Charles Scaglione Sr. recently has published a self-styled memoir chronicling his adventures in operating Rounds, a reputed NYC gay hustler bar that opened in 1979, and he's telling some secrets and naming some names. In Camelot Lost (RoseDog Books 2009) Scaglione offers a rarely-revealed insider's perspective into the business side of a gay nightlife establishment -- or "store" as it's referred to in the industry -- and as a straight man provides unique cultural insight into the gay scene as it leaves the wild seventies for the AIDS-ravaged eighties.
Rounds, often euphemistically referred to by Scaglione as a "cruising bar," was located at 303 East 53rd Street in an upscale midtown area known as "the loop" where johns would seek to hook up with hustlers, and its owners apparently intended from the beginning to capitalize on the neighborhood vibe: "The street is a perfect location for a hustler bar. That is what it shall be."
Scaglione, a former executive in the high rise office building industry in Manhattan, had no experience with gay nightlife but his two partners did. One partner was Seymour Seiden, a reputed mob-connected figure who was behind the Sanctuary at 407 West 43rd Street -- perhaps the first modern gay dance club and an alleged mob drug drop -- which was closed by the city in 1972, and the other was Ken Gersberg a/k/a Ken Gaston, a theater producer who had a successful track record with event promotion. The three men each contributed $50,000 although the apparently penniless Gaston needed to borrow his funds from three friends of Scaglione.
In light of Seiden's reputation -- he was known as the "Velvet Mafioso" according to Scaglione -- securing a liquor license could be problematic, and apparently his involvement in Rounds was not disclosed to the State Liquor Authority. Seiden told Scaglione:
You and Ken have clean records. Because of my relationship with my partners, I can't be on the liquor application, or even suspected of being a partner with you and Ken. There is some prejudice against Italians at the Authority. Italian mobsters as my ex-partners are suspected of undisclosed ownership in our clubs. We will have no problem. You have a Jewish partner. It helps with the bigots at the Authority. Some may hate Jews, but they know we're not mobsters. Ha!
In all likelihood Seiden was correct that the SLA would deny a license if his name were on the application. In an article ("Inside the Disco Boom") from the July 21, 1975 issue of The Village Voice, reporters Richard Szathmary and Lucian K. Truscott IV expressly alleged that the Sanctuary was a "mob-run joint which featured pills (ups, downs, hypnotics) sold at the door and behind juice bars." And after authorities shut down the Sanctuary, in 1973 Seiden allegedly opened Hollywood at 128 West 45th Street. The venue was previously known as the gay hustler bar Peppermint Lounge, and subsequently as the circus-like gay disco GG Barnum's. In 1986 reputed Genovese capo Matty Ianniello was convicted for a skimming racket involving several gay bars including the Peppermint Lounge a/k/a Hollywood a/k/a GG Barnums which operated at 128 West 45th Street. Moreover, Seiden was arrested in 1975 for allegedly bribing an undercover police officer to provide him with advance notice of enforcement action concerning a gay bar. Seiden further allegedly may have had a role with reputed Genovese associate Carmine Cardello in the Limelight, a gay bar which operated from 1973 until 1980 at 91 Seventh Avenue South in Sheridan Square, as reported by Henry Post in his December 4, 1978 article ("The Front") for New York Magazine. Seiden's name allegedly surfaced during a mid-1970s investigation dubbed Operation Together which was looking into, among other things, the involvement of the mob in gay bars and several murders of gay club operators including Shelley Bloom who was Seiden's partner in the Sanctuary. Bloom was murdered in March 1972 the night before he was to testify before a federal grand jury investigating a South American cocaine-smuggling network.
The grand opening of Rounds in 1979 was a star-studded event according to Scaglione in Camelot Lost, and he alleges that record producer David Geffen, Studio 54 owner Steve Rubel, and fashion designer Calvin Klein were among those in attendance. Other celebrities and glitterati who allegedly patronized Rounds over the years included Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol and Vladimir Horowitz. The opening night did not end well for everyone, however. One patron, a friend of Gaston, was shot dead in his apartment later that evening, and apparently he had picked up some rough trade from the Hay Market, a gay hustler bar at 772 Eighth Avenue in the Times Square area. (The Hay Market was another bar which was part of the skimming operation for which Matty Ianniello was convicted in 1986.)
The story does not end well. Ken Gaston died of AIDS in May 1983 -- Shelley Winters delivered his eulogy -- and Seymour Seiden died of AIDS in April 1988. For anyone who doubts whether a straight man can offer a compelling memoir about the gay world, Scaglione offers some of his best writing in recounting the madness as AIDS took his business associates, close friends and Rounds patrons. Indeed, Scaglione writes with remarkable candor about the sexual freedom that generally prevailed during the gay liberation days -- a period which Seiden characterized as Camelot -- until so many were lost to AIDS. Rounds was closed in 1994 following an NYPD raid.