Experience New York City’s Fabled Mid-Century Nightclubs in an Interactive, COVID-19-Era, Student-Designed Exhibit

It’s been over a month since pub­lic health pre­cau­tions led almost every school in the Unit­ed States to switch to online instruc­tion.

While there are obvi­ous­ly much greater tragedies unfold­ing dai­ly, it’s hard not to empathize with stu­dents who have watched count­less spe­cial events—proms, com­mence­ments, spring sports, per­for­mances, hot­ly antic­i­pat­ed rites of passage—go poof.

In New York City, stu­dents in Par­sons School of Design’s Nar­ra­tive Spaces: Design Tools for Spa­tial Sto­ry­telling course were crest­fall­en to learn that their upcom­ing open-to-the-pub­lic exhi­bi­tion of group and solo projects in the West Village—the cen­ter­piece of the class and a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­nect with an audi­ence out­side of the classroom—was sud­den­ly off the menu.

Mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary artist Jeff Stark, who co-teach­es the class with Pamela Park­er, was dis­ap­point­ed on their behalves.

Stark’s own work, from Empire Dri­ve In to Miss Rock­away Arma­da, is root­ed in live expe­ri­ence, and New York City holds a spe­cial place in his heart. (He also edits the week­ly email list Non­sense NYC, an invalu­able resource for inde­pen­dent art and Do-It-Your­self events in the city.)

This year’s class projects stemmed from vis­its to the City Reli­quary, a small muse­um and civic orga­ni­za­tion cel­e­brat­ing every­day New York City arti­facts. Stu­dents were able to get up close and per­son­al with Chris Engel’s col­lec­tion of pho­tographs, menus, pro­mo­tion­al mate­ri­als, and sou­venirs doc­u­ment­ing the hey­day of New York’s sup­per club nightlife, from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Stu­dent Rylie Cooke, an Aus­tralian who aspires to launch a design com­pa­ny, found that her research deep­ened her con­nec­tion to arti­facts she encoun­tered at the Reli­quary, as she came to appre­ci­ate the fabled Copaca­bana’s influ­ence on the pop­u­lar cul­ture, food, and music of the peri­od:

… with COVID-19 it became impor­tant to have this con­nec­tion to the arti­facts as I was­n’t able to phys­i­cal­ly touch or look at them when Par­sons moved to online for the semes­ter. I am a very hands-on cre­ative and I love curat­ing things, espe­cial­ly in an exhib­it for­mat.

Rather than scrap their goal of pub­lic exhi­bi­tion, the class decid­ed to take things into the vir­tu­al realm, hus­tling to adapt their orig­i­nal con­cepts to a pure­ly screen-based expe­ri­ence, The New York Sup­per Club: From Nightlife to Social Dis­tanc­ing.

The plan to wow vis­i­tors with a peri­od-appro­pri­ate table in the cen­ter of their West Vil­lage exhi­bi­tion space became a grid of dig­i­tal place­mats that serve as por­tals to each project.

Cooke’s con­tri­bu­tion, A Seat at the Copaca­bana, begins with an inter­view in which base­ball great Mick­ey Man­tle recounts get­ting into a cloak­room brawl as he and fel­low New York Yan­kees cel­e­brat­ed a birth­day with a Sam­my Davis Jr. set. Recipes for steak and pota­toes, Chick­en a la King, rarebit, and arroz con pol­lo pro­vide fla­vor for a floor­show rep­re­sent­ed by archival footage of “Let’s Do the Copaca­bana” star­ring Car­men Miran­da, a Mar­tin and Lewis appear­ance, and a dance rehearsal from 1945. The tour ends at the Copa’s cur­rent incar­na­tion in Times Square, with a vision of pre-social­ly dis­tanced con­tem­po­rary mer­ry­mak­ers sal­sa-ing the night away.

(Nav­i­gate this exhib­it using tool­bar arrows at the bot­tom of the screen.)

Stu­dent Hongxi Chen’s inves­ti­ga­tions into The Chi­na Doll night­club result­ed in an elab­o­rate inter­ac­tive immer­sive expe­ri­ence on the top­ic of cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion:

The Chi­na Doll… was found­ed in 1946 by Cau­casian stage pro­duc­er Tom Ball, who deemed it the only “all-ori­en­tal” night club in New York. While the club some­times played off “Ori­en­tal” stereo­types, and titled one of its shows “Slant-Eyed Scan­dals,” they fea­tured Asian dancers and Asian singers pre­sent­ing pop­u­lar songs in a way New York­ers had nev­er seen before. The Dim inter­ac­tive expe­ri­ence unfolds with the sto­ry of Thomas, a wait­er at the Chi­na Doll.

As a junior in Par­sons’ Design and Tech­nol­o­gy pro­gram, Chen had plen­ty of pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence forg­ing vir­tu­al envi­ron­ments, but work­ing with a muse­um col­lec­tion was new to him, as was col­lab­o­rat­ing on a vir­tu­al plat­form.

He sought Stark’s advice on cre­at­ing vivid dia­logue for his fic­tion­al wait­er.

Jiaqi Liuan, a Design and Tech­nol­o­gy MFA stu­dent and vet­er­an of the Shang­hai pro­duc­tion of Sleep No More, Punchdrunk’s immer­sive retelling of Mac­Beth, helped chore­o­graph Chen’s Chi­na Doll dancers in an homage to The Flower Drum Songs Fan Tan Fan­nie num­ber.

Chen stayed up until 7 am for two weeks, devour­ing open source tuto­ri­als in an attempt to wran­gle and debug the many ele­ments of his ambi­tious project—audio, video, char­ac­ter mod­els and ani­ma­tion, soft­ware, game engines, and game serv­er plat­form.

As Chen not­ed at the exhibition’s recent Zoom open­ing (an event that was fol­lowed by a dig­i­tal dance par­ty), the mas­sive game can be a bit slow to load. Don’t wor­ry, it’s worth the wait, espe­cial­ly as you will have a hand in the sto­ry, steer­ing it to one of five dif­fer­ent end­ings.

Chen, an inter­na­tion­al stu­dent, could not safe­ly return to Chi­na and has not left his stu­dent apart­ment since mid-March, but game­ly states that remain­ing in the same time zone as his school allowed him to com­mu­ni­cate effi­cient­ly with his pro­fes­sors and the major­i­ty of his class­mates. (Cooke is back home in Aus­tralia.)

Adds Chen:

Even though we are fac­ing a dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stance under the pan­dem­ic and had to piv­ot our orig­i­nal ideas into a vir­tu­al pre­sen­ta­tion, I’m glad that our class was able to quick­ly change plans and adapt to the sit­u­a­tion. This… actu­al­ly inspired me a lot and opened up ways to invite and con­nect peo­ple with vir­tu­al art­work.

Oth­er high­lights of The New York Sup­per Club: From Nightlife to Social Dis­tanc­ing include Ming Hong Xian’s explo­ration of the famous West Vil­lage coun­try music club, The Vil­lage Barn (com­plete with tur­tle races) and What Are You? a per­son­al­i­ty test devised by Mi Ri Kim and Eleanor Mel­by, to help vis­i­tors deter­mine which clas­sic NYC sup­per club best suits their per­son­al­i­ty.

(Appar­ent­ly, I’m head­ed to Cafe Zanz­ibar, below, where the drinks are cheap, the aspirin is free, and Cab Cal­loway is a fre­quent head­lin­er.)

Stark admits that ini­tial­ly, his stu­dents may not have shared his swoon­ing response to the source mate­r­i­al, but they share his love of New York City and the desire to “get in the thick of it.” By bring­ing a Gen­er­a­tion Z per­spec­tive to this his­tor­i­cal ephemera, they stake a claim, mak­ing work that could help the City Reli­quary con­nect to a new audi­ence.

Enter The New York Sup­per Club: From Nightlife to Social Dis­tanc­ing here.

Explore the City Reli­quary online here, and join in the civic pride by par­tic­i­pat­ing in its week­ly Insta­gram Live events, includ­ing Thurs­day Col­lec­tors’ Nights.

(All images used with per­mis­sion of the artists and The City Reli­quary)

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

See New York City in the 1930s and Now: A Side-by-Side Com­par­i­son of the Same Streets & Land­marks

New York City: A Social His­to­ry (A Free Online Course from N.Y.U.) 

The Lost Neigh­bor­hood Buried Under New York City’s Cen­tral Park

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Her con­tri­bu­tion to art in iso­la­tion is a hasti­ly assem­bled trib­ute to the clas­sic 60s social line dance, The Madi­son. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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