Queer people often talk about the members in the community we have lost when it comes to honoring their legacy. Whether they are pioneers or figureheads, we celebrate how they changed perspectives of those who only wanted the worst for us. But what about places? Do you remember the first place you felt free as a queer person? When the outside world fell away and your first gay bar felt like paradise? In Marc Saltarelli’s storied documentary Studio One Forever, the director shines a light on a place that remains a beacon to millions. This is a film that makes you want to party. It’s a exhilarating artifact that declares that ‘we were here.’
As someone who prides themselves on knowing a lot of queer history, I was embarrassed to never to have heard about Studio One. The footage featured on Saltarelli’s film will remind people of the legendary Studio 54, but the film quickly reminds us that that notorious nightclub only lasted a few years. Why aren’t more people (especially queer people) familiar with Scott Forbes’ beloved nightclub?
“That’s a good question,” Saltarelli muses. “When I was approached to do this by Lloyd Coleman, I immediately remembered my time there in the ’80s. When I started to delve into the research, there were two women who started the Save the Factory movement. They put together a 40-page document that detailed the history, and you can find that online. When I read that document–and it is hard to find–I was shocked that I hadn’t heard any of this before. I immediately thought how amazing a film about this it would be.”
As Saltarelli dove headfirst into more research, he soon discovered that everyone had a story about Studio One, and, more importantly, everyone was excited to talk about it.
“When I found out that Chita [Rivera} was the reason that The Backlot really took off and Liza Minnelli brought her friends there, that was the reason for this place,” he says. “It was beyond belief that Chita was so excited to do this interview. We took our trip to New York City, and she is everything that you would hope. That was incredible. Once people found out that we were doing this film, people really rose up. They sent me photographs or long Facebook posts celebrating it. In a ninety-minute film, we can’t put them all in, but maybe that means that we should do a series? The original cut was about three hours. We will get those other stories out however we can.”
We should not become comfortable just because Marriage Equality passed in 2015, and we should never dismiss the struggles of those who came before us. The Gay Rights Movement only began a little more than fifty years ago, and those rights could be taken away at any moment. Studio One Forever captures that beautiful feeling of feeling alive on the dance floor with your friends on a boy that you have a crush on. But we should never stop looking back in order to secure our future.
“That’s why it’s so critical,” Saltarelli says. “When we were making it, I always knew the most important target was the younger generation. We cannot take our rights and freedoms for granted. Now these rights are hanging on by a thread–the Supreme Court basically said it. They’re coming after us. Gay marriage is probably next. In this moment, they are banning our history, and I don’t think this film would be welcome in Florida.”
We have seen a lot of accounts of the rise of HIV/AIDS in the early ’80s, but Studio One Forever features a gut-wrenching section where members of the community recount losing almost everyone in their lives. Some men have to walk off camera because reliving that trauma is so on the surface. Even though our society has become much more respectful towards mental health and talking about it, Saltarelli still needed to show the immediacy of those emotions. It’s raw, powerful, and necessary.
“Those interviews were structured kind of like how the movie is,” he says. “We start talking about the joy and freedom and then we hit just like how this movie does. Everyone around them is dying, and that’s a potent combination. That’s what really drew me to it, because there is such a dichotomy about the dance and the trauma and the tragedy. All of us that lived through that decade–even me–has some form of PTSD. It’s like going through a battle, and that trauma will never go away. I am hoping that what the film does it pay tribute to those who passed away during that time. Because the government was so unwilling to mention the word, it mobilized us to create a political movement, and that movement led to Marriage Equality. We wouldn’t have our freedoms without AIDS, so those angels are heroes. Hopefully, they can be understood and remembered, and I hope it serves as a lesson to younger people who don’t even know what AIDS is.”
Saltarelli also serves as the documentary’s editor, and that gives him an advantage of piecing together a clear timeline for the men we follow throughout the film. Towards the end of the film, there is a fantastic montage of the men dancing on the Studio One’s dance floor cut with the subjects dancing in the present day. It reinforces how these men are still here.
“Starting out, the structure was a given to me, and I knew it was going to be able going through the excitement of the ’70s before the AIDS crisis,” he says. “I had so many amazing people talking about the crisis that I had to pare it down since less is more. In terms of the events, as long as it related back to Studio One, I tried to find a place for it. If it got off-topic, I had to cut it. There were a few things that went off track, but I thought it was important to include. For the feature, we had to keep it focused and keep it moving–that’s another thing that you have to do with a film like this. An incredible find comes towards the end when Natalie Garcia discovers the stills in that garage. That was magical to me. I work a lot with Project Angel Food–I’ve been doing that for a long time–and I went to film something with Jonathan Del Arco, and I mentioned that I was doing something on Studio One and he connected us.”
Scott Forbes is an elusive presence throughout Saltarelli’s film, but you always feel him. He was dubbed the “Disco King,” but Studio One didn’t evade controversies entirely. You don’t have Studio One without Forbes, and Saltarelli thought about him a lot throughout his film’s creation.
“I felt him and his presence throughout this film,” Saltarelli says, thoughtfully. “I’ve tried to be fair and balanced. It was his vision–flawed, in a way. He wanted a club for white gay men. He didn’t want women or people of color, and, of course, he changed. But he was able to bring in the Hollywood community and have that mix for for the very first time. Some people may not agree, but because the straight Hollywood community saw gay people–maybe for the first time–that gave them empathy. That trickled out to the world. It’s not just a dance club.”
Studio One Forever premieres at Outfest on July 18 at the Harmony Gold Theater.