The word “character” has multiple meanings in trying to tell people about Gaslight owner Matt De Matt. He certainly is a character, having been a doorman and subsequently a friend to celebrities like Bruce Willis, Mick Jagger, and scores of Page 6-worthy names. He’s been an actor appearing in movies like The Professional as part of Gary Oldman’s bad cop crew, Searching for Bobby Fischer with Laurence Fishburne and Sir Ben Kingsley, and a couple flicks with pal Mickey Rourke. When Mickey went up to prison for research on a character, he brought Matt along to play his cellmate. He lands these 20-lines-or-under parts playing a badass. He’s been a wrestling announcer for the ECW (now WWE). There’s even a book coming out about his life called War Stories. The first four chapters of this tome, “written by a New York Times writer,” are war stories, door stories, whore stories, and more stories. He’s a self-professed “live and die by a handshake, not trying to be a celebrity just trying to be a nice guy, putting out a good product” type of guy.
Matt De Matt will celebrate his 50th birthday at his joint Gaslight this very night. The characters of his life will gather and toast to one of those no-regret kind of peeps. Only a bum leg kept Bruce Willis from not showing once out of the last dozen years. He tells Matt, “You took care of me when I was a nobody.” His door career lists Xenon, the later Studio 54, Funhouse with the legendary Jelly Bean Benitez, and most famously Heartbreak from 1981 to ’91. Heartbreak was in that “Culture Club” (wow what a misnomer) space on Varick Street. By day it was a truck stop where blue- and white-collar workers and the truckers dined on meatloaf with two sides of veggies. The 18-wheelers lined the streets leading to the Holland Tunnel in all directions. At night the stainless serving stations were pushed to the sides, and the disco lights hidden in the blacked-out ceiling came to life.
The brilliant Lenny Berg created Heartbreak, which in its time was the rocker-lounge equivalent of Studio 54. It came from out of “what we were surrounded by” and long before the novelty of walking through an alley or kitchen tantalized trendies, Lenny Berg understood the power of that “discovered place.” Bruce hung there, as did Mick and the rest of the Stones, the Stray Cats, and the girls that always follow rockers and the guys who follow the girls who don’t land one. Record producer “Fat” Frankie started his legendary Monday nights there, which later made the China Club “the” place to be for this rocker/athlete/model set. Matt was “fired 13 times at the China Club.” Celebrities would need his wit, charm, and character at their tables and would drag him from the door. After a “final warning,” Matt was found at Mick’s table, and he was fired in front of the Stone, who stood up and asked “Is this necessary?” Mick had promised to protect Matt, helping him if indeed he did get kicked, and Matt survived another day.
He hobnobbed at Paulie Herman’s Cafe Central with Pacino, De Niro, and Harvey Keitel. He was a fixture at Club A with owners Carlos and Pelé — yeah, that Pelé. He helped the legendary Jerry Brandt and Tommy Pooch open Spodeeodee on way West 23rd Street, where that strip joint sits now. There it was — Malcolm Forbes and his biker boys, Zeppelin lead Robert Plant, Rod Stewart, Rick James, Axl Rose, Edgar Winter, and Keith Hernandez — yeah, that Keith Hernandez. Their all-star jams with Stones studio musicians and others brought “surprise guests” and an “anything can happen” attitude. Matt owned Thursday nights. He was at Le Bar Bat with my dear departed friend Joyce for a six-year stint.
“Clubs used to be fun … I’m treated with respect everywhere, but there used to be club courtesy, and you never looked down at anybody.” He took six years to get a core group together to help him operate and raise the money, but then he found and opened Gaslight. It was at the time a gay bar called Mike’s. The Meatpacking District back then was really the Meatpacking District. If you could get used to the smell of rotting meat and blood, navigate around the addicts, ignore the TV hookers and the violent punks that worked them, there were things to do. The Mineshaft and the Vault attracted an adventurous crowd, and Florent fed the entire scene late at night. Eventually Johnny Dynell and Chi Chi opened Jackie 60 there, but Matt’s attempt at a bar seemed farfetched. “We had to literally go to the subway station and escort the girls to the place.”. Now 15 years later, he’s surrounded by the smart set enjoying STK, Tenjune, the Ganesvoort, 675, and the rest. Gaslight is still that no-frills honest bar on the corner of 14th and 9th, but it’s expanded with Gaslight Pizzeria and G2, the lounge next door. He even has a VIP room downstairs for those who need that kind of place. The chapters on his book keep getting written, as he has plans to operate the ambient end — the people side of a hotel. For sure it will be a place that has character.