The “mat room” at Plato’s Retreat was a cushion-floored, crab-happy enclosure with space enough for fifty couples to swing in the strictest sense. A sign on the wall read NO ONE ADMITTED FULLY DRESSED/WHEN FEMALE LEAVES, MALE MUST ALSO LEAVE, enforced by a cross-armed bouncer known as the Matman, to keep tourists clear of the coital path and maintain gender equilibrium. Located in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel on Broadway and West 73rd Street, the Manhattan nightclub served up a dinner buffet, dancing and a nightly show, a swimming pool and a waterfall, and private, “mini-swing” cubicles for inhibited voyagers. Josh Alan Friedman described Plato’s down to the last dirty towel and roll of flypaper in his 1981 essay in Screw, now published in his book Tales of Times Square: “What Plato’s philosophy really reflects are plain old middle-class values, gone a bit haywire. I see poolside furniture, mirrored walls, Advent TV screens playing hardcore loops, a pool table, video games, and a live, blaring disco, the equivalent of any suburb, except the bodies are toweled or starkers. The disco here even contains a live disco DJ, spinning his platters of shit while rapping along.”
Plato’s opened in 1977, along with Studio 54 and Saturday Night Fever, the Son of Sam killings and the notorious blackout. It was New York City’s first hetero swingers’ club to facilitate sex on site, and it was mostly legitimate. A Time magazine article from 1978 provides statistics: “Open five nights a week, Plato’s attracts some 6,500 fun seekers—and grosses $90,000—a month . . . Most of the patrons appear to be between 20 and 45 years old, and the staff estimates that 65% are married suburbanites, who are presumably interested in sex that does not threaten family stability.” The cover was $50 per couple. No single men were admitted, but solo ladies were welcome for $10. Because Plato’s never obtained a liquor license, the bar served only juice and soft drinks during the eight years of its operation, evidently liquid courage enough for the Tri-state area crowd. Larry “The King of Swing” Levenson, the club’s founder, appeared on Donahue and The David Susskind Show, pushing his defense of Plato’s as a nonprofit organization devoted to helping “free-thinking, adult couples” to upgrade their marriages. Plato’s TV commercials—aired on Al Goldstein’s Midnight Blue public access program—had a jingle, “The pleasure and the fun will keep you feeling young. It’s for you!”
Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart’s documentary about Plato’s Retreat, American Swing, runs up against an old conundrum: the juicier the story, the messier the film. The leap from printed word to moving image removes the anonymity factor. Click here to read the rest of Leah Churner’s review of American Swing.