Limelight’s notorious hustle returns in new Buckhead mural, book

By Michelle Hiskey

Atlanta’s most infamous disco is back after 25 years – resurrected through a bright mural in Buckhead and a new book of 1980s photos that weren’t too risqué to publish.

A new mural in Buckhead celebrates the notorious Limelight disco, which inspired the adjacent grocery store's nickname: Disco Kroger. The LImelight, near Piedmont and Peachtree, is now home to Binders Art Supplies and Frames.

A new mural in Buckhead celebrates the notorious Limelight disco, which inspired the adjacent grocery store's nickname: Disco Kroger. The Limelight, near Piedmont and Peachtree, is now home to Binders Art Supplies and Frames. (Photo: Binders)

The Limelight operated from 1980 to 1987 in the shopping center at Piedmont and Peachtree. It left behind a glass slipper: the grocery store nickname, “Disco Kroger.”

Park there today, and on the side wall is a large mural straight out of “Saturday Night Fever” – white leisure suit and disco ball included. Inside, Limelight’s giant speakers, stage and neon lights are now transformed into the aisles of colorful paints and papers in Binders Art Supplies and Frames.

A reception for the mural and new retrospective photo book took place recently in Binders’ back gallery, called the Limelight Studio. Its French doors feature silhouettes of disco dancers.

Door tribute to The Limelight disco in Atlanta

Disco silhouettes frame a doorway at Binders Art Supplies and Frames in Buckhead. The store once was home to the notorious Limelight disco in Atlanta.

The reinvention from platform shoes and feathered hair to oil pastels and graffiti art isn’t as far as you might think.

“The Limelight catered to artists,” said the club’s photographer, Guy D’Alema, flipping through his new book, “Limelight… in a sixtieth of a second” ($75 at limelightbook.com and exclusively at Binders; limited signed editions for $150).

On one page there’s Andy Warhol, signing a family-sized Campbell’s soup can. Another shows Cynthia Lennon, John’s first wife, with her Beatles drawings.

Flip another page and see live models, spray painted into walking trophies. The bump and grind moved amid giant props, like a glittery sphinx head and a 25-foot face painting of disco diva Grace Jones that spit smoke through the mouth.

“It was a very artistic, creative time,” D’Alema said. “It’s interesting that art is now paying tribute back to the club. It’s come full circle.”

Scantily clad dancer on "Bare as You Dare" night at The Limelight.

Scantily clad dancer on "Bare as You Dare" night at The Limelight, one of the risque theme nights in Buckhead's most notorious disco of the 1980s. (Credit: Guy D'Alema).

Because that 1980s “artistry” pushed the margins of taste, longtime Atlantans talk about the Limelight with rumors and few details, the memories of that time either blurred or blushingly clear. Few are telling what they saw, beyond the sand sharks that swam under the dance floor.

“It worked on its own momentum,” recalled Tom Zarrilli, who served on the crew of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and partied afterwards at Limelight.

Tom and Cindy Zarrilli at Limelight

Tom Zarrill and Cindy Varnes at the Limelight. The couple later married.

“Not that it had anything that other discos did — except it was bigger, in a safer area and attracted some very dedicated followers.”

Did the club deserve the nickname “Slimelight”?

Documented in D’Alema’s book are the nearly naked patrons of the club’s “Bare as You Dare Night… the skimpy loincloths of Jungle Night … the live female mannequins stretched out on a buffet table, covered with whipped cream. Strawberries beckoned near their sensitive areas.

“That wasn’t very sanitary,” D’Alema said with a laugh. “But with the amount of alcohol being consumed, it didn’t really matter.”

Book cover for "Limelight... in a sixtieth of a second," by photographer Guy D'Alema

"Limelight... in a sixtieth of a second," by photographer Guy D'Alema, features his photos of the infamous disco in Buckhead. The book retails for $75 and is sold at Binders Art Supplies and Frames, which now occupies the Limelight location.

He also wanted to set the record straight about the leopard.

“It was a panther, and it was only here on opening night,” D’Alema said. “Someone from the Humane Society was there and as soon as the music began, that cat was out of here.”

Many photos were left out for the same reasons that “there are a lot of stories you can’t tell,” D’Alema said. “At least not while the people are still alive. That would be lawsuit city!”

Spray painted mimes entertained at The Limelight in Buckhead in the 1980s.

Spray painted mimes were part of the flamboyant entertainment at The Limelight in Buckhead in the 1980s. (Credit: Guy D'Alema).

The disco era took a lot of secrets with it, because no cell phones or pocket cameras were around to record the evidence of today.

The new mural outside Binders is a tribute to a bygone era of decadence, created in today’s age of constant documentation. What isn’t recorded today?

Spray paint -- a staple item at Binders Art Supplies and Frames -- revived the store's disco roots as the medium for a large outdoor mural.

Spray paint -- a staple item at Binders Art Supplies and Frames -- revived the store's disco roots as the medium for a large outdoor mural.

The giant painting advertises what Montana acrylic markers and Binders’ other “urban art supplies” look when loud, proud and outdoors. The mural’s back story features artists today who, like those at the Limelight, boldly push the idea of what’s acceptable.

The mural is by Dr. Dax, a self-taught “visual engineer” and tattoo artist who inked an “ATL” behind his ear and “Ponce de Leon” in script under his chin. He believes the more public display of city icons and history, the better. Even if that history took place long before he became legal.

Dax was only 10 when the Limelight closed. He grew up influenced by the gritty art he saw in public view, and you can see his interior work at clubs like Tongue & Groove and The Drunken Unicorn.

Now 35, he used assistance from a Los Angeles art collective called The Loss Prevention to paint the iconic disco ball, a dancer roughly patterned on  John Travolta’s character in “Saturday Night Fever,” and a character from an X-Men comic super heroine named Dazzler. (She could turn sound into beams of light and energy.)

Photo of artist Dr. Dax, who created the disco mural at Binders Art Supplies and Frames. Dax, 35, was in elementary school during the heyday of the store's previous incarnation as the notorious Limelight disco.

Artist Dr. Dax, who created the disco mural at Binders Art Supplies and Frames. Dax, 35, was in elementary school during the heyday of the store's previous incarnation as the notorious Limelight disco.

“Indulgence. Excessive. Flamboyant,” Dax said when asked to describe the disco era through his palette of neon colors.

Those adjectives today define the personas in Atlanta’s music scene today where Dax also works. He’s done four music videos with Big Boi, half of Atlanta’s Grammy-winning duo Outkast, for his solo debut, “Sir Lucious Leftfoot: The Son of Chico Dusty,” in which every song is listed as explicit.

Music dies and doors close as tastes change. Sometimes arrests are made – eventually, Limelight founder Peter Gatien was deported to Canada after pleading guilty to tax evasion.

Dance floor at The Limelight in Buckhead

The neon-dazzled dance floor at The Limelight was once a dinner theatre, and now an art supply store. (Credit: Guy D'Alema)

The spirit of the Limelight lives on in any Atlanta spot that becomes the place to be seen, be naughty and nowadays be more likely to be (digitally) caught.

As the Limelight D.J. always reminded partiers at 3:55 am: “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

 

Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer based in Decatur. She can be reached at michelle.hiskey@gmail.com

About Michelle Hiskey

Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer and writing coach based in Decatur, and her day job is senior editor on Emory University's development communications team. Michelle worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 22 years as a sports reporter, columnist and Sunday feature writer, and her stories of recovery and redemption bridge unexpected places and people across Atlanta. She lives in Decatur with her husband Ben Smith, also a journalist, and their two awesome daughters. She can be reached at michelle.hiskey@gmail.com.
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5 comments
Rosen
Rosen

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MelissaWhite1
MelissaWhite1

Wow! This really takes me back. I remember going to the Disco Kroger, but my preferred hangouts were Little Five Points Pub, Moonshadow, Harvest Moon and Excelsior Mill, not the Limelight.

MelissaWhite1
MelissaWhite1

Wow! This really takes me back. I remember going to the Disco Kroger, but my preferred hangouts were Little Five Points Pub, Moonshadow, Harvest Moon and Excelsior Mill, not the Limelight.