Clubland

The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture

Frank Owen

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One
THE ONE-EYED DON

New York City, Early October 1995


It was one of those brilliant autumn days in New York, the city radiant with luminous color. While the soothing afternoon light skipped gaily across the surface of the Hudson River, Peter Gatien's world was all grim turmoil. A couple of nights ago, in the early hours, the stony-faced Gatien saw his flagship venue in Chelsea, the Limelight, padlocked by the NYPD. Friday evening, just at the peak of business, and his temple of thump-thump-thump-located at the corner of Twentieth Street and Sixth Avenue in a weathered Victorian pile that once housed St. Peter's Episcopal church, then later a drug treatment center-was packed to the vaulted rafters with gyrating penitents hanging off the two tiers of metal balconies that surrounded the cavernous main floor. The irony wasn't lost on the revelers, who seemed to take a perverse delight in frolicking on the altar or sniffing blow in the pulpit. Out on the churning dance floor, the atmosphere was like the pagan party scene in some Hollywood biblical epic, the last fling of a primitive tribe threatened with extinction by powerful social trends few of its members could fully comprehend.

Meanwhile, a string of stretch limousines idled impatiently outside the noisy nightclub, which was fast becoming a stone monument to an era of all-out licentiousness, now vanishing under the puritanical political regime that had taken over the city. Nonetheless, a long procession of young party people, all eager to pay the twenty-dollar admittance, shuffled along the avenue. A drag queen with a clipboard and a bad attitude inspected the line for the undesirable or the unfashionable.

All of a sudden, the block was filled with police cars and paddy wagons, their flashing blue lights illuminating the bulky brown façade and soaring bell tower. A team of undercover detectives-men and women who had been busy buying drugs in the Limelight since early August-was already in position inside the club, when a phalanx of fifty uniformed cops, wearing nylon NYPD windbreakers and carrying high-powered flashlights, stormed through the narrow front entrance of the edifice, rushed up the spiral staircase and through the lobby, which was filled with the obligatory video monitors and bad art installations. Their senses assaulted on all flanks, some of the police wore earplugs to protect themselves against the cacophony emanating from the colossal speakers. Above their heads, half-naked gifts writhed in cages. Barreling down the dark corridors, pushing their way through the startled crowd, and peering into murky recesses, the cops fanned out through the labyrinthine club, each of them carrying a list with the names and photos of thirty known drug dealers.

The Limelight was a huge space. The ceiling stretched four stories high over the main dance floor. Five staircases from the main chamber led to numerous lounges, alcoves, VIP rooms, and the chapel area (sometimes known as the Shampoo Bar), all of which were decorated in different themes (the TV Room, the Peacock Room, the Topiary Room, the Opium Den, the Arcadia Room). No wonder the cops became disoriented and had trouble finding their way around.

The paramilitary seizure did not go according to plan. The police were puzzled that none of Gatien's employees seemed particularly surprised by the bombshell assault. As the animated night dwellers filed out of the club, the cops also wondered why twenty-six of the intended targets were absent that night. They'd received numerous reports about the furious drug action at the club. They'd heard about the special rooms, designated as hard-core drug spots, where guards stood outside and permitted only trusted patrons to enter. But, that night, the place was cleaner than the manicured grounds of Disney World.

In the end, the bust was a nonevent. An embarrassed NYPD only managed to make three minor arrests of small-time marijuana peddlers. The cops suspected that someone had tipped off Gatien in advance about the raid. While the Limelight was temporarily padlocked as a public nuisance, within a week Gatien was back in business, having paid a $30,000 fine and posted a $160,000 bond. He also filed a list of nightclub employees with city hall and agreed to forfeit the bond in the event that anybody on the list was involved in peddling drugs on the premises.

The raid was the disappointing culmination of a two-month investigation into Gatien's operation, fueled by the demise earlier in the year of eighteen-year-old Nicholas Mariniello, who died at his parents' New Jersey home after a night of partying at the Limelight. His heartbroken parents suspected their son had died of an overdose of the designer drug Ecstasy-a commonly used social lubricant among the young ravers and club kids who flocked to the Chelsea hot spot. For years, the local precinct had been deluged with angry and tearful calls from ordinary suburban moms and dads saying their kids, some as young as fifteen or sixteen, had come home stoned or had gone missing after a visit to the Limelight. But the Mariniello family was politically connected. They knew important people. They phoned former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, who supposedly put in a personal call to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau began to probe Gatien's finances. Major behind-the-scenes cogs whirred into action, even though the Morris County, New Jersey medical examiner, after conducting an external examination (Mariniello's parents nixed the idea of an autopsy), revealed the cause of death not as chemical overindulgence but instead "asphyxia due to hanging" and the manner of death as "suicide."

Special narcotics prosecutor Robert Silbering, the city's top drug enforcement official, whose office assisted in the raid, defended the police action: "It's not as if we targeted the club without good reason," he commented. "According to the information that the police department received, the drug dealing at the Limelight was both open and substantial."

Pacing up and down in his spacious office at the Tunnel, another one of his lucrative Manhattan dance halls, the normally unflappable Peter Gatien was scalding mad. Not that you could easily tell. Red-faced fury was not Gatien's style.

Like its owner, the Tunnel had a decidedly spooky quality. Situated right by the West Side Highway, the gigantic club was housed in a former railway depot-40,000 square feet of enveloping blackness-that was said to be haunted by the ghosts of the homeless people who used to live there. When the place was empty, employees swore you could hear the sounds of crying children.

Gatien was dressed like he had just come from the gym. A framed photograph of the club owner posing with the Staten Island rap group Wu-Tang Clan sat on his desk. Expensive-looking art prints with a nautical theme hung on the walls. A rack of silver weights gathered dust in the corner. From the next room came the sharp sound of a shredding machine hungrily eating up documents.

The forty-four-year-old Gatien, who was passably handsome in a gaunt sort of way, looked like he was nursing a hangover. His lips were dry and cracked; his thin, short hair plastered to his skull. He appeared both edgy and exhausted. His pallid skin looked like it hasn't seen sunshine in ages.

In the wake of the raid, the club owner had spent the morning meeting with his lawyers and fielding phone calls from anxious investors and landlords worried about the stability of his nighttime kingdom. He was afraid those months of delicate negotiations with the Forty-Second Street Business Improvement District-regarding a new club to replace his former Times Square hangout, Club USA-were now ruined. He also feared that because of the bad publicity, the Atlanta Olympic Committee would withdraw its recent invitation to build the official disco in the athletes' village.

Sitting back in a tall leather chair, Gatien exuded the humanity of a dial tone. The vacant presence at the heart of clubland struck up a Marlboro with a quick flick of his lighter and then flipped up his trademark black eye patch-the result of a teenage ice hockey accident. He massaged the circumference of the scarred and empty socket. He refused to wear a glass eye because it felt so uncomfortable.

"So much for having the police in my pocket," cracked Gatien, after letting out a long sigh of smoke. "I guess the drag queen must have kept the money." The joke was a reference to a rumor I brought up at our last meeting that a transvestite in his employ was regularly dispatched to the local precinct with a bag full of payoff cash for the cops.

The common perception among Gatien's rivals was that the Canadian businessman used his wealth to purchase political favors. Certainly, he knew how to grease the wheels of the big city machine. He employed lawyer Susan Wagner, a former official in Mayor Ed Koch's administration, to smooth over neighborhood opposition at community board meetings. He retained Geto & DeMilly, a well-known lobbying firm, under whose auspices he made substantial donations to such local politicians as public advocate Mark Green, Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Gatien regularly hired off-duty New York City police officers to patrol his parties. Each year, he threw a big Christmas bash at the Limelight for the local firefighters, who got drunk all night for free. But his detractors went further, saying that he had effectively bought himself immunity from the illegal goings-on at his dubs.

For the record, Gatien denied he bribed anybody. "You don't have to buy people off to operate a successful nightclub in New York as long as it's legitimate," he said without inflection, his flat, deep monotone perfectly matching his gray personality. "The whole thing could have been solved with a phone call. I thought we had a good relationship with them. I meet with precinct captains on a monthly basis and talk to police officers several times a week. All they had to do was tell me there was a problem with drugs at the Limelight, and I would have done something about it."

Gatien's exasperation about the closing of the Limelight was only semiauthentic. According to one of the Limelight's executive directors, Steven Lewis, an NYPD detective with showbiz dreams named Mitch Kolpan allegedly tipped off the club owner about the raid in advance. Brash, gregarious, ruddy-faced, Kolpan stood six feet, three inches in his bad haircut and terrible suits and had a predilection for telling corny jokes. Instead of bagging bad guys, Kolpan seemed to spend most of his time hanging around Peter Gatien's office. Gatien put Kolpan on his payroll after meeting him on the set of the Robert De Niro movie A Bronx Tale, which the club owner helped finance (and for which he received credit as executive producer). Kolpan, who had never acted in his life, finagled an audition with De Niro after using his gold shield to breeze past the security guards. "I'm not even an actor," Kolpan supposedly told the star, "but I'd make a great gangster." De Niro laughed and cast him in a small role as a cop.

Lewis claimed that two weeks prior to the raid, Gatien had a closed-door meeting with Kolpan at the Tunnel. Following the sit-down, the club owner supposedly informed several managers that the Limelight was going to be busted. The night before the bust, Gatien's employees circulated a list of names around the club. Any drug dealer on that list was told to disappear pronto. Instead, many of the dope peddlers simply decamped for the evening to the Gatien-owned Palladium on Fourteenth Street, where they continued doing business. (Kolpan was never charged with any wrongdoing.)

Sex, drugs, and up-to-the-minute dance music were the unbeatable recipe that made Gatien a wealthy man in the '90s. His pleasure domes-the Tunnel, the Palladium, the Limelight-were packed every night, pulling in about fifty thousand paying customers a week. On a good weekend, he claimed he raked in as much as a million dollars in combined revenues. In the fickle world of New York nightlife, he exhibited a remarkable staying power, keeping the Limelight open and cost-effective for twelve years.

No one had more profitably ridden the dramatic changes that had affected New York nightlife since the late '80s. Back then, Gatien owned only one club in New York, the Limelight, which the hip elite regarded as a tacky meeting place for the so-called "bridge-and-tunnel set" from New Jersey, Brooklyn, and Queens. At the same time, there was a recession going on. AIDS also seemed to signal an end to the festivities. And the clubgoers who made legendary establishments like Area and Danceteria happen in the '80s had grown older and stopped going out every night.

But paradoxically, all these negatives worked in Gatien's favor. The retirement of the '80s generation from active duty cleared the way for a new, less elitist contingent of partiers who cheerfully paid for their own drinks. Economic constraints ensured that people who no longer could afford big-ticket items like holidays abroad spent their disposable cash closer to home, taking mini vacations at dance halls. The fear of AIDS meant that voyeurism, pornography, and fetishism suddenly took on a new appeal-a trend exploited in all of Gatien's clubs, most famously at Club USA, an $8-million homage to kinky sex that opened in 1992 but closed two 0years later when the landlord who owned the Times Square building went bankrupt despite Gatien's booming business.

Gatien's democratic door policy-catering not just to club kids and ravers but also to smartly dressed yuppies from the outer boroughs who came to gawk at the freakily attired flotsam and jetsam of the demimonde-also led to his fantastic success. At his clubs, downtown trendies and the boys from Brooklyn dressed so much alike as to be sometimes indistinguishable. Gatien courted out-of-towners, too, recognizing that the local nightlife was a major tourist attraction. Young Japanese tourists regularly lined up outside to take photos of the world-famous Limelight.

But Gatien's runaway success bred resentment among his biggest rivals. They claimed Gatien was an evil emperor who used dirty tricks to shut down their clubs. They said that he utilized corrupt police department contacts to harass them and sent club kids into their competing venues to set off fire alarms. In the cutthroat world of nightlife, for one club owner to drop a quarter on a competitor was not uncommon.

Gatien adamantly denied he used such hardball tactics: "I do fourteen or fifteen nights a week," he said, fixing me with his glimmerless stare. "So I'm more vulnerable to that type of underhanded behavior than anybody else. I get fire trucks coming to my places on phony calls all the time.


Copyright © 2003 by Frank Owen