Filming “Saturday Night Fever”: Local Recalls Producers Paying Protection Money, Bomb Threat To Disco


A still from Saturday Night Fever showing John Travolta on a straight trip to Groovetown with a bad case of boogie fever

Decades since its production, Saturday Night Fever has become a time capsule of 1970s southern Brooklyn. At the time of its release, though, at least according to this local, the public had a very different feeling towards the flick. Back in 1977, Saturday Night Fever was far from a dated, nostalgic capturing of a long gone era: it was a look into the present.

Warning: for those of you who haven’t managed to see Saturday Night Fever since it premiered in 1977, spoilers ahead.

Here’s Bensonhurst native Barry Jacobs’ memories of the film’s filming.

I could describe the Verrazano Bridge to you but odds are you’ve already seen it in a little movie called Saturday Night Fever. Set and filmed entirely in and around my neighborhood, that’s the film that made John Travolta a star. I stopped holding that against the movie years ago. There are many, many shots of the bridge — it’s a metaphor — and the part where Bobby C falls off the bridge was filmed on the actual roadway.

While I don’t remember much of the filming, I do remember the impact the film’s debut caused in the neighborhood. Everyone saw it, and saw it again, and saw it again. In fact, in the Marlboro Theater, it ran for years. It was constantly running.

You may remember the film’s opening scene. John Travolta is walking — no, strutting down a street, below the train tracks, eating a slice of pizza. That’s 86th Street and it was filmed one short block from my grandmother’s apartment. In fact, those are the same tracks and same streets that you see in the opening of Travolta’s TV show, Welcome Back Kotter and also in the fantastic 1971 Gene Hackman movie, The French Connection. That film has one of the best chase scenes ever filmed, as Popeye Doyle, played by Hackman, races his car through the traffic below to catch up to the speeding train on the tracks above.

But back to Saturday Night Fever. It is amazing the movie ever got made. I don’t mean because the studio had no faith in it, and that’s true, but what I’m talking about is the constant harassment by the people of Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge.

Men in the neighborhood hated John Travolta. Why? Because the women loved him. Every girl and young woman in this part of Brooklyn flocked to see him. The entire cast was mobbed wherever they went. The guys took their frustrations out on the cast and crew, especially Travolta, who had to endure threats and obscenities from the mostly rowdy teens.

If the harassment stopped there it would have been bad enough, but Bensonhurst in the 1970’s was, let’s say, a bit connected. Remember I said they were “mobbed” wherever they went? If you know the book or movie Donnie Brasco, those are the guys. No matter where they tried to film, the producers had to pay off about a dozen local hoods for the privilege of filming.

Even worse than the harassment and shakedowns was the bomb threat to the disco, where the company ended up paying a lot of protection money.

The film was finished and the rest is movie and soundtrack history. Most of the places where they filmed are long gone — the paint store, the dance studio, the disco, even the theater I saw it in are just memories.

Of course the Verrazano Bridge is still there. And I am sure the arsenal of 1,500 rounds of ammunition discovered buried near the base of the bridge just a couple of years ago was only a coincidence.

  • Sean F

    Important correction: in the opening scene, Travolta is not “eating a slice of pizza”. He is eating two slices at one time – this is very important. as it changed the pizza-eating habits of many a Brooklynite.

    Possibly apocryphal story related to the filming at 2001 Odyssey (heard from a friend whose uncle either owned the club, or was a manager there). The film company had to pay the disco a per diem fee for each day/night that they had to film there. In some sort of administrative mix-up, no one told the studio to stop issuing checks to the club once filming had ended, so the studio kept paying 2001 their daily fee long after filming ended. When they finally did stop making the payments, the studio did not ask for the money back. If this actually happened, could this have been a simple accounting mistake, or was it part of the payoffs that are mentioned in this article?

  • Evan1407

    Leave it to the stupid low lives to protest a film crew and cast spending money in their neighborhood and livening up the economy. Explains why everyone wanted to move out of Bensonhurst in the 1980’s. The ignorance was too much for them to take.

    • Sean F

      Film crews actually bring very little economic benefit to the immediate area around where they film. They bring in their own catering from elsewhere, so they aren’t spending in local restaurants or stores. The only real financial benefit of having a film made in any particular place is to the property owners who allow their property to be used. They get paid a per diem, plus get free repairs and renovations in many cases. Beyond that, very little money trickles into the local economy, despite the costs to the local precinct and fire company, and the disruptions to traffic and parking.

      • Evan1407

        Oh. Excuse me. I forgot that you know everything. Do you honestly think they bring their food from the West Coast? It’s locally contracted caterers that provide the food. My cousin worked on several films in Brooklyn as a master electrician. He was contracted here. He didn’t come from Hollywood. Never been there. Also, there is hotel revenue, equipment rental and a host of other services, all contracted locally.