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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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!”
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?
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.)
“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.
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 [email protected]