T-shirt Tuesday: The Fun House

When we saw this clown t-shirt, we knew there had to be a good story behind it. Upon taking a closer look the story revealed itself; ominously written in the clown’s red wig, it reads, “The Fun House.”

First opened in Manhattan in 1979, the nightclub featured disco, house, and experimental dance music. It was one of the first clubs to establish the reciprocal relationship between club music and its dancers.

In the middle of the disco era, the Fun House was seen as a low-end version of regular commercial clubs nearby. But it attracted younger crowds, who brought with them an excitement for newer, electronic sounds. Not many clubs in New York City were catering to this generation, and before long the Fun House was one of the best spots to dance as a young person in the 80s. The graphic on this shirt features the club's infamous clown logo, also found painted on the DJ booth to emphasize the carnival/playhouse theme of the nightclub.The Fun House indulged in a playground atmosphere, featuring an arcade with Pac Man, Space Invaders, and pinball machines.

As the music evolved, so did the movement it inspired. The clubs’ dancers brought a whole new style to club scene, wearing gym shorts, cropped t-shirts, sweatbands, a reaction against the glitz of nightlife in the 70s.

Opening night was spun by Jim Burgess, one of the most influential remixers of the disco era, producer known for I Love the Nightlife by Alicia Bridges, as well as Rod Stewart Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?, Doobie Brothers, Madleen Kane. He would go on to headline clubs like 12 West, Infinity, the Saint, Underground, Studio 54, and  Paradise Garage.

Burgess was joined by Bobby Guttadaro on opening night, a pioneer of beatmixing and disco remixing. Like the relationship between song and dance, the club and its DJ must be symbiotic.

Listen: Bobby Guttadaro and Luis Mario Orellana live at Abracadabra, New York City, 1978.

One DJ in particular cemented this -John "Jellybean" Benitez, made his mark as the club's resident DJ from 1981 until '84. Puerto Rican South-Bronx native and dancer, Benitez found success playing at NYC glamour clubs like Studio 54, Paradise Garage, Electric Circus.

But as disco grew increasingly commercial he wanted to go underground. After a visit to The Sanctuary in Hell's Kitchen, he witnessed the founder of modern club DJ techniques Francis Grasso at his altar and his trajectory was clear. Grasso invented beatmatching technique, "slip-cuing," the foundation of modern club DJs. He was one of the first to read the energy of the room and cater to that, described as an “energy mirror.”  

While dress codes at underground gay clubs had their own set of rules, the majority of straight disco clubs also had codes set to indulge in the glamour of nightlife. But the Fun House audience came to dance and sweat, dressed in jeans, sneakers, t-shirts. 

DJ and producer Arthur Baker recalled the crowd at the Fun House to be, "Open to strange things. So we can make our records for them because they are ahead and usually everyone else will catch up." (1983) 

With a background in hip hop, Jellybean attracted a street crowd of young Puerto Rican and Italian Americans, bringing b-boy culture to Manhattan. He was instrumental in New York City’s nightlife shifting away from disco era, pioneering the freestyle genre. Like Jellybean, more and more producers began using the club as a testing ground.

As talks of Jellybean rocking the House spread around the city, hit station WKTU offered him a feature for a recurring Saturday-night mix show. From that point on, his mixes could be heard on block parties in the South Bronx to the dance floor at underground disco parties. Some of his most successful producing was on “Walking on Sunshine,” by Rockers Revenge, Jimmy Spicer’s “The Bubble Bunch,” and “Planet Rock,” by Afrika Bambaataa. 

But there was another demographic that attracted to dance clubs; celebrities. It became an increasing trend for A-list celebrities to take sanctuary in the DJ booth, giving the DJs a similar status. This also allowed them to share their work with the stars. 

Jellybean produced and remixed some of the biggest acts in music, namely Whitney Houston, Hall & Oates, Talking Heads, Billy Joel, the Pointer Sisters, Fleetwood Mac, and Paul McCartney. Most notably, he was enlisted by a certain Fun House-regular to contribute to her debut album, and her name was Madonna.

Benitez was instrumental in her first hit, producing "Holiday" and several other top tracks. The two had a brief romantic relationship for a time, and produce around 15 records together. After his relationship with Madonna, Jellybean's name eventually outgrew the underground club.

After Jelly Bean, Little Louie Vega took over the booth. Like Jellybean, he was a Puerto-Rican Bronx-native. He embarked on his career as a disc jockey at age 13. He began playing house and block parties, before his first residency at the Devil's Nest  The Fun House closed in 1985, becoming the heartthrob. Its brief but significant lifetime helped forge the relationship between DJ and dancer. 

Just in 2019, Benitez was honored with a residency at the Gucci Wooster space, where he curated a playlist referencing his years at the Fun House. 

Piper Rosenberg
Piper Rosenberg