Larry Levenson and his partner, Mary, photographed by Donna Ferrato. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Mathew's co-director on American Swing, Jon Hart, actually got to meet Plato's Retreat founder Larry Levenson. "I was in grade school when I was first introduced to Plato’s Retreat," he says in the press release for the film. "I was having a sleepover party with a few of my classmates and we were surreptitiously watching public access television, Channel J as I recall. Unforgettably, a commercial came on that showed a scantily clad couple frolicking in an enormous swimming pool. It seemed hard to believe that such an establishment was mere blocks from where I lived with my family.
"Years later, I was working as a reporter when I got a lead that the former owner of Plato’s Retreat, Larry Levenson, was driving a New York City taxi. Immediately, a light bulb went on, bringing me back to that commercial: What was the Plato’s story? What had happened to this disbanded Plato’s tribe?
"I tracked Larry down and we met in the West Village on a cloudy, frigid afternoon right before Christmas. I sat in the passenger seat - and turned on the recorder. He was overweight and solemn. But when I asked him about his former glory, he glowed as he drove. 'We were degenerates,' Larry laughed. 'But we were good people.' In his gravelly voice, Larry regaled me with tales of his infamous club and told me that he was once a legend known as 'The King of Swing.' Later, as we drove through Central Park up the East Side, Larry became teary eyed as he discussed his estrangement from his sons. I was fascinated and I wanted to know, well…everything. I interviewed him for hours and compiled hundreds of hours of tapes. For the next four years - right up until Larry passed away following quadruple bypass heart surgery - not a day went by that we did not speak. Larry Levenson was a friend first, a subject second."
I rather envy the attendees of Plato's Retreat. I realize there are swingers and swinger's clubs still - even in Vancouver - and internet dating sites all have their share of people seeking threesomes and "swap" situations - but we seem, by and large, to live in a far more inhibited, repressed, sexually uptight time, where such behaviour is accepted (or "tolerated"), but marginalized, feared, and not really talked about. I don't know if AIDS was, as the conspiracy theory goes, engineered by the Christian right in America, but it was certainly a Godsend to them, in terms of reversing the tide of sexual liberation. Like Jon Hart, I'm old enough to remember reading - as a sexually curious teen with a fair stack of men's magazines under his bed - about Plato's Retreat back when it was still open, but I now take a fear of disease so for granted that there's something bizarrely foreign and exotic and taboo about the world of Plato's; the film at times feels like an ethnographic documentary on a people far removed from my own, whose ways could never be mine, however sweet and otherwise "normal" they might seem. It's sad, because listening to these stories, I, at least, can't but imagine myself having a good time indeed in the "mattress room," and how liberating it would be; too bad that Larry Levenson's wish - that swing clubs would be a mainstream institution by the 21st century - never came to fruition.
It's probably too much to hope for, that couples in attendance at DOXA should mix-and-match partners or organize a group grope after the screening (and I'm sure DOXA organizers wouldn't want me to encourage such irresponsible behaviour), but the idea is probably going to occur to a few people watching the film. Here's hoping some of them get up the nerve to follow through on it, and that everyone has the results of their last round of STD tests handy. Sexually speaking, American Swing seems like good medicine - a taste of a time, briefly, where people really weren't so hung up about sex...
American Swing will play DOXA on May 28th, at the Vancity Theatre.