Some of the most entertaining bits on Blue Underground’s Midnight Blue compilation series are the vintage t.v. ads for Plato’s Retreat, mainly because of the salesmanship of their founder, Larry Levenson. He gives off an unassuming, schlubby working-class vibe as he (badly) reads off cue cards in a flat, nasal Noo Yawk accent. He doesn’t look or sound like a man who once held the keys to anyone’s sexual fantasies… and yet he was worshipped as the King Of Swing on a nightly basis from 1977 until the mid-1980’s as Plato’s became a scandalously successful swinger’s destination. In short, he is the kind of accidental icon whose story demands to be told.
Levenson’s story has finally been told, albeit in a judiciously filtered style, in American Swing. The basic outline has a classic ‘rise and fall’ ring to it. Levenson was an average joe whose sexual appetite caused him to chafe under the yoke of 1960’s, family-oriented American attitudes. He fell in with New York’s budding swinger subculture and found his version of heaven on earth. He eventually realized the best way to preserve this lifestyle was to create a centralized place for its practitioners. That way, he could enjoy regular, uninterrupted sex with many women AND get to rule over the place as a king.
Thus, Plato’s Retreat was born in 1977. This members-only swinger’s club quickly became the talk of the town and, after being publicized via a voyeuristic press, became an international destination for the sexually curious. Levenson ran it with the attitude of a Catskills hotelier and his “c’mon, let’s have fun” approach won a steady stream of customers. Unfortunately, all good things must end – and Levenson eventually would have to contend with jealousy, money troubles, a prison sentence and the inevitable end of Plato’s Retreat being dealt out by a force no one saw coming.
American Swing is a blast while you are watching it. Documentarians Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman weave together an easily-digested narrative from a series of talking head interviews, including Levenson’s family & friends, porn scenesters like Al Goldstein and even law enforcement officials. The smoothness of the narrative is further enhanced by well-chosen archive footage (including frequently hilarious clips from Levenson’s appearances on Midnight Blue) and a skillfully-selected-and-deployed soundtrack of 1970’s pop and disco. It’s witty, eye-opening and fun.
Unfortunately, holes in the narrative pop up if you look a little closely at the historical events. For instance, the fact that Levenson prohibited gay sex between males while allowing it between females is never addressed. The film also breezes through the darker elements of the Levenson story, including how a lover of his mid-1970’s lady companion had Levenson kidnapped and beaten and how he allowed his sons to bring teenage girls to visit Plato’s (one son briefly discusses this in a deleted scene on the dvd). Apparently, the filmmakers had a hard time getting Levenson’s friends and associates to talk so it is understandable that they needed to tread carefully… but they could have brought the difficult stuff out in other ways.
Despite such omissions, American Swing remains an entertaining portrait of a unique place and time in American cultural history. It may dodge the more difficult elements of its chosen subject but the film does succeed in conveying the unique vibe of Plato’s Retreat and what endeared it to its fans. The full mystery of Larry Levenson has yet to be revealed but this will suffice as an opening salvo. At the very least, you won’t be bored.
NOTE: the following clip has no nudity but the talk may be Not Safe For Work: