What started off as a low-budget film and the first of a three-picture deal for a young TV sitcom actor, Saturday Night Fever became an huge box office success and helped catapult John Travolta into superstardom. But what’s unusual is how it meshed two seemingly incompatible genres in cinema — American New Wave and teenage-friendly pop. It combined gritty, R-rated material with light, toe-tapping disco music, essentially creating a musical film in a world of violence, racism and misogyny.
Taking place almost entirely in Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge, Saturday Night Fever tells the story of Tony, a 19-year-old Brooklynite who still lives with his extended Italian family while he works at the local hardware store by day and dances at the local disco by night. When he meets Stephanie, a beautiful dancer who is determined to break out of the dead-end Brooklyn cycle, he starts to question his life choices and dreams of doing something more substantial with his dancing skills.
Filled with tons of on-location shooting, Saturday Night Fever offers a great look at two working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn. which by many accounts, have changed very little since 1977.
Since Saturday Night Fever is one of the most iconic American films from the 1970s, there were a lot of websites that explored its filming locations, including one of my go-to sites, The Movie District, which tends to be fairly thorough in its research.
While most websites listed the address of Lenny’s Pizza, none of them indicated any of the other spots used in this opening sequence, including the clothing store where Tony puts a down payment on a shirt. I figured everything was probably shot not too far from the pizza shop, and I was determined to nail down the exact location of each of the key moments from this sequence.
To help speed things along, I enlisted my research partner, Blakeslee, to lend a helpful hand. The first thing he was able to find was the location of the very first walking shot in the film which was on 20th Avenue, just north of 86th Street. While I was already leaning towards that spot as a likely candidate, he was able to find some visual evidence to confirm it.
Blakeslee also helped with the next shot in this sequence where Tony walks along the El train and is momentarily distracted by an attractive lady passerby. This was obviously shot on 86th Street, and by the looks of how the train tracks curved in the background, I figured the camera was pointing west on the street. But it was Blakeslee who helped us hone in on an exact address when he figured out that one of the stores that appears on the right side was called “Reflection 1.”
After doing a little digging around, Blakeslee was able to find a 1975 issue of The New York Times which gave an address of 1951 86th Street for a “Reflections 1.” From there, I was able to find a 1980s tax photo of the given address and see that it matched the film (although I’m still not sure what kind of store it was).
To help further confirm this location, Blakeslee was also able to decipher the name of the store to the right of Reflection 1 — a place called, “Eebee’s,” which according to a newspaper ad from the 1970s, was indeed located next-door at 1953 86th St.
As far as I can tell, Eebbe’s was your typical chain of discount clothing stores that were ubiquitous in New York City during this period. They were the kind of place that when you walked in, your nostrils would immediately be struck with the sharp odor of synthetics from all the cheap imported garments crammed on racks and piled in bins. The set-up was almost always the same — an open storefront with a listless, somewhat frumpy security guard stationed there, a series of cash registers lined on a raised counter along the back wall, and rows of decade-old inventory in the center, usually accompanied by hand-written signs advertising limited-time discounts (even though the signs were clearly permanent fixtures.)
There still are these types of low-end retail stores around in New York City, but they’re definitely more scarce today than they were just a few years ago, with most of them regulated to the outlying boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. And to my surprise, up until 2018, there was actually a surviving Eebbe’s on Kings Highway in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn.
After Tony gets some pizza slices and passes Reflection 1 again, the next shot is a close-up of him carrying the paint can. Fortunately, in that shot, you can see in the background a phone number on a door for what looked like a real estate agency. After doing a Google search for the number, I immediately got a hit for a Basile Realty Group at 8520 20th Avenue, which is close to where they filmed the first shot in this sequence.
I quickly knew I found the right place, because amazingly, the storefront was almost identical to what it looked like in 1977, including a faux-brick exterior. And not only was the space still home to a real estate company, it was home to the same real estate company with the same exact phone number!
The next part of this sequence was what I was most interested in finding — the clothing shop Tony goes into to put a down payment on a blue shirt. Since the shop was on a corner, my plan was to look at all the nearby corner lots in the 1980s municipal tax archives, hoping I could find a match. I thought the most sensible place to start was the corner of 20th Avenue and 86th, since they already shot a couple other things near there.
Happily, there was a tax photo of that corner lot available in the archives (which was lucky since the 1980s collection can sometimes be a bit spotty) and it showed a very promising store called, “Shirtown.” After studying the layout of the front entrance, Blakeslee and I became convinced Shirtown was the store used in this sequence, especially considering its proximity to several other established filming locations.
And if you’re a fan of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, you might recognize the shirt salesman to be Murray Moston, the same actor who played the token booth operator at the Spring Street Subway Station who refuses to give the main character, Paul, a free token because he might “get drunk at a party, tell someone what what he did, and then lose his job.”
The last part of this opening sequence where Tony tries to pick-up another lady passerby was pretty easy to nail down, despite the fact it was the only thing that was shot on a different block. It was all thanks to the Benson Twin Theater at 2007-2009 86th Street that was prominently featured in a couple shots.
The Benson, a 1,500 seat theatre named after the Brooklyn neighborhood it resided in, first opened in 1922 with the Wesley Barry comedy/drama, School Days. It was reported that the crowd on opening night was so riotous —with people storming the theatre doors in hopes of securing a seat— that police were called in to keep things in check.
In the 1940s, the theater was still a popular destination for local residents, including Brooklyn-born and future media host, Larry King. In a 2007 interview with The LA Times, King recalled a weekly promotional event at the Benson, where’s they’d give the women in attendance a free plate. He said that after his father’s death, his family struggled financially, but at least his mother was eventually able to procure a whole set of dishes from the Benson Theater.
At the time Saturday Night Fever was being filmed, the theater had recently been split into two screens and was renamed Benson Twins. (Prior to that, the theater had a short stint as a porno house, but returned to mainstream titles shortly after it became twinned.) In its final days, the Benson went through several closings and re-openings until finally shutting its doors for good in 1988. The building itself is still around and currently houses a Rite-Aid drugstore and a small clothing boutique. You can still see a little of the original ornamentation from the theater near the top of the building.
To further confirm the exact spot where Tony interacts with the lady passerby, I focused on a 1980s tax photo of another clothing store at 2025 86th Street called S&J (which stood for Shirts & Jeans). From the looks of the photo, I could tell the action took place right in front of S&J because the storefront had these distinct red, white and blue panels at its base which clearly matched what appeared in the film.
One amusing thing I noticed in the 1980s tax pic was the very Travolta-looking artwork on the store’s sign (seen at the top of the image to the left), which I assume was added to the storefront after the movie came out in order to capitalize on its popularity. (Even though Tony is never seen wearing jeans in the movie.)
And with that, Blakeslee and I had identified the filming location of pretty much every moment from this opening title sequence.
One thing that helps make this title sequence so memorable is the upbeat music, and while most people associate Saturday Night Fever‘s soundtrack with the Bee Gees, apparently during the film’s production, the only Bee Gees’ song they had secured was a demo version of “Stayin’ Alive.” According to director John Badham, the sound department played the song while filming this “strutting” sequence so John Travolta could step to the beat. And if you look closely, you can actually see some of the extras on the street also walking to the beat of the song.
When production began in March of 1977, the first thing they shot was this opening “strutting” sequence. However, as the day progressed, the crew quickly discovered how big of a star Travolta already was when large crowds gathered to watch the sexy TV personality in action. Since a large, boisterous mob can be a distraction to the actors and a nightmare for the sound department, the crew had to make some adjustments in the shooting schedule, forcing them to film mostly in the dead of night or early in the morning. Also, Badham claims they leaked fake call-sheets with incorrect information to help throw tenacious fans off the scent.
While those techniques helped reduce the number of onlookers during production, a large crowd was encouraged to gather along 86th Street in 2018 when Travolta returned to Lenny’s Pizza with his wife Kelly Preston to promote their new movie, Gotti, and enjoy a couple slices.
Donning a black shirt and white jacket that mimicked the famous outfit he wore in Fever, a visibly humbled Travolta told reporters, “I never expected this big a turnout, it was awesome.” Sadly, the number of people who attended this event was probably greater than the number of people who went to see Gotti.
This hardware store was already identified on several websites by the time I started researching this film, but I did make sure to check out the address in Google Street View to confirm it. While the storefront has changed quite a bit over the years, the buildings across the street are more or less the same, and fortunately the first shot at the hardware store is looking out the window at those buildings, making it easy for me to match them up and confirm the location.
While it’s hard to tell from the image above, when I took a modern picture of the store in 2018, it was actually still a hardware store. However, it has since switched owners and is now a furniture store.
The Manero Home
Aside from the dance club, the family home was the most widely published filming location from Saturday Night Fever on the web and in print.
When I checked out the location, I was surprised to discover that the Manero home was pretty much the only house on the block that got a dramatic renovation to its exterior, rendering it almost unrecognizable from the film. I was even more surprised to discover that one of the owners who did the remodeling originally bought the house because he was a fan of Fever.
The two owners also did some renovations to the interior, but kept several period details on the first floor. The most notable holdouts are in the dinning room, where the framework molding and built-in china cabinets look almost exactly as they did in 1977 when Tony told his slap-happy father to “watch the hair!” In addition to the dining area, the bay windows and the staircase have also been preserved as nearly picture-perfect matches.
In 2017, about twelve years after buying the house, the owners decided to put the property on the market, with an asking price of $2.5 million. It ended up being sold three years later for $1.8 million — certainly a higher price tag than what a family like the Maneros would be able to afford today.
Getting Picked Up
This is one of those locations that wasn’t of high interest with Fever fans, most likely because there’s not very much that happens in the scene other than Tony’s friends picking him up. However, The Movie District website ended up listing the address, which I confirmed was correct by matching up the relatively unchanged building on the corner of 79th Street and 3rd Avenue (featured in the first “before/after” image above).
As one might expect, the 2001 dance club is the one filming location people have been most interested in ever since Fever was released. Its address has been documented on countless websites, books and magazines, making it a popular destination for fans of the film. Even back in the 1970s, people would venture to the then-sketchy borough of Brooklyn to see where Travolta shook his booty and take a few steps of their own on the famous light-up dance floor.
But before it became a part of cinema history, the 2001 discotheque was a sort of sparse, run-of-the-mill club in a mostly working-class neighborhood. While the clubs in Manhattan were all about money, fame and status, 2001 was more about the basics — getting drunk and getting laid. When it was decided that they’d film there, Saturday Night Fever‘s art department knew they needed to spruce up the space, so they strung christmas lights all over the place and lined the walls with regular aluminum foil to give it a textured metallic sheen. But the biggest (and most expensive) improvement was the lighted, flashing Plexiglas floor which cost production around $15,000.
After Saturday Night Fever became a big hit. it helped thrust 2001 Odyssey into the spotlight for several years after that. Owner Jay Rizzo said the club and its famous dance floor was of great interest to tourists — particularly those from Europe. However, as disco music lost its luster in the early 1980s (led by an aggressive “disco sucks” movement), 2001’s regular business started to wain. In 1987, Rizzo decided to change the name to Spectrum and turn the place into a gay club, with the lighted disco floor still in place. However, the change in venue didn’t do very much to boost profits, and the club was permanently closed in 1995.
But when it came time to sell off the club’s inventory in 2005, a strange custody battle ensued over the famous disco floor. It started when the nearly 30-year-old item came up for auction and the club’s former bouncer, Vito Bruno, was the first and only person to bid on it, which resulted in a rather unusual exchange with the auctioneer. According to Bruno’s lawyer:
As far as I understand, when they put the dance floor up, Mr. Bruno bid a thousand dollars. And the auctioneer said, ‘I have a thousand, can I hear two?’
So, Vito looks around, and doesn’t see anybody bidding. He says, ‘Okay, I’ll give you two thousand.’
‘I have two, do I hear three?’
And he still looks around. He goes, ‘Okay, I’ll give you the three, but who am I bidding against?’
‘Okay, I have three, do I have four?’
‘Look, I’ll give you the $4,000, but there’s nobody else bidding.’ And he did that until he bid six, and then the auctioneer said the item was withdrawn.
Afterwards, club owner Jay Rizzo told Bruno that he had no intention of letting the floor go for such a meager sum and had a Beverly Hills company re-auction the item, which netted a final bid of $160,000. But of course, Bruno’s position was that it was no longer Rizzo’s to sell.
That led to a bitter court battle in the Kings County Supreme Court the following year, which resulted in Bruno retaining ownership of the floor. Once his legal matters were over, Bruno held onto the 24×16 foot piece of movie memorabilia for about ten years, until he finally decided to auction it off himself. Sold by the California auction house, Profiles in History, the floor ended up going to an anonymous buyer for $1.2 million. (A tidy little profit.)
It’s still unknown as to who that buyer was, but some have speculated that it was Tony Mareno himself, John Travolta. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’d be a wonderful ending to this story if it is.
But back when the fate of the iconic floor was still being argued in court, the old club on 64th Street was being demolished and replaced with a bulky, nondescript commercial building. The majority of the new building was made up of conventional office space, but one of its tenants, a Chinese restaurant called Bamboo Garden, would later play a small part in honoring Saturday Night Fever.
In December of 2017, to celebrate the movie’s 40th anniversary, Bamboo Garden allowed Italian businessmen and TV personality Gianluca Mech to convert their restaurant into a recreation of the old discotheque (at a personal cost of over $200,000 — none of which I assume went towards aluminum foil) so he could throw a one-night, 70s disco bash.
In addition to several long-time local residents, the polyester-infused event brought in guitarist Ed Cermanski of the Trammps, who performed his band’s hit, “Disco Inferno,” actress Karen Lynn Gorney, who played Tony’s love-interest in the film, as well as 79-year-old DJ Monti Rock, who spun records at the original 2001 Odyssey Club and played himself in the film.
Even though the club’s address has been widely published for a long while, I personally wanted to also figure out where exactly the boys parked their car before going into 2001, which hadn’t been previously identified.
It seemed plausible that the car was parked on the same block as the disco. However, since a lot of the buildings in the area had been replaced or remodeled since 1977, I had to do a little digging to figure out the exact parking spot, eventually using 1980s tax photos to help confirm my speculations.
I soon figured out that they parked the car at 816 64th Street, only a couple 100 feet from the club entrance. And even though the buildings they park in front of got replaced around 1985, the residential apartment building with the tall front staircase they walk by is still standing today and mostly unchanged.
When I began researching this film a few years back, as far as I could tell, the only website that had any info on this basketball court was the Movie District. Since then, numerous sites have listed this filming location, but I’m not sure if they did original research or just picked it up from another site. Regardless, I’m sure it would’ve been pretty easy to figure out since there are only so many parks in that part of Brooklyn, and the nearby elevated highways would almost certainly lead any researcher to John J. Carty Park which is situated near the Gowanus Expressway.
Even though I didn’t have to do any detective work to find the location, I did have to do a little stumbling around when I went to the park in person to figure out which court the boys played on and where they walked under the expressway when they encountered the gay couple. While the lampposts and basketball hoops have been moved around a bit since the 1970s, the support posts for the elevated highway were unaltered and provided a good guide to help me get my bearings.
One delightful happenstance that occurred when I went to the location in 2019 to take modern photos was the discovery of an old tan Volkswagen Beetle parked on Fort Hamilton Parkway which looked like it could’ve come straight out of the film. (See the last “before/after” image above.)
This was one of only a few filming locations that wasn’t identified on any websites. In fact, none of them even seemed to show an interest in identifying it.
Since this scene took place directly after the basketball scene at John J. Carty Park, I hoped that it would be located in the same general vicinity. Fortunately, it ended up taking place only a couple blocks away, although it was a little tricky to spot at first since a large apartment building now stands where the car lot used to be.
However, the homes across the street from the old car lot are still around today and looking pretty much like they did in 1977, making a confirmation of this location fairly straightforward.
Like most locations from this film, the address of Phillips Dance Studio has been identified on numerous websites, so there wasn’t much research needed on my part other than figuring out which side door was used in these scenes.
In the time since this movie was made, this part of Brooklyn has seen a lot of cultural changes. What used to be primarily an Italian, Irish and German neighborhood is now home to a large enclave of Chinese immigrants. Most of the signs near the dance studio now have Chinese lettering on them, and the studio itself is now a storage area for an Asian supermarket. But the neighborhood still has a working-class vibe to it and is a far cry from the sleek Manhattan lifestyle across the river.
Running Into Gus
Not much research was needed in figuring out the location of this quick scene since it starts at the same place where Tony gets picked up by his friends earlier in the movie. And with several building numbers clearly visible in the background during this single tracking shot, it was easy to figure out exactly where the scene ends.
Like several other locations in Bay Ridge, it was nice to see that all of the buildings have survived into the 21st century and that a few of the businesses have also survived, including the dry cleaners at 7908 3rd Avenue.
This diner/coffeeshop was already identified on several websites when I started researching this film, so there wasn’t much work involved. Although with the Verrazzano Bridge featured prominently in the background, I don’t think finding this location would’ve been too difficult.
There wasn’t any information on the walking scene that takes place after Tony and Stephanie leave the diner, but fortunately it was shot on the same block, so it was easy to find and match up all the buildings they pass. Of course, the easiest thing to match up was Kelly’s Tavern at 9259 4th Avenue which is not only still in business, but has the same facade and signage from 1977.
When I went to this location in person to take some pictures, the one place that was tricky to get a current picture of was inside the diner, which had since become a car leasing service called Signature Auto Group.
In general, getting photos of any interior location can be a little tricky — it all depends on what kind of place it is. Most of the time, bars, restaurants and small independent shops are fine with picture-taking (and sometimes even overjoyed that their place is a part of movie history), but a lot of other places are not so hospitable. So whenever I think I might get a little resistance, I have adopted a sort of silly tactic, but one that has proven to be effective — I put on a fake British accent.
I’m not sure if there’s something generally comforting about a British accent, but I’ve concluded that it’s a bit more disarming if managers think they’re being approached by a visiting foreigner, opposed to some obtuse local. I used this tactic when I went to take pictures of an upscale steakhouse for the 1988 film, Big, and the manager was extremely accommodating, giving me exclusive access to the restaurant during non-business hours.
However, as I’ve grumbled in previous posts, the most difficult, practically impossible places to take pictures of are office lobbies. The security is customarily very tight, and the guards always seem poised to thwart any “unauthorized photography” immediately, as if they took a special training course just for this particular situation. And no British accent will soften their attitude.
However, in 2017, when I went to the Signature Auto Group at this Fever location, it was before I learned the British accent trick, so I went inside with all my charmless New York essence on full display. I approached one of the agents at his desk and asked if he thought it’d be okay if I took a couple quick pictures of the place for a movie research project. He said I’d have to ask the manager to get official permission, but that the manager was “not available.”
Then, with a typical “I don’t give a shit” Brooklyn attitude, he immediately turned his back to me — not to be rude, but to give me the opportunity to take a couple quick snapshots on the sly. Half a minute later, he turned back and gave me a quick “done with your stupid whatevah?” look, followed by a “now get the hell outta here” wave of the hand.
This is another one of the few locations that wasn’t already identified on any movie websites, but definitely seemed findable.
As the two characters stroll down the street, several different stores are clearly visible in the background. The two most obvious ones were an Optimo Cigar Shop and a bar called Rena’s Corner which appeared behind the characters at the top of the scene (see first “before/after” image above). I knew that Optimo had a plethora of locations throughout the city in the 1970s, so I thought narrowing it down might be too much work. But Rena’s looked like a unique establishment that would only have one location, so that seemed like a good place to start.
There wasn’t much information on Rena’s out there, but I did find a collection of non-fiction stories and articles by New York Daily News journalist, Jimmy Breslin, that mentioned the tavern. While it didn’t give an exact address, it did describe it being near the intersection of 86th and 4th Avenue, and after checking out that intersection in Google Street View, I determined the tavern used to be on the southwest corner at 8602 4th Ave. That meant the scene started on the southeast corner and proceeded along the south side of 86th, ending at 5th Ave.
After figuring out where this scene took place, I then saw a couple other clues that could have probably helped if i hadn’t found any info on Rena’s Corner. The most noticeable clue was a window they pass towards the end of the scene that says, “Century” on it. Since the window was part of what looked like a large department store, I probably would’ve surmised that it was a Century 21 — and it turns out it was, and still is.
Of course, since this scene took place at what looked like a busy intersection with lots of stores, there are only so many places in the Bay Ridge area that would fit the bill. So I’m sure I would have landed there eventually just by snooping around.
Playing on the Bridge
Not much to say about this scene, since it’s obvious it took place on the Verrazzano Bridge (officially known as the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, but no one I know calls it that). I’m pretty sure they dance along the eastern tower on the Brooklyn side, but it’s hard to tell for sure.
But if you want to see the bridge up-close and you don’t have a New York E-ZPass, it’s going to cost you. What started off at 50¢ when the bridge first opened in 1964, the toll has gone up to $10.17 in 2021, making a round-trip cost over 20 bucks. (And if you try to park the car on the bridge like the characters do in this scene, the traffic violations could easily grow into the hundreds.)
Tony’s Brother Leaves
While I was disappointed that the Manero house had gone through major renovations, making it practically unrecognizable from the film, I was relieved that pretty much all the other houses on the block were unchanged. Also, I was happy to see that the large Sycamore tree in front of 221 79th Street is still standing — and since the species can live up to 250 years, there’s a chance it’ll be standing there for a while.
When I started doing in-depth research on this film in 2016, an address of 9201 4th Avenue for this White Castle was already published on a couple websites. However, since there’s no White Castle on that corner anymore, it was a little hard to confirm it at first. Back in 2016, the NYC tax photos were not readily available online, so my only source was a 1977 Brooklyn phone directory at the NY Public Library.
While there was a White Castle at 9201 4th Avenue, I still wasn’t sure if it was the same one from the film, since the hamburger franchise had many locations in New York City. But then I noticed that you could see one other building in the background, which was clearly a Kentucky Fried Chicken. And when I checked out the area in Google Street View, I could see that there was still a KFC on the corner one block east from the old White Castle, which helped support that I had the correct place.
A few years later, when the NYC Municipal Archives released the digitized tax photos online, I was able to find pictures of both the old White Castle and the old Kentucky Fried Chicken building, reinforcing things even more.
Borrowing Bobby C’s Car
This location was easy to figure out since it starts at the already-established hardware store at 7305 5th Avenue then just travels south to the northeast corner of 5th and 74th Street. While the buildings on 5th have been modernized a bit over the years, the residential buildings on 74th are pretty much the same with a lot of the same trees still around.
Helping Stephanie Move
When I began looking into this scene back in 2016, no one had identified it. In fact, the Movie District website listed it as a “missing location,” and I was ready to take on the challenge.
As I mentioned earlier, the one advantage in searching for Fever filming locations is that almost everything was shot in a relatively small section of Brooklyn, which narrowed down the possibilities. And to further help things out, I discovered what looked like a 242 on the front door. So I just checked every house numbered 242 on every residential street in Bay Ridge starting at 100th and moving my way north. When I hit 93rd Street, even though the siding on the house had been updated, I could tell that I found a match.
All in all. it was a pretty quick search.
I meant to write into the webmaster at the Movie District to tell him the address (something I’ve done before) but it somehow slipped my mind. No matter, because someone else eventually figured it out, too, and passed it on to the website.
This location has been cited on few different websites, but like the previous scene, it was still missing when I was researching this film. By the looks of the brownstones, I could tell the apartment was somewhere on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, so I started cruising up and down a bunch of streets on Google Street View in search of a match. Then suddenly, I remembered that I had a copy of the film with audio commentary by the director, which I hoped might be of some help.
So, I went to this scene on the disc and to my delight, he actually commented on the location, saying he thought it was shot on West 76th Street near the park. So, I went to Google Street View, traveled down 76th, and soon zeroed in on number 34 which looked like a match (albeit a little brighter and less rundown). But since a lot of these brownstones look very similar to each other, I confirmed I got the right place by checking out all the neighboring buildings and made sure they all matched, too.
Sitting by the Bridge
This is yet another scene that had already been identified prior to my research. The only part I had to work on was trying to figure out where exactly the bench they sat on was located. Because the benches seen in the film have since been replaced, I used the trees and the perspective of the bridge to help me figure out where they sat. But since the new bench may not had been installed at the exact same spot as the old one, it might’ve been incorrect for me to line up the benches in the “before/after” picture, but I think it’s close enough.
i wonder if anyone in the Parks Department knew the history of that bench when they were in charge of renovating the park. It would have been cool if they kept that one bench intact and added a little plaque commemorating the film.
Fighting the Barracudas
Fortunately the location of the Barracudas Club was already identified on the Movie District website. It’s a good thing because it might have been a little difficult to find since it turns out it was the one Brooklyn location that wasn’t in either Bay Ridge or Bensonhurst. This scene was shot in Borough Park, which is an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood that’s just to the north.
While the neighborhood appeared relatively safe and peaceful, the assistant director, Allan Wertheim, warned the crew that the community could get very confrontational if they didn’t like what they were doing. Wertheim mentioned that when he worked on the Robert Redford film, The Hot Rock, several Hasidic Jews turned one of the picture cars over when they thought production had overstayed their welcome. I think that’s an impulse a lot of New Yorkers feel when they encounter a massive traffic jam because some big production has shut down several city blocks.
Bobby C Dies
This scene definitely freaked me out when I saw it as a kid, and still gives me chills when I watch it today. Apparently, when it came to filming this scene of Bobby falling off the Verrazano Bridge, there was actually some real danger involved.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, in order to reduce the number of onlookers, production scheduled most of the exterior shoots late night/early morning. And since they were filming in early March, it got extremely cold at night and the bridge would ice up. So for the actors’ safety, director John Badham blocked the scene so Tony and Double J would crawl along the beam as they try to talk down Bobby C. But apparently, Travolta didn’t want to do that. He thought it was important for the character to be standing up, and Badham reluctantly acquiesced. So that’s why in the scene, Tony is upright, while Double J is on his hands and knees. Fortunately no one was harmed in the making of this scene.
What’s interesting is that when Paramount Pictures released a PG-rated version of Saturday Night Fever in 1979, they had to make extensive cuts, but to my surprise, this horrific death scene was untouched. Most of the changes for the new version involved editing out the incessant profanity, as well as cutting out any nudity and minimizing the rape scene. However, when it came to violent imagery, there was very little altered.
The reason a PG version was released into theaters is because the studio wanted to capitalize on the wildly successful, more kid-friendly Travolta film, Grease, hoping to bring in more ticket sales from that younger market. And even though they did manage to add nearly nine million dollars more to their grosses, it was clear they were presenting an inferior product.
Barry Diller, chairman of Paramount at the time, was surprisingly frank when he discussed this tamer cut of the film to the New York Times. “Is it as good a film? I doubt it, but, at the same time, I don’t think people who go to see the PG version will be cheated. They’ll see the same story, hear the same music, see John Travolta.”
While the idea of watching the PG version of Saturday Night Fever today seems a bit pointless, the one fascinating aspect is its inclusion of several alternate takes where all of the offensive words were purged. These alternate takes were originally made to cover for television, and because the actors knew what they were doing wasn’t going to be in the theatrical release, they were more relaxed, which sometimes resulted in a stronger performance.
The fact so much work was put into making an alternate version of Fever just so kids could go see it demonstrates how important a theatrical release was to the film industry back then.
Riding the Subway
I couldn’t find much online about the specific filming locations for this subway riding montage, other than a few websites by subway snobs expressing their ire for the movie’s mixed up geography. Their biggest complaint is that Tony is seen getting off the RR train at 45th Street, then is next seen waiting for a train at 53rd Street. Aside from the fact that he’s going in the wrong direction if his destination is Manhattan, these rail aficionados point out that 53rd Street is not a transfer station, so there would be no reason for Tony to get off there — he’d only be getting off one RR train just to get on another.
While I normally hate when a movie takes geographical liberties —ignoring the laws of physical space— this so-called mix-up in subway stations doesn’t really bother me in this case. This is mainly because Tony, who has just reached a dramatic crossroad, is in an almost zombie-like state, absently wandering the subterranean passageways of the Transit Authority. He doesn’t seem to have a real objective when he first enters the subway system, so it’s quite conceivable he would be going in different directions and blindly getting off at some random station without any specific purpose.
It also might be noted that these subway critics don’t seem to acknowledge that most of the action actually took place at the same station, even though story-wise, it’s supposed to be several different stations. Because there’s no signage visible in the first shot from this montage, it’s hard to confirm, but I’m pretty sure it was filmed at 53rd Street, which was clearly where Tony ends up a little later. What’s interesting is that the platform on the downtown side has round wooden columns, while the platform on the uptown side has squared metal columns, which is a convenient feature if a film crew wanted to make it look like two different stations, or even two different subway lines.
Aside from the shape of the columns, not much at the 53rd Street station today looks like it did in 1977, especially after it received an upgrade in 2017 as part of the MTA’s $72 million renovation project. You could tell things had been modernized even before you went underground by the looks of the black, futuristic subway entrances along 4th Avenue. Down below, some of the most noticeable improvements were the granite floors, modern color schemes, sleek benches, LED lighting, and USB charging stations for all those cell-phone wielding commuters.
All Tony had when he was stuck there was his inner thoughts.
Back in Manhattan
What’s interesting about Saturday Night Fever, which many would call the quintessential Brooklyn movie, is that it ends at this Manhattan location, with a hopeful and reformed Tony essentially choosing to leave his Bay Ridge life behind. From that, the movie’s message could reasonably be interpreted as being, “Manhattan is better than Brooklyn.” While the people involved in Saturday Night Fever clearly had an affection for the eastern borough, Brooklyn is definitely characterized as being crude, coarse and lower-class.
This is a perspective that seems to had been strongly held by Travolta, who insisted that the sequel, Staying Alive, which took place almost entirely in Manhattan, be extremely positive and uplifting. Directed by Rocky-star Sylvester Stallone, Staying Alive is quite possibly the worst sequel ever made, not only because it’s so bad, but because the original was so good. The two films feel like they’re taking place in two completely different worlds. It’s like if the sequel to The Godfather was the movie, Superman III.
When I saw Fever as a kid, I obviously enjoyed it for the dancing, the nudity, and the nonstop swearing, but I could also instinctively tell that the characters were something unique. Later on in life, I realized that these characters were something that hadn’t previously been represented in cinema — certainly not in such a bold, unabashed way. These are not likable people, and the movie embraces that. But the secret to its success was casting John Travolta in the lead role, where his inherent sweetness cones through in his performance and makes you want the Tony character to succeed.
Of course, when it comes to Travolta in this film, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention his dancing. While not perfect, it’s nonetheless impressive, with several dance moves that look nearly impossible to execute. But the fact that his dancing is skilled but not professional, helps add to the reality. Also, by having a good portion of the dance sequences in wide master shots, it keeps things from looking too polished and almost makes us feel like we’re watching a documentary.
For me, Saturday Night Fever is one of those perfect NYC films — not only does it have a ton of vintage on-location footage of the city, but it’s got interesting characters, great performances, incredible music, and an engaging story. In short, I don’t think there’s a single boring scene in the entire lot. It may not be my favorite NYC film, but it’s up there.
However, it’s said that Saturday Night Fever was in fact film critic Gene Siskel’s favorite movie of all time. In 1978, he proved his fandom by buying one of the iconic white suits worn by Travolta at an auction for $2,000 (purportedly out-bidding Jane Fonda by a hundred bucks). And just like what Vito Bruno did with the club’s lighted dance floor, Siskel later re-auctioned the garment for a tidy profit, selling it at Christie’s for $145,500.
Just goes to show how much a pop-cultural juggernaut this film became.