Saturday Night Fever: The (Fake) Magazine Story That Started it All

Thir­ty-five years ago today, New York mag­a­zine pub­lished “Trib­al Rights of Sat­ur­day Night,” a beau­ti­ful­ly-writ­ten paean to the danc­ing teens of the city’s bor­oughs. And the sto­ry focused on a work­ing-class dis­co dancer named Vin­cent:

Vin­cent was the very best dancer in Bay Ridge—the ulti­mate Face. He owned four­teen flo­ral shirts, five suits, eight pairs of shoes, three over­coats, and had appeared on Amer­i­can Band­stand. Some­times music peo­ple came out from Man­hat­tan to watch him, and one man who owned a club on the East Side had even offered him a con­tract. A hun­dred dol­lars a week. Just to dance.

“Vin­cent” become the mod­el for Tony Manero, the hero of John Bad­ham’s 1977 dis­co-gan­za Sat­ur­day Night Fever, a hit film which launched the 70’s hottest dance craze and the career of young John Tra­vol­ta. Plus it gave us the best-sell­ing sound­track album of all time and intro­duced the line dance, an exer­cise in ine­bri­at­ed com­mu­nal humil­i­a­tion that would dom­i­nate the dance floors of Amer­i­can wed­ding recep­tions for decades to come.

With all this to its cred­it, per­haps it should­n’t mat­ter that Nik Kohn’s arti­cle was more fic­tion than non-fic­tion, and that “Vin­cent” was, in Kohn’s own words, “com­plete­ly made up, a total fab­ri­ca­tion.” The osten­si­bly con­science-strick­en jour­nal­ist came clean in the Guardian in 1994:

My sto­ry was a fraud, I’d only recent­ly arrived in New York. Far from being steeped in Brook­lyn street life, I hard­ly knew the place. As for Vin­cent, my sto­ry’s hero, he was large­ly inspired by a Shep­herd’s Bush mod whom I’d known in the Six­ties, a one-time king of Gold­hawk Road.” [Ed. Note: The Guardian piece is not avail­able online, but it was quot­ed exten­sive­ly in Char­lie LeDuf­f’s 1996 arti­cle, “Sat­ur­day Night Fever: The Life”]

Mr. Kohn’s own life sto­ry is also worth a movie or two. In 1983, accord­ing to the New York Timeshe was indict­ed on drug traf­fick­ing and con­spir­a­cy counts for the impor­ta­tion of $4 mil­lion worth of Indi­an hero­in. His nar­ra­tive abil­i­ties came to his res­cue once more, this time in the form of a plea-bar­gain in exchange for his tes­ti­mo­ny. His charges were reduced to pro­ba­tion and a $5,000 fine.

Sheer­ly Avni is a San Fran­cis­co-based arts and cul­ture writer. Her work has appeared in Salon, LA Week­ly, Moth­er Jones, and many oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low her on twit­ter at @sheerly.

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  • Ralph S Hutchinson says:

    Shad­ow Dancer The Real Sto­ry of Sat­ur­day Night Fever
    By Ralph Hutchin­son

    As a young man dur­ing my teens and ear­ly twen­ties I became friends with Steve Rubell and Ian Shrager at a club they owned in Con­cord New Hamp­shire. I was only six­teen at the time and had an over­whelm­ing desire to dance to music in the club, meet girls and inter­est­ing peo­ple. At that time the drink­ing age was eigh­teen, how­ev­er I was a very young six­teen year old born in Decem­ber of fifty sev­en. It was a Sat­ur­day night when I walked into the club I was greet­ed at the top of the stairs by Steve Rubell who of course asked to see my iden­ti­fi­ca­tion to enter the club. I pre­sent­ed him with my license which he looked over with sus­pi­cious con­cern but failed to cal­cu­late my real age believ­ing I was of legal age to drink alco­hol. Hav­ing a nature of charm and a big smile he charged me two dol­lars stat­ing my first name and “…have a good time!”, allowed me to enter estab­lish­ment. I only drank one beer the entire night and danced and talked with a num­ber of young sin­gle women being as gra­cious as pos­si­ble.
    Because I was attend­ing high school I real­ly could only go out on Sat­ur­day nights and hav­ing suc­cess­ful­ly entered the door I thought that if I can become known to this door­man he would not card me upon future vis­its to the club. The next Sat­ur­day I showed up Steve Rubell greet­ed me at the top of the stair entrance into the night­club and again he was unable to scru­ti­nize my true age via my legal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion being not a fake iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. As before I had a won­der­ful time and danced with many women as the place was packed with many peo­ple, while dri­ving away from the club that night I was think­ing to myself, “… if I can come back next week and Steve the door­man gets to know me bet­ter than he may stop card­ing me and just allow me to enter the club?..” Going back to the club the fol­low­ing Sat­ur­day ear­ly evening around eight thir­ty I entered the club to see Steve was stand­ing halfway up the stair­way, there was no line of peo­ple except a man stand­ing at the top of the stair entrance bal­cony whom Steve was talk­ing with. I walked up to Steve smil­ing and hoped I would not be found out, as I came to a cou­ple stair treads bel­low Steve he smiled very big and said to me, “Your back here again!”, being caught off guard by his remark as how to reply to him I ner­vous­ly blurt­ed out, “You know how it is Sat­ur­day night fever!” I kept on smil­ing and noticed the man at the top of the stair cat­walk whisk­ing his chin grin­ning and star­ing at me, as Steve Rubell laugh­ing­ly replied, “Sat­ur­day night fever!” which I quick­ly respond­ed, “Yeah you know Sat­ur­day night fever I came here to dance!”
    Steve turned to the man on the cat­walk and said, “Nik did you hear that? Sat­ur­day night fever he came here to dance!” the man on the stairs Nik Cohn was smil­ing and said, “I heard him Sat­ur­day night fever that’s a good one!” Steve checked my iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and still did not dis­cov­er my true age and allowed me into the club where the true sto­ry all than began he did not dis­cov­er my true age until my eigh­teenth birth­day when he asked for my iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and saw the date. He then expressed, “You mean to tell me that I let you in here for two years before I should have?…” I apol­o­gized to Steve and he laughed delight­ed­ly. Over those cou­ple of years I was not card­ed by Steve and per­fect­ed my dance styles on the dance floor. Nik went on to write a screen­play based on my life being an eye can­dy dancer as one could imag­ine, ( just watch the movie). I was offered the chance to star essen­tial­ly play­ing a role mod­eled after myself in the movie Sat­ur­day Night Fever, for rea­sons of my own under­stand­ing I turned down the role after I ini­tial­ly accept­ed then decid­ed at the last moment not to go to New York to do the film. One night at the club in Con­cord Steve just came up to me and said, “Ralph there is a limo out­side wait­ing to take you to New York your going to be a star”. In hind sight I guess I should have went and dis­cov­ered myself along with the world, I was young from the back­woods and ner­vous about the out­come for my life. Pri­or to walk­ing away from my oppor­tu­ni­ty of hang­ing out at Stu­dio 54 and being in the movie “Sat­ur­day Night Fever” the phrase I coined to Steve to keep his mind off my under­age antics, I was intro­duced and became acquaint­ed with the Gibb broth­ers, Bar­ry, Mor­ris, Robin and Andy. I was close in age with Andy and we looked sim­i­lar in style except Andy’s hair was true blonde where as mine was dirty. I miss Andy Gibb very much as he was friend­ly to me and I grew to admire him as his celebri­ty being a singer became world wide. This is true though of all the celebri­ties I was for­tu­nate enough to meet at the club in Con­cord many of whom Steve would per­son­al­ly intro­duce me. I danced with Don­na Pescow as appar­ent­ly Steve told her to come ask me to dance, which I did even though she was not known to me I was very delight­ed to dance and talk with her. I nev­er put it togeth­er until I saw her star in “Sat­ur­day Night Fever”. This kind of thing was sort of com­mon place around Steve Rubell who intro­duced me to many celebri­ties and many of his friends whom came to the Con­cord night club, I was lucky to meet Andy Warhol whom gave me art advise along with many inter­est­ing peo­ple numer­ous celebri­ties a host of gift­ed singers and musi­cians. Steve want­ed me to come dance at Stu­dio 54 which he owned with Ian Schrager, claim­ing, “… you would enjoy the atmos­phere and the peo­ple from all over the world lots of stars…” Steve claimed he had pic­tures of me danc­ing blown up and dis­played as wall art inside Stu­dio 54, which was very flat­ter­ing a few of his friends men­tioned per­son­al­ly “…Steve and some of his friends are obsessed with you Ralph, the way you dance and the way you look…” I grew up work­ing hard on a farm in Can­ter­bury, NH and as a teenag­er and young adult dis­played an extreme­ly fit hard body, Steve often would sur­prise me and take pho­tographs of me inside the club. Also Nik Cohn pho­tographed me leav­ing the club with my per­mis­sion and my image was used sketched for the sto­ry­board of “Sat­ur­day Night Fever”, this sto­ry­board sketch bear­ing my image can be seen on the broad­cast “Inside Sto­ry, (Sat­ur­day Night Fever)” The fact is Nik Cohn did not lie at all he actu­al­ly based the screen­play about my life fic­tion­al­iz­ing my name the sur­round­ings and a few events oth­er wise it is my life sto­ry made to go for Hol­ly­wood. I shall nev­er for­get what Steve Rubell, Nik Cohn, Ian Schrager and many oth­ers tried to do for me as my friends. I have now after all these years decid­ed to express the truth as amends to make the sto­ry right for every­one who enjoys know­ing the truth about very won­der­ful peo­ple.

    By Ralph S Hutchin­son

  • troy says:

    If the sto­ry is about you (watch­ing the inside sto­ry now as I write this) why did he say it was made up? Do you regret not tak­ing the chance to be in films etc?

  • Ralph Hutchinson says:

    There are times I think that per­haps I should have jumped in the limo and worked with the direc­tor John Badam whom I meet at the club thanks to Steve Rubel. There are times I do and don’t so I am good with it the way it has turned out.

  • Steve Phelan says:

    Just a minor cor­rec­tion: The title of the New York mag­a­zine arti­cle is “Trib­al Rights of THE NEW Sat­ur­day Night” … it was a great arti­cle and led to a great movie and all that came with it.

  • Steve Phelan says:

    Cor­rec­tion to MY OWN cor­rec­tion– should be ‘Trib­al Rites’ not ‘Trib­al Rights’ –ooof. My bad.

  • Jelric says:

    Nic is a liar plain and sim­ple. Not kudos. His arro­gance is pre­ced­ed by his fab­ri­ca­tion. Dick.

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