I love learning about different time periods and movements and scenes and people. The research process of finding a clue, following it to something else, and then finding something even more interesting is awesome. With the internet, the process can be super fast, and literally come alive sometimes. Case in point, the below interview with one of the most fascinating women I have ‘met,’ Rhonda Paster Corte.
She’s traveled the world, was right in the middle of everything cool about NYC in the late 70s and early 80s, has had a couple clothing lines, a couple husbands, and, luckily for all of us, has been taking photos the entire time. Her photos capture a scene that was and is authentic and inspiring. Now she’s a dealer of West German Ceramics, her impeccable style has only improved with age, she’s re-engaged with a lot of her old set of Facebook, posting old and new photos, and she had time to see JayZ last week in New York. I found a reference to Rhonda when I was looking up Spandau Ballet, and from there I found a picture of the Mudd Club, and a couple clicks later I was deep into her photo albums on her Facebook page. We’ve been writing back and forth for a couple weeks now, and I’m really happy to share this interview with Material Concern.
All photos are the property of Rhonda Paster Corte, and used with permission.
Lizz: When did you come to NYC?
Rhonda Paster Corte: Well I was actually born in NYC. My mother gave birth to me at Beth Israel Hospital on 1st Avenue and 15th Street 59 years ago. But of course as a child, my parents wanted to get us to the suburbs as we were living in the projects down on East Houston. At 3 years of age we moved to Long Island and lived in other places as well after, but as a young adult, I moved back into the city in 1973.
Lizz: What neighborhood did you live in as an adult? What did it feel like at the time?
RPC: From the time I moved back into the city I lived downtown. Mid town was overcrowded and bland and a neighborhood like the Upper East Side didn’t interest me. The Upper West Side was too far from everything and the East Village was not for me east of First Avenue. I lived in Gramercy Park for 13 years in the same apartment and throughout my club days. I had a one bedroom apartment and a doorman, and my rent was $550 per month! But from that time forward it started to become impossible to move as the rents started to inch up in price. The word Yuppie had been invented and a lot of people in the late eighties started to leave the city. Some went to Brooklyn, and some back to where they had came from. For me, it was no longer exciting, no longer inspiring, and so I left again and went to Mexico.
Lizz: Can you tell me a bit about your life in the late 70s-early 80s?
RPC: My life revolved around the nightlife back then. I had gotten out of high school a year prior, had been driving into the city on weekends, and was now living in Manhattan in a 2 bedroom apt, with 2 of my best friends for $465.00 per month! I was working in fashion, for a company called Bouncing Bertha’s Banana Blanket.
They made very cool vintage inspired clothing for men & women and I was in sales, although I started as a receptionist there. Back in the seventies, NYC was a completely different place then it is now. Back then we had bad neighborhoods, which I do miss…the East Village was really a hole and I distinctly remember going to see Ike & Tina Turner at the Fillmore and feeling quite leery being there. It was way past the crazy, peace loving, hippie days. The East Village was really run down. I used to go to a place called Nobody’s on Bleeker Street when I was about 17. Hanging out there with my friends and the NY Dolls, going to see them at Mercer Arts, and then eventually moving on to Max’s Kansas City. Mickey Ruskin the owner was the door person, and he made getting in a challenge. Unless you were Warhol or David Johannsen, he would approve of you on one night, and reject you on another. Fortunately he never bothered us and we would take a back booth with the likes of every downtown musician, poet and drug addict, and order the shrimp dinner which we would share amongst my two friends and myself. Total bill for the meal was $3 each plus tip!
I married Errol Paster in 1976 and life for the most part was quiet. He was a clothing designer and we both worked in the garment center. It was more about parties at home. Quaaludes was the drug of choice, and when you took them all you wanted to do was have sex or dance. We started going to a club called Hurrah on West 62nd Street, which was new and innovative with a selection of punk, new wave music…very eclectic. They also introduced video and some great bands played there as well. That is where I first met Haoui Montaug, who pretty much did the door for almost all the clubs I ever went to.
And I went to a lot.
And then Studio 54 opened, and disco and cocaine took over West 54doormen and picking and choosing who you wanted in your club really went nuts. All I can say about Studio is that everything you heard about it, is true! It was a great time for dressing up and drag queens.
Fashion was very much a part of my life back then both professionally and socially. Most of my friends were designers or illustrators or musicians or DJ’s.
I had started a business back then with a friend and my dad. We were designing, manufacturing and selling fake fur outerwear out of our showroom at 512 Seventh Avenue. We were pretty much the first to introduce fashionable fake fur at a time when people were becoming much more morally responsible in respect to wearing fur. Our motto was Real People Wear Fake Fur.
About this time my first marriage was over and I was going out more and more. My biz partner, Brenda Parush and I would go with another friend to the first Danceteria on West 37the best music by Mark Kamins and Sean Cassette, and then crash in our office overnight under a pile of fake fur coats, serving as our blankets. It was a crazy time and the beginning of something special that was taking place in NYC.
Sometimes I think I wax nostalgic and I wonder if it was as amazing as I make it out to be. Well it was!
Lizz: Do you have any pictures of your fake fur line?
RPC: I was able to find the one I am sending to you. I want you to know it was 80 something degrees out and I was melting!! The park behind me is Gramercy Park, where I lived for 13 years. Well not IN the park, but in an apartment across the street.
Lizz: Was your dad in the garment industry or did he just want to help with the line?
My dad had been in the garment center since he was 16, when he used to deliver buttons for a manufacturer. From there to a foreman and various other jobs, until his early twenties when he went into business with his older brother, opened a showroom and started to sell outerwear. He became quite knowledgeable about this industry and eventually became a manufacturer as well. I worked for him when I was 16 at his showroom at 1410 Broadway doing paperwork and modeling the coats for buyers. Thegarment center was way different back then. There were so many buying offices, mom & pop stores throughout the country and a chance for the little guy to succeed.
Things started to change in the 80’s, as everything was now being made overseas. There was a manufacturer of real fur coats who approached my dad to discuss creating a line of fake fur coats. I had a friend who was a fab sales woman who had worked for my dad and so the three of us decided to open a showroom, create a fashionable collection rather than the conservative look of your typical fake fur coat being offered at the time. Our connections in outerwear helped tremendously when we went out to sell it to major department and specialty stores throughout the country. They were beautiful coats, made extraordinarily well in the U.S.A., and I only wish I had mine today.
Lizz: Can you tell me more about the scene back then?
We were in the late seventies, Studio was no longer the club of choice, and disco had become mainstream. I was looking for something different and I found it downtown. The first Danceteria had been closed down by the Fire Dept. if I remember correctly, but by then I had also been going to Mudd Club. For me, the people, the music, and the fashion all exploded back then. It was innovative, it was colorful, it was truly a time of experimentation and excess, and where I met some of the coolest people who are still friends today. New York was a place that you could still afford to live in, and that being said I decided to quit my job and merge my nightlife with my professional life.
In 1981 I had become friends with quite a few British people who I had met at Danceteria and Mudd. I also knew Jim Fouratt and Rudolf who were putting on a New Romantic extravaganza at The Underground, a club located on the corner of 17 get into the city much these days. Anyway, Spandau Ballet were coming to play at the venue and I ended up getting involved in helping to organize and house all the young British Designers who had come to do a fashion show of the New Romantic look that had taken over the London clubs. My house from that day forward became known as “The British Embassy” and through my doors passed some of the most creative and talented people you could ever know, many who are still dear friends of mine today, and many who went on to fame and fortune.
You can read all about it here.
I was now working as a waitress in the restaurant at Danceteria on the third floor. Anybody who was anybody seemed to be working there as well. It was a great way to make great money and to be able to go out at the same time. I always worked weekends and played during the week. It was in 1983 that I decided to do my first party there. I had become good friends with Sade who was now singing and in a band called Pride in London. Whilst singing back-up with Pride, Sade the band was born, but had not yet been signed to a record label. We had met during the Spandau trip, as she was designing men’s wear with a woman named Sarah Lubell, and had come to do the fashion show. I had found her a place to stay at Errol’s, who was now my ex-husband but still a very close friend.
The theme of the party was “You Used to Be a Beautiful Baby”. It was a combination photo exhibition as well as the first US appearance of Sade. Everyone, and I mean everyone participated in the photo exhibition by supplying me with their baby picture, whilst the “now” photo was taken by me, with my Polaroid SX-70, in my apartment in Gramercy Park. On display whilst Sade and her band performed on the second floor, were baby photos of Madonna, Keith Levene of P.I.L. and just aboutevery downtown inhabitant of the clubs, or as Rudolf referred to us as the “Fabulous 300”.
Lizz: I’d like to ask you about your relationship with Sade, but I understand you are still friends (?) and I’ve read she’s a very private person…so please feel free to just answer however you feel comfortable?
Yes, she is extremely private and I am very respectful of this, so I won’t tell you much other than to say that she is still my very dear friend and the most down to earth,unpretentious and generous person I know. She’s also funny as hell.
Lizz: Did you do other events at Danceteria?
A year later I did another party at Danceteria called “I Don’t go Out Much Anymore”, as well as some other little Independent parties where you would take over a bar, play music and invite everyone you knew.
It was 1984 and things had taken a turn for the worse as AIDS hit the city big time. I remember this guy Kevin who had been the boyfriend of one of the bartenders at Danceteria who kept getting sick with strange and debilitating illnesses. Klaus Nomi had died. When they discovered that it was transmitted primarily through sex and the exchange of blood and bodily fluids, New York went on lockdown, closed all the sex clubs and after hours clubs.
After that party I quit Danceteria and started doing freelance gigs, working at The Roxy as a bartender, and listening to the likes of Soul Sonic Force. But I was bored. Everything that was once new was old and had gone mainstream. It was time to move on, so naturally I moved to London. I lived with Sade and started working for her manager, Lee Barrett who I had met years prior at the first Danceteria. I stayed a year.
In 1986 I went to live in Cancun. It wasn’t like it is today….only half the island was developed. There were no traffic lights, and it was for the most part a place I could re-invent myself, which I did. I also learned Spanish and eventually returned after 2 years with a new beau who I eventually married and had a son with. I also gave up my apartment after 13 years. I was no longer enamored with NYC and needed space to start my new business.
Space had become a hot commodity in NYC, so we found a house near by in a sleepy town in [New Jersey] Joisey and started painting. But not the house, clothing. We were painting children’s clothing and selling them wholesale and we continued in our business, Pintado A Mano for 8 years. My marriage also ended.
I have worn many hats in my career. I have worked mostly in the fashion industry, became a web designer in 2001, went back to fashion in 2005, but retail this time. I worked in sales, dressing men at Faconnable on Fifth Avenue for three years until a bad surgery on my foot made it impossible. In between I managed a restaurant at 50th and Park, and opened my own place, but for a short three months (yikes) on Second Ave.
Lizz: Your poloroids from Danceteria are incredible…can you tell more about those?
The polaroids are from the party I mentioned earlier. The “I Don’t Go Out Much Anymore” party.
After AIDS showed up everything changed and all the people I would see out at clubs, I was no longer seeing. When you would ask them where they had been, they would respond with “I don’t go out much anymore”, and wham the idea for my party was born. Participants were required to submit a visual explanation in any medium they chose, which showed what was keeping them away. I took a polaroid of each person, and displayed it with their art piece. It was such a great party and once again I had a stellar group of people who participated.
Lizz: Quite a few notables show up in your pictures (sade, cookie mueller, hanoui montaug, debi mazar, anita sarko, etc)…was the scene small at that time, or were you just smack dab in the center!?
I wouldn’t say it was small…like I said earlier we were the “fab 300” according to Rudolf. I guess I was smack in the middle.
Lizz: Please tell me about this Demob shoot?!
I’m afraid I remember nothing about the shoot, other than taking photos of everyone.
Lizz: Your style is awesome….can you tell me what inspired your style then, and now, and how it’s changed?
I believe that when it comes to style that it is not what you wear but how you wear it. Since I never had a great abundance of cash back then, my shopping was usually at a place like Loehmann’s or Daffy’s which was known as Daffy Dan’s back then. Unfortunately they went out of business about a year ago. If you know quality, and you know what looks good on you, then discount shopping, at least for me is the way to go.
Back in the day clothing was much more important to me as I was out practically every night. Today my life is much quieter and I prefer to wear jeans mostly.
Lizz: I heard that early as the 1920s, people were complaining that the Greenwich Village bohemian scene was ‘over.’ When I moved to NYC in 2006, I definitely felt that everything cool had already happened there that was going to, and that a lot of really cool and exciting things happened there during the time period of your photos…..how did you feel about your life and scene in NYC at that time…and what, if anything, has changed about how you feel when you look back on that period now?
I agree with you. New York has changed radically from then until now. Although the city is clean and pristine and you can walk in just about in any neighborhood today without much fear of getting mugged, for me New York has lost it’s soul. It’s lost that special vibe that made it so unique. Today it is nothing more than another city, albeit an International one, that caters to the wealthy, the tourist and just about anyone else that wasn’t born there. The real New Yorker for the most part is gone from Manhattan. It is one big shopping mall and it has become generic.
Lizz: I did some pretty deep digging on your facebook page….one of your friends made a reference I couldn’t understand in the comments of one of your pictures..what’s a Downtown Sissy!?
LOL If I remember correctly, George Haas organized a group of people, myself included as well as the actress Debi Mazar, to perform a song at the opening of a cabaret night that Haoui Montaug had created at Danceteria, called No Entiendes. This night was also the night that Madonna performed for the first time. We were called “The Downtown Sissies in Revolt Ensemble”, and where he got that name, well you’ll just have to ask George. He’s on Facebook
Lizz: It’s seems like a lot of your friends from the time of these pictures are in touch on Facebook. Are you still close with a lot of people from this time?
I have to say that other than a few people that I have been friends with since high school, the most important people in my life today, I met at nightclubs. Facebook gave me the opportunity to reconnect with the people I had lost touch with once I stopped going out.
Lizz: I have a serious question that I’ve been thinking about over the years, but you don’t have to reply…When I worked in NYC, the graphic designer for the line I designed was in his 50s, and had lived in NYC since the 70s. I asked him at one point if he and his now-husband still hung out with old friends from back in the day. He looked at me and told me all of their friends were dead. And I felt terrible. My husband is an artist, and most of our friends are artists, and a lot of our friends are gay….that moment made me think, if we were us, but in the 80s, our friends would get sick. And it must have been such a hard, heartbreaking and crazy time. Do you have any thoughts you’d want to share with readers about that time?
I definitely can relate to what your friend told you because that’s exactly what happened to me, many of my friends died as well. When AIDS hit NYC, the city changed radically. You have to remember that we had just come from an extremely permissive time of excessive drugs and sex. There were sex clubs all over the city, especially gay clubs like The Anvil & Mine Shaft. Even us heterosexuals had a place to go called Plato’s Retreat, but of course I would never had been caught dead there, although my husband used to go!
People started to get sick, and then they started dying. Young men in the prime of their life were wasting away in front of our eyes. It was a very difficult time and like your friend I lost a slew of wonderful friends who I thought I would grow old with.
What scares me, is that by making it a manageable disease today, which don’t get me wrong I’m relieved and thankful for, it allows people to let their guard down and to do stupid things. I have a 22 year old son who I taught about sex safe with, from the time he reached puberty. I only hope he listened.
Lizz: On a much lighter note, you have such an elegant name, is your maiden name Corte?
No, it is the name of my ex-husband and father of my son. My maiden name was Schacht, which changed to Paster when I was 22 years old. I married my first husband, and it was Errol’s last name that I went by for many years, until I changed it when I remarried. FYI there was another husband (#2) in between Errol and Daniel’s father. I married him so I could stay in England, although we were involved. I had met him in 1984, during the first Sade tour in the UK. I was working for them then. He drove the 16-wheeler that contained the equipment and staging for the show. He was a total mistake. I am now married to my fourth husband and we have been together almost 9 years now. I think the first three were practice for this one. The irony is that Ben, my ex-brother-in-law from my first marriage, was responsible for me meeting my now husband, Michael.
Lizz: You are now a ceramics dealer (check out her website here).How did you get into West-German Ceramics, and are you a ceramicist as well?
I did do ceramics in high school, but other than collecting I don’t create anything now….I just buy. I was laid up with my second surgery on my foot and was shopping around the internet. I have been collecting vases and “chachkas” (Knick-knacks) since the beginning of time, and since I could not walk for awhile as I was on crutches, and I was told to keep my foot elevated, I stayed in bed with my Ipad and went shopping.
And if I remember correctly I saw my first WG vase on Etsy, started to “meet” sellers and collectors of WGP in Germany and England, and 500 pots later, well the rest is history.
Lizz: Did you take pictures your whole life….like, did you document your time in Mexico? Or now, are you always shooting?
In the late 70’s, early 80’s I had an SX-70 Polaroid camera that I was obsessed with. I also had the most amazing, inventive and wonderful friends and acquaintances that used to visit my home….constantly. I had a wall of Polaroid’s that consisted of portraits of people who had visited. Then of course I had a couple of parties at Danceteria, in which photos played an important role. I am so pleased that I held on to them and that Facebook is around, allowing me to share them with everyone. It is also bittersweet though because many of the people in these photos are no longer with us.
As for Mexico, I have tons of photos!! I traveled a lot when I was there and visited some amazing towns. San Miguel de Allendo, Guanajuato, Morelia, the entire Yucatan just to name a few. I would take photos of the locals as well as my friends, the murals by Diego Rivera, and the house that he lived in with Frida Kahlo in Coyacån. Mexico is a country that is so colorful and full of history that I cannot imagine going to a place like that and NOT documenting it.
Sorta like NYC in the 80’s !
Lizz: Thank you so much Rhonda!