Reunion with a good friend after 29 years: Ricky Sordo visits Union City/The Disco Era: The fake and the real

Rafael Román Martel

To Ricardo Sordo, whose visit to Union City awoke great memories from our youth.

Starship Discovery 1 Photos (1977-78) by Idania Martel and Rafael Martel

From left to right Idania Martel, Ricky Sordo, and Rafael Martel in Union City on August 3, 2012.

A especial day is when you have the chance to reunite with an old friend. It is even more especial when you realize that he hasn’t changed a bit. We’ve all changed in appearance. Age in not noble nor kind. As we grow in life we understand that what abides inside is what matters. Ricky has remained true, kind, and positive as ever.

Yes, we have all gone through the years, we aged, we endured, and it is all more meaningful when we realize that we’ve remained authentic in a world where authenticity is an excepcional rare commodity.

Now we are parents, grandparents whose youthful days are present as a label of our existence, when the disco beat and the great clothes dressed us up on Fridays and Saturday nights. When we were carefree and opened our arms to life. Days of turmoil but when extreme violence did not played a role in most young people.

In Union City there were no gangs, no antagonism against the police like Gansta Rap created in the early 90’s for the purpose of their own greed for money and power through the barrel of a gun.

Union City, and West New York in the North of New Jersey became a beacon of freedom for Cubans who has suffered persecution under the Castro Communist regime, and others who were just looking for a better life for their children. Unlike most immigrations before and after them they were searching for Freedom, for an opportunity that would prove Stalinism was inferior to democracy. Those Cubans built Miami, They made Bergenline Avenue a national attraction, and their family stories reflect their commitment to family values: about 80% of the children of Cubans who fled the Castro dictatorship earned College Diplomas and became highly successful in The United States.

Their grandchildren would do better.

Thirty years later reality proves that our generation was a benign, much productive people than the Cuban Communists, enslaved and poisoned by a fake international ideology which precipitously fell in 1989. Its remains will always flame among South America and Africa, where salvage behavior is a way of life among natives, and ignorance it’s not erased by learning how to barely knowing how to read and write, for the Communists doctrine is stablished as success by the Stalinist credo.

The most authentic Gansta Rap pioneers are dead, like Tupac Shapur and Biggie Smalls while the “gasta rappers” who have become millionaires and remain alive are now part of the Hollywood crowd. Their music, as good as it was takes a second place to the disco era, who where a direct influence to the 80’s and part of the 90’s.

JC and his wife, “Puffy” P Deedy, and the clever Russell Simons are clear examples of the hypocrisy of the 90’s. They ride on the corpses of dozens of rappers from Brooklyn and Compton, where Gansta Rap originated with NWA.

[To learn more about the reality of the rap culture watch the monumental documentary Welcome to Death Row.]

Our generation wasn’t up to play the violent games against authority that young people played in the 90’s and consequent generations, victims of a mystified propaganda and the rapper’s real and unreal worlds, which were used as pieces to play for the big interests in favor of the music moguls, who ended up with all the money while the rappers ended up shot, in jail or poor, except for those who played the game and today are “celebrities” who have recently sold their lyrics to the the commercial world. A world they are now an intrinsical part of.

My generation was ready to dance under the beat and the lyrics of love. Donna Summers, Voyage, Gloria Gaynor, Village People and dozens of other artists sang about life, dancing. They celebrated music not death. It was an era hard to understand for today’s youth. Your girlfriend was not your “bitch”. She was a girl that you treated with respect. “Pimping” was the lowest form of delinquency., not a glorified MTV reality show or a money-making documentary. There were no tragedies like the shooting of the Wisconsin Sikh Temple on August 5, 2012-which left 7 people dead and more than 30 wounded wounded- the horrible Columbine Massacre or the recent Colorado Massacre.

We lived in a violent America but not in a sick America.

Those were the days when artists like Gloria Gaynor and The Tramps would play at The Soup Factory on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and we would get in with $3.00. On weekends admission in most Jersey clubs was $5.00, some would through in a couple of free drinks. Admission to the best clubs in Manhattan-like Starship-was $15.00 with free drinks included. Just tell today’s young about that.

Go figure.

In March of 1977 Starship Discovery 1 opened on the giant mirror at 42nd. Street and 9th Avenue.

It was at first a members only club. It had three floors: cabaret with two shows a night, where a trasvesti named Gypsi hosted the artists that would perform as well as the patrons who were amused by his eloquence, humor and his keen sense of freedom; truly ahead of his time. Dozens of small rounded tables with small lamps gave the impression that you were in a combination of the future and a through back to the European cabarets at the beginning of the century. The stage was designed with the club’s theme: it gave an intergalatic ilusion. It got so crowded that it was difficult to move around, yet people were gentle and happy. A mixed crowd of whites, hispanics, blacks, gays, and straights, and all sort of delightfully dressed people spaced out to the rhythm of Giorgio Moroder, Cerrone or The John Davis Orquestra.

Scarced photos of the great Starship have survived. The group of Cubans who patronized the club were too guajiros to take a picture at the Great Mirror. It was common at the time to be embarrassed by someone who would take out a camera and flashed at photo at you. Others felt it was beyond their sophistication to posed for a picture in a club. Yet there are some videos around, many photos drowned in time. Idania, the girl I would spent my life with, didn’t have such hangups. That’s how some of these pictures got published today. I’ll always thank her for bringing her 110 camera to Starship.

Somehow lost in our youth we recognized that we were living a especial period of American culture. Unlike the clowns and submissive patrons that waited for Steve Rubell to let them in, among insults, to his Circo club on 54 Street, where celebrities and drugs reigned. Drugs were everywhere at the time but at Studio 54 they became a ticket to get in. Cocaine was the Queen of the most popular club in New York. A gram of Cocaine would get anyone in. It wasn’t a dancing club. It was a drug culture club where music played at a second place from the dusty atmosphere where dealers and freaks gravitated.

We, who refused to be humiliated by Rubell were the rebels, the best dancers, the ones who lived the disco nights to the fullest, with class and a sense of dignity among some of that youth, lost in the propaganda launched by the media about the dreadful and decadent Studio 54.

There were enough drugs to go around but our drug was music and dancing, and, far away from “Saturday Night Fever” we danced the New York Hustle and lived the nights of the city to the fullest.

In late ’76 through 1978 there was a group of Cubans who danced at Starship with the best of New York City Dancers. They gathered in the front of -then recently opened- Mac Donalds in 54 Street, West New York, before heading every Friday and Saturday night to Starship. Among those Cubans there were dancers who would compete with the best in New York. “Santiaguito” was the star of this Cuban group, followed by Leandro Piñera, Jesús Ferrer,, their cousin Angel, and Ricky Sordo.

Among my closest friends at the time Tony Ehlers could dance with the best hustlers, so could Ricky Sordo and Jorge Martinez, who did his best, and was intrepid enough to explore the most daring Manhattan night clubs.

Of these great Cuban dancers from the true New York Hustle era “Santiaguito” was a star among the greatest dancers at the giant mirror on 42nd. Street. He was something to admire. I wonder where is he now, like I wonder what happened to Ed Palmintieri; the great Starship DJ who used to play 3 songs at the same time without any digital effects, and mixed them much better than today’s techno DJ’s.

From the legendary Emerson High School I believe José Nasser and the DJ Vinnie Fraginals were patrons of the club in the great era.

Besides them, claims to have been there have become more of a myth than reality. Most Cuban-Americans at the time were so tightly controlled by their parents, girlfriends and “significant others” they couldn’t escape to freedom: New York City.

Many of these people today grandfathers, sound like “I should have been there therefore I was”, rather than I was there therefore I was.

Ricardo Sordo, Tony Ehlers, Jorge and Evelyn Martinez, and the West New York Cubans were there. They also danced at The LImelight (The one in the Village back in the 70’s), they amazed people at Xenon and Les Mouches, and the dozen outstanding clubs in Manhattan.

They were true to their craft: dancing the New York Hustle was a way of celebrating life.

Watching how John Travolta hollywoonized disco became the laughing stock of the real dancers of the late 70’s.

Idania and I were falling in love through the sounds of Santa Esmeralda and First Choice, the incomparable light show at the giant mirror on 42nd. Street, and to our endless kissing in the midst of beautiful sounds. We felt free to speak about ourselves. We were happy only like people in love can unreasonably be. If it was a privilege to be there it made it all more poignant to be in love, in a careless, and unselfish way. We were young, naive, at the same time we had a street sense that made us aware of the many dangers that transpired Manhattan during that tough Summer of 1977. The serial killer David Berkowitz had terrorized the city, aiming his degenerate gun to couples. He killed 6 young people and by August of ’77 wounded dozens of others. New York had suffered a huge blackout from July 13 to July 14.

On a personal note, I was in the Burger King that formerly stood on Times Square when it happened. Ricky Sordo was with me and his cousin. We were thrown out of the BK and had to walk through 42nd. Street towards the Port Authority Station that, to our amazement, had a generator. We took the bus to NJ, and were happy and relieved to be in Union City, especially when afterwards we learned that the blackout lasted well into the next day, and violence had spread through the city.

New York City in 1977 was chaotic. The only escape from the Nixon flap and the Viet-Nam War was to dance.

And we did.

My generation wasn’t responsible for the political blunders of the early 70’s. Neither were we responsible for the Viet-Nam War. We wanted to escape the madness; the madness of Cuban Communism, the madness of American politics, the madness of violence.

We danced in our apartments with our friends and girlfriends. We imitated Fred Astaire’s steps, and built on them. We danced at school. We danced not only to celebrate but to escaped our past, to try to built a future where the meaning of freedom would become a sign of unity, not of apathy and discontent.

Ricky Sordo was there with me that day of the NYC Blackout. He is my best witness to what I now write, 35 years later.

We had spent the day in Manhattan showing the city to his cousin, Lorenzo Sordo* (RIP) who had just arrived from Miami and was eager to explore Manhattan in his first trip. Later Ricky and I commented: “Wow that was some way to get to know the city for the first time”. The Blackout of 1977 is now in the history books, which today is called YOUTUBE, instead of the old newspaper clips we used to search through in the 70’s, 80’s, and even early 90’s to write a term paper for college.

In the basement of the great Starship Discovery 1 there was a Lounge (with four small movie screens) and giant eggs where couples cuddle up, a bar, billiards, and the funkiest atmosphere at the time, all framed in the most sophisticated walls and furniture to resembled a starship.

The Giant Mirror was on the second floor, where 40,000 watts from 8 McIntosh amps, in a system that today-35 years later-would hold its own at any club, would make you feel the music: that was discotheque. There the greatest DJ of the time, Joey Palminteri played the best music in New York; in the world. At 2:00 AM on Saturdays the danced floor was so crowded that you could hardly move. By 6:00 AM Paminteri stopped spinning and the crowd would stamp their feet on the floor, holding the door of the DJ booth to prevent him from leaving. Palminteri played one more hour to the satisfaction of the young people who, at the end of the night, left thanking him for the great mixes.

Starship also hosted the talent of two pioneer DJ’s: Ernie D. and Frank Carvajal. They were also master DJ’s. Carvajal played most of the off nights. He was gracious enough to shared some of the mixes live from Starship back in those days.

The light show was highlighted by a neon mountain placed in the middle of the dance floor. About 3:00 Am the mountain would filled the floor with “smoke”, which was nothing but evaporated ice, while neon lights in the form of thunderstorms would enhance the extravaganza. The mountain with the lights made the cover of a popular album of the time with the hit appropriately titled “Come on Dance, Dance” by The Saturday Night Band. There was a level of sophistication, dancing and good taste at that dance floor that no other club at the time reached.

On a Sunday night, August 7, 1977, I met my wife. There was a group of us, among them was Ricky Sordo. Those years were spent dancing the New York Hustle, practicing sports, and living for the weekend. It really was a great generation of Cuban-Americans. Well, not everybody who arrived from Cuba in the early 70’s is classified in this category. There was plenty of classism, malice, and stupidity in the exile community. There was also enough good will and hard work that brought ample success to our generation, and today its children enjoy the fruits of that hard work from the first generation of immigrants: the Cuban-Americans. It wasn’t easy for us but we were now part of the American tradition.

Our parents lead by example we followed leading by struggle, commitment and an eminent feeling of accomplishment that materialized in our children and grandchildren. We are not the perfect American Story but we are an intrinsic part of Americana. We had escaped Communism. We were despised by the Cuban Marxists, some of our parents were jailed and persecuted. Yet we proved them wrong by being so much successful than they are, today submerged in 53 years of misery and oppression.

On August 3, 2012, Ricky, Idania, and I shared many memories of the great dancing experience of the late 70’s. The Manhattan clubs are now legendary, and also mythical by all of those Cuban-Americans in Union City at the time-that now claimed they were there. Most of them probably confused the house parties and the Liceo Cubano on 47th. Street with the great Starship, Les Mouches, Creation, Meadowbrooks, Xenon, Strawberry Patch, Limelight (the original one on 7th Avenue in The Village) and Cameo-among others. There were others who ventured into the New York nigh life with gusto. We loved the music, we embraced the era.

Now that we are grandparents, we remininced about the great 70’s, and like old people do, we assured ourselves again and again that our time was the best of all generations.


~ by Rafael Martel on August 3, 2012.

2 Responses to “Reunion with a good friend after 29 years: Ricky Sordo visits Union City/The Disco Era: The fake and the real”

  1. i loved your story, it was amazing to hear you were there!!! you were at the epicenter of a once in a lifetime era. like a comet, it came and went but the memories are etched in our minds. I was too young to do the things you did but I remember the older guys talking about them, i listened every night during the summers of 74 – 77, they talked about the Soap Factory a lot. It’s amazing the things I did when i got older. Spending nights at 1018 and Mars and the Palladium until 4-5 in the morning, i was only 17, 18, 19 and doing this shit. parent’s like myself would never let our kids do that.

    anyway nice story, god bless.

    • Thank you Miguel, those were truly amazing times, and yes, they past by our lives like a comet but left and indeleble mark. God Bless! Happy Thanksgiving!

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