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Nightlife Suffers as Gay Men Move Online

A recent poster in New York’s gayborhoods tells the tale: “MORE GRINDR=FEWER GAY BARS.” This brief cri de coeur—spread, appropriately enough, via social media and on blogs like Joe. My. God.—cited hookup sites and rapidly proliferating mobile apps like Grindr for killing New York’s gay nightlife.

It’s hard to believe that a mere 10 years ago, up to 2,000 men were dancing into Sunday morning at the Roxy; in the ’80s, 3,000 members were packing the Saint for 18-hour marathons. Today, the city’s only dedicated gay dance club, XL, has an official capacity of 750, which along with a few smaller dancefloors in bars like the Ritz and Splash, is the only game in town. Meanwhile, Manhunt, the granddaddy of hookup sites, boasts 200,000 active users in the city. With more than 400,000 local log-ins a week, New York makes up 10 percent of Manhunt’s user base.

Even John Blair, the veteran promoter behind Hell’s Kitchen’s XL, admits, “Even if you could build a club like the Saint, you couldn’t get that many people. Back then, that’s all their social life was. People don’t need to go to bars to hook up.”

On those rare occasions where they actually meet someone face to face, guys wait until they’re home to seal the deal. “It’s not part of the culture where, if you meet someone, it’s even socially acceptable,” notes Stephen Pevner, who, as head of the Saint At Large, produces one of the city’s few remaining major big-room dance events, the annual Black Party. “They say, ‘I’ll see you on Manhunt.'” Hey, why go out at all when you can order in?

The reasons for what everyone agrees is a noticeable contraction in club life go way beyond the digital revolution into even more fundamental changes. Younger gay men might be more concerned about meeting Mr. Right to marry and start families than the perpetual search for Mr. Right Now. Even the ones still on the prowl have less expendable income after paying for a rabbit warren of a room in a shared apartment in a funky neighborhood far away from Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, or the East Village. Who wants to be cooked at 4 a.m. while anticipating a long wait for a subway train and a longer walk from the station?

Besides, gay men don’t define themselves by the clubs they frequent anymore. Nor do they have to. In the years after Stonewall, clubs like the Firehouse and 12 West represented safe spaces in a hostile world where we could flirt, make out, and hook up (usually on site). With gay men coming out earlier and being comfortable hanging out with straight friends, even Blair and his partner in life and work, Beto Sutter, disagree about whether an unspoken, discriminatory door policy still works. “At the Roxy, people complained about too many girls,” Sutter says, adding, “eight girls for every guy! Now they want diversity on Saturday night.”

Jake Resnicow, promoter of one of the few new franchise events in town, Matinee, which began on Ibiza, agrees: “Matinee has demonstrated that the boys appreciate a mixed crowd.”

Blair, however, maintains that “the gay community wants to be around people like themselves. “If you have too many straights, there are complaints, a lot of complaints. If anything, gay men are segregating themselves into smaller groups.” The bears have their club nights, like Joe Fiore’s Rockbear and Blowoff, held periodically at the High Line in West Chelsea; the skinny young guys (a/k/a/ the twinks), the single-named HK bars (Barracuda, Therapy, Industry, et al.); the musclemen, the semi-regular Alegria parties. Even older gay men have their own dances, such as Sunday Teas at XL.

“Time was, the bears, like other subcommunities, didn’t want to keep to themselves,” Fiore says. “Currently, bears definitely prefer bear events. They don’t want to be singled out as fat, hairy guys.”

Smaller, more specialized events are also a result of the effects of Manhattan’s skyrocketing real estate and high-end apartment buildings on the island’s fringes. Today, there’s only one dedicated big room, Pacha, by the Hudson River. The turnkey for a giant space like Chinatown’s Capitale starts in the $50,000 range—prohibitive for a promoter who still has to set up a sound-and-light system. That’s why Rica Sena, whose Alegria parties still pack in the hottest men, looks to the few remaining dedicated dance spaces. And it’s getting more and more difficult. It’s significant that successful start-up parties like Matinee look to smaller (but still respectably sized) venues like District 36. “It’s incredibly challenging to find a big room home in New York,” Resnicow says.

And that space had better not be geographically undesirable. Guys “won’t go above 57th Street or below Canal Street,” promoter Josh Woods says. “People here aren’t adventurists compared to Rio or Berlin.” Woods, one of the most successful younger promoters in town, keeps his regular events in smaller spaces like Hudson Terrace. “Real estate interests have closed big clubs for sure,” Woods says. “So it tends to be a bottle service.”

For many, “bottle service” represents everything gone wrong with New York’s gay-club culture. “You were picked because you looked great,” says Christina Visca, a longtime fixture behind the velvet ropes at legendary clubs like Sound Factory and Palladium, “not because you could buy a bottle of Gray Goose for $250. Bottle service has ruined clubs; you’re a VIP if you order expensive alcohol.”

When Blair instituted VIP tables at XL, he was roundly criticized. But it’s the only way to make a gay dance club work these days, he insists. “Bottle service would never have worked back then, but we’re multipurpose because we have to be. And it’s sold out every Friday and Saturday.”

That leaves promoters like Sena continually haggling with club owners who would much rather devote their weekend nights to free-spending straight crowds than to gay men, notorious for refilling their one purchased water bottle. True, the drug of choice for many younger gay men is alcohol; but juice isn’t conducive to an extended dance experience.

“It’s not a weekly experience for anybody,” Pevner says with a sigh. “It’s not part of the culture. The big parties nowadays are like Broadway—they’re half-tourists.”

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Sneak Peek at 42nd Street’s Gay Urban Resort

Next year, there will be more gay men in one place than at Bed Bath & Beyond on Super Bowl Sunday.

As Republicans in disguise no doubt skulk around the halls trying to recruit them, gays from all over the place will converge on a Travelodge-turned-Red-Cross-homeless-shelter on 42nd Street, which managing partner Ian Reisner and company are turning into “a gay urban resort” with the word “out” spelled by its windows.

You heard me! The façade of the building will have window configurations that say “OUT” with even more clarity than a male cheerleader on energy drinks. This is getting gayer than a Kylie Minogue concert in Fort Lauderdale on the first night of the U.S. Open.

The Out NYC complex—scheduled for next fall—will include the Axel Hotel (part of a world chain), stores, a café, a restaurant, a shiny new club called the xl Dance Bar, and everything else but a bookstore. The creators want to pack gays upon gays together for eating, drinking, shopping, and sleeping (together, if possible), but the place is also admittedly “hetero-friendly,” and that’s a good thing; otherwise, it might be totally illegal.

During a walking tour of the space, architect Paul Dominguez told me, “It’s not just ‘out,’ as in being out. It’s in hanging out, going out, and zoning out at the spa.” Oh, yeah, there’s a spa, too! And a glass-covered pool area with cabanas and another covered courtyard for meetings, receptions, and gay weddings. (The owners are willing to wait for New York to approve gay marriage. And in the meantime, there are all sorts of civil-union soirees and birthday bashes to be thrown. No one needs much of an excuse to party nowadays.)

“It’s an urban resort,” Dominguez drove home. “A place to meet up, to bring the whole community together. If you live in the tri-state area, you used to have to come to Manhattan to go out, but now gay is everywhere. This resort gives people a reason to come back into Manhattan and meet up. Remember the Chelsea hangout Big Cup? This is Big Cup on steroids!”

And the mix will include both high-toned elements and purely hedonistic ones, too. There’ll be minimalist sculptor Richard Serra‘s work in the lobby, plus a huge nude photo that you’ll see more of as the elevator ascends, which means everyone’s going to want to stay at about the crotch level. Transsexual icon Amanda Lepore is in talks to get a free permanent hotel room there, and by the way, the creators swear that none of the 127 rooms will vibrate from the dance club on the ground floor, thanks to the wonders of modern soundproofing.

And it’s all thanks to the recession! Dominguez told me this place wouldn’t have happened if prices hadn’t dropped so low in ’09 that it became feasible (“Today, it would have cost too much”).

Amazingly, they proceeded to nab all the required licenses, despite initial neighborhood opposition. John Blair—the long-running club entrepreneur who’s the managing partner of the dance bar—says it helped that he has inside experience. “I was on community boards for seven years,” he explained, “so I know what the objections usually are: noise, security, and crowd control. We built the answers to all that into the design.”

The club will fit 1,200 people, and though Blair and longtime partner Beto Sutter are in charge, it’s not trying to be the late, gigantic Roxy or the long-running, two-floor Splash. It’s going to be sleek and silvery and aims to reflect what’s needed by today’s gays who may have never even heard of past glories—or maybe did, but weren’t listening.

Hot promoters Tony Fornabaio and Brandon Voss are also aboard, and Fornabaio told me they’ll move one of their two existing parties (Rockit or Club 57) to xl Dance Bar, the other one, I guess, providing friendly competition. Most intriguingly of all, there will be Roxy-like elevated railings so you can stand around and look down on the dance floor—an activity I’ve always taken imperious pleasure in.

“Large clubs will never come back to New York,” said Blair. “There are no spaces, and the quality-of-life issues impact the neighborhoods.” In the meantime, this “urban resort” is hoping to bring some bigness back to gay-ming. As gays earn more and more acceptance, launching an all-purpose enclave for the homosex seems extremely weird to me—but I happen to love weird things, especially when there are cabanas attached.

Bedlam Bath & Beyond

While we’re twiddling our lacquered thumbnails and waiting: Bedlam Bar & Lounge is a new space based on a Victorian mental ward/gentlemen’s club, located on totally cuckoo Avenue C. At a preview of the natty place—which is Bates Motel on steroids—co-owner Ben Maisani deadpanned to me, “Nothing gives character like a dead animal on the wall,” as the gigantic moose head he got on eBay eyed us from its pervy perch. I expected the owls of Ga’hoole to suddenly fly in and peck our eyes out.

Will it be a gay urban resort? “No, a mixed crowd,” said Maisani (who also co-owns Eastern Bloc). “Given the location and the size, it would be hard to make it a gay bar. But I’m sure the gays will come.” Sure enough, his boyfriend, Anderson Cooper, showed up for the official opening the very next night.

The only dead animals at the East 58th Street hot spot Lavo the other night were on my plate, thankfully enough. Once I made them disappear, I checked out the downstairs level, a snazzy club where you can look down at the dance floor or, better yet, hide in a private corner area with a fancy curtain. “When all the lights are on,” informed my tour guide, “there’s so much gold it’s like Donna Summer‘s dressing room.” I was starting to understand why Prince Poppycock wanted to duet with her so badly.

All shades of circusy outrage and fashionable excess filled the debut of Bloody Mary, a monthly party at the cavernous Good Units courtesy of Susanne Bartsch and Desi Monster. Onstage, Narcissister‘s act involved a guillotine, two plastic doll heads, and a fake penis, while Rose Wood ran through the crowd emitting her famous golden-shower act that had half the room running away and the other half running toward. Calvin Klein and I were the only ones who stood defiantly in place.

The golden-locked duo the Blonds started their fashion show with four fan dancers doing a vividly choreographed routine to “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” after which sparkly, chiffony ensembles were trotted out on Rita Hayworth–like (but taller) models. Three of them sported timely and succinct headbands that said “OMG,” LOL,” and “WTF.” I was ROTFL!

As for the attendees, Snooki was denied a seat—the Blonds like her, but they’re trying to go more serious—whereas Kristin Cavallari, formerly of The Hills, was placed front-row. I guess she’s pretty scandal-free, unless you count her designing a line for ShoeDazzle.com.

Movie showings have been attracting some gusty patrons, too. After a screening of Buried, with Ryan Reynolds in a coffin for 94 minutes, the audience fled to fresh-air freedom as one person muttered, “That was entertainment?” Still, it’s been digging up raves.

So is Carlos, the 319-minute movie about the revolutionary terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal. “It was riveting,” gushed a friend who saw it at the New York Film Festival press screening. “I could have watched five more hours!” Why so, pray tell? “The star has a great body and an amazing penis,” he explained. I need to get out of my gay enclave.

 

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Roxy Music

Not many clubs last longer than a few years in New York City, but roller-disco-turned-nightspot the Roxy had stayed afloat since 1979—until last weekend, when John Blair, promoter of the long-running Saturday night gay dance party there, held his last such event with resident DJ
Peter Rauhofer. Bought by the owners of the Frank Gehry–designed condos down the block, the Roxy’s building at 515 West 18th Street is slated to be razed in the next few months. While it may open for one-offs and roller-skating parties until then, this is essentially the Roxy’s last hurrah.

When it opened, it was the roller-skating rink for the famous and fabulous, says current owner Gene DiNino. “It was the Studio 54 of roller-skating. You had to look a certain way, be a celebrity to get in.” After disco and skating became passé, DiNino, who’d been running clubs in Syracuse since 1970, bought the club in 1985. “I begged, borrowed, stole” to get it open, he says. Renamed 10.18 at first, the club specialized in Latin hip-hop, better known as freestyle. Now-legendary DJs Little Louie Vega and David Morales spun there, and groups like Sweet Sensation, Trilogy, and the Latin Rascals performed.

After experiencing problems with the crowds, DiNino regrouped in 1990 and changed the name back to the Roxy. The initial shock of the AIDS era having faded, the gay community was coming out to party again. “The ’80s was a decade of everyone staying low,” Blair says. “The Roxy was the second club that opened up that people finally started going to. [He cites Splash as the first.] Having lived through this, everyone went inside themselves. By the early ’90s, people had a grip on AIDS, and didn’t think we had a deathbed. We opened up and that was that. It was a revitalization of gay nightlife at the time.”

Since then, the Roxy’s been steady overall, but Blair’s Saturday night residency has absolutely boomed, attracting 1,800 to 2,200 people a week, a very neat trick in today’s fickle nightlife environment. Blair’s secret, he says, was going after only those on his mailing list who’d signed up in the last eight months, and constantly searching for new faces—people who’d just moved to the city, or tourists—to keep the crowd fresh. “The faces have changed; the situation has not,” says Blair, who is moving his night to Avalon (better known as the former Limelight on West 20th Street) at the end of the month. (The real estate deal that had threatened to turn Avalon into a mall fell through because of the building’s landmarked status.)

Blair’s approach worked. The Roxy has been the site of many memorable performances; when DiNino first revitalized it in the ’90s, Susanne Bartsch was at the height of her reign and Larry Tee was king of the world. (Some would say he still is.) Blair’s roster of DJs since has included Tee, Victor Calderone, James Anderson, Manny Lehman, and
Offer Nissim. He opened Saturday night with none other than Frankie Knuckles—talk about an auspicious start.

When politicians complain about how awful nightlife is and how it’s done nothing for society, they forget that clubs are often the breeding ground for new trends, where you can watch pop culture unfold right before your eyes. Disco gave way to early hip-hop; DiNino says he first saw breakdancing in Manhattan on the Roxy’s perfectly waxed floors. The influential movie Beat Street, a 1984 document of hip-hop’s beginnings, was filmed at the Roxy. Trends come and go, and sometimes they come back again—DiNino says roller-skating is now seeing a resurgence.

As one of the most famous and long-lasting clubs in the city (and maybe even the country), the Roxy has seen its share of star power. DiNino’s encountered everyone from Muhammad Ali to Michael Jackson to Mick Jagger; David Bowie, Sylvester Stallone, Liza Minnelli, and David Lee Roth have also either performed there or simply hung out. “I’ve met them all,” DiNino says.

Of course, Blair’s Saturday night has long been a draw for divas and the men who love them, inspiring performances by Bette Midler, Beyoncé, Cher, and Madonna
(twice). Madge came first on Valentine’s Day 1998 to promote Ray of Light, and again in November 2005 to launch Confessions on a Dance Floor, boosting her career and bonding with her boys in one fell swoop.

Madonna might have been the Roxy’s most famous visitor. But Peter Rauhofer, who has DJ’d Saturday night’s event since 1999, most fondly remembers Yoko Ono‘s appearance December 8, 2002—the 22nd anniversary of John Lennon‘s death. “She came to the DJ booth and wanted to do some moaning to my music,” he says, laughing. “To say, ‘I’m going to go to a gay club at four in the morning and do some moaning’—she got so into it, we were really all cracking up. This is one of the most legendary moments, and that happened out of nowhere. She is a 70-year-old woman, you know?”

“I know everyone says Madonna,” Blair says. “But for me, I would say my favorite memory when I look back is watching people grow up. There were two dancers here who were working their way through med school, and now they are doctors. People who are 21 years old, I see them over the course of 10 years. I can see how their lives have changed. They grow up and they go away. In 16 years, you see a lot of that. I know you wanna hear about Madonna, and it was fun to have those kinds of people, but I come from a more sentimental place.”

All good things must come to an end, but for the people involved, it seems almost like a dream. “I’m surprised that it’s lasted this long,” says Rauhofer. “It’s sad to see another club go—this club with such a history. You know how it is in New York. Things come and go. Roxy, for what it was, lasted way longer than any other place. Once it’s gone, people are going to value it way more.”

“I’ve survived,” says DiNino. “Most of the people I started with are in jail, deported, or out of business. I don’t want to name names. I’m very sad. A club like the Roxy, it’s so well-known, so legendary, it becomes a part of you. It’s part of who you are. It’s a sense of loss, a loss of self. It’s almost like a death you grieve.”

flylife@villagevoice.com

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Boo!

During Halloween week clubgoers got three really nasty tricks, with nary a treat in sight. On Halloween night, Avalon was abruptly shut down around 1 a.m. due to one of the spookiest laws in the city: The club’s cabaret license, which allows you to allow dancing, had lapsed. The nightlife nightmare was only beginning: The next day, celebrated nightspot the Roxy was seized by the state due to nonpayment of taxes. And just when you thought it was over, Happy Valley’s smile turned upside down when the East 27th Street spot was shuttered as part of a court battle with its landlord.

The latest misfortune to hit Avalon, forever known to clubbers of a certain age as the Limelight, adds to a long line of setbacks for the beleaguered institution—which rose to fame in the ’80s and ’90s, when Peter Gatien ruled clubland with an iron fist. Cabaret licenses citywide expired at the end of September, but the club’s mid-September temporary closure for nonpayment of taxes prevented director of operations Ricky Mercado and other club employees from getting inside the venue to obtain the documents needed to apply for the cabaret-license renewal. “There was no way to renew, because we couldn’t get the original forms out of the book until ten days after they shut us down,” he says. “It’s a long process.” After he could access his books again, Mercado spent the rest of September updating other paperwork before submitting for a cabaret renewal, which was finally received by the Department of Consumer Affairs on Thursday, two days after the shutdown. (It will take up 30 days to be approved.)

Mercado, a longtime nightclub operator who used to own Speeed and Opaline, took over Avalon’s operations four months ago. He says the paperwork snafu was made more complicated because the club technically has two addresses: 47 West 20th Street and 660 Sixth Avenue, both ofwhich appear on different licenses and permits. But even though the club had no cabaret license, says lawyer Robert Bookman—who represents both Avalon and the New York Nightlife Association—the police didn’t legally have the right to close the club that night. The proper procedure, he says, would have been to issue a summons and hold a hearing to determine whether or not the club was in violation: “It’s called due process.” NYPD assistant chief and spokesman Michael Collins says that police were within rights to shut Avalon down because the club was “dangerously overcrowded.” But Susanne Bartsch, who was cohosting the Halloween party with Kenny Kenny, says they had not yet clicked over 1,200 entrees—well under the club’s 1,557 capacity.

Outside Avalon that night, a line of police officers stood at the front doors while dejected revelers poured out of the venue, frantically dialing friends on cell phones to find their next destination. They may have eventually gone to Motherfucker’s Halloween party at the Roxy, which the next day suffered the fate Avalon did in September—a shutdown triggered by nonpayment of taxes.

David Casey, director of the upcoming movie about Motherfucker, learned of the closure when he went to retrieve some film equipment Thursday and found the place plastered with “seized” signs. The Roxy has been fighting financial problems for the past year—filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 2005 and arranging payment plans to dig out of the hole but, according to a club insider, soon falling behind again. Numerous sources say the club has to cough up $300,000 to the state before reopening. (Owner Gene Denino and manager Jason McCarthy did not return repeated calls for comment.) Meanwhile, former employee Scott Aguiar, who’d promoted a Friday night party at the Roxy, says he and his team were “forced to move” to Webster Hall in the meantime, though he says Denino hopes to reopen by this Friday.

Though Avalon has since reopened, the Halloween incident calls into question the new partnership between city officials and clubs touted at September’s nightlife summit, which had evidently succeeded particularly in opening new lines of communication between club owners and police. As Bookman pointed out, the paperwork for Avalon was as incomplete at 2 in the afternoon as it was at 2 a.m. Why arrive to settle the dispute at the height of the club’s Halloween party? It’s just the kind of action that club owners have continually complained about.

Bartsch was distressed about the treatment she personally endured. When she went outside to meet her husband, David Barton, who arrived to help her close out the night, the police would not let her back in. Despite her repeated attempts to explain that she was a promoter and that her personal belongings were locked inside, they refused to allow her reentry. (She eventually snuck back in a half-hour later). “He was so disgusting,” says a despondent Bartsch of the officer who denied her entry. “The policeman was willing to send me into the night without a handbag, without money, without keys.” She pointed out the hypocrisy of these actions, considering that the city has been in such an uproar over women wandering the streets alone in the aftermath of Jennifer Moore‘s murder this summer, which took place after Moore was clubbing on West 27th Street. “They say they are trying to protect people, but it symbolizes how unreasonable they are,” she says. “They are just out to get the clubs.”

Mercado agrees: “It’s just like they are saying, ‘Nightclubs—get the fuck out of New York City.'”

Bartsch—like another promoter, John Blair—got hit with a double whammy: Her party at Happy Valley is over now too. Blair, in the oddest and cruelest sequence of events, recently moved his Sunday-night gay bash from Spirit (closed under the Nuisance Abatement law) to Avalon (temporarily shuttered over a cabaret license) to Happy Valley (closed in a landlord dispute). So he now finds himself without a home. Again. In this game of musical chairs, the chairs are disappearing fast.

Happy Valley is the latest to lose the struggle between real estate interests and clubgoing interests. According to a source, the East 27th Street landlord is selling condos in the building but is having a hard time moving units because prospective buyers saw that their future lobby is currently a club. Bartsch released an e-mail statement over the weekend announcing the demise of both her party and the club itself: “The owners of the club lost the lease in a court battle with the landlord.”

However, when reached by the Voice, co-owner Joe Vicari says, “We cannot comment on, confirm, or deny any of this at this time.”

The Roxy, which has been around for more than 20 years, also sits on land that’s increasing in real estate value by the day. It’s perfectly perched in the up-and-coming West Chelsea area, where developers are aching to put in condos and high-rises. “The community doesn’t want it anymore,” Aguiar says of the Roxy. “Nobody wants an eyesore of a nightclub there.”

Avalon has it still tougher. As a landmarked space, it is nearly impossible to modify— while the interior can be altered, the outside of the building has to be preserved. And even then, prospective buyers are hesitant to deal with the legalities of such a landmarked space. “The place will either be abandoned and deteriorate, or it’ll be a nightclub,” Blair says. “That’s the truth of the matter.”


flylife@villagevoice.com

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Chelsea Mourning

Last week was not New York nightlife’s finest moment, when New York’s finest shut down five clubs, and the dreaded cabaret law survived a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.

On March 29, when the police raided Avalon—formerly known as the Limelight—they were probably anticipating a scene from the height of MICHAEL ALIG‘s heyday: club kids staggering around on platforms, wasted on drug cocktails.

Instead, the dozens of cops found a bunch of regular guys in their thirties and forties, behaving anything but badly. GARRETT SHELTON, the director of marketing and a&r for the independent jazz label Sunnyside Records was at the club for an early evening concert featuring WILCO drummer GLENN KOTCHE and TEDDY THOMPSON performing for “subdued Wilco fans,” when “40 cops appeared out of nowhere.” Everyone seemed confused: “A couple of cops looked completely flummoxed,” says Shelton. “They said it was a citywide narcotics crackdown, but they got the wrong crowd!” He added, “The head of the operation was glaring at the crowd from the stage while smoking a cigar.”

As Avalon was getting shut down for drug sales under the city’s Nuisance Abatement Law, according to police, so were Splash, Spirit, Deep, and View—while Speed (a/k/a Shelter) and Steel Gym were issued restraining orders.

At press time, the Voice learned that the clubs will reopen by April 13, police say, except for Shelter, which will be closed April 17 through 24. The clubs must pay fines between $5,000 and $15,000, and in most cases hire independent “security monitors” to police illegal activity, which Sprit already does. Splash owner BRIAN LANDECHE says the monitoring service will cost an extra $3,000 a day. “What they are asking for effectively drives most nightclubs out of business,” he says. “It seems to be what they want to do.”

Sprit’s executive director, JOHN BLAIR, says he agreed to close the doors at 3 a.m. and shut down by 6 a.m. “I agree with the police on that one,” he says. “After-hours are just about drugs.”

Nightlife—particularly in Chelsea, where many of the shuttered clubs are located—is under fire by residents who think more clubs mean more noise, litter, and crime. But many in the industry say they are held to unrealistically high standards compared to other businesses: “If you did a six-to-nine-month investigation on NYU or Columbia dorms,” posits New York Nightlife Association lawyer ROBERT BOOKMAN, “my guess is you will find drug use in those dorms.” Are we going to arrest the presidents of NYU or Columbia because they are ‘turning a blind eye’?”

The raids also led to some speculation that both gay clubs and hip-hop nights were being singled out. “While the mayor is thrilled about major hip-hop events coming to New York, his captains and his sergeants are telling club owners, ‘off the record,’ if they don’t stop nightly hip-hop parties, they’ll get summonses until they go out of business,” says Bookman.

Indeed, Garrett Shelton said, “one of the cops made a funny comment: If it’d been a hip-hop show, he said, they would have searched people on the way out.”

NYPD deputy commissioner of public information PAUL BROWNE shot down the accusations, saying, “It’s untrue.”

At an April 4 meeting at the Roxy organized by SCOTT AGUIAR, the Roxy’s ROSALIE SCHUPP joined more than 20 industry people, most of them gay nightclub employees—including Blair, Landeche, XL’s MORGAN MCLEAN, promoters MARK NELSONand CYNTHIA RUSSO (of Krash), and DJs RANDY BETTIS and DREW G. Most were skeptical that the raids targeted gay clubs, but were concerned for their livelihoods. One man, MITCH AMTRAK, said before the meeting: “I’m just a lighting designer. But I just feel badly for those who lose work when clubs are shut down.”

The Nuisance Abatement Law was passed in the late ’70s to close down massage parlors. It’s been used on clubs—and was especially handy during the PETER GATIEN era, in closing down the Tunnel, for instance. “It’s a good law when it’s used right,” said Blair.

Many of the promoters and operators agreed that the anonymous 311 complaints and the CompStat crime-tracking system had contributed to the woes of nightclubs.

The operators maintain that they’ve added so many layers of security that by the time a patron finally gets into a club, as one person at the Roxy meeting put it, “you’re exhausted.” Krash promoter Russo says, “We search for weapons, drugs, we search in their pockets. If they have cigarette packs, their cigarette packs are opened. We have a wand. They go through a metal detector. We can’t look in your socks.”

Blair added that he already spends $2,000 a week for security monitors and hires a firm to conduct undercover surveillance on their employees to suss out those who might be selling drugs or taking bribes. Indeed, the operators were most upset by the allegation that a bartender at Avalon had been arrested for selling Ecstasy.

According to spokesperson MAGGIE GANDASEQUI of the special narcotics prosecutors’ office, seven people were arrested and indicted stemming from the club busts. Browne says the city spent $34,465 purchasing 528 grams of meth and 258 Ecstasy pills inside locations. (It was not clear if this included the total of 1,006 locations in the city that have been closed or received restraining orders since January 2005).

Yet the drug buys at the seven clubs, as detailed in court documents, are not as impressive: 16 Ecstasy pills at Avalon, three bags of coke and six hits of E at the View (allegedly from the same dealer busted at Splash), $120 worth of coke and five hits of E at Deep. At Spirit, police say, undercovers bought seven bags of heroin and one bag of marijuana, but no one has been charged yet by the special narcotics prosecutors’ office.

Club owners might have the strongest argument that they are held to a higher standard than other industries when one considers the Steel Gym case. The next biggest drug purchase—$2,700 at Splash for five eight-balls and 30 pills—was less than half than what police bought at Steel Gym, which was the only non-nightclub included in the raid. Officers purchased 264 bags of crystal meth totaling $9,920 from the same person, who was not among those on the special narcotics prosecutor’s list. Yet Steel Gym was not shut down. Its fine: $1,000.

“Different judges make different determinations,” explained Browne. “Some will authorize a closing while others will issue a restraining order, directing the operations to end the illegal activity but allowing the establishment to remain open.”

Still, it’s hard to fight the image of clubs as drug funhouses. “We need to show we are not a mess,” said Landeche. “We have to turn around the notion that nightlife equals bad life. Nightlife is where you network with friends after work, where you meet the love of your life, where you celebrate your birthday. It’s a great part of life.”

Ironically, just a few days after the busts and the dismissal of the suit challenging the cabaret law, MAYOR BLOOMBERG announced that he wanted to create an arts and culture office to ensure the city’s place as one of the world’s foremost cultural centers. Bookman, for one, doesn’t think the anti-nightlife sentiment is due to an anti-nightlife mayor. “He’s not GIULIANI. Giuliani made the streets safe at night but didn’t believe anyone should be out on them.”

Halcyon owner SHAWN SCHWARTZ is not so sure it matters if Bloomberg’s pro- or anti-club. The effect is still the same. “How is New York City supposed to retain its title as the City That Never Sleeps, when no right-minded investor would chance opening a new venue in this hostile environment? When no talent or promoter can be certain that their event will have a venue safe from closure—or that indeed they will be safe from prosecution for some patron’s minor drug offense? How can the city, from one side of its mouth, proudly tout its vibrant nightlife in ads aimed at attracting the Olympics, or expanding the Javits Center, while the other side gleefully vilifies clubland with total disregard for the repercussions?”

The mixed messages only got worse when JUDGE MICHAEL STALLMAN dismissed the complaint in the case of JOHN FESTA et al. v. New York City, brought by NORMAN SIEGEL and PAUL CHEVIGNY, shooting down the argument that the cabaret law is unconstitutional.

In his decision, Stallman addressed the notion that dance clubs create more chaos in the surrounding neighborhood: “If these establishments draw more people because they offer dancing, then there is a greater likelihood of pedestrian traffic.” But Stallman added, “The 80-year-old Prohibition-era cabaret law and its interface with zoning laws might well be re-examined in light of current social norms and neighborhood conditions. . . . Surely, the Big Apple is big enough to find a way to let people dance.”

Siegel said that New Yorkers shouldn’t pack up and move to Berlin just yet. “Unfortunately, the Big Apple under Giuliani and Bloomberg has not found a way to let people dance, which is one of the reasons for the lawsuit,” he says. “I continue to believe social dancing is an expressive activity and should have New York State constitutional protection. I believe the cabaret law is unconstitutional. We’re considering an appeal and hopefully find a way to let New Yorkers dance.”

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La Dolce Musto

May 11, 1999

The upcoming Belgian movie The Red Dwarf—in which a height-challenged divorce-law worker (Jean-Yves Thual) has a hot fling with a craggy countess (legendary beauty Anita Ekberg), only to dress up in drag as her and go psycho— is not at all surreal. Not compared to the evening I just had with Ekberg and Thual, which was like something out of Fellini’s Intervista via Sunset Boulevard, with huge doses of glamour, insecurity, and barbarism thrown into the poisonous popcorn.

The mood was set when the film’s wry writer-director Yvan Le Moine told the premiere crowd, “I hope the person sitting next to you smells OK. Very often films are a punishment, but this one promises to be a torture.” People tittered nervously, then a Christian Science Monitor critic was bizarrely brought out to introduce the two stars— Thual and Arno Chevrier— and also “Anita Ekberg, who needs no introduction.” Wrong! The film goddess looked fit to eat a dwarf. “First of all, where the hell is the light?” she bellowed in the semidarkness. “Maybe we look better this way! And ‘the two stars’— he left me out! Then he says, ‘She doesn’t need an introduction,’ so I’ll introduce myself. I am Anita Ekberg!” She took in the applause like a giant Swedish sponge. And then, after wildly overpraising her costars, Ekberg returned to barking, “Where is the light? Before we go away, you can at least see what we look like!” They finally flashed the spot on her and, in a sublimely Kenneth Anger ­ready moment, you could see that she’s a somewhat blowsier version of her former self, but still gorgeously magnetic, with a catlike blond mane, emphatic makeup, and an all-forgiving black shroud. The girl’s still standing— and still stellar.

And still a nightmare. Ekberg started to leave, signing autographs and saying, “Quickly, quickly, and then we go where there’s air conditioning! It’s hot here!” They dragged her into a limo to go to a heat-
controlled restaurant a block away, and— though I begged to walk— I was whooshed into the car by a publicist who introduced me to Ekberg as a journalist and old friend. “I thought my work was over tonight!” Ekberg screeched. “And don’t say a journalist is a friend. They’re not to be trusted! Where’s my fan?” Don’t look at me, bitch. Arno Chevrier opened a whiskey bottle and Ekberg promptly snarled, “I hate whiskey!” As she made a face not usually seen in nature, I started to think of her as Anita Yecch-berg, but valiantly tried to understand the toll age has taken on her confidence, as well as the conflict she clearly faces between wanting to turn her back on the (decreasing) hoopla and yet desperately needing to be noticed. Besides, I hate whiskey too.

Alas, things got even more tense when we arrived at Primola. Miss Thing instantly announced, “I want to sit with my back to the wall. Who’ll take the coats? I want proper water, if nothing else!” Charmed, I’m sure. Ekberg smilingly turned to her director and said, “I hated you to begin with.” I asked the poor guy what he thinks of her, and he said, “She’s generous, with extremes— a real personality. I had to convince her to do the movie. She said, ‘The only thing is, no dwarf!’ I said, ‘But the name of the film is The Red Dwarf!’ You have to love her. She has balls.” “Yeah, three,” I said, but actually, make that four; she was now roaring to the dwarf, “Why didn’t they put the spotlight on us? It’s crazy!”

I brilliantly noticed that Ekberg lit up like Rome at night whenever people stroked her ego, so I thought I’d try that approach. I showed her a very flattering cartoon I’d brought of her jumping into the Trevi fountain in La Dolce Musto— I mean La Dolce Vita— and asked if she’d like to keep it. “No, I’d rather not,” she said, as if I’d offered her a dead rat on top of a Dunkin’ Donut. “Can I have a napkin?” she suddenly whimpered to a waiter. “Mine has fallen down three times. It’s cleaning the floor!”

Averting my eyes from this new play for attention, I realized how hot the dwarf was, especially after someone pointed out that he has big feet and a cute little ass. But now all I could hear was Ekberg yelling, “Why do they keep letting Sophia Loren into the country? She was in jail for a month for tax evasion!” Between courses, other arresting pronouncements came fast and furiously: “Frank Sinatra was not a good lover!”; “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s people chewing gum. It’s like cows out to pasture!”; and “Not being able to smoke in restaurants is against the Constitution!” I never got to argue any of these topics— or even get a word in— but I was certainly never bored.

As I finished up my intimidating- looking crustacean— the one on my plate— two more people joined the table and our diva threw her final fit. “I’m not making any more interviews!” Ekberg insisted. “I thought I saw cameras!” But there weren’t any for miles. Oh, well— ciao, bella. I’m now triple-locked in my home, gazing appreciatively at that cartoon of you looking so carefree and adorable. I’ll remember her, not la dolce Evita.

Other divas have been acting up in dangerous ways, too. My spies tell me that during an interview for Paper magazine, Kevin Spacey kept pointedly talking about the gorgeous girlfriend he was calling on his cell phone. So that’s what makes the Iceman cometh? Right?

Over at the Roxy, Sean P. Hayes, the funny (but not out) actor who plays the queeny one on Will & Grace, turned up with a female escort, no doubt to research the gay lifestyle. I bet he learned a thing or two.

But let’s step out of this musty, dank closet— it’s against the Constitution— and catch up with Roxy party promoter John Blair, who’s been branching out with more merch than Winnie the Pooh. Blair has a new CD of dance music (he doesn’t sing it, he presents it) and also a new Chelsea restaurant called JB, where you can stop on the way to getting a BJ. The night I dropped by, the decor, menu, and service were delightful— I got proper water and clean napkins— though the crowd was so uniformly muscley I was afraid there might be steroids in the food.

I should have taken some fortification before seeing The Lonesome West, which is pretty much the male version of the same author’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Both works have a pair of sadistic relations torturing each other, a crucial letter that’s read aloud before being destroyed, and items thrown into an oven, after which one of the sadistic relations— who turns out to be completely cuckoo— tries to kill the other. Before this bloke writes another one, throw me in the oven.

Off-Broadway, one of my more beloved playwrights, John Guare, has come up with Lake Hollywood, an ambitious but failed snoozathon that doesn’t have an oven (or a dwarf), but does feature a credenza, a carriage ride to a hospital, and a lake to oblivion. It doesn’t quite add up— and I didn’t quite stay up.

And I couldn’t quite get it up for It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues, a bare-bones revue with virtually no book, staging, or set. (It’s the fourth recent show I’ve seen that relies on slides, one of which announces “The Blues,” in case you forget where you are.) A lot of the singing sizzles, but the all-purpose feeling, instructional tone, and severe lack of movement make this one better suited to high school auditoriums than Broadway. I’d tell you more, but I thought my work was over tonight! I am Anita Ekberg!

Michael Musto can be e-mailed at musto@villagevoice.com.

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Music

Redesigned clubs are all the rage these days, with Plaid (formerly Spa), Arc (the defunct Vinyl), and Deep (see below), Limelight-Estate (now known as Avalon) can again be added to the list. The infamous locale has been gutted and renamed, and looks so whimsically glam that neither last year’s Estate drama nor Peter Gatien will ever cross your mind. In fact, the owners, John Blair, Steve Adelman, and John Lyons, have made the place look like a modern club utopia. For its grand opening they’re enlisting progressive and future-house DJs Seb Fontaine, dynamic duo Saeed & Palash, GBH‘s Carl Kennedy, and Avalon resident John Debo. Mama’s got some new duds for sure!

Saturday @ 10, Avalon, 662 Sixth Ave at 20th, 212.807.7780, nyavalon.com


BODY & SOUL‘s Danny Krivit has transported his 718 SESSIONS away from Brooklyn’s 66 Water bar (the place was getting too small for the increasing turnouts), and is throwing his now roving monthly one-off style. Re-creating the positive scene on a larger scale, Krivit is taking on the expanse of Chelsea’s newest reinvented club, Deep (which used to be Ohm and has been hosting more parties than a primary candidate). With D.K.’s signature mixes of quality house, non-danceaholics should plan on making space for hardcore shakers, ’cause they’ll be out in spades.

Sunday @ 6, Deep, 16 W 22nd, 917.941.7998


TRONIC TREATMENT just turned three! This week, they’re getting together Sonic Groove’s hard techno-rave pioneers Frankie Bones and Adam X to go head-to-head with the forceful d’n’b connoisseurs of Breakbeat Science (expats Dara and DB). Even though the party is more like a familial game of tug-of-war, they’ll be pulling out all the stops to show which genre is the hardest. Let the games begin!

Monday @ 10, 218 Sullivan, ronictreatment.com


kfranklin@villagevoice.com

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NY Mirror

I got a pierced earful over at Buckingham, the Thursday-night bash at Plaid, where co-promoter Kenny Kenny told me he was plowed by a hot stud in a playground in Cuba and the kids didn’t mind at all (nor did Kenny); Michael Cavadias (a/k/a Lily of the Valley) revealed that he had just auditioned for the drag role of Marilyn in the Boy George musical Taboo and came within “boo” of it; and another co-promoter, Erich Conrad, said he’d just been running around telling the powers that be to throw Bobby Trendy out, simply because he’s more annoying than dirt. He didn’t succeed, but ah, what sick, malicious fun it was trying!

The same night, scene diva Amanda Lepore was only throwing out hints that she has a new trannie trance single. She’s the featured artist on Gomi‘s “Deeper,” whispering over a dance beat, “Global warming really is disturbing/And I pray every single night for peace/But even though I find these things disturbing/Tonight what I really need is a piece of meat.” If that message isn’t fragrant enough for you, Amanda’s also coming out with two celebrity scents—Happy Hooker and LeMore. They’re for the everyday gal who just changed into something more comfortable—like a female body.

Even the toilet paper is scented over at Fez, where P.J. Mehaffey—the zany, gay one from The It Factor—stars as Teen Tawny in Wipe & Go!, a cabaret-style acting experiment in which he’s backed by one male dancer (“Blade”) and hanging rolls of paper towels. Tawny is a Southeastern regional pop star who plays county fairs, performing ’80s aberrations of pop like “Walking on Sunshine” with spins, kicks, and lots of “razz-matazz.” A glitzy, delusional gender blender, our little star makes it so big that success leads to a line of Tawny paper products, with sparkles woven into every fold. I can hear all those agents from The It Factor snarling, “Where do you expect to go with this, P.J.?” As Tawny would reply, “I want to be as young, useful, and full of sparkles as a roll of Tawny!”

By the way, at the show, producer Jordan Roth unspooled the fact that he and his mother, Daryl Roth, are backing a stage musical version of The Mambo Kings, “and if Antonio wants to do it, we’re here.” Honey, if Antonio wants to do it, I’m here.

But in the meantime, oh, where I’ve been! The HX Awards (presented by the gay-bar magazine) at SBNY gave us a long, Aqua Netted night honoring drag queens, DJs, promoters, and the bartenders who ritualistically ruin all their lives. Performer Jackie Hoffman, accepting an honor for Hairspray, begged the crowd to come see the show again. “It was so great when it was all you,” she moaned. “Now it’s Christian people with children, and it’s my worst fucking nightmare!” Other winners ranged from the deeply grateful (Jonny McGovern) to the extremely absent (Matt, the go-go boy from the Rambles) to the movie Chicago, which can now safely be called “an Oscar and HX winner.”

Afterward, John Blair, who copped a plaque for co-owning xl, told me he’ll reopen Limelight one mo’ time in September, and this time it’ll be called Avalon. Looks-wise, it’ll be all new—again—officially making it the Susan Lucci of nightclubs. The club’s last redesign is being updated because, as Blair’s partner Jay Janis told me, “Some things broke, fortunately not when people were there. Pipes froze! And we have to fix the look of the club for straights, who didn’t like it. Gay guys like to stand, but straights like little tables.” Well, I like to stand on little straights.

(Sidebar: If I can take this discussion back to Plaid, the couches in the main room are gorgeous, but a lot of people find the overabundance of them a little obstructive and the net effect like an airport waiting lounge. And yes, I do mostly mean gay people. The club’s live music and danceable rock/neo-punk, however, are admirably future-facing.)

While we were upright, I met Entertainment Weekly‘s “It Stand-Up,” Todd Barry, at the mag’s “It List” party at the Roxy, where tons of “shit list” had to wait on line for hours. Barry told me the honor is unbelievably exciting, “but a photographer just took my picture, then said, ‘What’s your name?’ ” I’m sure EW will rush to dub it the “It Humbling Experience.” But the puppet-wielding folks from the Avenue Q musical hadn’t felt any downside to having been named “It Inanimates.” (They must have beaten Jesse Helms.) “We had our first rehearsal today in the new theater,” co-star John Tartaglia said. “The show is 95 percent the same—there’ll just be some minor tweaks and the set will be a little more Broadway-fied.” They’ve probably added some little tables.

I stood and cheered when the Chelsea Art Museum (which only sounds like a contradiction) housed an event for Live Out Loud, which gives scholarships to queer kids who snap their way to triumph. One of the event’s performers, Lea DeLaria, told me about her repertoire, “I range from Broadway to alternative rock. Halfway through a song, you’ll go, ‘Oh my God, that’s Jane’s Addiction!’ ” (No I won’t; I never talk during concerts.) The other entertainer was angry Staceyann Chin from Def Poetry Jam, which just won a Tony (if not an HX). The award’s impact? “I suspect it’ll give me more chance to voice the things I’ve been saying and be an out person in a lot of straight faces,” she said with piercing eyes. In the meantime, does Chin—who waxes poetic about various exotic tastes—prefer the flavor of mango or lesbian? “It depends on the day you ask me that,” she said. “It depends on the mango. It depends on the lesbian. You don’t want me to run with that.” I did, actually, but by then she had run from it.

I tasted delicious trash at Star Gossip—the Thursday open-mic celebrity dish event thrown by Gregg Guinta, a/k/a Vinny Dazzle, at the dirt-friendly Remote lounge. “It’s a guido bar,” says Guinta, “but I can gay-ify it. I come from guido stock myself and gay-ified pretty well.” He’s been completely gossip-fied too. At the bash, Guinta showed a naked picture of a horse-hung reality host taken by a male prostie whom the star had dress in drag. (For some, this was a little too real.) Another gossip peddler told an interesting tale about Christina Aguilera‘s misguided attempt to seduce Enrique Iglesias, and Mike Albo chimed in to insist that Demi Moore hasn’t had any surgery: “The only youth injection she’s been getting is from her young boyfriend.”

In more serious outlets, what was the big Gay Pride topic this year? Bug chasing! (The alleged trend of nutty guys actively seeking “the gift” of AIDS.) Doesn’t that fill you with pride for both our community and the media? And can’t you just wait till next Puerto Rican Day, when I’m sure the main topic for discussion will be the wonders of wilding! (Update: The miraculously sensible Supreme Court decision about consensual gay sex just eclipsed all that. The Supes are getting so edgy, they’ll probably even approve bug chasing next time.)

But the most shocking revelation of the week was that Renée Zellweger‘s diet to gain weight for Bridget Jones 2 is the same one I use to lose weight. At least my apartment looks streamlined without all those little tables. Good tip, Bobby Trendy.


musto@villagevoice.com

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Magic Carpet Ride

It sounds like another one of those classic tales of clubland reinvention: A teenage Persian Jew escapes the Iran of the ayatollahs, comes to America unable to speak English, but nonetheless manages to make a small fortune peddling car stereos, roach clips, and feather earrings. Despite his newfound affluence, he gets turned away from every trendy disco he tries to enter on account of his garish attire. As revenge, he vows to create his own fashionable nightspot, and after a visit to the hair colorist and a trip to a Dolce & Gabbana sample sale, ends up as the power behind four of the biggest Manhattan nightclubs of the moment: Spa, Exit, Capitale, and Estate, as well as the restaurant Butter. David Marvisi may be the new king of New York nightlife, but that title may not mean as much anymore, given the sorry state of the post-Giuliani club scene.

The 41-year-old Marvisi (born Homayoun Marvizi) is the mysterious multimillionaire who built a nightlife empire while nobody was looking. While the rest of clubland was preoccupied with the travails of his archrival Peter Gatien, Marvisi quietly rose from the shadows, and all of a sudden he was the most powerful club operator in town, drawing thousands of people to his venues. With a flamboyant lifestyle that automatically attracts attention, Marvisi is famously cheap but also a spendthrift who shells out hundreds of thousands of dollars for big-name DJs like Junior Vasquez and Paul Oakenfold. He drives around in a custom-made orange Bentley, wearing matching orange shoes and shirt, a diamond-encrusted watch hanging from his wrist. The effect that he creates is more Vegas—like Siegfried without Roy—than downtown cool. “I’m the king of the world,” he likes to brag, and from the outside at least it might seem that way—a magic-carpet ride to the top and a tribute to the American free-enterprise system.

But behind the scenes, Marvisi’s fledgling empire is already teetering, beset by money woes caused by the disastrous recent launches of both Estate and Capitale, not to mention the NYPD closure of his most profitable venue, Exit, three weeks ago for drug sales. Add in a rumored FBI interest in his operation and the new Peter Gatien is starting to sound a lot like the old one. (While the bureau’s policy is not to comment officially on ongoing investigations, a paid government informant claimed to the Voice that the FBI is curious about Marvisi. In addition, a former top Marvisi employee also said he was recently questioned by a federal agent concerning allegations that the club owner was involved in laundering money. “I know for a fact that the FBI is looking into Marvisi,” he said. “They called me a couple of weeks ago.”)

After initially agreeing to be interviewed by the Voice, Marvisi failed to turn up for a dinner date at Tribeca Grill. He declined repeated requests to reschedule the appointment and didn’t respond to written questions. His publicist, Claire O’Connor, subsequently confirmed that her client is aware of stories that the feds are looking into him and added, “I think it’s a tragedy in the current climate in which we live that someone who has done so much for New York City both in terms of generating employment and providing entertainment is now being taken to task based on the sour grapes of a few disgruntled former employees.” (Of course, the mere existence of an investigation is no proof of any wrongdoing.) Further contributing to Marvisi’s woes, his business partners in the stillborn Estate—launched last November but already temporarily shuttered, except for the lucrative Sunday nights, because of a lack of customers the rest of the week—now want him ousted, fearing that a scandal will stain their reputations.

“Marvisi is out, that I can promise you,” said an important player in the current drama surrounding the old Limelight space. “As far as I’m concerned, Estate will not reopen unless Marvisi is gone. Going into business with David Marvisi was the biggest mistake of my life.”


Marvisi first sprang to public attention in the mid ’90s with Mirage, on West 56th Street. This cavernous disco was truly a twin vista of tackiness, featuring two vast floors of chrome and mirror, a Versace room, and a young Sean “Puffy” Combs as a main party promoter. It was here that disgraced club kid Michael Alig threw his last ever bash before going to jail for manslaughter. Mirage eventually developed into Carbon, a hip-hop spot, which in turn became the more fashionable Exit, which unexpectedly became a raging success. For a while, Marvisi was bringing in buckets full of cash, which was stored in three large walk-in safes in the upstairs offices.

In April 2001, news of Marvisi’s booming business reached the ears of a crew of Italian gangsters. “They approached him,” said the former top aide, “and told him, ‘We know you have a lot of problems at the club with drugs, and the police are always busting your balls. If you want the problem fixed, you have to pay us.’ There were four of them. One of them told me to get out of the car and showed me a pistol he had in the waistband of his trousers. He said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not going to hurt you. We just want to talk.’ Marvisi told them, ‘Fuck you. I’m not paying you anything. I’m going to call the FBI,’ and he did. The FBI agents interviewed me and David, but I don’t think they believed him because David always exaggerates.”

[

“There’s no question he has a big set of balls,” said another insider, Paul Drohan, the onetime manager of Mirage. “But that same set of balls are about to break him.”

In extensive interviews with nearly 30 employees, ex-employees, business associates, promoters, and others, conducted mainly on the condition of anonymity, a portrait emerges of Marvisi as a brash and egotistical operator whose pathway to success was paved with a myriad of schemes, big and small, some of them legal, some allegedly not. “He used to get old broken phones and repackage them and get homeless people to sell them on the street—that’s a fact,” said a longtime associate, who used to go on vacation with the Marvisi family.

Joe Pappa, another close aide who worked side by side with Marvisi for many years before being let go, recalled, “I saw him pick up a credit card that someone had dropped at Exit, go to the bar, swipe the card, take a bottle of Cristal, and then drop the card back onto the floor.”

However, a current employee, William Curran, banquet director for Exit and Spa, painted a different picture, saying, “David has a big heart. He donates his clubs, his time, and his money to raise funds for countless worthwhile causes. David is also very generous with his employees, but he expects them to produce. And if they don’t, they’re out of there.” (Three other employees whom the Voice talked with agreed with Curran’s comments.)

Marvisi’s preferred mode of business is cash. He pays for nearly everything that way—supposedly including his $500,000 orange Bentley, one of three he owns. Promoters are purportedly paid under the table. “I never paid taxes,” said one of Exit’s former top party planners, who was convicted of minor drug charges. “I was always paid in cash. And that was the case with every other promoter who worked for him. He was paying out $30,000 to $50,000 a week to promoters, and it was all off the books.”

Two former confidants told the Voice that they regularly accompanied Marvisi on gambling trips to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, where they suspected he was laundering hundreds of thousands of dollars. One said the scheme worked like this: “Say you start out with $300,000 in chips, and you play for a couple of hours, and say you break even. You can now cash out and get a check from the casino for $300,000 made out to you, and it’s perfectly legit. Marvisi always loved to get big checks from the casino.” (Countered Marvisi’s publicist, Claire O’Connor: “Not that I believe this is true, but why would someone take their own money which they earned legitimately, and exchange it for a check if they’re going to have to pay taxes on it either way. This makes no sense.”)

One of the confidants also claimed that he was regularly dispatched from Exit with bags full of cash—hundreds of thousands of dollars in all denominations—to a payroll company in Chelsea where he said he would receive in return checks made out to Marvisi’s personal bank account.

The same intimate acquaintances also said they believed that a blaze at Spa in early 2000 wasn’t accidental. Peridance, a dance studio above the cramped Union Square club, suffered a serious fire that began around four o’clock on a Sunday morning. “The landlord told us that Spa wanted our space,” said a Peridance director, who requested his name not be used. “The insurance company thought the fire was suspicious. But nobody could prove anything, so the cause was ruled ‘undetermined.’ ” (Victor Angelillo, at the time a director of the company that owns the building, said, “There was nothing suspicious about that fire. Everybody received their insurance checks. The insurance company would not have paid out if they thought anything criminal happened.”)


The burden of debuting two large-scale, multilevel nightclubs at the same time occupied David Marvisi for most of the latter half of 2002. Capitale, housed in the landmark Bowery Savings Bank, became the subject of controversy after Community Board 2 suspected that Marvisi was trying to dupe them by concocting the ruse of opening a restaurant/catering hall, when what he really planned to do was launch a rowdy disco in the historic space, using Spa’s general manager, Margaret “Peggy” Millard (ex-wife of Psychedelic Furs bass player Tim Butler) as a front to get the liquor license. Marvisi’s reputation among his Lower East Side neighbors wasn’t improved by an incident at Capitale in September when one worker pumped a bullet into the back of another because of an ongoing personal dispute. Following a barrage of complaints from local residents and three stop-work orders, the community board asked the State Liquor Authority to deny Capitale a liquor license. The SLA chose to ignore the board.

[

According to another source, who was until recently an important player in Marvisi’s organization, the club owner wasn’t worried about community opposition to Capitale because he boasted that he had an official from the mayor’s office in his pocket. “He made a statement in front of a group of employees at Capitale that he paid her off with an envelope containing $5000,” he said. “I was there when he said it. Who knows if it’s true? He bullshits a lot. He’s the kind of guy who makes up stories as he goes along.”

Over in Chelsea, the commotion surrounding the transformation of the Limelight into Estate, housed in another landmark building, was equally intense. Shouting matches between the main business partners—Marvisi, the widely liked John Blair, and 32-year-old real estate tycoon Ben Ashkenazi—were common during the reconstruction period. Initially, Marvisi wasn’t even supposed to be part of the deal. But he came on board after he offered the landlord Ashkenazi $400,000 to cover back property taxes owed by the previous owner, Peter Gatien.

When Blair, the city’s leading gay-party promoter, bought the Limelight (the business, not the building) for $1.1 million in bankruptcy court, he had no idea that Marvisi had cut a side deal with Blair’s partner in the Flatiron Group (which also included Ashkenazi’s wife, Deborah, Blair’s associate Jay Janos, and Russian builder Joseph Klaynberg). When he found out, Blair was furious. For years, Marvisi had tried to lure Blair to work at Exit, but he always refused because of Marvisi’s reputation. But Ben Ashkenazi, worried that Blair didn’t know how to throw straight parties, insisted that Marvisi remain a part of the project. Marvisi persuaded him that he could turn the club into a runaway hit by bringing in the biggest DJs in the world.

“He told Ben that he could remodel the space to become the most prestigious nightclub in New York City,” said an Estate insider. “It would become a bottle place, where high-class people would come in and spend $500 a pop on champagne. Ben believed Marvisi because he had two other successful clubs, Spa and Exit, and was about to open another one, Capitale.”

The cost was $4.5 million to refurbish the old Limelight space. (Ben Ashkenazi put in $3 million, while the rest of the Flatiron partners contributed $1.5 million.) Marvisi was placed in charge of the rebuilding after he underbid Klaynberg, who wanted to refurbish the spot with union construction workers and carpenters. Marvisi convinced Ashkenazi that he could complete the job for half the price. How he was able to do that would later become clear. “Employing Mexicans and paying them off the books wasn’t done with either the approval of John Blair or Ashkenazi,” said a spokesperson for one of the partners. “They gave the money to Marvisi to reconstruct the place and they had no idea he was hiring illegal immigrants.” During the renovation, the carpenters’ union put a big inflatable rat outside the club in protest.

But after Marvisi took Ashkenazi to the opening of Capitale, where famous fashion model Heidi Klum was throwing a star-studded bash last Halloween, the young developer was hooked. Impressed by the mannequins and celebrities he met there, Ashkenazi returned to the Limelight convinced that Marvisi could turn Estate into a major money-spinner. “Ben came back thinking that Marvisi could walk on water,” said the same Estate insider. “It was like he was infatuated with him. Basically Marvisi suckered him. Unlike Marvisi, Ben is not very streetwise. Before meeting Marvisi, he had no experience in the club world. But Ben only has himself to blame. He was warned about Marvisi in advance but he chose to ignore the advice.”

Serious problems with Marvisi’s personality began to emerge as early as Estate’s opening night in November, when he got into a heated argument at the front door with the 13th Precinct’s cabaret sergeant. The precinct commander had previously visited and said, “This place isn’t ready to open. It’s unsafe.” The sergeant turned up wanting to know how Estate could be open, given his boss’s safety concerns. Marvisi became angry because he thought the sergeant was busting his chops, and told him, “You can’t touch me because nobody knows who I really am.” Marvisi’s activities are tough to pin down, perhaps because variations of his name—David H. Marvisi, Homayoun D. Marvisi, Homayoun D. Marzivi —appear on his various driver’s licenses.

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“Marvisi has a big problem with authority,” said an eyewitness to the confrontation with the sergeant. “He doesn’t like being told what to do, and he doesn’t like cops.” Marvisi had been previously arrested in 2001 for trespassing in his own club, after Exit was temporarily shut down under the nuisance abatement law because of drug activity.

Further trouble ensued in December, when the vice squad paid an unexpected visit to Estate with a WABC camera crew in tow. Former Nassau County homicide detective John Dabrowski, hired by Blair to oversee anti-drug efforts at the disco, had allowed the crew to film the squad doing a walk-through, figuring it would be good publicity for the new venture, in addition to putting them in the good graces of the local cops. One of Marvisi’s managers saw them, came running over and said, “This is a David Marvisi club. No one films in here without his permission.” This was an unfortunate revelation, since at the time Marvisi’s involvement in the club was supposed to be a secret. Much to the embarrassment of the cops, the manager insisted that the news crew shut down their cameras and leave the place straightaway. John Blair was incensed that the cops had been needlessly antagonized. Given the scandal-scarred history of the space, Blair knew it was essential to maintain good relations with the local precinct if he was going to keep the liquor license he and Ashkenazi had spent $300,000 in legal fees getting transferred over from Gatien.


On Feb. 7, a Friday night, Exit was once again shut down under the nuisance abatement law because of what the police claimed was extensive drug activity. Undercover narcotics cops posing as clubgoers witnessed numerous illegal transactions and bought drugs there themselves. The police cited the club’s record of 170 drug arrests in a three-year period, and Commissioner Ray Kelly told the press, “We are sending a clear message to nightclub owners: If you allow illegal drugs to saturate your business and endanger your patrons, we’ll shut you down.” But even some of Marvisi’s harshest critics admit that he is vehemently anti-drug. “Exit has the tightest security of any disco in town,” said one. “He may be an asshole, but he takes every precaution to keep drugs out of Exit. Marvisi has fired top employees for even the inkling that they might be allowing drug dealers into his clubs.”

Nevertheless, a disco denizen who has worked with both Marvisi and the troubled clubland czar who preceded him, said Marvisi is “another Peter Gatien waiting to happen. Like Peter, he thinks he’s above the law. And that’s what will bring him down in the end.”



Frank Owen, a longtime contributor to the Village Voice, has a new book coming out in May 2003 entitled Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture (St. Martin’s Press)



Related Story:

Disco Inferno: New York Nightclubs Fend Off Conflagration” by Tricia Romano with Daniel King

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The first Sunday gay night at Estate a few weeks ago was a monster hit, the queens taking to the renovated space like rats to Ecstasy. Honey, if business keeps up like this, with coat check alone costing $3, the Estate owners are going to become serious estate owners. Looking down from one of the V.I.P. boxes at the sea of shirtless bodies (with my coat in my hand) was the night’s prime entertainment, especially since the circular grid of hydraulically rising and lowering lights twirled around like a gay Christmas tree. Sometimes the whole place looked strobed and dotted, other times a handful of lucky people were spotlighted and the rest of the room was sexily dark, all as Victor Calderone‘s trancey music pounded you into a trancey dancey. If it was all a little déjà vu, it wasn’t because of the old Limelight echoes, it was because the crowd had done the very same thing the night before at Roxy.

But here’s a saucy sidebar: As you know, insiders claim that Exit’s David Marvisi is the real Estate owner, not John Blair. Well, clarifying things, Blair just told HX magazine, “David Marvisi is our landlord, but he’s not a partner [of mine]. . . . I have full control.” But Marvisi’s the landlord!

Anyway—calm down—the older, sit-down bunch thrives on nostalgia that’s more than a day old, so upstairs at Supper Club they’ve created the King Kong Room, a more softly lit throwback to the ’30s era of simians and skyscrapers. But we went apeshit on opening night when blues singer Sandra Reeves-Phillips belted lyrics like “My King Kong rocks me with a steady roll” as cable host Barry Z asked a guy in a gorilla suit, “How big’s your banana?” Gigantic, it turned out, but still not quite big enough.

Primates and my mates filled the eighth anniversary bash for those legendary Wednesday “Pork” nights at the Lure, the event promising a “carnal carnival of sideshow sleaze” and a really big fruit bowl. The place revels in a wonderful sort of reverse body fascism whereby you’re apparently not welcome unless you’re really out of shape. Paunchy posers in harnesses abound, along with every other type of human form (including some real cuties), the result being refreshingly un-ageist and diverse, though even the trolls stare you down defiantly as if to say, “Lick my shoes or get out!” A living testament to the other white meat, Pork provides a wonderland of one-stop slopping. Dragging my saggy ass around the place, I passed the penis-art-studded “Freak Alley,” the in-house s&m boutique, which sells stocking stuffers like anal douches and ben-wa balls, and the tarot card reader in the corner, who’ll tell you whether you deserve a hand—up your ass. No, spank you!

But back to swanking, nostalgia’s hit the live stages too, as a punishment to anyone looking for new material. Our Town is a mixed-bag production of that misty-eyed old slice of American pie, and Paul Newman‘s wonderful presence in it reminds us that in 40 years, Ryan Phillippe, Brad Pitt, and Vin Diesel will all be doing productions of Our Town.

Another weepy warhorse, Man of La Mancha, is back—again—and it’s not as painful as I’d remembered, the 17 times they do “The Impossible Dream” surprisingly effective (though I still pictured the tune being picked up for a toothpaste commercial—”This is my Crest . . . “). The plot has Cervantes pretending to be an old coot who pretends to be Don Quixote, who’s in love with a whore, played by a fellow prison inmate, who he thinks is a lady, and who says stuff like “The world is a dung heap and we are the maggots that crawl on it.” Got it? It’s a regular soap opera, which makes sense because, in the audience, Sylvia Miles and Ilene Kristen told me they’re playing mother and daughter on One Life to Live. “And I walk to work!” Sylvia added.

And now, we interrupt this column for a random harvest of giddy gossip news, and if you don’t listen, I’ll throw ketchup on your harness. Noted portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders—who shot Monica Lewinsky‘s memoir cover—is working on Porn Stars, a book featuring 50 top adult entertainers, spanning male and female, straight and gay, clothed and nude. It’ll look great on my coffee table, in lieu of an actual porn star . . . Fashionista Lauren Ezersky‘s heading to the altar, in a fabulous gown . . . Another connubial broad, J.Lo, is really moving things forward by playing a Hispanic maid. Gee, come see my next movie, Florist in Manhattan . . . An editor in Manhattan—ex-New York and Talk whiz Maer Roshan—just gave me an idea of what his eagerly awaited magazine, Radar, will be like. Said Roshan, “It’ll be Spy meets Vanity Fair meets Harper’s—with a pinch of the Enquirer thrown in for good taste!”

My own radar noted that the same New York Observer issue that pointed out a gaffe in the cover logo of The New Yorker (they left out the “The” in some of the print run) had a two-weeks-old pull quote from producer Christine Vachon in the middle of a story about Al Gore. I lerve it!

I also adored seeing Liza Minnelli and David Gest trying to rehabilitate their image, among other things, by serving food at the Rescue Mission, replete with a press advisory for camera crews. But I sort of wish their homeless victims had said, “We can feed ourselves, lady. Get your cynical ass out of here!” Then they could have said something to Liza!

A more fascinating genderpalooza is the one being forged by trannie-prostie-turned-acclaimed-writer J.T. Leroy. As Page Six reported, XXX co-star Asia Argento is preggers with Leroy’s baby, prompting me to ask the scribe how Speedy (Leroy’s girlfriend) and Astor (their mutual boyfriend) are taking this development. “They’re fine with the news,” Leroy said. “In fact, Speedy, Astor, and my son [Thor] are staying in Asia’s home in L.A. when they go check out Billy Corgan‘s new band, Zwan. Billy and Stephan Jenkins will be the baby’s godfathers and Tatum O’Neal will be the godmother on my side of the family.” And afterward they’ll all marry Lisa Marie Presley!

Alone and harnessed, I caught the Chicago screening last week—you’d have to be a maggot crawling on a dung heap not to love it—and afterward, Illeana Douglas told me Richard Gere should get the honorary Don Ameche “Did he do his own tap dancing?” Oscar. I hear he did, he did—and he should, he should!

I even went to the Lord of the Rings II premiere—it’s a hard Hobbit to break—and asked Sean Astin if his character’s as madly in love with Frodo (Elijah Wood) as he seems. “He is in love,” Sean said, “but it’s a love bond between two males without the injection of eros.” Sort of like me and my boyfriend, I suggested. “You have to get him drunker,” said Sean.

After cutely noting that he “gleaned that homosexuality and cinema interest you,” the actor introduced me to some guy who’d made a movie about a gay hustler. I craftily brushed him away and steered the talk back to Sean’s mom, Patty Duke, who’s going into Oklahoma!, making me desperate to tell her, “So you come crawling back to Broadway!” (a line from her camp classic Valley of the Dolls—the ultimate in gay cinema). “That would give her a laugh,” admitted Sean. And then I took off the harness and headed back to the highway. I can walk to work!



SPECIAL TO THE WEB: Spider-Man‘s Kirsten Dunst has attracted a whole new man into her wanton web—Jake Gyllenhaal. The two were seen making nice at Bubby’s the other night!


ONE MORE THING: Derek Jacobi has never publicly come out, but his fellow British thesp, Sir Ian McKellen, just took care of that. On Inside the Actors Studio, Sir Ian revealed that he once had a massive crush on Derek, who later told Ian he’d been hot for him too. They were certainly the right age for each other—young!


musto@villagevoice.com