How a Sitting U.S. President Inadvertently Inspired One of NYC’s Hottest Nightclubs

The Discotheque for LBJ was the first (and only) nightclub created to act as a campaign fundraiser

Credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

It’s passe today to hear about a dance party masquerading as a political fundraiser. During the 2016 Presidential election, Democrats ran the gamut from pantsuit flash mobs to star-studded mini-concerts at Jimmy Buffet’s house. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton even went as far as to suggest the best way to close the country’s “fun deficit” was to stage a national dance party. It’s easy to forget this wasn’t always the case, and, in fact, fun was often seen as anathema to the stodgy traditions of political campaigning. You went to the people, and you talked with them. Maybe you celebrated with them, but you never danced with them, and especially not to pop music! Where did things go off the rails? Why, Lyndon Johnson, of course! Wait… Lyndon Johnson?

By the fall of 1964, Johnson faced a unique problem. He’d been President of the United States for less than a year, having only been sworn into office on November 22, 1963, and was already having to justify his position and policies by running a re-election campaign. His opponent, Barry Goldwater, was massively unpopular but gaining ground — between June and October, Goldwater had whittled a nearly 60-point gap in half.

Johnson and his re-election team were scrambling to find anything they could use to ignite their base, or at the very least something that would allow them to run out the clock while still ahead. His communications staff unleashed a series of now infamous campaign ads portraying Goldwater as a right-wing extremist, alternately a friend of the KKK and a man who might have an itchy nuclear trigger-finger. Johnson himself, fearing that popular support for the Vietnam War was beginning to turn against him, even began monitoring the phone calls of confidants and his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, in an effort to better understand and control messages coming out of the White House. In a 1998 article in The Atlantic, former Georgia Senator and Johnson mentor Richard Russell was quoted as saying that Johnson bragged to him that he “turned [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover loose” on his White House staff, asking Hoover to wiretap their conversations so Johnson could spend hours each night pouring over their thoughts and glean valuable information about their loyalty (or lack thereof).

One of the Johnson campaign’s key communication strategies was lifted directly from his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. JFK had scored what many perceived to be an upset in the 1960 Presidential election in part because of his ability to turn out young voters. Johnson sought to do the same. Over the summer, he held a series of raucous barbecues. Many were hosted by the recently-formed Young Citizens for Johnson, a youth-oriented pro-Johnson lobbying group co-founded by Johnson’s daughters Luci and Lynda Bird, and involved celebrities in a party-like atmosphere; one of the more iconic moments came when Luci was caught on-camera dancing the Watusi with actor Steve McQueen.

Luci Baines Johnson dancing with actor Steve McQueen

In short order, cultivating a hip, young image became important to Democrats and Republicans alike. Both recognized JFK’s success in attracting colleged-aged voters had helped to sway the election in his favor. More importantly, a new group of young Americans — the Baby boomers — were just beginning to hit voting age and they had yet to form a coherent political identity. The candidate who could appeal to them might swing the election.

As election day drew nearer, both parties began playing a game of one-upmanship to pull celebrities into their orbits or latch onto trends in increasingly surreal ways. Lew Wasserman, an MCA-Universal executive charged with heading Johnson’s entertainment committee, lined up actors like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Natalie Wood to stump for the President, while the Republican Party countered with endorsements from stars like Ronald Reagan and Republican boosters funded bizarre pop jingles ghost-written for groups with names like The Citizens. The political theater hit a climax in early October when The New York Committee of the Arts for Lyndon Johnson staged one of the weirdest campaign fundraisers in political history.

On October 8, 1964, the Discotheque for LBJ opened in New York City. The club was modeled after a European trend that had recently been imported to the United States: the discotheque. Throughout Europe, but most prominently in Paris, discotheques surged in popularity after World War II when a torch singer at Parisian nightclub The Whisky a Gogo had the idea of transforming it from a dark, smoky bar with live music and a jukebox into a colorful dancefloor with music orchestrated by men spinning records behind turntables. The first discotheque stateside, The Peppermint Club, opened in New York in 1958 and quickly gained notoriety for helping to launch The Twist as a dance craze. It seemed appropriate, then, that New York should host the world’s first political nightclub. To keep with the political theme, the walls of the club were covered in trendy pop art. One of the more popular pieces was an image of the Beatles with Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey’s faces transposed over John and Ringo.

Actress Arlene Dahl posing in front of pop art featuring LBJ and Hubert Humphrey as Beatles.

The location of the Discotheque for LBJ, at 1034 Second Avenue, was itself important because it was the site of the El Morocco club, a space which had long acted as a hub for New York’s high society, hosting dignitaries and even turning away a few Princesses. And after the emergence of The Peppermint Club, it too began the transition from a traditional nightclub to glitzy discotheque. This made it ideal an ideal space for LBJ’s supporters to set up shop because it was a place where New York’s elite went to escape from the rest of the city. The El Morocco would be a temporary home for celebrities, politicians and society types to gallivant with each other while listening to the hottest pop and jazz records of the era. Not surprisingly, it immediately stirred controversy.

While Leonard Bernstein and Sammy Davis Jr. were dancing the night away with future activists like a young Gloria Steinem in the El Morocco’s Perona Room, outside jazz musicians from the Local 802, American Federation of Musicians, AFL-CIO held signs that read “Records Don’t Vote.” The main conceit of the discotheque — an endless stream of music being spun for guests on turntables — angered the musicians because, until the introduction of the discotheque, music had been experienced by audiences in a live setting, performed mostly by musicians. The opening of the nightclub prompted the jazzmen to picket, and, in the case of Bill Crow, a local bassist, lead chants of “Dizzy Gillespie for President.” (Sadly, Gillespie never seriously entertained the possibility.)

Whatever problems the Discotheque for LBJ may have faced outside its doors, it was clear those inside didn’t want the party to stop. When interviewed about the club, its director, legendary theatre producer Theodore Mann said it was on-course to raise over $30,000 in just one month of existence.

The surprising success of both the Discotheque for LBJ and the El Morocco’s transition from nightclub to glittering dancehall put New York’s party scene on notice. One attendee in particular, Sybil Christopher, then still Sybil Burton after experiencing a messy divorce from actor Richard Burton, saw an opportunity in the space the discotheque was operating out of, so she solicited startup capital from friends, one of whom was Discotheque for LBJ attendee Leonard Bernstein, and opened a discotheque of her own. Her creation, Arthur, easily outlasted the Discotheque for LBJ’s one-month run. Between 1965 and 1970, Arthur was the trendiest nightclub in New York, regularly hosting celebrities while house DJ Terry Noel spun everything from Smokey Robinson to the Rollings Stones, and maybe even became the first DJ to mix records live during a set.

If the Discotheque for LBJ has any sort of legacy it’s ultimately one of unintended consequences. In reality, Lyndon Johnson was never in a position where he could have lost to Barry Goldwater. The 1964 Presidential election was notable primarily because it was one of the most lopsided in American history — Johnson received 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. So, the late-stage fundraiser-as-nightclub was little more than political grandstanding by supporters looking for an excuse to party. But that party may have led to the creation of Arthur as Sybil Christopher was one of its regulars and her vision reshaped club culture in New York for years to come.

That begs the question: given the ubiquity of dancing during political campaigns today, can we expect a return of the nightclub-as-fundraiser in 2020?

Freelance writer from Philadelphia. Focuses include conspiracy culture, fringe communities, and new religious movements.