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Wild in the Clubs: Sex Makes a Comeback

THREE YEARS AGO, the fabulous 5000 woke up to invites beckoning them to Palladium paja­ma parties (bring your own teddy bear), Area science fiction salutes, and Limelight “Down­town Divas” musical re­vues of cabaret singers and chanteuses singing songs like “Since I Fell for You” and “It’s Only Make Believe.” Today, they’re warmly in­vited to stripathons, fetish balls, “All-­Male Emporiums of Flesh and Fantasy” (with “realistic streetcorner action!”), and Lady Hennessy Brown squirting milk from her capacious ta-tas.

A slight change of mood? Tell me about it. Was it only two years ago that fools in little black dresses started lining up at Nell’s for the privilege of being snubbed by other fools in slightly more expensive little black dresses? Now the air is so charged with sexual shock that Karen Finley’s “Ooh, and I never touch her snatch ’cause she’s my granny”  — so em­barrassing to some in ’85 — is just a narra­tive slice-of-life, about as scandalous as a Shari Lewis and Lambchop routine.

All through the clubs, the air is tingling with a raunchiness that’s exciting as a subliminal force, but can turn creepy at the drop of a trou. The yearning masses who can’t have the sex they want because of AIDS come together at night and com­bust in a mood of horny suggestiveness, releasing all that frustrated energy in the ways that spring to mind through a vod­ka haze.

The club crowd — a young, creative mix of gays and straights with varying degrees of racial and cultural crossover — is start­ing to rebel against repression with little explosions of drunken, guilt-free pleasure. Compared to the wildness of past eras — ­like the revolutionary risk-taking of ’70s hedonism — the current stuff may seem tepid, since it’s usually trapped within late ’80s limitations of health and hygiene. But bubbling out from a funda­mentally traumatized club scene that as­sumed AIDS would end sex forever, it’s a rude reawakening.

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AIDS initially made all sex seem lethal, or at best joyless, and among many gays a kind of trench-warfare mentality set in­ — keep your head down till it’s over. Now that it’s been accepted that AIDS isn’t going to be over any time soon, some sort of sex is inevitably making a comeback. This comeback is fueled by the fact that a lot of straights are — not advisedly — convinced AIDS is staying within certain high-risk groups, so they can have any sex any way. With both safe and unsafe sex on the rise, ’89 promises to be the biggest year for libido in ages.

In this spirit, Rudolf’s new version of Danceteria, probably called Mars, opens this month to cater to unruly energy, and Frank Roccio’s Lift Up Your Skirt and Fly will soon surface as a nouveau plea­sure dome. “The AIDS epidemic really damaged people’s perception of not only sexuality, but sensuality,” Roccio, co­-owner of the World, told the Times re­cently, “and this will be a place where we can express that again, where you can come with your girlfriend or date or with whomever you feel safe.” The skirts are already lifted — it’s takeoff time.

Roccio talks as if AIDS were a thing of the past. But what he says reflects peo­ple’s sense — accurate or not — that the threat seems measurable now and not total. This point of view can be air-head­ed and grossly selfish (what, me worry?), but being “sex-positive” — pro-sex, as long as it’s safe — is something few AIDS activists would oppose (though they might argue with Roccio’s failure to put condom dispensers in the World’s bathrooms). As both straights and gays change their sexual attitudes, they’re fur­ther blurring the lines of gender and pref­erence: all kinds cheer for male and fe­male strippers with typical pansexuality. September’s ACT UP benefit at the World had porn star Robin Byrd present­ing semi-nudes of both sexes even though the audience was predominantly gay. Horniness is a great leveler.

It’s also a big draw. Susanne Bartsch’s Wednesday night club at Bentley’s is a tacky, ’70s disco version of a Berlin caba­ret, with acts like Lady Hennessy Brown; a troupe of obese sadomasochists; or Chi Chi, who blows smoke rings out of her vagina, titillating a crowd that’s always wearing either far too much or far too little. Larry Tee’s Celebrity Club, which took place every Wednesday at the Tun­nel and will probably resume at Mars, had a wet T-shirt contest that invariably resulted in some kind of lynch mob-style sexual assault, often provoked and en­joyed. Dean Johnson’s Rock’n’Roll Fag Bar at the World on Tuesdays not only has those BVD’d go-go boys strutting, posing, and playfully interacting onstage, there’s a new “Testosteroom” for J/O ac­tion if the boys get customers so hot and bothered they need a quick release.

Sometimes these scenes are hot and uninhibited and oh-so-playfully naïve. But there can be darker elements as well — undercurrents of rage and despair. And, whether charming or alarming, what we have here is inchoate rebellion. The return of wildness to the clubs is a reaction against repression.

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In America ’88, practically everyone to the left of Donald Trump feels a little helpless, with Bush’s election seeming to ratify the repression and malign neglect of the last eight years. Whether we drown in acid rain or shrivel under the newly cancerous rays shining through that gap­ing hole in the ozone layer, the boys at the top are too busy playing with $500 million fighter planes to pay much atten­tion to either problem. No one in charge is doing much about AIDS either, though a lot of homophobes are seizing on it as a chance to gay-bash. (Witness the rants of such disparate horse’s asses as radio “personality” Howard Stern, alleged po­litical columnist Patrick Buchanan, and supposed comedian Sam Kinison.)

Faced with the bleakness of the future, Americans seem willing to settle for tem­porary promises and inevitable long-­range dismay. Selling their tomorrows down the river translates into a subterra­nean anxiety that festers more and more scarily as each nightmare comes true. With everything going to hell, an “I’m gonna get mine while I can” mentality has come out in people — and the Repub­lican regime caters to this by promising to institutionalize selfishness, both do­mestically and internationally. In the process, they’ve institutionalized some­thing else — hypocrisy. We’ve had eight years of “Just say no” from people who don’t seem to have said no to anything in their lives (the possibility of putting Dan “Buy it for me, Daddy” Quayle in charge of the so-called war on drugs epitomized this).

It’s in the face of such hypocrisy that frustration has evolved into overt anger. A couple of enthusiastic partiers recently paid tribute to El Morocco — which is courting a younger crowd now, but is still a symbol of old society — by swinging from the chandelier and hurling a heavy, standing ashtray down the stairs. They were tossed out the door just as rudely as they’d flung the ashtray, but they’ll make it back — one of them had a burn-victim mask on and was unrecognizable. Of course, a mild trashing of El Morocco has its metaphorical possibilities — a gesture against elitism, a refusal to be wooed by tradition. But occasionally, things get a lot uglier. Unshaped by any coherent pur­pose (or, sometimes, even the most basic info), rebellion can turn into the thing it’s rebelling against.

THE SCENE NOW is one of club kids who don’t even have a “fuck the rules” men­tality — they don’t know any rules to fuck. Bursting with ignorant energy, willing to try anything in the name of a good time, they traipse around in their BVDs (the girls) or bras (the boys), squirting each other with Silly String, pathologically in search of fun. They manage to combine a youthful, energetic wholesomeness with a jaded sense of decadence, as typified by their major domo, 22-year-old Michael Alig. Alig’s birthday party last April at Tunnel featured a Mickey Mouse “moon­walk” — a giant trampoline-like air mat­tress — on which scores of kids gleefully bounced as if in Disneyland. But one of his other prize events was a Child Por­nography Ring party. He’s a walking par­adox of glad-handing hostility — giving you a big hello as part of his networking agenda, then pulling you down a stairway into a pool that just happens to be there.

Like him, the club kids are defiant, but mostly against whatever stands in the way of a fun evening or some free publici­ty. They’re also largely unconcerned with sexual definition. If many of them are gay, that’s partly for lack of the gay-disco scene young people came out into 10 years ago; today they enter the mixed world of clubs, where eccentricity is king, regardless of gender or sexual leanings. Their mentors are pleasure-seeking, mid­dle-aged entrepreneurs juggling 17-year­-old glamour-babe girlfriends and, when the kids complain about having to pay $5 to get into an AIDS benefit, ultimately deciding it’s wise to “pamper” (i.e., comp) them, because they’re just so “fabulous,” moral flaws and all.

The kids come from everywhere, from Soviet Georgia to Atlanta, Georgia, many living with their parents — or “backers,” as they like to call them — others living in apartments they pay for themselves by throwing parties for other club kids (owners pay fees of $500 to $1200 a night for this). Asked what they want to be when they grow up, they all answer, “Famous,” and they consider clubs cabaret show­cases by which to get there.

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For all the charged-up atmosphere, the kids are more likely to be narcissistic voyeurs and exhibitionists than ’60s-style orgiasts. Wearing Plexiglas hats that an­nounce their names in shiny letters, they’ve been described as being too “fab­ulous” to have sex — even if it weren’t for AIDS, there’s the equally debilitating threat that it might mess their makeup. But voyeurism isn’t messy, and so sex has become a public spectacle, self-consciously devoured by masses who are afraid to join in and not just because of stage fright. A scarce commodity, it’s gone from something people go to clubs to find to something people go to clubs to see. There’s so little sex to go around now, that whenever anyone has the nerve to have it, it makes sense to share it with hundreds.

The club scene is one of girls who­ — when they’re not wearing retro undies, garter belts, and other archaic sexwear that’s a bondage-freak’s delight — lie top­less on tables for photographer Stephan Lupino, who three years ago had to promise his firstborn to get people to strip, but now merely holds up his camera and waits for the C-cups to fly. It’s one of a 40-year-old store clerk succumbing to the club-kid spell, suddenly flouncing around VIP rooms in a Frederick’s of Hollywood G-string with an elephant trunk sprouting from the crotch. It’s one of a boy who recently ran through the World wearing next-to-nothing and screaming, “Look at me.” When a pro­moter approached him with an offer to get paddled onstage for $50, the kid jumped at the chance — a big break!

Meanwhile, the new sobriety continues to be just a hype, at least in clubland. The drug of choice is Ecstasy (MDMA), a euphoric, mild hallucinogen related to the MDA of the ’60s. “Every single person is doing Ecstasy,” says Alig, only a bit hy­perbolically. “The little kids are scraping every penny to find $20 to get it. It’s really aggravating when a club like Blood­bath has to close because all those kids are so cheap, but I see them inside buying eight hits of Ecstasy off whoever.”

The kids don’t do much coke — it’s ex­pensive, and besides, says Alig, “It brings Ecstasy down, so you want to stay away from that evil scourge.” They don’t do crack, either, Alig explains with his typi­cal elegance of thought and expression, “because it’s dirty and gross and only gross Puerto Ricans do it. It’s not fabu­lous. Ecstasy — even the name sounds fabulous. People don’t go around saying, ‘Eew, you’re an Ecstasy addict.’ ” But they do Essence, a new form of Ecstasy that costs two dollars more and is there­fore two dollars more desirable. Someone not on drugs walking into Save the Ro­bots can’t help feeling a bit like the only person not in on the punchline of a gigan­tic, communal joke.

The clubs wisely not only tolerate this sex-and-substance-charged frenzy, they throw events that cater to it. Two clubs have had Ecstasy parties recently, at one of which the kids lined up and demanded the promised goods, screaming “Ex, ex, ex!” like deranged halftime cheerleaders.

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But mostly it’s the libido being catered to with innovative eagerness. Practically every night at the World seems designed to capitalize on unfulfilled sex drives. A dirty dancing contest had a cigarette girl cavorting onstage with three boys be­tween her legs and one shamelessly work­ing the rest of her body. She won. More was being suggested here than actually happened, but occasionally real, caution-­to-the-winds sex breaks out in the middle of the scene anyway, because people real­ly are starved for it.

The club’s Lust party — a Sunday night gay fete which was only supposed to fea­ture two paid strippers posing onstage — ­turned into a wet dream come true as one stripper spontaneously started sucking the other one’s cock during a photo ses­sion in the club office. Within millisec­onds, there was a drooling audience, not to mention a Playguy magazine photogra­pher already in place with full lighting equipment. This was not going to be just a two-character production, though. A feisty, male Anita Baker lookalike promptly got naked and joined in the festivities whether they wanted him to or not, acting like a suckerfish with any­thing he could get his mouth on. A hunched-over guy near the heat of the action, meanwhile, was anxiously scruti­nizing this scene and panting with voy­euristic delight. “Get in there,” someone said jokingly, and, amazingly, he stripped down without so much as a second’s thought and did just that. From then on, you merely had to say “next” to attract a new customer and “timber” to watch an old one tumble. Overwhelmed and over­worked, the Anita Baker guy fell over and passed out, but someone threw a lame blanket over him — he may have been dead for all they knew, but hell, the show must go on.

True, it almost didn’t; it was a panicky moment when all the spontaneous com­bustion was spent and the sofa/stage emptied out, devoid of a second act. But Barnum — or at least Al Goldstein­ — would have been proud as the promoter and company coaxed a couple of pretty boy lovers standing around to start in by promising them free drinks and club star­dom. Another opening, another show.

And such performers they were! Lover one blew lover two, who hid his face with his hand, before all coyness went out the window and he started doing other things with his hand. When he came — outside his partner’s mouth — it got another hand (the crowd applauded). Anita Baker, somehow, was up and (after having apparently peed all over the lamé) getting a blow job in another corner of the room, but few noticed. All eyes were on another climax — a gay activist who was jerking off as the entire room counted down his blast-off, cheering the big moment as if it were the popping of a champagne cork on the stroke of New Year’s. “That was al­ways my fantasy,” he said, on leaving. “I have no regrets.”

Stuff like this, of course, used to hap­pen nightly in discos and in backrooms — ­darkened, pre-health-crisis clubs, where gays forged a new sexuality with commu­nal abandon. At the Mine Shaft in the ’70s, dozens gathered around the infa­mous sling to watch people get fist­fucked. In the balcony of the Saint, they push, push, pushed on the beat into ev­erything the disco song instructed them to. But except for a few hidden bastions of anonymous sex, that scene now exists only in transmogrified form in the safe sex clubs, the gay community’s conscious effort to resolve the need for sex with the need to survive. The rules at such places are the same as in the ’70s, except one­ — keep it safe.

The orgy may have broken the rules­ — whether oral sex is high- or low-risk is the subject of, well, hot debate. No one came in anyone’s mouth, and the big no-­no, unprotected anal sex, didn’t even come close to happening. But someone could probably deliver a sermon on the perils of pre-cum and gingivitis. When the rules break, it’s for any number of reasons: people are uneducated; they don’t buy the rules; they feel invulnera­ble; they feel doomed; they feel the risk is worth it; or the world is going to end anyway (the place, not the club). Ratio­nality and the pleasure principle have little to do with one another. Pushed down, tucked away, sex is popping back in brightly lit public places where it’s not supposed to be happening, out of the sheer force of inevitability; it’s Freud’s return of the repressed.

The Lust party, thrown by promoter Chip Duckett, was the second of a series of Seven Deadly Sin events (Brecht and Weill, anyone?). The series also included Gluttony, at which madcap partiers nib­bled and toyed with hundreds of obscene­ly sweet Sno-Balls, and Greed, at which a thousand dollars in singles was thrown from the balcony to a frantic crowd of money-worshippers. “You want food, sex, and money?” these parties seem to say. “Well, we’ll give them to you — but you’ve got to crawl for them.” Downtowners will eagerly do this as a spoof on Gekko-era greed — plus they need the money.

The Susanne Bartsch approach is less participatory and more esoteric — her au­dience doesn’t squirt milk, her star at­traction does — but it’s still very much a group experience, a shared exercise in pushing the limits. Instead of the straightforward musical talent of a few years ago, Bartsch is proud to present Lady Hennessy Brown with her legs wrapped behind her ears, stroking her thighs and privates with fiery torches (don’t try this at home, kids), and shoot­ing milk out of her tits at the clubbies, as if they were so many hungry kittens. (“A lot of men are offended when I squirt them in the face,” says Hennessy, “but most people love it.”)

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A trained dancer, Brown changed ca­reer course several years ago because “the nightclub crowd wasn’t receptive to the modern dancing technique. I had to make the switch to exotic.” The Bentley’s crowd is very receptive to exotic. Bartsch sets the mood with her blinding array of temporary tattoos, her Bo-Peep-gone­-berserk plethora of extensions, her mad­deningly loud whistle, and her scantily clad young boyfriend Ty Bassett, who’s the ultimate attention-getting accessory. (“When I first met him in Coney Island, I thought, ‘He’s a girl,'” she says, admit­ting she later changed her mind.)

The 37-year-old Swiss miss made the consoling leap into nightlife when she fell out with the backers of her Soho bou­tique — a marble marvel in which she showcased the work of Leigh Bowery, Bodymap, and her other favorite up-and­-coming British designers. Bartsch went from throwing Tuesdays at Savage — a retro disco, mirrored balls and all — to throwing Wednesdays at Bentley’s — a ret­ro disco with mirrored balls and a Bentley — always making a point of excess and exuberance, the opposite of the pseudo­-Victorian constipation that was threaten­ing to stifle New York nightlife. Being cool at Nell’s and M.K. had an all too literal meaning — no sex, please, we’re skittish (even on M.K.’s canopied bed). In Bartsch’s clubs, people are encouraged to scream, dance, rub each other, and make utter idiots of themselves in the pursuit of laughs. (Nell, never one to miss a trend, has lately taken to wearing Bartsch-style bodices and Voguing on tables.)

Regular folk who just happen to have an affinity for form-fitting attire, Bartsch and Bassett, like the club kids, combine wholesome warmth with sleazebag razzle­dazzle. Their employees and customers suit them well. Sequined and boa’d drag queens, oiled bodybuilders, and other col­orful, poised-on-the-brink, painted side­show escapees are the core crowd (and made for a dazzling, but totally redun­dant, Bartsch Halloween party at another sprawling disco, Emerald City). A fun-­loving bunch of young, often foreign de­signers, DJs, fashion victims, and lip-sync artists, they attract a large crowd of colorless but open-minded yups and bridge-and-tunnelers who revel in their manic style. Many of the Bentley’s core crowd are filled with anxiety about their place in the body politic, but even more don’t seem aware that there’s anything to be anxious about. The unaware ones just want to party to the max, seeing that it’s the frantic, fashionable thing to do. The others party harder with the sense that in America ’88, they’re being pushed off the map, and every moment brings them closer to the edge. But as with Bartsch, their trashiness is a surface display; in­stead of doing It, the crowd watches It, cheers It, and wears It, making themselves as sexually extreme-looking as pos­sible, either to-die-for or drop-dead ab­surd.

“I think I’m wholesome,” says Bartsch. “I just love letting go, it’s an important form of relaxation. I loved at the Copa [where Bartsch throws last-Thursday-of-­every-month parties] when Anthony Haden-Guest was go-go dancing forever on the go-go box, and Richard Johnson was dancing all night — he told me he hadn’t danced for 20 years. They let their hair down, and I’m so happy that I’m the place where they can do that.” She’s brought stripping to her clubs, she says, because, “I go to the Gaiety sometimes, and it’s so sleazy — you have to watch some old wanker jerk off, and it’s such a shame. It’s good to take sex out of the sleazy surroundings and put it in a trendy place where it’s also about watching bod­ies, but not for you to have a wank. Of course watching has become more impor­tant because doing has to be much more thought-out now. But that’s not the rea­son I brought stripping. I did it because some of these strippers are just so genius. I admire their courage to take off their clothes and say, ‘Look at my gorgeous cock, or ass.’ It’s an art form.”

Hennessy herself is, for all her shock value, supremely wholesome, the very im­age of nourishment. She told me she couldn’t show her mother my column de­scribing her act because the word dick was in another paragraph. The woman­ — a six-foot-one black Amazon goddess — is an endless fount. “I’ve lactated for 19 years,” she claims. “My well never dries up. It diminishes sometimes — like I’m not going to have a full supply to squirt tonight because I’ve been doing doubles [playing two clubs a night]. But I’ve just continued to flow all these years.” The mini-interview comes to an end when Hennessy asks, “Is there pay in this?” “No,” I say, “but it’s a big story.” “It would be even bigger if there was pay in it,” she seethes.

While Bartsch is play-acting as a dress-­up-and-explode club kid, the other sex-­cabaret ringmaster, Alig, is the real deal. Bartsch, for all her surface wildness, is a diplomatic businesswoman who frets whenever she thinks she may have acci­dentally hurt someone’s feelings. But Alig and the kids would be mad if they didn’t offend someone. They bring to the sur­face everything Bartsch is too good-na­tured to acknowledge — anxiety, fear, and hostility. Self-conscious, alienated voy­eurs, their constant freaking-out state cancels out any possible innocence. Let’s face it: with an unsafe-sex guillotine hanging over your head at all times, truly instinctive or childlike behavior isn’t a possibility, no matter how young you are. Sexual repression has fast-forwarded the club kids into adulthood, and they’ve re­sponded by turning it into a three-ring circus of escapist sexual entertainment.

Alig, who got his club start stripping for dollars and went on to throw Dirty Mouth contests, where the filthiest talk­ers won cash prizes, looks fondly back on that Child Pornography Ring party at the old Danceteria (he plans to recreate it at the new one, where he’ll be assistant di­rector). “You’ve seen them around, now you can buy them real cheap,” read the invite, which featured Alig tied up with five kids. “Yes, folks, where else but New York City can you place a price-tag on human beings? These fine, healthy, YOUNG souls will be auctioned off to the highest bidder to do with as you please.” At the party, people were able to buy dates with 16-year-olds with play money, the kids getting $50 from Alig to go through with the dates. “There was noth­ing illegal about it,” he says. “I was pay­ing the kids to go out with somebody else — that’s not prostitution. Of course I got paid by the club for throwing the event.” Alig is a master exploiter, but no more so than Ronald Reagan, whose ad­ministration relentlessly whittled away at various forms of aid to dependent chil­dren (there haven’t been so many home­less kids since the Depression), while cranking up public hysteria over their sexual exploitation. Alig, in his own jaded way, is trying to make fun of hypocrisy rule while desperately trying just to make fun.

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He was also one of the people behind Celebrity Club, which almost always went out of control, to the delight of many. The feeling in the air was always of a bored restlessness that the crowd would take to any extreme for some kicks. One night, Eve Teitelbaum, a poet, asked if she could just step across the stage for a second. They were the sorriest words she’d ever said, as the heat of the mo­ment sparked a pointless cat fight with the emcee, which turned even nastier as Teitelbaum was thrown to her knees and people flung shoes and other sharp things at her while Alig doused her with water. “She deserved it” was the popular consensus as Teitelbaum ran, sobbing, out of the club. “I can’t believe something like this would happen in the civilized world,” she said later, still burned.

The ugliest Celebrity Club came one night during the proverbial wet T-shirt contest — the peak of the evening, during which practically everyone seems willing to show his or her privates at the drop of a fly, and all the energy combust into a big boom. This time, a girl went from being pleasantly exhibitionistic to almost mass-violated. On the sweltering stage, in the glare of disco lights and hundreds of eyes, she started dancing and shimmying to the repetitive throb of house music, encouraged by the salivating crowd. “She was some dumb Jersey girl,” says Alig, “in tapered jeans with feathered, gross, brown hair. She got up onstage and people got carried away — she got carried away, literally. A lot of guys were grabbing at her until it wasn’t fun for her anymore. She started to say, ‘No, no, no’ over and over again. Of course that’s when everybody got interested and joined in. A few guys tried to fuck her in front of everybody. That’s when her boyfriend grabbed her and took her up the stairs naked.” This scene — like something out of The Accused — happened without any supervisor to put up even a feeble “No.” What about Alig? “I watched in horror,” he says. “I ran to get the security guards.” He’s joking. “Actually, I probably helped — not rape her, but push people away so they could get to her.”

On another night, Alig presented a T-­shirt winner with a bottle of cham­pagne — actually someone’s piss (he says it came from the drag duo Fashion Patrol; they say it was his) mixed with soda water for fizz. On yet another dazzling evening, one of the Fashion Patrol laid out a cat food buffet spread that everyone there assumed was paté, because, “There are a lot of illiterate people who will take for granted that they know what they’re eating.” This is the same pair that sang “Teenage Enema Nurse” and enacted the birthing process for their pre-Labor Day party. They’re also known for regularly mock-penetrating themselves with blunt objects, and recently caused quite a scene when they stole a bassinet with a type­writer in it from a street vendor, who ran after them with a chain screaming, “I’m going to get you fuckers.” In an upcoming movie called Strung City, one of them­ — Brandywine — gets chased by an old man wielding a huge wax dildo. “You have to create your own excitement,” explains Brenda A-Go-Go, the other one. “Club-­goers are coming there for a show anyway. I wouldn’t want to go somewhere and not see some sort of decadence — it helps the night go by.”

AMAZINGLY, and not a moment too soon, the clubbies are developing some sense of outrage, if not exactly what you could call a social conscience. What it is, in a historical sense, is nihilism. An edi­torial in the new issue of Project X, a club handout, reflects a kind of hyperreal paranoia that’s both mocking and grimly sincere. Politically, if not grammatically, correct, it laments that “Everything will move backwards very fast from now on, and you, wether you think it’s cool or not, you are going to be envolved.” The edito­rial notes that in the future, “Secret po­licemen, Undercover Agents, CIA min­ions and Neo-Guardian Angels may forcefully O-D undesirable people to in­crease drug-hysteria in the american press.”

Another editorial, by Alig, urges the kids to fight for their right to party and be different. To him, the fight is another act of spitting in the face of authority, done because it’ll help keep the party going. Alig was in the mass of people trying to break down the Christodora Building entrance during the Tompkins Square Park fracas last summer. But though he admits “it was a fun scene,” that’s not the only reason he got in­volved. “I’m all for the freaks,” he ex­plains. “I didn’t like the idea that the rich people were moving in and making the freaks leave. Those are the people who go to my clubs.”

Alig smirks that he wants to throw events at the new Danceteria where he’ll show partiers films of the police harass­ing gays and other minorities, “and then set them free in the streets to do vio­lence.” Though he once threw a party to which only HIV-negative people were in­vited (just his little joke, ha-ha), Alig has recently made noises in the direction of gay activism. It seems he was verbally abused by homophobic cops at a Tunnel raid, an event that startled him into an apotheosis he related to two daily papers.

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“People are so blasé and lazy,” he whines. “They don’t want to go out and pillage and burn police cars anymore.” Nostalgia for a more political time — or just for bigger and better thrills? Can the club kids tell the difference? Only know­ing the new craziness, they imagine that it was even wilder in the past. “That went on at Studio 54, didn’t it?” says Alig, meaning constant stripping and groping. No, dear, it didn’t. The ’70s sensuality was much more affluent and ap­proved, more of an anything-goes-be­cause-it-can than because-it-can’t. People didn’t wear underwear at all then; it just got in the way of the fun. Parts of the decor dropped hydraulically around them; they didn’t have to throw them down stairs. The only milk squirted was into a glass of Kahlua. The champagne was actually champagne.

In the last years of the Weimar Repub­lic, as the Nazis rose to power and a sense of panic and doom spread through the ranks of the socially marginal, a frenzied, anxious hedonism took over as well. To­day, society has its disposables, too, the multiracial, multisexual nonrich, who have no choice but to alternately fight for their lives and to go wild, to party out of control in a pressure cooker of fear and hostility. This mood is being nicely helped along by hate-mongers like Kini­son, who’s not all that different from Joel Grey dancing with the girl in the gorilla suit (yes, I studied at the Liza Minnelli school of German history).

The late-Weimar comparison may be stretching it — among other things, our economic mess is quite different from theirs — but closet alarmists like me are finding it hard to resist some parallels: a deceptive prosperity based on foreign funds; the rise of repression and censor­ship; the proliferation of teen suicides; the ostentatious flaunting of wealth by a handful of people as large numbers spiral toward poverty; the persecution of cer­tain minorities, who take the blame for all sorts of social woes. According to Pe­ter Gay’s Weimar Culture: The Outsider As Insider, the republic was also charac­terized by

excitement, in part from exuberant cre­ativity and experimentation, but much of it was anxiety, fear, a rising sense of doom … It was a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano. Weimar culture was the creation of outsiders, pro­pelled by history into the inside for a short, dizzying, fragile moment. 

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Devil and Michael Alig

Busting the King of Club Kids
By William Bastone and Jennifer Gonnerman

In the final deluded days before his arrest, Michad Alig had convinced himself that he could trade Peter Gatien’s scalp for Angel Melendez’s torso. For the 31-year-old club kid, this surely seemed like a fair barter: in the debauched demimonde he once ruled, the only thing worse than being dead is being dull. 

Holed up with his 22-year-old boyfriend in a Toms River, New Jersey, motel, Alig had become the pawn of Drug Enforcement Administration agents Man Germanowski and Bob Gagne, who were using him as an informant to fortify their drug-trafficking case against Gatien, New York’s night­club king. Simultaneously, Alig was the prey of another pair of investigators. 

Working from a secret Soho office — upstairs from an art gallery and just south of Commes des Garçons on Wooster Street — Miguel Rodriguez and Walter Alexander, investigators with the Manhattan district attorney’s office, were preparing to nab Alig for the March murder of Melendez, a nightclub habitué and low-level drug dealer.

Played out against the backdrop of these two competing criminal probes, Alig’s frantic last weeks took on an added urgency, with him mistakenly believing that his DEA cooperation would somehow provide immunity from a homicide charge. This misguided notion probably reflects less on Alig’s grasp of the criminal justice system than it does in the accused killer’s value system.

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As he passed on damaging information about Gatien to the DEA, Alig became more certain that he would never be charged with Melendez’s murder. At one point in October — before Melendez’s body had been ID’d by the city medical examiner — Alig telephoned his friend Rachel Cain and poked fun at the homicide probe. Pretending he was Rodriguez, Alig demanded that Cain immediately come to the D.A.’s office for an interview, she told the Voice Sunday. 

Known as “Screaming Rachel,” Cain is a tireless self-promoter (she kicked off a conversation about Melendez’s murder by plugging a Geraldo appearance and her fledgling record label) who was the first Alig friend to publicly confirm that the club kid had spoken of murdering Melendez. As it turned out, Cain’s version — provided to the Voice in June — dovetailed with details of the bludgeoning and dismemberment that investigators believe occurred in Apartment 3K at the Riverbank West skyscraper on West 43rd Street.

Cain told the Voice that, during two lengthy interviews with Rodriguez, she recounted Alig’s statements about the Melendez killing. Cain’s recitation apparently was used by prosecutors last week to buttress murder charges filed against Alig and Robert Riggs, a 28-year-old club denizen known as “Freeze.”

The felony complaints open by referring to statements made by Alig days after the mid­-March slaying. The account is attributed in the complaints to a D.A.’s informant; Cain conced­ed it was a “possibility” she was the unnamed source. Cain also admitted that, like Alig, she has been cooperating with DEA agents and federal prosecutors in a continuing grand jury probe of drug activity at Gatien’s nightspots. For her help, Cain has received witness fees, per diem allowances, and a small lump-sum payment

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Alig had originally been a target of the DEA’s probe, which began about a year ago and resulted in the May indictment of Gatien and a score of other defendants on drug-trafficking and conspiracy charges. Wiretap affidavits ob­tained by the Voice show that Alig, who has not been charged in the federal case, was suspected of involvement in “various schemes to distribute large amounts” of the hallucinogen Ecstasy. 

Cain apparently was not the only Alig asso­ciate to whom the club kid provided details of Melendez’s death. One Voice source recalled that a “very agitated, very upset” Alig approached him in March and asked, “Do you have a car?” The acquaintance was immediately suspicious, recalling in an interview Saturday that “I knew he didn’t want to take a ride. I know Mike. Mike’s crazy.”

The source said Alig then proceeded to describe how he and Riggs killed Melendez and how “he had a dead body in his apartment” and needed to move it. Days later, in an encounter at the Limelight nightclub, the source said Alig commented, “We got rid of the body.” Despite the charges against Alig, the source added that he was “not a bad person.” Like Cain, a reluctant witness who was doggedly pursued by Rodriguez, the Voice source never thought to contact police about Alig’s confession.

One law enforcement source said that Melendez’s body sat in Alig’s bathtub for several days before the club kid and Riggs dismembered it and stuffed it into a box. They then carried the large package downstairs, flagged down a taxicab, and headed to the Hudson River, where they dumped it. 

In the face of a murder investigation, the reluctance of Alig’s associates to assist probers vexed Rodriguez and others in the D.A.’s office, sources said. From the outset, investigators suspected that Alig’s confession was no hoax, but needed a body before they could contemplate a murder prosecution. Investigators believed they had found Melendez’s body in September when a mutilated corpse was fished out of the water off Manhattan’s northern shore.

But while that body turned out to be just another unidentified casualty, press reports at the time struck a chord with police assigned to Staten Island’s 122nd Precinct. On April 12, Detective Ralph Gengo had responded to a call at Oakwood Beach, a scruffy spit of sand just north of Great Kills Park, where locals fish for flounder and teenagers build fires on the weekend. There, a group of children had stumbled across a box containing a legless body. A subsequent autopsy by Dr. Jonathan Arden of the medical examiner’s office determined that victim had died of asphyxia after being struck three time on the head with a blunt object.

Using dental records, Staten Island police and D.A. investigators in late October identified the corpse as that of Melendez. Investigators broke the news to Melendez’s family, adding that they expected to make arrests in the case during the first week of December. The only suspects were Alig and Riggs.

Police arrested Alig in New Jersey at 3 a.m. last Thursday. They picked up Riggs later that morning and “invited him to come down and answer a few questions.” The 28-year-old could have refused, but instead rode with Rodriguez and Alexander to Wooster Street, where the D.A.’s official corruption unit is headquartered. The Soho office, which has unlisted phone numbers and is not included in a building directory, handles police corruption cases and other sensitive matters.

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As D.A. representatives pressed him for de­tails of Melendez’s disappearance, Riggs — who did not ask for a lawyer — surprised investigators by admitting his and Alig’s role in the murder. Along with a written confession, Riggs was videotaped describing the killing, the hacking off of Melendez’s legs, and the disposal of the body. In contrast, when Alig was arrested, probers were not allowed to question him about the killing since Alig had previously hired an attorney. That retainer was made in connec­tion with Alig’s cooperation with the DEA and Brooklyn federal prosecutors. 

When a Voice reporter visited Riggs Saturday at Rikers Island, he was dressed in a slate gray, short-sleeved jumpsuit with Velcro closures up the front. He wore slip-on sandals and white tube socks. Gone were the high-top Nikes, blue and green parachute pants, and shimmery parka he wore the prior day at his arraignment. Riggs refused to discuss his role in the Melendez murder, speaking only about his journey to New York from Florida 10 years ago to work as a milliner. Riggs added that he had recently been designing stage props and costumes for movies and Broadway productions. 

Alig declined Sunday to see a Voice reporter who tried to visit him at Rikers’s Anna M. Kross Center, where Riggs is also housed. While being arraigned Friday afternoon, Alig fidgeted nervously, bit his nails, and scanned the courtroom for familiar faces. As he stood in the dock, with his striped boxers peeking out from the back of his baggy, khaki-colored pants, Alig seemed to be reeling. 

He had spent the prior few months trying to salvage his career in the face of whispers that he was a murderer. At times, to escape the scrutiny and the rumors, he would head to the Garden State to be with 22-year-old Brian McCauley who sells Tommy Hilfiger clothing at the Toms River Macy’s. For Alig, the sleepy town surely must have been a comedown. It was inhabited by tunnel people, who, along with their bridge counterparts, filled up Gatien’s clubs on many of the nights Alig promoted parties. They were the ones who paid at the door and were never palmed a drink ticket. 

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Closeted in the Riverwatch Inn & Irish Pub, a few doors down from the Catholic Charities office, Alig left his room only for trips across the street to the 7-Eleven. With his canary yellow hair and effeminate manner, he quickly caught the eye of the locals. “Oh, it’s the fag!” clerk Robin Simone laughed Saturday when asked about Alig. “He was always patting his boyfriend’s butt. I thought they were gonna get it on right in here.” The Riverwatch owner also had a wisecrack ready, claiming that Alig and his young companion had stayed in “Room 69” at the 50-room motel. 

The slurs were ugly, but it was hard to feel sorry for Alig since he was the one quoted in October’s Details magazine calling Melendez a “scum-of-the-earth drug dealer,” virtually implying he got what was coming to him. But this slight was no surprise. Alig sat at the center of a firmament of cynical, low-rent “stars” whose lives usually revolved around drug use and other assorted excesses.

Until his arrest last week, Alig’s life had been filled with flashes from a camera strobe, disco balls, and spotlights. But as he was driven away from the Riverwatch early Thursday, he was illuminated by only the whirling cherry top on a Dover Township police cruiser. As the cop car headed down Water Street, the last glimpse of neon Michael Alig may see came from a Budweiser sign in the shape of a shamrock, hanging in the window of a musty Jersey dive. 

Additional reporting by J.A. Lobbia and Thomas Goetz

Inside Alig’s Brain: Drugs, Genius, Pedophilia
By Frank Owen

Add prostituting an underage runaway and having sex with minors to Michael Alig’s grow­ing list of alleged criminal activities. In the wake of the arrest of the former king of the club kids for the murder of drug dealer Angel Melendez, a disturbing portrait of Alig as a predatory pedophile and sometime pimp is beginning to emerge. 

According to close friends — both current and former — in 1991 Alig dressed a homeless 12-year-old boy in drag (to look like Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby) and took him to Edel­weiss, a notorious hustler joint then located on West 29th Street. Here the boy sold his backside to get food and drug money for him­self and Alig. “A menace to young boys” is how one former confidant describes Alig. Others, however, insist that any sexual activity was entirely consensual, albeit thoroughly illegal. “Michael was getting sex and money, these boys were getting the time of their young lives,” says one of Alig’s pals.

Previously, according to the same people, Alig had visited Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, where he photographed and took phone numbers from a string of East German hustlers whom he attempted to sell as houseboys to rich New York patrons. “The scheme never really got off the ground,” says one insider. “Michaell was too disorganized.”

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Alig has made a habit of flaunting the law. Whether walking through the lobby of his posh apartment building holding a crack pipe, or doing drugs in public while helping the DEA build its drug conspiracy case against his former boss Peter Gatien, or boasting to friends about murdering Melendez, Alig has long felt the rules governing the rest of society don’t apply to him. He’s so brazen he even repeated the story of the 12-year-old and the East German houseboys to numerous friends on many occasions.

Alig has openly admitted that he’s a pedophile, and used to keep a stack of kiddie porn maga­zines in his apartment. Before his arrest, he was usually seen with a posse of young boys in tow. According to writer Stephen Saban, who lives down the hall from Alig’s former pad, “He [Alig] was giving young boys [the date rape drug] Rohypnol so he could have sex with them. I would see young kids coming to his apartment all the time.” 

Not that these young hustlers and run­aways were angels, insists Saban. If Alig was an exploiter — “a get-over queen,” in Saban’s phrase — he also allowed himself to be exploit­ed. “Inevitably Michael would be so fucked up he could hardly walk, so these kids would prop him up and walk him out into the street and get into a cab with him so that they could get into the clubs for free.” 

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How did the energetic upstart who single-handedly launched his own youth sub­culture in the ’80s turn into the messed­-up sociopath and accused murderer of today? How did the twisted creativity of the original club-kid scene tip over into outright evil? 

Alig’s nightclub career began in the early ’80s, when — fresh from South Bend, Indiana — the 18-year-old started working at Danceteria as a bus boy. People remember him from those days as a nerdy but cute gay boy conventionally attired in blue jeans and white T-shirt who didn’t look old enough to be in the club in the first place. The green hair and extravagant out­fits would come later. 

The club kids were widely ridiculed as brattish outsiders by older trendies when they first appeared. The original Details magazine dis­missed Alig and his crew as “little boys in bean­ies.” Yet Alig ended up revitalizing Downtown (first at Danceteria and the Tunnel, later at Club USA and Disco 2000) at a time when the rapidly aging scene was in desperate need of an injection of young blood. 

“Michael’s genius was in recognizing that the only thing separating the fabulous person from the non fabulous person was somebody’s saying so,” says writer-filmmaker Fenton Bailey, who caught the novice Alig how to throw par­ties. “He saw that he didn’t need to work his way into the established elite of Downtown nightlife. Instead, he gathered around him a whole bunch of friends, inspired them, and transformed them visually, and created his own scene of which he was the king. Like Andy Warhol, he realized that stardom was nothing more than a fantastic act of self-invention.” 

Michael not only reinvented himself, he also made over his friends. Before he met Alig, the self-styled “Superstar DJ” Keoki was a hum­ble flight attendant at TWA. The same thing happened to Robert Riggs, who has confessed to participating with Alig in the murder of Angel. Riggs, whose nom de disco is “Freeze,” was a high-­end hat designer who dressed conservatively before falling under Alig’s charismatic spell.

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Alig had shown perverse tendencies from an early age. While other kids were content with watching horror and slasher movies, the 15-year-old Alig ordered hardcore snuff movies through the mail. But in the early ’90s, his perversity started to slip over into outright depravity as the glitzy drag queens and fashion victims that provided him with his initial following were replaced by a younger, rougher, druggier crowd. His parties became less creative and increasingly sordid. Witness the “Emergency Room” and gore parties that were so characteristic of the last days of Disco 2000. His character changed completely under the influ­ence of so many drugs — especially heroin, which he started using in the early ’90s. Alig took on the traits of a manic depressive, euphoric one minute, suicidal the next. It was also at this time that he caught hepatitis and a large tumor appeared on his upper spine — the result of years of indiscriminate drug use. He got sicker and sicker in every way — physically, emotionally, and mentally. 

“His life, especially in the last two years, has been a suicide mission,” says Gatien publicist Ron Allen, a childhood friend of Alig’s. “Even before he was arrested, he talked about suicide constantly. Everybody I know thinks Michael will take his own life rather than serve out a long jail term. Up to now, he’s always had a way out — whether another pill to pop or another party to promote. He’s cornered; I fear death is his only way out.” 

Another friend isn’t so sure: “Michael is too much of a narcissist to take his own life.” 

He may get some help, though: on Monday he was reportedly severely beaten in jail by four other inmates. ❖ 

The View From Clubland
By Michael Musto

The Michael Alig arrest hasn’t had much impact on nightlife, as it turns out, because nothing can stop a party in motion, because a lot of clubbies don’t read, and mainly because the effects of Alig’s plight had set in way before the handcuffs snapped shut.

Most club crawlers I talked to in the wake of the arrest either had no idea of recent events or were so plugged in to the situation that they barely flinched, but either way it wasn’t intruding on whatever nightly rituals are left to be scraped up in the Giuliani era. Last Friday at Twilo, where club kids use to mix liberally with the civilian crowd, the long line of revelers waiting to get in was inordinately low on vinyl, fake fur, and war paint. “The Alig situation has already had its effect for a while, and that’s why we’re seeing the crowd we’re seeing,” said doorperson Kate Harwood. “It’s a lot less colorful. Not that I was a fan of the club kid scene, because it was getting nasty already. We knew there were too many drug combinations going on.” Her co-doorperson, Lincoln Palsgrove III, agreed: Alig’s kids haven’t been a potent night force for some time. “Michael was trying to achieve Sodom and Gomorrah,” he said, “but it became too decadent and there was no glamour to it anymore. There was no sense of responsibility like at studio 54.”

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Over at Peter Gatien’s Tunnel, where Alig once ruled, the medium-sparkly crowd seemed oblivious to current events, though in the bathroom, a leggy, blond drag queen named Eva Love did appear mildly alarmed. “Its going to be a wake-up call on the  scene,” she said, defiantly downing a swig of Poland Spring water — a far cry from the Ecstasy-Special K combos of the Alig era. Outside, a door guard was emitting even more sobering tones. “The papers keep running that picture of Michael with Peter Gatien,” he lamented, and I understood the concern. Gatien — who’s being investigated for alleged drug trafficking at his nightspots — doesn’t want any lingering connection with the troubled club kid, even though they were bound at the hip-cool-trendoid for years. In fact, Gatien’s publicist took pains to remind me last week that the murder happened after Peter dumped Alig — though my calendar seems to note that the firing and the ru­mors all surfaced in the same few weeks.

As the breaking blind item I ran in April becomes an eye-opening reality, everyone’s putting in his two cents (except the folks at Mi­rage, where Michael threw his most recent par­ties; when I called for comment, they simply laughed hysterically). Cornered at a restaurant, club staple JoJo Americo choked on  his sand­wich, then declared, “Give him the chair!” But drag performer Lady Bunny said, “Michael al­ways gave me the feeling that he was looking out for me,” though she then claimed he did once slip her a beverage she later learned was tinged with his urine — “when he had hepatitis.”

The most typical debate had the aforementioned flack telling club observer Stephen Sa­ban, “It’s horrible what drugs did to Michael,” and Saban replying, “But it’s not the drugs. I’ve known millions of drug users who’ve never killed anyone.” Let alone cut off their legs. Alas, the Giulianis of the world would probably love us to think that nightlife is exclusively populated with druggies and killers, and that the two are inexorably intertwined. He doesn’t go out as much as I do. As longtime promoter Susanne Bartsch told me, “This has nothing to do with nightlife. [Michael’s condition] was a pattern of not liking yourself. Going to a club is not a drug addiction.” And a drug addiction can’t create barbaric impulses that aren’t there. This is an isolated incident, like the hideous eradication of Eigil Vesti after he was picked up at a club in the ’80s. The Angel saga doesn’t convince me that all club impresarios are treacherous any more than O.J. makes me run from athletes faster than I already do.

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My take on Alig was always that he was brilliant, but a potential wreck waiting to happen, that his sense of fun too often hinged on pro­voking people in ways that made them uncom­fortable and angry. At a club, he’d grab you and pull you down a stairway and into a pool. He’d stand there with a friend and openly make fun of you. But you’d forgive him because he threw wickedly amusing, exuberantly envelope­-pushing parties — because the tinge of danger could take on a liberating edge — and he could be warm and effusive too. “Michael’s a human being like everybody else,” says Kenny Kenny, Michael’s old drag doorman. “Nobody’s all good or all bad.”

The way Alig shook up bourgeois notions was a welcome kick in the butt, until he’d go too far and I’d have to start apologizing for knowing him. In an ’88 Voice cover story, I described some of his bigger outrages, like the party he threw to which only HIV-negatives were invit­ed — his idea of a joke — or his Child Pornography Ring soiree, at which people used play money to buy dates with 16-year-olds, Alig pay­ing the kids real cash to go through with it. Alig couldn’t praise the mood-altering drug Ecstasy enough, but typically told me about crack, “It’s dirty and gross and only gross Puerto Ricans do it.” And when he started getting in touch with late-’80s activism, Alig’s ideology was, “People arc so blasé and lazy. They don’t want to go out and pillage and bum police cars anymore.” I bet he’d like to burn some police cars now.

You can chart the progression from ’86 Area to ’96 Mirage, but it was still the same Alig — except that every time he developed more presence on the scene, he’d lose touch with a few more behavioral boundaries. One of his ex-sidekicks, James St. James, recently moved to L.A. as a result of all the goings-on. “I love Michael dearly, but I can’t be around any of this,” St. James told me last week. “It’s totally destroyed my entire view of what we were doing. I thought the club kid movement was about breaking the rules and seeing how far you could push things. Now I realize that isn’t a good thing because absolute power corrupts absolutely. He had too much and thought he could get away with anything, which is not to say that he’s guilty or innocent. But it’s to say that he could get away with murder if he wanted to.”

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On the scene, club kids can’t get away with much of anything anymore. Ex-Gatien em­ployee Steve Lewis is opening a club called Life that Kenny Kenny, who’ll do the door, said will play host to an older, more modely crowd. And over at B Bar (formerly Bowery Bar), which al­ready has that crowd, the disgraced Alig is obvi­ously no longer swinging in with friends for lav­ish dinners. Did he used to pay? “Probably not too frequently — maybe in little pieces,” co-owner Eric Goode said, then philosophically added, “Life is certainly stranger than fiction.”

It’s especially bizarre if you believe the new hearsay filtering in: that Alig skipped town at one point because he was afraid Gatien would get him; that an ex of Alig’s was privy to the crime; that a girl who drove Alig cross-country after the murder could be in trouble for aiding and abetting; that Alig’s been going through withdrawal at Rikers and will be moved to a nicer joint because he’s the star witness in the case against Gatien; and that a prominent TV personality is paying Alig’s bail and legal fees. Also, though confessed cohort Robert “Freeze” Riggs (who’s suddenly a noted hat designer in the press) told the cops that Angel owed Alig rent, I hear the dealer didn’t officially live with Alig at all, he just frequently stayed over.

Amid the daisy chain of finger-pointing — Riggs ratting on Alig ratting on Gatien — speculation is so frenzied that some feel Michael may even be enjoying his public-enemy status be­cause it’s his most famous achievement yet (there are people on the scene who’d apparently kill for publicity). That’s doubtful, but in any case, the intrigue to come promises to be the sickest, most elaborate Alig party ever. Gushes St. James, “The trial will be absolutely beauti­ful, with [club regular] Amanda LaPore in a big hat and all the drag queens parading. It’ll be a fabulous image.” ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Scene THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Documents Link Studio 54 to Mob

The Ties That Bind: Documents confiscated from Studio 54 reveal some interesting connections

A detailed inventory of all documents seized Decem­ber 14 by federal agents in the Studio 54 raid reveals ties between the disco’s owners and alleged organized-­crime figures.

Contrary to disco attorney Roy Cohn’s claim that all the IRS Organized Crime Strike Force found was  “… an appointment book and a list of parties coming up at Studio 54,” agents confiscated materials linking owners Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell to Sam Jacob­son, the alleged Queens-Williamsburg loan-shark king and racketeer.

Rumors of Studio 54’s link with organized-crime figures began when it became known that Ian Schrag­er’s father was the late Louis Schrager, also known as ”Max the Jew,” the legendary chief of Williamsburg loan-shark and racketeer operations. Louis Schrager was described in the State Liquor Authority file on Stu­dio 54 as “… a convicted felon who was a known as­sociate of Meyer Lansky and was second only to Her­man Siegel in Lansky’s loansharking and numbers rackets.”

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Meyer Lansky, the mob’s financial wiz and a key figure in the development of Las Vegas, turned gangsters into “businessmen,” fun­neling much of the mob’s activities into the high-profit, cash-laundering businesses of entertainment, night clubs, and resorts.

The late Louis Schrager left a large estate and trust for his wife Blanche and son Ian consisting of various businesses and real estate. According to State Liquor Authority files, the late Schrager’s alleged Queens-Wil­liamsburg criminal activities were taken over by the Jacobson brothers, Sam, Dan, and Ralph.

Ralph Jacobson was convicted on income­-tax charges and extortion in 1975. Ralph and Dan were both indicted in 1972 for the mur­der of Queens nightclub owner Conrad Greaves, in an alleged loan sharking and ex­tortion con. They were never convicted. Also indicted for the murder were Tommy DiLeo and Pasquale Macchairole (Patti Mac), whose bodies were found recently in plastic bags in the trunks of their cars. Sam was indicted but not convicted of tax fraud in 1972.

When Studio 54 applied for a liquor li­cense in the spring of 1977, the SLA inves­tigator asked Ian Schrager about his relation­ship with Sam Jacobson. The investigator’s sources indicated that Jacobson not only took over the late Louis Schrager’s business but moved in with Schrager’s widow, thus be­coming Ian Schrager’s surrogate father. Ian Schrager, in a sworn statement to the SLA, denied any connection with Sam Jacobson, stating that while he knew Jacobson, he hadn’t seen him in many years, that he had “… no contact with him and have no per­sonal knowledge whatsoever about him or his activities.”

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However, the IRS inventory, a matter of public record now filed at the U.S. Court Clerk’s office, appears to show that Sam Jacobson managed aspects of the Louis Schrag­er estate. The evidence includes two letters concerning Schrager estate matters labeled “441,” addressed to Sam Jacobson and dated May 8, 1970, and March 13, 1970. Also found in the raid was a brown accordion fold­er marked SAM JACOBSON-PERSONAL. That file contained, among other things, one letter dated May 5, 1974, a promissory note dated March 12, 1975, a number of legal pads marked SAM, and a financial statement dated March 17, 1975.

The most damaging document that may indicate that Sam Jacobson had an undis­closed financial interest in Studio 54 is a five­ column payment sheet with the main head-ing, STEVE RUBELL—SAM JACOBSON. The first of 11 entries reads, “W/E [week ending] 6/25, $2500.” The final entry reads “$22,500.” More information will certainly come out as the IRS develops its case.

Unlike the State Liquor Authority, the IRS has muscle. And while the State Liquor Authority was on the right track in question­ing Schrager about the source of his funding, the agency failed to produce a strong case be­cause the co-owners balked at supplying requested financial records. The agency report states that some of the checks Studio 54 did present as evidence “… never cleared a bank, bearing no imprint on the front or back.”

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Roy Cohn also claimed that the search war­rant, obtained by the strike force on Decem­ber 12 from U.S. District Judge Robert Carter, was based on “a phony tip.” Who sup­plied the information that justified the search warrant? That fact is currently “sealed” by the courts, even from Cohn. Studio 54’s law­yers are challenging the order and demand­ing that the material be unnealed. (If it is un­sealed, the basis for the search might be chal­lenged, if and only if the information was in­deed “phony.”)

Meanwhile, Studio 54 is taking the matter very seriously, having hired two additional law firms to represent them. Caplin and Drysdale, a high-powered, Washington­-based firm, will represent Studio 54 in the matter of possible tax fraud. “We will be representing the corporation only,” says Caplin. “As individuals, the co-owners are represented by Paul, Weiss.” Mortimer Cap­lin was the IRS commissioner from 1961 to 1964 and is one of the nation’s best tax law­yers. The second firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, is highly respected in New York. Both these firms will have to ex­plain how it was that, according to the books, Studio 54 lost money at certain times, as its owners have sworn to the State Liquor Au­thority. They will also have to explain countless weekly cash payout envelopes. According to one key former Studio 54 employee and other sources, Studio 54 was not just skimming a few bucks here and there; they were walking off with from 50 to 70 per cent of the cash take. That’s millions.

Roy Cohn will be representing Ian Schrager in Schrager’s more immediate criminal complaint: “intent to distribute a Schedule II narcotic … cocaine.” While Peter Sudler, the assistant U.S. Attorney in charge of the case against Studio 54, refused to comment any aspect of the case, his complaint states that Schrager walked into Studio 54 on De­cember 14 at 9:30 a.m. just after the federal agents had arrived. Schrager was carrying books, records, and other documents. After the agents identified themselves, Schrager placed these materials on the floor. On top of the pile an agent found a white envelope with five packets of what turned out to be unusu­ally high-quality cocaine — about 50 per cent pure, unlike common street cocaine that is usually only 10 to 20 per cent pure.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725695″ /]

Schrager’s indictment on the narcotics charge will be handed down in a few weeks and his trial must follow within 90 days. The charges could mean up to 15 years if Schrager is convicted.

While 300 Quaaludes were found in the Studio 54 safe, it is unlikely that criminal charges will result because of the difficulty in proving individual possession,

How will all this affect Studio 54? For the time being, it won’t. There are two agencies that license liquor-serving discos, the State Liquor Authority and the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Consumer Affairs is short staffed and al­most powerless in this area. Studio 54 has been operating without a cabaret license since August 28. All Consumer Affairs can do is send one of its three investigators charged with enforcing the cabaret laws for all of New York City to Studio 54 and slap them with a summons. The fine is usually $25 — a parking ticket can cost more — and the summons can be challenged in court and dragged out for years. Reno Sweeney, the 13th Street caba­ret, has never been licensed due to its resi­dentially zoned area. Despite this fact, Re­no’s has remained open for years. There is no reason that Studio 54 can’t do the same.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713510″ /]

Consumer Affairs Commissioner Bruce Ratner doesn’t think he should be in the dis­co-licensing business. “Ask me about TVs or unit pricing,” he said. “That’s where we can and should put our energies. Don’t expect us to keep organized crime out of New York night life!”

The State Liquor Authority has a wait­-and-see attitude. “We have nothing to do with the IRS case or the narcotics charge,” says Commissioner Lawrence Gedda. “And until there’s some resolution of the allega­tions, Studio 54’s status will remain the same.”

In fact, the State Liquor Authority tried to fight Studio 54 once before and lost. Accord­ing to a key SLA source, that attempt to deny the club a liquor license was a joke. Michael Roth, the head of the agency at the time, had political aspirations (he recently lost his bid for election as the state attorney general). Roth was at a party near Studio 54 when he heard that the disco was serving liquor with­out a license. Instead of sending in SLA in­vestigators night after night for a few weeks to establish continuous illegal sale of liquor, Roth stormed out of the party and raided 54 in grandstand style. The SLA’s case was therefore based on only one night of illegal sales — a minor charge. For this kind of ac­tion, Roth earned the nickname within the agency of “Mickey Mouse.”

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Even if Schrager is convicted, Studio 54 will no doubt be able to get around the State Liquor Authority. While it is illegal to have a convicted felon as the owner or co-owner of a licensed premise, Studio 54 can reincorpo­rate, dropping Schrager as a co-owner. That’s just a little paperwork. Then Schrager might be legally hired as a manager or consultant and paid whatever salary the “new” corporation feels he’s worth.

­

Studio 54 will remain the playground of the chic for now, pulling in $12 a head at the door, $3 a drink, and making lots of money  on private parties. The crowds will continue circling the door clamoring for admission. But the documented inventory of the IRS raid indicates that long after the chic set has moved on to a new watering hole, Rubell and Schrager will be busy with their battery of lawyers. ♦

 

Categories
Living Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

City’s ‘Nightlife Mayor’ Faces a Tough Crowd on Her Home Turf

Last September, when New York City established its Office of Nightlife — a new entity meant to serve as an intermediary between club owners, residents, and city agencies — it came at the tail end of roughly a year of lobbying from advocates for struggling DIY spaces. The hope was that the new office, along with a director informally dubbed the “Nightlife Mayor,” would smooth the path for the operation of startup clubs and bars, revitalizing an industry many venue owners felt was perilously tangled in red tape.

Yet since her appointment was announced March 7, new Nightlife Mayor Ariel Palitz has drawn criticism on her home turf in the East Village. A resident of the neighborhood for two decades, she operated the nightclub Sutra Lounge, on First Avenue near 2nd Street, for half of that time — something some community leaders are charging will make her decidedly pro-bar, in a neighborhood famously more alive at night than during the day.

“People are cleaning vomit off their stoops Saturday morning,” says Laura Sewell of the East Village’s North Avenue A Neighborhood Association, which covers the stretch of Avenue A between 14th and 10th streets. “That’s an unfair burden to put on residents.”

Palitz, whose press office declined Voice requests for an interview, has worn many hats during her time in the East Village. From 2004 to 2014, she ran Sutra Lounge, which drew a hefty number of noise complaints, topping all bars in the city for 311 complaints between January 2010 and October 2011. (A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, representing Palitz, said this was largely due to the persistence of one unhappy neighbor.) From 2007  to 2014, she served on the State Liquor Authority subcommittee of Community Board 3, which gives recommendations to the state authority on matters of licensing.

Yet while this experience makes Palitz intimately familiar both with the challenges facing entrepreneurial business owners vying for a shot at success and with the gripes of residents who have had their fill of liquor-slinging outposts, East Village and Lower East Side locals vehemently disagree over whether Palitz has been willing to give both parties equal treatment.

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***

The Lower East Side and East Village’s reputation as a party hub is now so entrenched in the city’s collective consciousness that it’s difficult to imagine it being any other way — but longtime locals say unchecked hell-raising is a relatively new phenomenon on their blocks. Diem Boyd of the Lower East Side Dwellers Neighborhood Association, which covers the now notoriously booze-soaked cluster of blocks bordered by Houston, Delancey, Allen, and Essex streets that has been dubbed “Hell Square,” says she noticed the chaos start to ramp up between 2003 and 2005 — during that time, the Hotel on Rivington opened between Ludlow and Essex streets, concert venue Fat Baby popped up on the same block, and unfailingly popular drinking destination Pianos opened on Ludlow Street.

By 2006, the subdistrict had earned its ominous moniker. (The first documented use of the term “Hell Square” was reportedly in a post on Eater, though the original article seems to have been taken down.) In the years since, the DL opened at 95 Delancey Street (a bar that has butted heads with neighbors ever since, and last year was raided by police after spawning two violent brawls within two months), rancorous sports bar Hair of the Dog opened at 168 Orchard Street, and the ironically named No Fun (whose owners would sue the Dwellers in 2016 for trying to prevent their liquor license renewal) opened at 161 Ludlow Street. By 2013, the hellish nature of Hell Square was only escalating, and the Lower East Side Dwellers convened to combat the proliferation of liquor licenses they deemed responsible.

Meanwhile, the North Avenue A Neighborhood Association was formed in 2009 as a direct response to an explosion of rowdy nightlife establishments on a once reasonably peaceful stretch of Avenue A. That was the summer, notes association member Dale Goodson, that the block between 12th and 13th streets saw the opening of the notorious Superdive — a bar known for its frat-house atmosphere, keg stands, and champagne nights, for which a dwarf would lop off a champagne cork with a small sword. Upon its closing in the fall of 2010, a breathless obituary in Politico claimed the bar had signified a “tipping point” for the East Village into party central.

“It was the fuse that ignited everything,” confirms Goodson, noting another rowdy bar called Diablo Royale Este started giving neighbors near 10th Street grief in 2010. “Up and down Avenue A, things were starting to really go crazy.”

Locals ever since have lined up at community board meetings to air their grievances about thumping, sleep-disrupting basslines and shouting (and sometimes vomiting) partygoers. And those gripes are backed by statistics. An audit by the State Comptroller’s Office found that the area encompassing the East Village, Lower East Side, and Chinatown in 2015 was the site of more noise complaints stemming from nightlife establishments than anywhere else in the city.

Beyond chipping away at residents’ quality of life, longtime locals complain, the explosion of nightlife has left establishments that don’t serve liquor unable to keep up with climbing rents, driving out daytime attractions and less-moneyed residents alike. The result, at least within pockets of the neighborhood, is more of a boozy Disneyland flush with sloshed tourists than a community.

“The Lower East Side and the East Village have been decimated by this,” says Boyd. “We’ve lost so many mom-and-pop shops, rents have skyrocketed — it’s a transient community in a lot of ways.”

The Dwellers, known for their antagonistic tactics in combating liquor saturation, years ago declared war on Palitz and her Sutra Lounge, calling for her removal from the community board due to the lounge’s “rap sheet” of violations. The group fretted the launch of an office they feared would favor the nightlife industry over beleaguered residents, tweeting last year that a nightlife mayor was “not the answer for communities suffering quality-of-life nightlife blight and crime.”

When they found the appointed nightlife mayor was one of their own, that anxiety only intensified.

Members of the Dwellers, North Avenue A, and the Orchard Street Block Associations all say that during her time on the community board, Palitz voted overwhelmingly in favor of new liquor license applications and brushed aside residents’ concerns in public meetings. (Community Board 3 declined to comment for this article and was unable to provide Palitz’s voting record.)

“They really couldn’t have made a worse choice, in my opinion,” says Pamela Yeh of the Orchard Street Block Association, which covers a swath of blocks below Delancey Street and between Allen and Clinton streets. “She voted in favor of just about passing every [liquor license] application that came through the SLA committee.”

***

Those who served on Community Board 3 with Palitz, however, recall a reasoned and evenhanded presence who was always willing to hear both sides. These former colleagues insist the harsh criticism from bar-weary neighborhood groups is unfair, especially considering the newness of the position.

“I am extremely happy that she got appointed — I think she is the perfect person for this job,” enthuses former board chair Anne Johnson, who says Palitz’s experience as a bar owner should allow her to effectively tackle the issues facing the Lower East Side and East Village. “I always found her to be reasonable and willing to listen to all sides and not just blanketly support one side or the other.”

Former community board member Chad Marlow, who has been a staunch supporter of limiting liquor licenses in the community, recalls Palitz as a voice of reason, attempting to bring “uniformity and clarity” to the process of supporting or denying liquor license applicants on the subcommittee. “I think [for] Ariel, her challenge is going to be to try and find a way to promote the interests of the industry while at the same time protecting the interests of the community, and I have no doubt she’s going to labor very hard to strike that balance,” he says.

Essential to that balance, as far as bar owners are concerned, is an understanding of the hurdles faced by incoming entrepreneurs looking to build a sustainable business, particularly in such skeptical and often combative communities as the Lower East Side. Rents for retail space in the neighborhood are so high, a liquor license is often the only way to stay afloat — yet the tenor of the neighborhood has become warily anti-bar, creating a snag for anyone hoping to make a living out of a rented storefront.

Longtime local and nightlife veteran Nick Bodor, owner of beloved First Avenue dive the Library and shuttered rock music staple the Cake Shop on Ludlow Street, says the process of garnering approval from the community board can be laborious. And all the hoops one must jump through to justify the business model in the meantime — negotiating a lease, hiring a lawyer, hiring an architect to draw up renderings, even beginning to build out the space before the promise of a license is secured — can be prohibitively expensive.  

The result, says Bodor, can be a stifling of creativity and a depressing homogeneity in the bar scene.

“Cake Shop couldn’t make it up to twelve years,” says Bodor. “When you have these $25,000-a-month rents, it’s causing people to do lowest common denominator shit like pubs. It’s taking away any kind of interesting vibe–type places.”

Upon securing a lease, those looking to open a bar will often pay exorbitantly high rents for months while wading through the community board process, which often asks that the operator prove its establishment will be a boon to the community. Sometimes, bar operators will try to go around the community board and appeal directly to the SLA — something Bodor is hopeful will no longer be necessary. “All of that should be ironed out [by] the nightlife mayor,” he says. 

And Palitz is the perfect person to do so, says Bodor, recalling her as a sympathetic and reasonable voice on the SLA subcommittee when he was vying for a liquor license for the Cake Shop’s top floor as a means of staying afloat, even as anti-bar sentiment in the neighborhood was mounting.

“She was like a voice of reason during that time period when she was there, and it was really crazy with really long meetings and lots of opposition — she really understood both sides,” he says.

To assuage fears, Commissioner of Media and Entertainment Julie Menin, who oversees the Nightlife Office, quickly arranged the first of several planned meetings with Lower East Side groups on March 14. Goodson says Menin “seemed genuinely engaged with resident issues with licensing, the SLA, and oversaturation.” Palitz recently made her first public appearance in Bushwick at the invitation of the NYC Artist Coalition, where she addressed the concerns of local business owners. A representative for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment says town halls will eventually be held in every borough so that Palitz can get a feel for issues affecting each community.

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***

The bulk of the inherent distrust in Palitz and her office may stem from the fact that Lower East Side residents have long felt neglected by authorities tasked with overseeing the flow of liquor in their streets. Some, including Marlow, have argued that the community board’s SLA subcommittee has a history of passing wishy-washy resolutions that greenlight new liquor licenses in violation of the SLA’s 500-foot rule, which prohibits issuing a new liquor license within 500 feet of three or more other licensed establishments. The results of this are evident on a map of the Lower East Side: The stretch of Ludlow Street between Houston and Stanton Street, which is roughly 500 feet long, contains six full liquor licenses according to SLA data; the full nine blocks of Hell Square contain over fifty full liquor licenses — and that’s not including beer and wine licenses.  

In early 2016, residents railed against a taqueria seeking a full liquor license that was set to replace a beloved Chinese bakery at 162 East Broadway — the spot was within 200 feet of a church (placing it in violation of another SLA regulation) and within 500 feet of a handful of other liquor-serving establishments. The business owners ultimately moved their entrance to skirt the 200-foot rule, and the community board issued a list of stipulations for them to observe. (The spot is now vegan eatery Jajaja.)

The resulting controversy led to a board resolution solidifying its commitment to the 500-foot rule; since then it has been more unwavering in its rejection of violators. (SLA Subcommittee chair Alex Militano has also pointed out that the board is merely advisory, and it is often in the best interest of the community to recommend stipulations rather than push for an outright rejection from the authority.)

In any case, once a new license has been issued, it is notoriously difficult to have it removed — community members have in the past found themselves saddled with bars that seemingly get slapped on the wrist for violations. Hookah bar Mazaar Lounge at 137 Essex Street earned a renewal despite accruing $20,000 worth of liquor law violations and a violent incident in which a drunk patron attacked a police officer. While the SLA has the authority to revoke, cancel, or suspend licenses for such violations, it often opts for less-damaging penalties — in the case of Mazaar, the lounge was hit with a steep fine as part of a plea deal — a tactic Boyd’s group has slammed as overly lenient. An SLA spokesman noted the authority does have a disciplinary process, pointing out that the DL was hit with a $40,000 fine last November, and could ultimately have its liquor license revoked. 

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment said there was no set interagency strategy in place for tackling nightlife issues, but that the office would work with the SLA and other agencies with a hand in nightlife. And in a written statement to the Voice, Palitz herself reaffirmed her commitment to pursuing nightlife parity: “I have tremendous faith that after we conduct a very thorough listening tour of all five boroughs and listen to all stakeholders in nightlife, we will be able to present a very comprehensive and realistic plan that will address the overall concerns of the residents and business owners alike.”

***

Palitz and her cohorts no doubt have a difficult road ahead of them in her home neighborhood alone if they are to truly balance the interests of business owners grappling for the right to serve booze just to stay afloat, and a rattled community that lives in fear of more drunks pouring into the street below their windows.

But hopes and fears aside, nightlife is an economic and cultural force to be reckoned with — it provides hundreds of thousands of jobs and generates billions of dollars, both from New Yorkers and from out-of-towners flocking to the party hubs its residents hate so much. And so, the city’s logic goes, why should it not be maintained like any other part of the city’s economy?

There needs to be a balance between nightlife activity and residents, and this office can help to mediate situations that occur, and also focus on planning and managing nightlife, instead of letting it organically get out of control and then having to police it,” says Andrew Rigie, founder and executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, who now serves on the advisory board of the Office of Nightlife.

“We focus on city planning, and there’s no reason nightlife shouldn’t be part of the planning. It’s vital to our economy and our culture. And after all, we have been called the city that never sleeps.”

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

Categories
Bars CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Is The DL Nightclub Restaurant Lounge Operating Illegally? Its Neighbors Say “Yes!”

Ever since the first night club set up shop on the first mixed use business/residential street, people have been fighting it out in community board meetings (and more recently, in the comment sections of blogs) about just how numerous and boisterous said night clubs are allowed to be. Sometimes it’s a question of old guard vs. gentrifiers, but often it’s not so simple. The latest front in this fight is LES hotspot The DL, which, at Ludlow and Delancey, sits on the southern perimeter of the one of the city’s worst douche pits, or, as the LES Dwellers community group calls the bar-saturated area, “Hell Square.” According to some vocal members of the community, the place is breaking the rules and operating illegally. According to the people who frequent the club, some people need to refill their Xanax prescriptions. Fight! Fight! Fight!

See also: Expose Yourself To Cro-Mags Singer John Joseph’s “Fuckin’ Photographic Memory and Stories Out the Wazoo” on His Walking Tour of the LES

This dispute gained a decent amount of visibility when local blog Bowery Boogie published an “open letter to the DL from LES Dwellers” detailing the various ways the club has broken the terms of its liquor license. The real eye candy, though, was a series of videos taken at the club’s erstwhile Wednesday night party “Dorian Gray,” one of few events left on the island where Goths mingle with drag queens in true club kid fashion. While nothing very scandalous was happening in any of them, the blog post quickly accrued over 100 comments ranging from “if you don’t like it, move,” to “How about the DL actually complying to rules/regulations that they agreed upon?” Some thought the party was being unfairly targeted. Why did the anonymous videographer choose to film DG’s art-slanting crowd and not the coked out i-bankers or button-down-clad B&T crowd who stumble out of there on various other nights of the week?

“They used our subculture and our event as a visual scapegoat,” says Dorian Gray’s promoter Kayvon Zand when reached by phone. “In reality, whenever there’s been a fight or any kind of issue, it’s never been this party. Why did they decide to tape us, the subculture event? They videotaped us like circus animals without our consent.” He continues: “Obviously they want the club shut down and that’s a separate issue, but they’re trying to use our party as a scapegoat, saying ‘look neighborhood, look community, look any wealthy investors in the building, you don’t want people like this here, so fight for our cause, shut this club down.”

LES Dwellers founder Diem Boyd says there’s a simple explanation for this: timing. While she isn’t willing to speculate on who took the anonymously submitted video, she imagines it was a reaction to the decision handed down by Community Board 3 two days prior to when it was taken, a rare “no vote” resolution that put off a vote until the operator could meet with members of the community. This meeting was scheduled for October 3rd, and the vote was delayed until CB3’s October 7th meeting. The State Liquor Authority, which often (but not always) listens to community board votes, actually renewed The DL’s license even before CB3’s initial vote to deny in September, but could still add stipulations to the license, as well as note violations for the SLA’s records.

“We don’t really care what’s going on in there,” says Boyd. “We don’t care who’s throwing the parties, we don’t care if it’s a hip-hop night or alt night or country music night, that’s not the point. The point is it shouldn’t be occurring in that space. Someone should have told them the party was at an illegal space. This party was just caught in the crossfire.” She said the videos aren’t supposed to be scandalous; their only goal was to prove the DL was, in fact, operating as a nightclub with dancing on multiple floors, DJs, non-service bars, no food for several hours before closing, and all the other elements that make a place “not just a restaurant.”

As for the perception that this struggle is yuppies vs. la vie boheme, Boyd quickly lays that to rest. “I’ve lived in this neighborhood over 20 years,” she says. “I raised my daughter in this neighborhood, I’m the furthest thing from a yuppie. If we were yuppies, we wouldn’t even be fighting this fight. We’d be living in a neighborhood where people weren’t throwing up on our streets and pissing on our doorsteps and screaming in viking hats in the middle of the streets. If we were yuppies, we would not be subject to living in such an area because we’d have the money to get out.”

The DL’s co-owner Paul Seres (pictured above, in orange)—who is also president of the New York Nightlife Association and a member of CB4 in Chelsea—was present at the community meeting October 3rd, telling folks “we’re here to work with you.” He says The DL applied for its license as a “restaurant lounge,” and that LES Dwellers are operating based on old information that only applied to the space’s previous tenant, Ludlow Manor. Despite numerous Yelp reviews to the contrary, he maintains that “we are not a nightclub;” rather, the first floor is a restaurant, the third floor is a private event space, and the second floor is opened up to accommodate overflow.

And what of the suspiciously clubby footage taken at his establishment? “That was the only third party promoter,” he replies. “We fired them two weeks ago as a result of the fact that we were told one thing and they delivered something completely different. There was a discrepancy between how the party was promoted or marketed and how we wanted them to.” He will not say what the discrepancy was, but the timing of this firing does seem somewhat suspicious, as Dorian Gray had been promoting itself in more or less the same way since early August. Is Seres throwing the freaks under the bus to save his own ass?

See also: The Chrome Cranks: Stinking Up the LES Again

At the CB3 meeting on Monday night, Seres faced angry LES residents telling tales of his establishment’s frequent dissembling; one young woman presented a printed out stack of evidence that The DL had been violating the terms of its license by hosting open-to-the-public dance parties with DJs, open bars, outside promoters, etc. She brought up the “Everyday People” brunch party as an example. “How many chances is The DL allowed to have?” she asked.

An annoyed-sounding Seres promised to continue working with the community to reduce noise pollution, offering to close the windows after 8 p.m. He admitted to violating the terms of his license by having DJ parties on the bottom floor that were decidedly louder than “ambient,” but said he would not hold them any longer. He admitted to not always serving food until within an hour of closing, but said that was now fixed. He also defended himself a great deal, although some of it seemed purely semantic, like the distinction he drew between “hosts,” which are apparently kosher, and “promoters,” which are not. He blamed reports of unlimited mimosas on an overly imaginative New York Post reporter (wouldn’t be the first time!). He also claimed not to know Dorian Gray had been promoting itself as a dance party until two weeks ago, when he fired them. (His final “outside promoter.”)

The board has no real authority over The DL’s freshly renewed liquor license, but they still voted to note the violations, as well as to compromise with Seres on certain noise-reducing stipulations to be added to the license. They avoided making the futile gesture of a vote to deny.

Pretty much no one came out smelling like a rose; Seres seemed like a bit of a slippery sophist, while the vocal minority comprising the LES Dwellers came off, well, a bit nuts. It bears mentioning that the group recently got its recognition as a block association suspended for communicating with applicants outside of official channels and essentially acting as its own CB. They’re also bizarrely committed to harassing board member Ariel Palitz by videotaping her statements and posting them on YouTube with nasty copy appended. Then again, how crazy would you feel if your rent-controlled apartment of many years was suddenly annexed by the vibrating airspace of a triple-decker clurrrrrb? Excuse me: restaurant lounge.

As one might have suspected from the get-go, Seres will continue to operate his “restaurant lounge” relatively unhampered by his opponents in the LES Dwellers Association, with public scoldings the cost of doing business. As for the “fired” club kid party, Zand says DG will be resurrected at nearby Bowery Electric tonight, October 9th. He is hardly worried about its future; if anything, he seems invigorated by the controversy. “Dorian Gray’s not going out without a fight,” he said. “This isn’t the end, it is just the beginning.”

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Categories
Bars CULTURE ARCHIVES Media MUSIC ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Technology THE FRONT ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES

Lady Rizo and Bridget Everett Show us How Stars Get Made

“I’m fameish,” slapstick chanteuse Lady Rizo deadpanned to me, understandably sounding a tiny bit bitter. Funny, Rizo doesn’t look fameish. She looks like a major talent who can wow an audience with her “caburlesque” antics and who would have been great in Funny Girl when they were fishing around for a revival not long ago.

But while Rizo (aka Grammy-winning Amelia Zirin-Brown from Portland, Oregon) has built a following on the Joe’s Pub circuit since 2004, that big break remains as elusive as a comeback for that other Lady. “I’m so ready for world domination,” Rizo told me, angstily. “I think it’s coming this year. I hope so. Doing this costs so much money. I’m tired of making an opportunity to invest in myself again. I enjoy being cult and being discovered by audiences every show, but I’ve been sweating on the boards long enough. I’m ready for ‘the negative side of fame.’ Bring it on!”

It certainly beats the negative side of fameishness, which generally means holding down a day job, tirelessly rehearsing and performing nights and weekends, and pleading with friends, both real and on Facebook, to come support you one more time, all while waiting for some Scott Rudin type to swoop in and make you mega. Alas, even those who deserve that transition don’t necessarily get it, especially when they eschew the reality-show route in favor of the old building-momentum-via-live-performing approach, which is honest but a bit quaint these days.

Bridget Everett, a wonderfully ribald rock singer from Kansas who’s sort of like a fleshier Rizo, has been lighting up NYC stages for years and has had a few great breaks along the way. In 2007, Sex and the City writer Michael Patrick King and musician Kenny Mellman collaborated with her on an Ars Nova show called At Least It’s Pink, which was supposed to transfer to a large theater, but somehow that fell through. Everett then gained the interest of Patti LuPone, who duetted with her at Joe’s Pub in between singing her praises to the audiences. (“Everybody listen to me,” crowed Patti. “Bridget Everett, there’s no one like you!”) More recently, Amy Schumer hired Bridget as an opening act, exposing her to large comedy clubs and other venues way different from the usual local cabaret rooms. But once these gigs pass and superstardom still evades, then what? “It’s back to square one,” Bridget told me, “but not really, because you’ve done something and established relationships. You never know when it’s gonna pay off. It’s such a slow road, but it’s getting better.

“Every year I feel is gonna be the year, but honestly, you have to be so tenacious and you have to really love what you’re doing. I do love it, but I’m ready for some action. I’ve had what feels like a million near-misses. I don’t count on anything till I’m cashing a check.”

That same day, Bridget was scheduled for a conference call with William Morris, so hope sprang big-time again. She’ll update me if it doesn’t work out. If it does, I’ll hear about it.

Meanwhile, a protégée of Bridget’s, Molly Pope, is experiencing a similar mix of frustration and hope. Molly is a powerful 31-year-old actress/singer who may have been born too late; her vocal stylings seem Ethel Mermanesque, though she fascinatingly applies them to contempo stuff; her brassy “Rolling in the Deep,” performed in a cardboard lifeboat, gave Adele a run for her angst. She’s done a lot of shows, but performing is not exactly lucrative at this level (which is why Molly works as a personal assistant/organizer for seven clients by day, never turning down an offer).

“The Duplex is the only room I’ve ever made money in,” she told me, referring to the long-running West Village club. “I can get more people to come there than Joe’s Pub because it’s a cheaper cover charge.” Of course she’d love to go all the way to Broadway, but Molly admits that could be a challenge “because I’m non-union and have no representation. But I look at Bridget and say, ‘She stuck with it.’ Maybe I’m expecting things to happen more quickly than they will.”

As a result of her career frustrations, Molly had a “full-on breakdown” last fall—”not my first. It’s a constant mental and emotional battle for me,” she admitted. But rather than remain hostage to her fears, she’s learning to make adjustments. To bolster her spirit, Molly quit Facebook, where everyone’s amazing news made her feel horrible about herself. “But I need to stop focusing so much on the negative,” she realized, “and know there are good things happening. And know that what I’m doing, however I’m doing it, is getting me somewhere. Also, I need to set goals and work toward them or I could wind up going around in circles.”

For example, Molly recorded a demo for Bernadette Peters for Smash, but now wonders, “How do I turn that into something more? Or find a way to still work a day job and maybe have cabaret not be the life goal? I change my mind every day. There’s no right way to go about having a career, so I vacillate between ‘Be happy with what you’re doing’ and ‘No, I have to burn down [big casting director’s] door.'” Advice to the fameish: A little of both might be advisable.

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Remembering The Early Days of The Michael Alig Crime Coverage

I’m no Woodward or Bernstein, but I was at the forefront of getting out the buzz on the famed club kid slaying when word started percolating in 1996.

I had chronicled Michael Alig‘s rise and fall from day one. I was the first one to write about him and was involved in many of his events, celebrating what was exciting about the scene while also acting as an elder statesman and critic who chided him when he went too far, which was often.

And he had started to go so far over the top that I’d decided to stop writing about him. There was no fun around him anymore–just caked-on makeup, drugs, and desperation.

But suddenly he was newsworthy again.

The first week of April 1996, Alig called me to say he’d been fired by Peter Gatien, owner of Limelight, where Alig threw his outrageous and colorful club kid bashes for years.

Alig sounded jittery and messy–really on the edge–and was giving various suspect reasons for his firing.

My column about our conversation came out on April 10, 1996, with a big photo of Alig and Gatien.

I quoted Alig saying of Gatien and company, “They pretended that they cared about me and sent me to rehab. When I came back, the firing and padlocking had happened!”

He made himself the victim.

I also quoted a clubbie saying Michael had actually escaped from rehab and needed a lot more help.

I mentioned the talk that someone close to Alig had disappeared, and there was chatter about who did what. At that point, it was just talk, and hadn’t reached the deafening levels it was growing towards, but this was the first public attention to the buzz about a missing person.

Two weeks later, Alig admitted to New York magazine that he had a money fight with drug dealer/clubbie Angel Melendez and knew about the detached body part rumors (which he was evasive about).

In our issue that week, I ran my famed April 23 blind item (“Night Clubbing”), which the lawyer made even blinder, though I snuck in some extra clues.

The item detailed the buzz about Alig and Freeze‘s destruction of Angel Melendez–the fight over drug money, the hammer, the Drano, and the disposal into the river–while including the obligatory evasive reaction from “Mr. Mess.”

It raised a ruckus, especially since anyone insidery and/or who reads was able to figure who it was about.

Page Six certainly got it. They ran an April 27 lead item that picked up the New York piece and my item, and that really put it over the top. It was huge.

The Page Six story, titled “Mystery of the Missing Club Kid,” put together all the current reporting while quoting Gatien’s publicist shamelessly claiming that this was all scuttlebutt that had gotten ridiculously out of hand.

Meanwhile, a reporter who had viciously implied in my own paper that I was old and out of it didn’t know about any of this at this point. Waiting by the elevator several days after the Page Six item, I mentioned the Alig thing to him and he replied “WHAAAAAAAAAT?” It pained me to have to save his ass and tell him everything! This, you’ll recall, was the guy who’d called me too pathetic to know what’s happening in nightlife.

And after writing a cover story in which he nicely credited me for breaking the details of the story, he went on to try to get producers to bump me from coverage of the whole mess. (“Why are you using him? It’s my story!!!!”)

Even though I was part of the club kid scene from day one–and again, had handed him the story, despite my reluctance to talk to him at all.

(Also, what he’d called me irrelevant for saying–that clubs were becoming too loungey–was something he ended up screeching again and again. That’s a complicated story, so I’ll have more on that later.)

Several times I felt forced to fight back and almost sink to an icky level. But I’ll say this: At least he did delve into the story and investigate, so kudos to that. As I said, I’m no investigative reporter–though over 16 years later, I was still winning awards for Best NYC Nightlife Writer.

Anyway, from there, the story grew and grew–and horrifyingly enough turned out to be true, true, true.

When Alig gets out of jail, I will be on top of that too.

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Gay Nightlife Wars Heat Up

XL–the gay dance club that’s attached to the Out NYC hotel–has gone through some changes this year, including the letting go of co-owners John Blair and Beto Sutter, who resurfaced with a hit party at Stage 48 on Saturdays, thereby giving them heavy competition.

The contest has gotten fierce, so XL keeps upping the ante and changing their slate,which is either wonderfully invigorating or terribly confusing, depending on your point of view. On certain nights they’re just plain closed, but on others, they’ve got tons of s**t going on. On Sundays they’ve instituted a Strip ‘N Grind party “featuring over 30 dancers, lap dancers, pole dancers, champagne rooms, live erotic acts and burlesque.”

Thanks to the talent alone, the place will always look crowded

I hear they’ve been considering maybe possibly doing a straight (or mixed) party on one of the other nights, like Friday. And that’s sick! Kidding. Straights are people too–though they’d probably have to change the adjoining structure’s name to the IN NYC Hotel.

Furthermore, tonight they’re opening the Rosebud Lounge, which is XL’s front part after having been redone and sectioned off for a separate admission. (UPDATE: The opening has been postponed.)

You can’t fault these people for trying.

In other nightlife news, Swiss miss Susanne Bartsch-who does Tuesdays with Joey Arias at the Soho Grand–will resume her Tuesday night Le Bain parties on June 4. (Hopefully there will be a disco bus from West Broadway to the Standard. If not, just run). And Paper‘s Mickey Boardman is going to be one of the hosts.

Between that and the pole dancers, it’s going to be a very busy summer.

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Oscar winners! Rock legends! Sperm donors! All in one room!

Twice a year, the Parsippany Sheraton overflows with ex-sitcom stars, cult movie sidekicks, aging action heroes, and their rabid fans for the hugely entertaining Chiller Theatre autograph convention, which serves up celebrity at its most unapologetically commercial. Positioned at tables throughout various rooms on the main floor, the fondly remembered stars make money off their signed photos, and so do you if you end up selling them on eBay, making for a win-win. But most of the fans exude the ruddy glow of earnestness, clearly wanting pieces of collectible nostalgia strictly for comfort, plus the chance to dine off them for years (but not as placemats). Working the room like a nicer Rupert Pupkin, I noticed that Lorenzo Lamas and Antonio Sabato Jr. still looked do-able, the Raging Bull crew still looked a little scary, and pop star Debbie Gibson seemed happy, telling me, “This is my second autograph show. I should have done it sooner. I’m a people person and everyone’s in a festive mood!”

Patty Duke sure was. When I asked the Oscar winner if Neely O’Hara—her messy character from the 1960s musical melodrama Valley of the Dolls—would be in a reality show if she were alive today, Patty replied, “Yes! From her therapy sessions!”

Another ex-child star, Dennis The Menace‘s Jay North, succumbed to my psychiatric skills when I asked him if he overcompensated as a kid by making sure everyone knew he wasn’t really as horrid as Dennis. “I was the antithesis of the character,” Jay assured me. “I was a happy-go-lucky kid. I didn’t have a big ego.” To make sure I didn’t give him one now, I refused to buy an autographed photo.

Once troubled Todd Bridges from Diff’rent Strokes told me his dark, icky days are way behind him and things are diff’rent now. “I’m 20 years sober,” he said. “Is it one day at a time?” I wondered, sipping a Diet Coke. “No,” replied Todd, plainly. “I just don’t do it, and that’s that!”

Cheers also to Mark Lester, who was so good in the title role of Oliver!, though it turns out there was help from various clowns and magicians. Lester told me director Carol Reed placed all sorts of circusy entertainers behind the camera to get the desired reactions from the kids (which would have scared the living crap out of me). But Lester, who’s now a chiropractor, told me it’s not an act of legerdemain to say he ended up being a sperm donor for Michael Jackson. (Yes, he apparently “beat it” for the king of pop.) “I don’t regret saying it,” confided Lester, who feels he may well be the biological father of Paris Jackson. So he stands by his claim? “Yes,” Lester stated, solemnly. (“Consider yourself one of the family . . .”)

Everybody’s eccentric uncle, piercing-eyed character actor Udo Kier, was selling DVDs at his table and telling me that Andy Warhol had nothing to do with birthing Dracula and Frankenstein except for producing them, which partly meant showing up on the set with his dog and taking pictures for glamour magazines. But Kier doesn’t think bitter auteur Paul Morrissey should feel slighted, since he does get a director’s credit. “I’m happy Paul is not here. He’d destroy my posters,” said Kier, pointing to the wall hangings with Warhol’s name in monstrously large typeface.

In another corner, Peter Tork—of the ’60s pre-fab four, the Monkees—was hawking a blues album as his handler added her own capital letters by shrieking, “He’s doing a tour! Check out his Facebook page!”

Rocky Horror had a separate section of stars, including Nell Campbell, who went from tap-dancing with drag queens to being an ’80s club entrepreneur for upper-crusties. “Remember when Peter Stringfellow sent you a bottle of Cristal at my club?” Nell asked me, bemused. Yes, ’80s club owners were so ingratiating—and rich—that they’d even forward your free booze to a rival establishment!

At the next table, Rocky Horror‘s Barry Bostwick and I got into a sober discussion of old miniseries and kitsch films, with Barry concluding, “Sometimes the trashy things are fun. I love the cheesy ’80s stuff.” Talk about preaching to the perverted.

In the big room, an ’80s leading lady, Mariel Hemingway, was signing photos for $25 bucks, though her old Playboy nudes cost a whopping $60. Nudes, Mariel? “You worry about it when you’re younger,” she confessed to me, “but when you’re older, you’re like. ‘I was hot!'” Especially when you get the photos home and take the stickers off the titties.

Curvaceous Tia Carrere told me she wondered if she should ask Mike Myers to do another Wayne’s World, this time with her singing Hawaiian songs in a muumuu. “But no, we can’t do Wayne’s World 3,” she concluded. “We’d all have to come out on walkers!” As I limped to the exit, a pudgy girl in an appliquéd T-shirt spotted a rock drummer signing autographs and moaned, “But he’s not even one of the famous ones from the group. They’re dead!” A tragic state of affairs—but the lord giveth again when a guy pulled a copy of my latest book out of a paper bag and feverishly asked me to sign it. I started to, then wondered if I should charge extra for the nude shot.

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Happy Anniversary, Susanne Bartsch

At her weekly party with singer Joey Arias at the Soho Grand, promoter/hostess extraordinaire Susanne Bartsch elegantly announced, “Happy anniversary to me! It’s the one-year anniversary of my tits.”

Afterwards, I cornered her to specify just what she meant–I’m slow school–and the Swiss miss explained, “I had them lifted a year ago.”

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They don’t look a day older than 11 months!