Western Brooklyn

Who Was Tony Manero? The True [Fake] Story Behind ‘Saturday Night Fever’

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Who could forget Tony Manero — he was the star of Saturday Night Fever, played by a young John Travolta, whose slick dance moves put Bensonhurst on the map and sparked a generation of disco enthusiasts.

But who was Tony Manero in real life? The 1977 hit movie was based on a riveting — though mostly recanted — article in New York Magazine, Tribal Rights of Saturday Night by British writer Nik Cohn, about an underground music scene bubbling in Brooklyn’s working class neighborhoods. In the New York story, Tony’s name is “Vincent,” a tough Bay Ridge boy who seeks refuge southern Brooklyn’s dance clubs, transforming on the weekends into “the very best dancer in Bay Ridge—the ultimate Face.”

Nearly two decades later, the reporter admitted in a follow up for the Guardian (not online, but cited in a 1996 New York Times article by Charlie LeDuff), that the entire character was a lie. Vincent “the ultimate face” was based on a person Cohn knew back in London.

“My story was a fraud,” he wrote. “I’d only recently arrived in New York. Far from being steeped in Brooklyn street life, I hardly knew the place. As for Vincent, my story’s hero, he was largely inspired by a Shepherd’s Bush mod whom I’d known in the Sixties, a one-time king of Goldhawk Road.”

So in 1996, New York Times‘ LeDuff revisited the Brooklyn neighborhood to track down the original Tony Manero and some other relics of the Bensonhurst music scene and decided to correct some of the discrepancies in the original New York article. The result is a sort of bleak, bittersweet, 20-years-too-late sequel to Saturday Night Fever.

In the five-page in-depth feature, he imagines that Cohn’s “Vincent” character could have instead been represented by the real-life Pete Pedone, a smooth talking D.J. who mixed music at Brooklyn’s hottest clubs back in the day. Here’s an excerpt:

Pete Pedone used to see Tony Manero around. They ran the same circles. Manero wasn’t much, a scrawny guy who kept mostly to himself in the corners of club Space Odyssey 2001, nothing like the macho dance floor Casanova played by John Travolta in the movie “Saturday Night Fever.” The real Tony Manero drank tequila sunrises, not 7-and-7s as the movie character did. Everybody drank tequila sunrises. That was the style in Brooklyn 1977, but the original story, which appeared in New York magazine the year before, and then the Hollywood movie got a lot of things wrong. Sure, Manero could dance, but he wasn’t all that, certainly not the Godfather of Bay Ridge. There was no Ultimate Face who sauntered in wearing polyester pants as tight as a prophylactic and took the joint over, directing the dancing like a traffic cop.

Fraud or not, the movie adaptation of Cohn’s article drew throngs of disco fans to Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s, raised the profile of the 86th Street and local nightclubs like the Odyssey 2001, and allowed the subculture to thrive and achieve a mass appeal.

Both Cohn’s and LeDuff’s articles are long, but well worth the read. So put on some Bee Gees, and enjoy them here and here.

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