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At age 67, Frank Pernice looks and sounds like Hollywood's vision of an aging mobster -- gold medallion, big indoor-outdoor prescription sunglasses, an accent one generation out of Sicily. Three years ago he opened Plato's Repeat, a swingers' club on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. The name is a reference to Plato's Retreat, the internationally famous sex club in New York where mass-market swinging was invented.
When he met his former business partner, Larry Levenson, in the early '70s, Pernice ran a Brooklyn catering company. As a sideline, Pernice put together some of the most notorious bachelor parties in New York City.
Across town, Levenson was living on $95-a-week welfare checks and spending his days organizing ad hoc swingers' clubs. That is, he would rent a basement room or a walkup studio, charge admission, and preside at orgies of eight or ten couples. The neighbors would catch on after a few weekends, and the party would dissolve until Levenson found a new space and spread the word.
"Frank came down with his girlfriend to one place I had," Levenson recalls. "He says, 'My God, you got a great idea here!' He says, 'Right now you got a grocery store, wouldn't you like to open up a supermarket?'"
Plato's Retreat, America's first serious swingers' club, was born at that moment, though it took a few months to assume its physical form in the cavernous basement of the Ansonia Hotel, in a defunct gay bathhouse where singers Bette Midler and Barry Manilow performed early in their careers.
By the dawn of the '80s there were a dozen Plato's imitators in New York, but no serious competition. As many as 600 couples per night paid the $30 cover charge, plus a $5 private-membership fee, and entered what some saw as the sanctum sanctorum of the Sexual Revolution. Amenities included a swimming pool, a disco, several bars, and a universe of rumpus rooms, couches, and Jacuzzis through which patrons wandered in their birthday suits, swapping mates, gawking, engaging in group sex, indulging their most baroque fantasies in semipublic.
"Before, there were bars where you would go and dance a little and at the end of the night you would all go to someone's house," Levenson notes. "Mine was the first on-premises swing club in history."
Just when Plato's owners were starting to get rich, the trouble began. The end of the Sexual Revolution was near: In July 1981 The New York Times ran a brief item under the headline "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals." Meanwhile, federal prosecutors indicted Levenson, Pernice, and a third partner in Plato's for tax evasion.
Levenson went to Allenwood Prison in Pennsylvania; Pernice went to sunny Florida to play tennis and teach culinary arts at the federal lockup at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola and later the Federal Correctional Institute south of Miami. In their absence Plato's limped along on a diet of S-M nights, strip shows, and mud wrestling. The disease that was first publicly noted in the Times in the summer of 1981 took on a now-familiar name.
For one dizzy evening in May 1985, it appeared that things would get back to "normal." Levenson, fresh from 40 months' incarceration, emerged from a limo wearing a fake leopard-skin cape and crown. Some 500 loyal patrons turned out for the homecoming bash. But seven months later, on November 22, 1985, the New York City health department, citing prostitution and occupancy permit problems, padlocked Plato's Retreat for good.
Frank Pernice, also recently released from mandatory retirement, decided to stay in South Florida.
It seemed like the end of the story.
Al Goldstein, the publisher of Screw magazine and a former candidate for sheriff of Broward County, was the guest of honor at Levenson's homecoming bash at Plato's thirteen years ago. Goldstein's memory of the night is a bit foggy, but his opinion of swing clubs is clear.
"Those places were always about structured infidelity," Goldstein says. "They're for guys who don't have the balls to cheat on their wives. I'd just as soon go home and watch the History Channel."
Pernice and Levenson always did squabble, but now they have something new to squabble about. Against the odds, a quarter-century after their invention on West 74th Street, swing clubs are back.
"Frank ran around Brooklyn telling all his friends he owned Plato's," Levenson says over the phone from New York, where he drives a taxi now. "He's a big blowhard. I created the logo. I created the club. Don't belittle what we had. Plato's Repeat? Gimme a break! When he started the place in Florida, I called him and said, 'What is this crap?'"
Levenson is talking about Plato's Repeat, a refurbished ersatz Swiss chalet on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale that is one of four on-premises swingers' clubs in South Florida, all of them located within a few miles of one another in Broward County. When Pernice opened the new Plato's in 1995, he installed a glass display case near the front door to show off memorabilia from the original New York club.
Pernice: "If Larry wants to pull an ego trip, fine. But the truth is, everything he did was what I told him to do. Larry didn't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of when I met him. Larry's a character. That's why he made a great frontman. But I'm the one who originated Plato's. I did the whole concept. I took him from being nobody to being somebody."