By 10: 30 on Thursday nights, disc jockey Bobby Nyk's 1970s biosphere throbs with hustling, bumping, pretzeling, booty-shaking, uh-HUH uh-HUH retro rhythms.
Strobe, black light, smoke machine, beacon and a rotating, high-voltage monster called the Mace have transformed the Belvedere Hotel's swank, 13th-floor bar into a disco inferno.
The "piece de resistance," a mirror ball, shoots a dizzying galaxy of whirling stars across the small dance floor, where Nyk and three volunteers have become the Village People, complete with hard hat, headdress, policeman's hat and that ridiculous Gilligan sailor cap.
As if the nonsensical ditty were part of their primordial memory bank, the four men lip sync and perform the signature moves to "Y.M.C.A." with impeccable finesse.
It was the best of times; it was the most synthetic of times. Besides, any decade that can produce Three Mile Island, Farrah Fawcett and leisure suits is always worth a second glance. And in Baltimore, which is reluctant to loosen its grip on any decade, the 1970s are in full, nostalgic swing at clubs, vintage stores and trend-conscious shops around town.
Back as well are period pieces like Gabe Kaplan, who from 1975 to 1979 played the title role in "Welcome Back, Kotter," the TV show about a teacher who returned to the same Brooklyn school where he was a crummy student, only to be bedeviled by John Travolta. Kaplan, now a stand-up comedian, performs at a St. Agnes Foundation benefit called "Laughter: The Best Medicine" at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Why the 1970s? Why "The Funky Chicken"? Why hot pants, Billy Beer, rope-a-dope? Why "Jaws" and "Charlie's Angels"? Why the "Me Decade"?
"The '70s were, I think, the last time people were really allowed to have fun," says Kelly Hurst, a district manager for Video Americain, where 1970s "Brady Bunch" and "Mork and Mindy" episodes share shelf space with "Masterpiece Theatre" classics.
It's also an inevitable matter of cultural physics: What goes around, comes around. "They say everything comes back every 20 years," says Elaine Ferrare, proprietor of Killer Trash, a Fells Point boutique that boasts a bounty of platform shoes, loud prints and paisleys, glam-rock glitter, gaudy Banlon photo-print threads and vinyl, because "We all need vinyl in our lives."
On weekends, college kids jam Trash seeking the perfectly mismatched, tight little polyester get-up or vintage bell bottoms for that Saturday night feverish '70s dance party. Remember those Candie's shoes, little slip-on things in a rainbow of colors? "I can't keep them in the store," Ferrare says.
Men with a yen for hip huggers, bold herringbones and ties as broad as a barn can do well scavenging through Trash, as well as other vintage emporiums. Ten Car Pile Up in Towson, Oh Susanna in Fells Point and Dreamland on Charles Street offer troves of fat collars, funky prints and plaids that dare to go where no fashion statement has gone before -- except for in the '70s.
Goodwill, Value Village and other thrift shops are also stuffed with dead men's leisure suits, dazzling double-knits and polyester atrocities.
Those opting for slicker versions of circa '70s goods can buy new stuff at stores like Contempo Casuals, Hot Topic, Rave and the glitzy downtown boutique Bombshell on East Franklin Street.
Sticklers who consider the 1970s an extension of the psychedelic 1960s have a different point of reference from John Travolta gyrating to the Bee Gees and Donna Summer belting "Bad Girls." For these purists, the 1970s are the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Steeleye Span, Rolling Stones, Elton John, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. As far as they're concerned, "Saturday Night Fever's" premiere in 1976 marked the end of the 1960s and, for all intents and purposes, the start of the sinister, power-suited '80s.
For such hippies, old and new, reliving the 1970s demands a different set of props. Lava lamps, incense, Peruvian sweaters, Grateful Dead emblems, Jim Morrison posters and Flower Power patches abound in shops like the Big Iguana in Mount Washington, Fells Point and Annapolis; the Other Side in Towson; the Karmic Connection in Fells Point. All conjure up a spacey, slightly illicit, noodling aura of peace and love that tells only part of the story.
The 1970s bumped giddily into Baltimore after some tough times. The 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the riots and the escalation of the Vietnam War made for a despondent denouement to the counter-cultural '60s.
By 1970, however, there was a glint of rejuvenation in Baltimore's eyes that anyone who seeks a return to that decade can see for themselves: The city's skyline was rearranged in the 1970s with the World Trade Center, Charles Center South, the Edward A. Garmatz Federal Courthouse and the Convention Center. Out yonder, Golden Ring, Kenilworth Bazaar and Stevenson Village, to name a few shopping areas, emerged from the suburban wilds.