my life here, although I was only three when the movie first came out), and not just because disco died a long time ago. A lot of the places that showed up in the film are no longer around, and Bay Ridge has become much more ethnically diverse over the years. The old school Italians and Scandinavians are still here, but there has also been an influx of residents who are Arab, Latino and Eastern European, which you can see reflected in the variety of shops and restaurants that line the streets here.
In my opinion, the strongest carry over from the movie is Bay Ridge’s character as an old-fashioned, traditional neighborhood. Compared to trendier areas like Park Slope, Cobble Hill and Williamsburg, Bay Ridge still remains middle-class and family-oriented--you’re more likely to find people who have lived in this neighborhood for a long, long time than in other parts of Brooklyn. Of course, Bay Ridge hasn't been entirely immune from gentrification; places like the Little Cupcake Bakeshop and a newly-opened artisanal ice cream place on Third Avenue have been popping up lately, and there's a new beer garden called The Lockyard slated to open next year.
Still there is a sense of pride that I feel for the neighborhood whenever I watch the movie and recognize familiar places. So to mark the film’s milestone, I recently decided to revisit a few recognizable spots--sans the sharp disco threads and slick hair.
Underneath the elevated subway track, Lenny’s Pizza in Bensonhurst is one of the few places from the movie that is still in existence today. It’s featured in the very beginning when Tony stops by for two slices, and then eats them sandwich-style while strutting down the streets of Bensonhurst. On my visit to Lenny’s, I wasn’t tough enough to eat two slices simultaneously while walking, so I opted to eat in. And I have to say the slice that I had was magnificent—you can feel like you've truly lived when you've had an authentic Brooklyn slice, especially in Bensonhurst--for me, any place outside of the borough just seems to pale in comparison.
There's been a hardware store has been on 73rd Street and Fifth Avenue for as long I can remember living here. It used to be called Six Brothers, where Tony works for Mr. Fusco. In one scene that takes place inside the store Tony asks for an advance and Mr. Fusco refuses. Tony says, “Oh fuck the future,” to which Fusco responds, “No, Tony! You can't fuck the future. The future fucks you! It catches up with you and it fucks you if you ain't planned for it!”
I must have passed by this house between 3rd Avenue and Ridge Boulevard many times without knowing that it was the home of Tony’s traditional Italian family—the façade is different now than in the movie. As fans remember, this is where all the family tensions take place: the arguments between Tony and his parents, and the return of Tony’s brother Frank, who has left the priesthood and the scene where Tony implores his father to, "watch the hair!" It’s also where Tony combs that mane and dons his disco gear before heading out to the 2001 Odyssey Club with his pals.
Nowadays, it’s just a large commercial building that, among other businesses, is home to a Chinese restaurant, but 802 64th Street used to be the 2001 Odyssey Club. Nik Cohn’s wrote about it in a 1976 story for New York Magazine, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” which inspired the movie. It’s the club where Tony reigns as undisputed champ of the dance floor with his electrifying moves. According to the “Back to Bay Ridge” featurette on the Saturday Night Fever DVD, the place turned into a gay club called Spectrum in 1987 and then finally closed eight years later.
This is the studio where Tony formally introduces himself to Stephanie and where the two practice for the big dance contest at the Odyssey. According to this movie locations website the place is still in business, but when I went to visit there recently, it seemed boarded up--there was no sign above the door and the facade was covered in graffiti.
If there's one place that appears in the movie that I most wish was still around it would be the White Castle on 92nd Street in Fort Hamilton (don’t judge me). In one scene, Tony, his rowdy friends, and Stephanie hang out for a bite to eat. I remember eating there whenever I was visiting the shopping strip on 86th Street, but it shut down in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s and was turned into an office complex that included a Uno Chicago. Bay Ridge has a KFC, Burger King, Pudgie’s, Nathan’s and McDonald’s today, but I still miss that White Castle.
The Verrazano Bridge--the longest suspension bridge in the world, which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island--looms large in the film. It’s one of the first things we see as the movie begins; it’s what Tony and Stephanie stare at while sitting on a bench, dreaming their big dreams; and it’s on the bridge that tragedy strikes near the film's end. Opened in 1964, the bridge was just over a decade old when the film was released.
When Tony and Stephanie go on their coffee date, they passed by what was then the Grand Union supermarket on 92nd Street and Fifth Avenue, which I don’t think I’ve ever been inside of. Today, it’s a giant Staples store. And if you look carefully, the couple also passes by Kelly’s Tavern, which is still around, after having coffee.
What would a movie that takes place in Brooklyn—or New York for that matter—be without a subway scene? In the film, Tony rides the train alone all night after the horrific sequence of events on the bridge. Back then, the R was known as the RR and I wouldn’t be surprised if the service was as slow as it is now. As evidenced by the movie, the old subways cars were drab and full of graffiti--today's cars seem sleek and modern in comparison, and you definitely can't smoke on them anymore.
As someone who grew up here, in a neighborhood that often feels like a small town, I can understand and identify with Tony's restlessness--the idea of wanting to do something bigger and better. Bay Ridge is for the most part a safe, well-to-do area if you want to settle down and raise a family. It’s seems like a totally different world, tucked away from Manhattan or from its northern Brooklyn neighbors, as Stephanie emphasizes time and time again in the film. Then again, as Tony replies to Stephanie, “Hey, you know Bay Ridge ain’t the worse part of Brooklyn...I mean, you know, it ain't like a hell hole or nothing."
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