It’s one of those early June nights typical for a New York summer—the air feels breezy, but it’s not cold. Two pretty girls cling to their spot on the sidewalk in front of the velvet rope of a club downtown.
One has a black pixie haircut that must have been labored over for hours in a salon, or it could be a wig. She resembles Zooey Deschanel. The other is a statuesque blonde, who whispers to me that they traveled all the way from Rhode Island to visit this West Village dive bar. They are college-age, possibly over 21.
“Are you here to see Mac?” Pixie asks me suspiciously. I nod, and the two girls relax. They don’t know him, but they read online about the flamboyant parties that he throws. Pixie seems to have a crush on him. She looks hurt when the bouncer says Mac dislikes brunettes, until it dawns on her that he’s only joking, and a small smile flashes across her face.
A few minutes later, the bouncer hands me a paper hat featuring an orange T-Rex about to swallow a smaller blue dinosaur. I put it on, with the understanding that I’m about to attend a birthday party. Nobody will tell me whose. We descend a flight of stairs, and scan the underground bar for our host.
Mac is short for Macaulay, as in Macaulay Culkin, who at the age of 10 landed the starring role in Home Alone, the most successful movie of 1990. He was so cuddly that he became the biggest child actor Hollywood had ever seen, receiving up to $8 million per film. Some of his follow-up performances weren’t as memorable, unless you were close to his age, like I was, and obsessed with My Girl, Getting Even With Dad, Richie Rich, and The Good Son (which I couldn’t see, because it was rated R). Then puberty hit and Culkin came crashing back to Earth, as most child actors do. His parents bickered over the control of his estate in a nasty, public divorce. In 2004, Culkin, virtually unrecognizable, was arrested for possession of marijuana and various pills while driving through Oklahoma with his friend, Brett Tabisel.
Culkin tried to return to acting as an adult, including the independent film Party Monster and a guest appearance on Will & Grace. His last feature was 2007’s straight-to-video Sex and Breakfast, which IMDb describes as “young couples experiment with anonymous group sex.” Since then, Culkin’s main job has been staying out of the public’s eye. Last year, he quietly started a new job as a New York DJ at Le Poisson Rouge, a club managed by Tabisel, also a former child actor.
A publicist for the event said that I could attend, but that I couldn’t interview or photograph Culkin under any circumstances. Tabisel and all of Culkin’s friends also declined my request for an interview.
The 20-somethings at the bar told me each of Culkin’s parties come with its own theme, usually tangentially related to adolescence. He had a prom where he crowned his own king and queen. After the paparazzi snapped a shot of him in February, looking scraggly and gaunt on a New York street, he hosted a canned- food drive to mock the tabloids that wondered whether he had been starving himself. Tonight’s dinosaur birthday party is like a piece of performance art: a former child actor’s reinterpretation of childhood. Its actual meaning is harder to understand.
There are dinosaurs everywhere: dinosaur posters, dinosaur toys, dinosaur balloons and whistles. I stuff a green dinosaur bookmark into my pocket. Some of the guests actually arrive in full dress, including a man wearing a teetering cardboard dino head. Natalie Suarez, 25, fashioned her green hoodie to look like a Dilophosaurus, the poison-spitting dinosaur from Jurassic Park. Two TV screens play Jurassic Park 3, the campy sequel that wasn’t directed by Steven Spielberg. At the bar, you can order $5 ptero-daiquiri shots—a sign advertises them with a cartoon pterodactyl and a “Rawwr!!!”
After ordering a drink, I move in the same direction as most of the other patrons, toward a foldout table with an empty chair. I sit down, in front of small jars of paint, manned by a shy 20-something. Toby describes himself as an artist who usually doesn’t paint faces, but Mac asked him to. “What kind of dinosaur do you want?” he asks me. I ask him what kinds of dinosaurs he draws. I ponder the selection (pterodactyl, triceratops, etc) before settling on a T-Rex. He dips his brush into the green paint and giggles, saying that my stubble makes this harder. When he’s done, he looks frustrated. “I’m sorry,” he says. “You might need to wash it off.”
My search for the DJ booth leads nowhere. That’s because there is no DJ. One of the Rhode Island girls explains that Culkin doesn’t really DJ at these parties. “He plays his iPod—it’s an iPod party,” she says. The music sounds like generic 90s grunge, with an occasional Madonna, Aerosmith, or Beastie Boys song thrown in.
Hovering near the unmanned iPod resting on the side bar, stands a short, pallid blond man. Here is our Gatsby, except he is more like Willy Wonka. Even in a crowded, packed room, Culkin is impossible to miss. In the dim light, he sometimes looks like an adolescent and sometimes like an old man. But never, from any distance or light, does he look his real age of 31.
Most of his friends are stationed at a giant table in the back of the bar, a cross between the Last Supper and a toddler’s birthday party. There’s a paper tablecloth and dinosaur action figures scattered around two delicious birthday cakes. Culkin’s younger brother Kieran, who played a rebellious teenager in Igby Goes Down, is there, as is his other brother, Shane, who is not an actor.
When Culkin finally speaks at around midnight, his voice is high-pitched and androgynous. “Hi everybody, welcome to the dinosaur party! Thank you for all coming, it’s been a blast.” He awards a girl named Carolyn with a ribbon for her stegosaurus bodysuit. He plays with a pair of chattering teeth and then reveals that it’s actually Shane’s birthday. The crowd roars. He thanks everyone for coming “from the bottom of my heart.”
Corey Michaels, one of his guests, spent the afternoon before the party at Toys ’R Us, where he bought 20 plastic dinosaurs that he glued onto his T-shirt. When Culkin sees the shirt at the bar, their eyes lock. “He said, ‘I love it, I give it an A plus’” Michaels, a 26-year-old singer from Miami, remembers. He believes Culkin’s voice might have been part of the performance. “I think he went into a party-monster space in his head. I think that’s the whole point.”
“He’s always warm,” says Suarez, who has attended several of his parties and says Culkin often makes small talk with the guests. “I wouldn’t say in a flirtatious way, just in a receptive way. He’s always asking people how they found out about the party.”
If Culkin seems a little distant in person, it’s may be because his life hasn’t been easy, despite the millions that he earned before he got a driver’s license. After he became famous, his father, Kit, divorced his mother, Patricia, and tried to claim ownership over Culkin’s multimillion-dollar fortune. The case went to the Manhattan Supreme Court, and Culkin became estranged from his father. In 1998, his mother’s house burned down in a fire. Ten years after that, his sister Dakota was killed in a L.A. pedestrian accident. But despite all this tragedy, most of us still remember Culkin as the cute kid from Home Alone.
Culkin never self-destructed before our eyes, but what’s unclear is his current state of mind. I couldn’t tell whether his dinosaur party was ironic. Since we’ve all trapped him as a child, perhaps he wants his guests to be there with him. If playing the DVD of Jurassic Park 3 was meant as a playful wink to Hollywood for not casting him in the third Home Alone movie, then good for him—if not, then I would tell him the first movie is definitely the best one. I couldn’t tell whether he is bitter and angry, or whether he needs some friends and this is the safest way for him to hang out in public.
Throughout the night, a small group of people kept accompanying Culkin into a back room and they’d return reeking of pot smoke. I tried to follow them, but the bouncer wouldn’t let me. Some of the guests insisted that Culkin had an entire apartment upstairs, though no one actually saw it. When I finally snuck by, I ended up in an empty space, a fully stocked, abandoned second bar, like an alternate universe. It was dead silent. I couldn’t even hear Culkin’s iPod music. Where did everybody go? Standing in the dark, I felt lost, like the time I wandered off by myself on a second-grade field trip to the history museum. Maybe it was all the alcohol or the dinosaurs, but I had the sudden urge to call my mother.
Another bouncer found me crouched in a corner and escorted me back to the bar. Culkin was long gone. The party was over, with a room full of exhausted Mac fans, their faces smudged in paint.
The next day, I called the club to ask them about the event. Dustin Nelson, the marketing director for Le Poisson Rouge, said that he’d been getting emails all day about the party. It wasn’t Shane’s birthday, he tells me. “It was no one’s birthday,” he said. “It was a birthday party for dinosaurs. It’s totally nonsensical.”