Disco Inferno by
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(84 Stories)

Prompted By Dance Crazes

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The original Sun Tavern. Photo credit: Johnni Aguirre, Pinterest.

One of my college roommates came out as gay a couple of years after graduation, surprising his parents but none of his friends. A few years later, in the late ‘70s, he came to visit us in Salt Lake City—for the skiing, he said, and nightlife.

There were men dancing with men, women with women. Aaron had brought us to a gay club—our first.

Nightlife? In Salt Lake? It was our second year there and we had made some good friends, a group of University-affiliated non-Mormons and “jack” (former) Mormons who thought of ourselves as a sort of resistance movement. We called ourselves The Flicker and Liquor Society in honor of our mutual affection for dining, drinking, and going to movies. But hanging out with them would hardly be considered nightlife.

But Aaron had done his research. He guided us to a nondescript storefront just four blocks west of Temple Square (Mormon Ground Zero). As we parked, dance music pulsed faintly from inside. A bouncer looked us over as we entered.

We looked around. There was a bar on one side—by Utah law, you had to join their “private club” to be served—and tables were arranged around the periphery. In the middle was a crowded dance floor. There were men dancing with men, women with women. Aaron had brought us to a gay club—our first.

A gay club? In Utah? We were stunned. But as it turned out, Salt Lake had a large and thriving underground gay community, even back in the ‘70s. When you send pairs of hormone-ravaged 20-year-olds on missions all over the world, and it’s their first time away from home, and fraternizing with the locals is forbidden, and you tell them they should love their companion—well, it turns out that’s what they do. Who would have guessed?

There were straight couples dancing too, as well as people dancing alone, in groups, or in lines. And the dancers were good—they had actual moves! The disco boom was just getting underway—Saturday Night Fever had recently been released, as I recall, although we hadn’t seen it yet—and this club, the Sun Tavern, was its beachhead in Salt Lake.

Sun Tavern after tornado

The relocated Sun Tavern after the tornado of 1999. Photo credit: Utah Stonewall Historical Society Archives.

(Historical footnote, because The Internet: The Sun achieved brief fame in 1978 when Paul Lynde was arrested there. In 1999, in a new location, it was heavily damaged by a freak tornado that touched down in central Salt Lake City. According to one report, “Religious zealots said it was God’s way of punishing the sinners who frequented that ‘homo-sexshul’ establishment, although the windows in front of the Christus statue on Temple Square were also cracked.”)

I remember being nervous and self-conscious. Would they accept us? Would we accept them? Would anyone think I was gay? Would some guy try to pick me up? But the atmosphere was relaxed and laid back, and not at all a meat market (although I’m sure there were plenty of pickups if you looked closely). It was just a Western bar that happened to be lesbian and gay, but where all genders and sexual orientations were welcome.

Within an hour, I felt comfortable and at ease—not always my default at crowded bars and clubs. It was one of those inclusive establishments where the joy is infectious and everyone seems to have a good time. We were even able to try our hand (feet) at the Hustle and pick up some of the moves.

Within a year, discos were proliferating throughout the city, from the simple to the fancy, and we were going out dancing regularly. But I don’t think I felt more at home at any of them than I did that night at the Sun.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.


Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    Burn baby burn! Your title brings back another unforgettable disco song. Love this story about your adventure at a gay disco in Utah (3 words that I never expected to see together). Glad to know you actually did some disco dancing back in the day, and hurray for Aaron for taking you there.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Interesting glimpse into a sub-culture you might not have know about otherwise, John. “Do the hustle”, indeed! I have a good friend who is also a jack Mormon. We went to see the second part of “Angels in America” together and sat up talking it for half the night. It seemed like it was almost his life story.

    Your friend did a great service for me when I was in Chicago by telling me about a really good ballet studio. I took a wonderful adult beginners class there on Saturday mornings. I will always be grateful to him for that.

  3. bateginger says:

    In the early 90s, I took acting classes in San Francisco around the corner from 7th Street or on 7th (can’t remember the address). They began at 7:00 pm and lasted about two hours. I always parked in front of a gay bar/dance club, because I felt safe there.

    • John Zussman says:

      Wise choice! Especially in the ’90s in San Francisco. Historically, I’m not sure gay bars would be the safest place to hang out, especially in Utah or, say, the South. Some of the reports I read said there was periodic gay-bashing around the Sun Tavern and other gay hangouts.

  4. What a wonderful story to have discovered, John. (I’ve been randomly clicking on our new feature, “Old Stories You Might Have Missed.”) You really captured the feeling of being nervous and self-conscious yourself when suddenly you were in the minority. Whenever I find myself in that position, for whatever reason, I like to acknowledge it….”so this is how it feels.” And to then relax and feel at home takes it to another level.

  5. dj discoworm says:

    I was the DJ for the sun tavern in 1978. DJ DISCOWORM. Played for beer upstairs. Joe would always get on the mike and ask everyone to applaud my DJing. I miss Joe, Dale Fairboune, Michael Cassidy, John Murray. Big place with enclosed outdoor patio with lights going up the brick walls.

    Still DJing in San Francisco on Twitch. Thank you very much for this article.
    John Love DJ discOworm 2021

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