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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