09.22.11

New York’s Lord of Late Night

Dubbed the ‘Lord of Late Night,’ Peter Gatien ran four New York City nightclubs in the 1980s and ‘90s—The Limelight, Palladium, Club USA, and Tunnel. The subject of a documentary called ‘Limelight,’ in theaters Friday, Gatien shares his favorite nightclub memories with Marlow Stern.

“I came from a small town, Cornwall, Ontario, and the Summer of Love—1968 and 1969—were my teen years. Hosting Mick Jagger’s 40th birthday party at Limelight was huge. Everybody wanted to be Mick Jagger as a kid. One thing I’ll always remember is Mick Jagger was up in the VIP room and there used to be a little bathroom in the hallway, and I walk down the hallway and see Mick Jagger with his hand out asking people for toilet paper.

“Prince used to come with an entourage of nine people, go up to the VIP room, sit in a corner by himself with all nine people surrounding him so no one could get to him. Then he’d go down to the dance floor and have all nine people surround him, dance for an hour, go back upstairs. What pleasure he got from being in a public place, I have no idea. Stories like that you file in the back of your brain and are pretty remarkable.

“We had a rock ‘n’ roll night at Limelight that ran for nine years and broke everybody from Pearl Jam to Guns N’ Roses. I remember Jimmy Page jamming onstage. Tuesdays was industrial night, so we had Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails. Wednesdays, we had incredible DJs like Paul Oakenfold. Fridays was techno from the U.K., since we were the first club to play techno. We had hip-hop Sunday nights at the Palladium with everyone from Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z to Puffy performing and record execs were there to check out the talent. Limelight appealed and catered to everything from rockers, industrial people, the gay crowd, and techno, to everyone else. And watching 1,500 to 2,500 people with their arms up in the air, smiling ear-to-ear and having the time of their lives, or exchanging phone numbers at the end of the night—in your mind, you get a snicker like, ‘How many people am I responsible for getting laid tonight?’

“I remember movie leading men walking out of bathrooms with vomit all over their shirts, celebrities rolling around on the couch. I’ve got a lot of those stories but my lips are sealed. People went and had a good time. It wasn’t like there were BJs in every corner, but the Limelight was an ex-church and so it had a lot of nooks and crannies where people could make out aggressively. I remember one couple was real-estate power brokers by day, and at night, they’d come to Limelight with total sheer and absolutely nothing underneath. You could see the genital area and everything. We’d have people dress 'outrageously' or 'exotically,' but it wasn’t Plato’s Retreat. It was a music-driven club with multiple dance floors, so there was a real diversity in crowds and music. In the end, it was the crowd we drew that made those places institutional.

Limelight
Magnolia Pictures

“My job was to create culture, and I put a lot of energy into it being a creative community. It was a temporary career for them, and my staff wasn’t bleach-blond girls with huge boobs, it was a real section of New York—drag queens, anything else. The fashion designer Richie Rich used to work for me. Chazz Palminteri worked as assistant manager/security at Limelight, Dolph Lundgren was a door person. Jennifer Aniston’s boyfriend, Justin Theroux, was in the art department. There’s a reason people are nostalgic for the ‘90s in New York, and it’s not only because of Limelight. People in the creative community can no longer afford to live in Manhattan. Everything has gotten so expensive there it’s almost like going to a mall in New York—everything is a Nike store or a Banana Republic. I don’t think it has the allure that it used to. Before, New York was considered a real destination for people to have a terrific nighttime experience. Now, Americans go to Miami and Vegas, or they go to Europe. But New York is no longer a destination as a great party city.

In my mind, Giuliani single-handedly destroyed the fabric of New York City.

“It’s important to know that Ecstasy was not illegal in New York State until 1998. So in people’s mindset, Ecstasy was less illegal than lighting a cigarette in the non-smoking section of a restaurant. So, the fact that my clubs had to be an oasis and I had to control pills when nobody else did in New York is beyond absurd. I got acquitted for the drug charges in three hours after a five-week trial. The Feds win 99 percent of their cases, but I had a great lawyer, Ben Brafman [who represented DSK recently]. It was a major embarrassment to the Feds that they lost that case.

“In my mind, Giuliani single-handedly destroyed the fabric of New York City. The idea now is to make everybody a conformist. I don’t know so much about gay clubs, but with the straight clubs, the clients they aspire to cater to are people who look like Paris Hilton or the Kardashians who come in and spend $1,200 or $900 on bottles and table service. All the focus is on catering to the high end, what I call the 'plastic set.' No thought is given to diversity of crowd. In my day, you’d have a much better chance of getting into the club if you were a long-haired person, gay person, drag queen, in sequins, or had an interesting look about you, as opposed to pulling up with a black AmEx and a Bentley. We’d respect you if you did, but you certainly wouldn’t have gotten ahead of the line. It’s more exclusive today. Everybody looks the same and there’s no energy. All I hear is lament.”

Peter Gatien currently resides in Toronto, Canada, and is living on a tight budget. The Feds finally nabbed him for income-tax evasion in 1999 for failing to report $1 million in club earnings, and, since he was a non-citizen, Gatien was deported from the U.S. in 2003 due to Department of Homeland Security immigration laws. He is developing a TV series based on his nightlife experiences.