Old YouTube video footage shines a light on the early herstory of NYC club scene

"I have to make a choice between a phone call or a bag full of potato chips for dinner." - RuPaul circa 1984.

Vintage 1980s footage of a man and two drag queens happily shouting at a camera

Ever wonder what RuPaul was up to back in the days before Drag Race? Even before they declared themselves ‘Supermodel of The World‘? Wonder no more as you can now take a first-hand look at what life was like on the NYC queer club scene featuring Ru and a host of other club kid stars.

The rare clips, 738 of them, were uploaded to YouTube channel 5NinthAvenueProject from 2008 to 2018 by Dick Richards. Richards founded the project and edited the videos with assistance from queer historian Robert Coddington. And the man responsible for this golden archive was American videographer, Nelson Sullivan.

On the channel’s page, Richards shares some of the life and history of his friend Nelson:

“Nelson used a VHS portable camera and deck until 1987 and then with a handheld 8mm camcorder. Nelson lived in a large townhouse at 5 Ninth Avenue in the Meatmarket area of NYC, and his houseguests over the years included Lady Bunny, RuPaul, Larry Tee, Michael Alig and the Club Kids, Sylvia Miles, Michael Musto, Albert Crudo, John Sex, and his dear friend, the tortured Trans[woman] Christina.”

“Nelson’s videos span across Downtown NYC from the eccentric performances at the Pyramid Club to the production numbers at Limelight and Palladium. Nelson’s friendships with then-emerging artists like RuPaul, Deee-lite, Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman give his videos an intimacy that allows the viewer an in-crowd look at the past.”

The clips are as close as the 1980’s could get to today’s standards of vlogging with Nelson even occasionally turning the camera around to himself, like his own version of taking a selfie.

Richards and Sullivan were childhood friends having grown up together in the same small town in North Carolina. Films and TV shows presented them with what life could be like beyond their small town. These elements, Richards said “are the deep background for Nelson’s video art — loving to go out to experience the glamour of nightclubs and theater after having envied it so long; relishing the freedom that a large city gives for self-expression that a small town scorns.”

One of the most viewed videos from the channel, with over 1 million views, is this one featuring Sullivan, RuPaul and some friends. After a magnificent shot of the group cruising through NYC in a convertible with synth pop blaring from the radio, they arrive at an art exhibition. A group of young men soon burst into the gallery space shouting homophobic slurs from the door.

We see Sullivan, along with RuPaul, stand quietly until the group eventually leave. A reminder that queer icons of today, in their fame and glory, were subject to all the same homophobic backlash as so many queer people continue to face simply for being themselves.

Nelson Sullivan died suddenly of a heart attack on July 4, 1989. Richards retrieved the archive of footage which contained more than 600 tapes and with the help of Robert Coddington, they converted them to DVD and eventually they arrived on the Internet.

Robert, who was in his early 20s at the time, was intrigued by Sullivan’s work having met Richards in 1993. “As a young gay man at the time, I had this acute sense that I was arriving at a fabulous party — five minutes after the lights came on,” Coddington said in 2013. “I knew that AIDS was ripping apart that gay culture that had existed before. I began to ask myself, ‘What was that world and what were those people like?’ Upon experiencing Nelson’s tapes, I began to learn the answers to those questions.”

This is a similar sentiment that so many queer people continue to have towards the community’s history (myself included!). It’s wonderful that we have these resources accessible to us in our modern era of social media and technology. But we also have these heroes to thank for educating us on our history just by living their lives as they did both in front of and behind the cameras.

© 2021 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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