Man about town Steven Greenberg has passed and I’m going to put my two cents in. I’d put in three but I have a feeling, if he could, he’d scold me for overpaying. Over many years, Steven was a friend, mentor, and a go-to-guy when I needed a big brain and an honest answer. He was always more than pleased to help. A couple of years ago when I was putting together some nightlife community thing, he advised me about the people I was dealing with and why it would fall short of my expectations. He was unrelenting, unforgiving, and spot-on. I was in too deep to go back, but his wisdom had me prepared for the inevitable.
A long time ago, there was this club called Palladium. It was my job to fill its 108,000-square-foot space about five nights a week with people that mattered. To give you an idea of how big that is, it is more than two Webster Halls and maybe 15 Marquees. Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were on top of the pyramid and were really great at bringing in top-tier celebrities to create the shock and awe such gigantic places needed. In this modern era, superstar DJs drive the car. Back then, it was Yoko and Liza and Rick James and Andy Warhol. Palladium never lived up to Studio 54 -Steve and Ian’s previous project – but it did have its moments. We did do 3,000 to 5,000 people, five nights a week. It was a pre-bottle universe but people drank a lot more and most paid admission.
I learned many lessons working for these geniuses of nightlife. The specifics were lost in time, but there was this party, and Madonna was going to be there …she really was supposed to. We were even allowed to say it, but we opted not to. The thought process was that we were going to sell out anyway, but if we said that Madonna was going to host or pass through or whatever then everyone would be focusing on that and not the party. The theory went on that if she does show, then everyone will be energized, as it will come as a great and wonderful surprise. Madonna ended up showing, sitting on the backbar, and reading the magazine that prompted the party. It was a party where the anticipation of the celebrity didn’t squash the fun.
Another event at Palladium was an Elite Model soiree. Again, we opted to limit promotion to the model agencies’ list. We didn’t tell our adoring public about the event. The logic was that model agency parties attracted the worst kind of guys and it would be swell if people came and saw a place packed with long-legged beauties. Without knowledge of the event, they might think it was like that every night. I did a good job.
Another time we produced a Koshin Satoh fashion show. He did clothes for lots of famous folk like Miles Davis and Rick Ocasek and Andy Warhol. Again, we knew Andy was going to show but we left it an undiscovered secret. The crowd that came was pumped up by his presence and the party was off the hook. For me, having the party off the hook was more important than a Page Six mention. He was swarmed by the press, including a TV crew who asked him why he had come for the Koshin Satoh show and he replied "Because Koshin designs clothes for Don Johnson.” The interviewer didn’t understand and said "So?" and Andy deadpanned: "Oh, because I think I look like Don Johnson." I held back my laughter as she went away confused and happy. Andy let loose a small smile as she skitted away.
I was mad about Andy. You can take all your Guitar Heros, DJ Megastars and whose-reality-is-it-anyway TV stars and toss them away. Andy was my reason to be cheerful. My clubs and the great clubs of this day are driven by the great crowds and off the hook parties. Word of mouth, amongst the people who actually got in past the door staff, was and remains more important than housewives reading gossip in the NY Post or other periodical. Most savvy operators realize their revenue streams aren’t driven by mentions in Us Weekly.
Last night I attended the VAR Magazine launch event. In fact, I was the DJ. It was a great party. Everyone had a blast. Sally Shan did a fantastic job. She will be happy when she reads this. She is sleeping now because she put everything into it. At the event there were whispers that Ron Wood, out and about pushing his book, would show and that Adrian Grenier was going to perform. These whispers didn’t become the focus of the event because Sally and the other organizers didn’t let the celebrity or the anticipation of one get in the way of a good event.
The Wooster Street Social Club, known as that tattoo place on NY Ink, was the setting for this bash. One of the highlights of the evening was me getting a tattoo while spinning records…well, CDs. Has this been done before? You can Google it if you think it’s important. You can even call the Guinness Book of World Records or start an event where everyone leaves with a tattoo to remember it. Luke Wessman did my tat. Even though the event was wonderful, in time it will fade in memory for even those who had a blast. I won’t forget it, as the ink will always be there to remind me. What did I get?… Andy Warhol’s signature… of course.
The news that Greenhouse/W.i.P. has reopened for booziness is welcomed. Although there will be future legal back and forths, for now it can serve its adoring public which includes the fabulous Susanne Bartsch and Kenny Kenny’s Sunday night soiree. Last Sunday it was emails and Facebook messages and texts proclaiming it "on" and "off"… "on" and "off" until that game of musical chairs ended with…"off." I’m not a big fan of Greenhouse; I never go there, but I firmly believe that a club should not be held responsible for the bad behavior of its patrons unless management is either ignoring or complacent. Humans often behave badly… drunk humans more so. Bad behavior is to be expected on occasion. Accountability is important, but it is impossible to expect multi-million dollar investments in tax-generating, job-creating enterprises if a sword of closure hangs over operators’ heads for actions they may not reasonably be able to control. As much as I don’t listen to hip-hop or enjoy hip-hop-heavy parties, I surely recognize its impact on club culture and life in America in general. It is enjoyed by all demographics. The 800-pound gorilla that isn’t really spoken about is whether or not Greenhouse is being persecuted because this is an “urban thing.” A prince gets into a brawl at a chic meatpacking joint and closure isn’t an issue. Hey, this has been said before.
The city is scheduled to rule on a controversial plan to expand NYU’s village campus. According to many residents, this expansion will destroy the character of the neighborhood which has, of course, been a creative cauldron for NYC life as we know it for eons. We’re talking two million square feet in tall buildings with apparent loss of green areas and such. Worse than all that will be the expansion of the population of frat boys and frat girls and the changes their needs will bring. Mom and pop restaurants and quaint coffee shops will be gentrified out to accommodate student-friendly shops like 16 Handles and chain stores.
NYU is a dark force that should be pushed to areas like Wall Street or Brooklyn or Queens. The city has lost so much of its core character and can’t afford to be further compromised. Why do I care? Every few days I walk past the NYU Palladium Housing on 14th Street which once was this incredible theatre that I attended and then operated during my club years. I knew it as The Academy of Music where I saw The Clash, U2, The Cramps, and a long list of etceteras. I hung out there when it was the Palladium – the club – and saw early rock and dance. I operated it for Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager and came back to fill it a few other times for other moguls.
Once, when I was remodeling this beautiful 108,000-square-foot facility, I was prevented from nailing things into most walls or ceilings. I can’t find any official landmark references, but I was told at the time that it was one. It was protected because of its ancient and significant beauty…its recognized importance in design and architecture. I got married to my first wife there. I think it was its only wedding.
NYU came along…needed it …tore it down. The ultimate indignity is that when they built the Palladium Housing, they used the same logo or similar font as the legendary club. It’s fucking Mordor. This too has been said before.
Tonight I’ll be at White Rabbit DJing with a host of wonderful folks at the Tattoos & Art show at White Rabbit around 9 or 10pm or 10 to 11pm…you know how these things go… and, of course, this has been said before.
Having created the monster that is boutique hotel culture, Ian Schrager has now revived Chicago’s storied Ambassador East hotel in a decisively anti-glamour manner. The debut of his new Public Chicago actually seems to take a cue from the Ace, with an atmosphere that encourages hanging about more than posing.
Flash nightlife is eschewed in favor of spaces with cosseting names like the Living Room and the Library, the latter of which will serve of Stumptown coffee by day and cocktails by night. Interiors by design superstars Yabu Pushelberg are based on, as Schrager himself puts it, a “no color” palette, intended more to sooth than dazzle. The one concession to the swish life is Jean Georges’ revamp of the legendary Pump Room restaurant.
Anyone who’s ever danced at the Gramercy Park Hotel’s Rose Bar or partied by the pool at the Shore Club knows there’s a lot to love about Ian Schrager’s hotels. His current project, called Public, just launched its first hotel in Chicago yesterday, taking over the historic Ambassador East and installing Jean-Georges Vongerichten in the Pump Room restaurant.
The warm, inclusive atmosphere makes it a perfect choice for those who’ve been hesitant to tiptoe into the Schrager empire before. The Public concept features amenities like flatscreen TVs, oversize desks and laptops upon request, curated art collections, and elegant furnishings for a price well within your travel manager’s budget. The new chain has already closed on two properties in Manhattan and an old Crowne Plaza location in London (which will be the next Public hotel opening). They’re also looking at locations in Paris and Los Angeles, which Schrager calls important “gateway cities,” for the brand. The company is planning about $250 million in renovations and construction on 10-15 properties over the next five years.
Back in 2006, when Ian Schrager reopened New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel to much acclaim and a parade of celebrity guests, he left behind the specters of the former owners, the Weissberg family, whose string of tragedies culminated in scion David jumping from the roof to his death. Now Schrager, who still casts an apparitional shadow over his many previous ventures, has moved on, leaving the hotel to find a way forward on its own considerable merits. Hoping to get an inside take on the future of the Gramercy, I caught up with GM Scott Koster on a recent afternoon in the Rose Bar, which, it must be said, looks startlingly different at 3pm than it does at 3am.
“We talk a lot about when a hotel reaches iconic stature,” Koster explained. “There are a lot of people that take what Ian Schrager and Julian Schnabel created here and try to recreate it somewhere else. But there’s something intrinsic here that you can’t just replicate. Design alone does not make a facility; at Gramercy Park Hotel we’ve been able to maintain an ethos. At this point, you’d have to work to mess it up.”
Indeed, disguising myself as a guest, I found it remarkable how perfected the culture of the second generation Gramercy has become. From an almost pastoral breakfast on the Terrace to a buzzy lunch at Maialino to evening cocktails in the Jade and Rose Bars, it was clear that the hotel isn’t making any rash, ill-advised changes in an attempt to shake off Schrager’s influence. In fact, Maialino, Danny Meyer’s sophisticated but remarkably inviting Roman style trattoria, which opened in late 2009 (replacing the haughty Wakiya), may have already become the touchstone for a new era for the GPH.
Koster agreed. “We want [the Gramercy] to be a true New York experience. And to do that, you have to be involved in the community. What Danny Meyer and Maialino did was to cement that. I think it put us into the fabric of the neighborhood,” he said.
Damion Luaiye remains as Creative Director, but nightlife impresario and celeb-magnet Nur Khan has departed, with Sebastien Lefavre now brought over from GoldBar to oversee the hotel’s considerable nocturnal goings on. Also on the way is a new bar setup on the roof, which Koster hopes will create a more seamless flow of buzz throughout the public spaces.
“We want the Terrace and the Rose Bar to feed off of each other,” he further explained. “Being inclusive rather than exclusive is really the direction we’re going in. Not to say that the Rose Bar is not going to remain one of the most difficult reservations to get; it always will be.”
So, moving on from the era of Ian Schrager has not been too difficult, even though his and Schnabel’s touch still permeates the space. Indeed, the Gramercy Park Hotel in some ways feels more like an extravagant Florentine Renaissance palazzo than a hip New York hotel.
“He is an amazing visionary,” Koster observed of Schrager. “But once a hotel is created, the people who are running it help give it a life of its own. While he gave birth to it, eventually it does become its own entity.”
When I first started writing this column, one of my primary goals was to give my readers an insider look at some of the industry’s leaders, and how they approach the business. Some of these people are relatively unknown, as they allow the successful properties and brands they’ve created and promoted do all the talking. Most appear occasionally as a bold-faced name in a newspaper or magazine. Peter Chase is a player. He’s the founder of BPC, which develops and manages creative hospitality concepts. His concepts have included: Skybar in Miami Beach, Wunderbar at the W Montreal, MGM Grand Casinos (MGM, Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Borgata) in Las Vegas, Detroit, and Atlantic City, as well as Caesars Palace, Planet Hollywood, and the W San Diego.
When Ian Schrager needed to replace the irreplaceable Rande Gerber back in 2000, he sought out Peter to manage and develop bars at each of his hotels. He has overseen fourteen bars in nine hotels, spanning New York, London, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. He has also overseen the creation of several new ones.
I spent three hours chatting with him at the Carlton on Madison and 29th the other evening. I could have stayed for eight hours. Peter knows what he’s talking about, and finds himself poised to do even greater things. He is very aware that the ancient, though wonderfully redecorated hotel finds itself between the uber-hot Ganesvoort Park Hotel and the seriously hip Ace Hotel. He’s gearing up to embrace the crowds that will be passing by his door: He understands their needs, and will entertain them. He is one of the unsung heroes of the industry, and today I am singing his song.
Ian Schrager brought you in to replace the irreplaceable Rande Gerber. How did you approach that impossible dream? Ian and Rande had a relationship going back quite some time. I respect what Rande has done, and continues to do, but I think Ian was excited to create outside of that relationship. What we accomplished at the Clift with the Redwood Room, the re-interpretation of the Morgans Bar, and the complete transformation of the Whiskey into the Paramount Bar makes that evident.
Rande and I come from very different backgrounds. Rande was a former model that got into the bar industry, and I am someone that worked within the hospitality industry, and went to Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. Beyond all of the extraordinary creative aspects of working with Ian, I approached the “impossible dream” from a business perspective. I set out to implement better systems, controls, reporting, and several initiatives to maximize profit from every drink served.
I worked for Ian and Steve Rubell, and learned a great deal. What did you take away from that experience, and how do you apply it nowadays? I know that many of the things that I discounted or infuriated me about their style/personally applied when I had such opportunities. I never got to meet Steve, but I feel like there were several talented people Ian employed to help him create his vision. I learned so much from Ian that it almost seems that I learned nothing. So much of what Ian does can’t help but resonate and change the way you look at bars, restaurants, and hotels, or for that matter, everything. Ian has a way of instilling in you his perspective on service, music, design and style. He often accomplishes this through intense demands, but as the saying goes, “you can’t make diamonds without a lot of pressure.” Eventually, you change (for the better, I might add) and forget what you thought was acceptable before. His vision is his own. Many have tried to replicate it, some with success, but there always remains just one original. I use this valuable resource every day in operating my businesses, and owe a great deal to Ian for teaching me to view things differently. Sometimes the fates bring the right person to the right place and time. The Carlton finds itself on a strip between the new Ganesvoort Park and the highly successful Ace Hotel. What are you doing to exploit this moment? Having lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, I have watched its evolution. Back in 1904, just before the NYC subway opened, the Carlton (then the Seville) Hotel opened and helped turn the neighborhood into one of the city’s most elegant locales. The original bar from the Seville is still intact, and has hosted luminaries such as Frank Sinatra and “Diamond Jim” Brady. A block away lies the remnants of Tin Pan Alley, where much of the world’s greatest music was written and produced. The Breslin Hotel, now the Ace, opened the same year as the Seville, and was part of what was known as the “Avenue of Hotels.” Today, with the renovation of both hotels, and the addition of the Gansevoort, I think that we are seeing a re-awakening of the 29th Street hotel corridor. I have always treated my competitors like neighbors. There is plenty of business for everyone, and if we support one another we all stand a better chance of succeeding. Let the Gansevoort and the Ace do what they do best, I wanted to pay homage to the history of the area, and offer a connection to its storied past through music.
Having spent countless hours in what was originally the Café at Country in the Carlton, I always knew that its center bar needed to be removed and filled with energy, be it through people, or in this case, live music. The Salon as it is now known is the entry point for all things Millesime. It acts as a portal to another time. Upstairs, we have our seafood brasserie, and across a glass bridge, Bar Millie, which will soon open. It will feature burlesque images from the turn of the century, and views looking down onto the stage. Bar Millie will be a place where you can make a reservation for a table, and come and sip cocktails with friends. A lot of places charge a cover, or pack the room to help offset the expenses of the musicians. We work with musicians, and allow them an elegant space in which to showcase their talents.
A phenomenon in the current era is the synergy and possibly the necessity of solid NYC nightlife in hotels. Tell me your take on that. How much is food and beverage driving your hotel, and will that now increase dramatically? I operate bars in W Hotels, and consult for casinos: there are few things as important to a hotel or casino as its food and beverage offering. I do not know if Ian and Steve invented it, but they certainly exploited it to the fullest. When a new hotel opens people are not going to immediately rent a room. They will pop into the bar, or grab a bite in the restaurant, and then promote the property given their experience. This puts heads in beds, and safe guards the real investment: real estate. The press will only write about a hotel when it opens, but they’ll cover any celebrity sightings as long as someone communicates with them, be it the venue itself, a cell phone picture from a customer, or a random tweet. If it is from the venue itself, this can be a double-edged sword. As a policy, we do not actively pursue press regarding our customers unless they are at a function where it is understood that their picture may be taken. Celebrities know this as well, and use certain venues to garner press when it suits their needs. Additionally, restaurants and bars are the perfect locations for movie premieres and charity events. These bring press, cameras and celebrities, which only adds to the properties cache. In the six or so months since we have been open, we have already hosted TV film shoots for Curb Your Enthusiasm, House Wives of New Jersey, an after party for the band Rammstein, listening parties for NE YO and Estelle and the several charity events including one for Artists for Peace and Justice, hosted by Paul Haggis. The word “boutique” in regards to hotels seems to be very last century. Is there a new word? Will most hotels have to go chic to remain relevant and occupied? I agree that the term sounds very outdated, but as a concept it’s still relevant. The problem started when hotel companies and designers started calling something “boutique” but only regurgitated previous design work. Boutique should represent true individuality within its local context. This only happens when passionate people are involved in every detail of development.
Unlike the Gansevoort in the Meatpacking, the Gansevoort Park was designed and pre-engineered with hospitality, food, and beverage in mind. Carlton is a much older property. What steps are you taking to retro-fit protection for your hotel guests against the sounds and such that successful watering holes inevitably bring? At the new Gansevoort Park they have added separate elevators to access the upper bars from the hotel, and seem to have situated the bars away from guest rooms. This means no more intoxicated guests on elevators with families staying at the hotel, and no more non-guests on hotel floors causing safety issues. When they built the Carlton they constructed it in such a way that sound from the bars does not disturb the hotel guests. Bars and clubs can be a tremendous asset to a hotel, but it is vital that veteran operators and professional audio engineers are involved in the design and construction phases, or you can end up with costly renovations, or lost room revenues for decades.
Tell me about Salon Millesime. The idea with the Salon was to create a sophisticated platform for progressive artistry and extraordinary musicianship. My partners and I have handpicked our talent from all ‘walks of life’ including students of the Juilliard School of Music, DJs, and well-regarded, established artists. The Salon is our doorway into the hotel. Everyone works off of their laptops or phones, and they are doing this in coffee shops more and more. People who have been laid-off, or are self-employed, are looking for a place to be able to have a meeting or get work done over a cup of coffee. During the day we offer a relaxing environment to do this and at night, sip wine and listen to our interpretation of Voix de Ville, the voice of the city. The Salon menu features casual French and Mediterranean inspired cuisine by my partner Chef Laurent Manrique. We installed a state-of-the-art Bose sound system for an unparalleled musical experience. Nightly performers include artists from far corners of the globe to nearby neighbors. N’Dea Davenport, Swizz Beatz, Nickodemus, Estelle, Grammy winning rapper Pras, Grammy winning singer Ne-Yo, and Brooklyn songstress and Si*Se have already graced the stage. When not performing live, there is a select roster of DJs like Carol C from the band Si*Se, and DJ Sir Shorty, a veteran of the city. I invite guests to gather and sip artisan cocktails like the French 75, or perhaps the Night & Day—my version of the Manhattan—a portion of whose proceeds supports VH1’s Save the Music.
We wanted to evoke an intimate music venue with hints of the history of the area’s past. The team came from Redhook Brooklyn and was lead by Doug Fanning’s DYAD Studio. Doug chose to transform the space with stylish mix of leather banquets, tiger print chairs, and glossy ebony cocktail tables with bronze inlays reminiscent of the early Café Society interiors. He also custom designed the oversize light shades reminiscent of old Vaudeville stage curtains. Designer William Calvert, a longtime friend, created a luxe cocktail dress for the servers.
How does Millesime and the other food and beverage spots in the hotel interact with each other? We chose to create one iconic name, Millesime, with multiple concepts feeding into it. Since no two guests are alike, we created an offering that appeals to each guest’s unique needs and desires, as well as those of our local community. Beyond the Salon we have the Lobby Bar, a dimly lit saloon where you can “belly up” to a magnificent mahogany bar dating back one hundred plus years to the original hotel. Order a scotch, eat a burger, catch a game on the flat screen TV, or just people watch as hotel guests arrive from near and far. Just around the corner from Millesime, across a 30-foot glass bridge, will be Bar Millie, a reservation cocktail bar. Reminiscent of an old French sitting room, it is an ideal perch for relaxing, chatting and drinking with good friends. Leather-bound chairs, metal screened burlesque images, a handcrafted marble bar, and traces of the past hang in the air like ghosts of prohibition. It’s a nostalgic portal to an era when automobiles had curves, women were dames, men wore hats, and a deal was sealed with a handshake. The room, with its vaulted ceiling and wood panels, is a place that encourages you to linger over drinks and trade glances as music wafts throughout. Seven hard shakes with a cocktail shaker and you’re transported back to the splendor of Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, and luxurious hotel lounges. It’s a trip back to the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby,, and watching William Powell coach the bartender on the proper way to shake a martini in The Thin Man.
My club career was successful because I was lucky to have worked for and learned my craft from so many brilliant operators. As Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” I worked for Ian Schrager and his partner Steve Rubell at the Paladium. They operated Studio 54, which was without doubt the greatest club of all time. They were giants. In the world of clubs, they are our Babe Ruths, our Michael Jordans, our Peles. There has not been a club since their era that comes close to the experience they orchestrated. The times were different then. Disco was the music and nothing could be more fun. The sexual revolution and New Age drugs rocketed nightlife and the mix of fabulous gays, straights, rich, and poor to legendary frenzy. We clamored to hang with Steve, Ian, and their infamously famous friends. On the menu were Halston, Liza Minelli, Mick and Bianca, Truman Capote, Warhol, Calvin. Anything could be seen, had, heard, and done, and often. But the partiers had not yet seen the bill and danced to the beat oblivious to all the downsides. Then Steve passed and Andy Warhol passed and it was never the same.
Ian for his part never stopped moving, creating and changing the landscape of creativity. He grew utilizing his vision and his talents to create hotel empires. Morgans, The Paramount, The Royalton, The Hudson, and the amazing Gramercy Park Hotel are his local contributions. The Delano in Miami, The Sanderson and St Martin’s Lane hotels in London, The Clift in San Francisco and the Mondrian in Los Angeles were game changers. He is considered the creator of the “boutique hotel” concept. Now he’s partnering up with Marriot International for a hundred new projects.
When I worked for Steve and Ian I felt privileged. While the Palladium was highly successful financially, it was always squarely based in its glorious mission. It was there to be the creative nexus for New York. We spent money to make money and attention to every detail was the first order of every day. Until this interview I hadn’t talked to Ian for a long time. For awhile he lived around the corner from me in Nolita and I would see him on his bike or moving about. We had become distant over the years. I would read about him in the newspapers or magazines or hear a first-hand account from our mutual friend Arthur Weinstein. Talking to him for this interview was like we never lost touch. It brought back a zillion memories, echoes of joints and people and an age that defines so much of who we are today, who I am today. Ian showed me the way and I showed some others after that and so on and so forth. He is not done showing us how it is done. Wow! A hundred new joints!
Hi Ian, how are you? I’m fine, how ya doing?
I stayed at the Gramercy, as you know, recently, and it was an incredible experience. I really enjoyed myself. Well I’m glad you liked it buddy, we go back a long way. I’ve known you a long time. And I’m happy for your success. Very inventive.
Thanks, I keep you in mind also. I watch everything you do, and it’s pretty amazing how you play with those big boys and knock them off their feet. It’s amazing. Well thank you kiddo, thank you.
I went to the Hudson, which by the way is still beautiful. I went there the other day, they opened a new room and I wrote about it. The property is just amazing, timeless. It’s just beautiful. How was it downstairs? The new room down in the basement.
Good Units is very nice for events because it’s a blank page. It’s the emperor’s new clothes, so you can paint any picture you want on it. The new room Hudson Hall opened on the main level is really nice. They gave me a tour and I saw the ancient swimming pool, and that’s amazing. When they get that open it will be incredible. That’s great. It’s funny, at the time, the Hudson was done maybe ten years ago. I have some hotels done thirty years ago, never been changed. Everyone used to always think that they were trendy and they wouldn’t stand the test of time, but of course they do.
The key in design is balancing the new with the classic and the timeless. If you just do new, you’re a failure. If it won’t stand the test of time, then it’s a failure. I did Butter eight years ago, and the design and the place is just as relevant today. I didn’t know you did that. It’s just as hot today as it was then.
How do you think nightlife has changed since the days of Studio 54? From the business point of view, it’s completely changed. It’s completely upside down. When I was in the club business, and a lot of our friends were in the club business, everything culminated with you owning the space, and running the nightclub, and loving it, and being in the room there, and making sure everything was perfect, and so on and so forth. Now, nobody owns anything. Other people own the rooms, and you come in and you’re a promoter for the night. It’s just a completely different business. I think when we did it, it didn’t really take a lot of capital to do a club. There was some spontaneity and innocence involved with it. If you had a good idea, you could throw a party. I did my first nightclub for 27,000 dollars.
The Enchanted Garden? Right. Now, with all the regulations—exiting, and fire alarms, and sprinklers—which I’m sure are necessary, and I’m not saying they’re not good ideas, but with all those things, it requires, in some cases, several hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars, to do a night club. So therefore, young people get disenfranchised and can’t do it, and so the business has changed. I went into it because I had access to it. You didn’t need a lot of money, you just needed a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of passion, and a good idea. On the public side—I hope this isn’t too cerebral—but I think the demographic has changed somewhat. There was much more diversity when we were doing nightclubs. When my friend Arthur and myself were doing them it was a mixture of old and young, and rich and poor, and black and white, and straight and gay. And you don’t really see that anymore. It’s a lot more of a homogenous kind of thing, and more of a pickup place kind of thing. So I don’t think you have that kind of energy, that kind of electricity floating in the air like we used to.
I agree 100 percent. When you did Enchanted Garden, you were partners with Steve Rubell. You did Studio 54, you did Palladium with him. and these were some of the greatest clubs of all time. What was your role as opposed to Steve’s role? We were partners, and like all good partners, we were 50-50 partners. There were areas of influence obviously, but they weren’t mutually exclusive. I wasn’t the inside guy and Steve wasn’t the outside guy. I don’t think that’s constructive to the relationship. Primarily, I was involved with conceptualizing the places, and building them, and doing the parties, but Steve was involved in that too. Steve was out front, dealing with a lot of the people, but he wasn’t doing that exclusively. For instance, when Studio 54 opened, I might go to Steve and say, Steve, there’s Halston, go get friendly with him. When you’re partners and you share half the cake with your partner, you’re both making the contributions. Steve and I knew the division of responsibility, but it’s hard to define. It wasn’t simply inside/outside. I was more interested in the building and creating of it and Steve was more interested in the social end of it, but I wasn’t merely an inside guy, and Steve wasn’t merely an outside guy. I think it’s a long-winded explanation to go through exact, specific things, but there were not areas of specific exclusivity, I can tell you that.
When that horrible movie, 54, came out, Calvin Klein was at that club I was running, Life, at the time. And I walked up to Calvin and I said, have you seen the movie? And he said, no he hasn’t, and he won’t go. And I said to him, it’s a shame that the only image that the public sees of Steve Rubell was the Mike Meyers version of it. Which was certainly not what Steve Rubell was about. Calvin said to me that he had traveled the whole world, and he has met kings and queens, and CEOs, but he has never met anybody more charismatic, or more intelligent, than Steve Rubell. In a couple of words, who was Steve Rubell and what was it that set him apart from the rest? I think whenever you do something that you’re really good at, and you really love it, it’s a gift. Steve really loved people. And he was really empathetic with them, and he was incredibly enthusiastic and compassionate about life, and I think it was contagious. When he talked to someone, he really and sincerely was truly interested in what they were saying, and people react to that, they gravitate to it. Andy Warhol was one of the first people who realized that Steve was a star when we first opened up Studio 54, because he had that kind of presence, that enthusiasm. He was fun to be around. when most of your life you’re occupied by being around boring people or social-climbers. Combining that with a razor-sharp intellect made him really a special guy. We’d be talking business at three o’clock in the morning, and you wouldn’t think that he remembered what he said that night. But the next morning he’d get up, and no matter what he would remember. I think in the last several years, there are certain times when people pass on, they touch you. And they have an impact on you. When Andy died, who would’ve thought, that when he passed, he touched people. And they responded to him. He was fun to be around, and he never thought of himself as being bigger, or more important than the person he was talking to.
When I ran clubs, in my mind every day when I went to work, I said to myself, I am going to run this club this night as if Steve and Ian are walking in, or Andy Warhol. Those were my icons. Every night when I looked around, I said, is my club ready if you guys walked in? That was my standard. I felt when Steve and Andy died, that was an end of a certain era. You of course moved on to hotels, but the club era died. That was when the music actually died for me. I think it had a lot to do with all of that. Not in the way people saw it, but when you think of things culture-wise, and the way things evolve, and the sexual revolution that started in the late 60s. And gay people were emerging, and gay people were starting the cultural trend. During this melting pot there was this incredible enthusiasm where you could really do whatever it is you wanted, and there were no consequences to be paid. When AIDS came in, it changed everything. There were consequences, there was a bill to pay. So that indulgence stopped and it all went away. I think it’s funny because when Steve passed is also when your right to music changed. But that’s when disco music and everything seemed to come to a head stop.
As I mentioned, I stayed at The Gramercy recently and it was a great experience on every level. It reminded me of when I used to work for you at the Palladium. The attention to detail was beyond belief. You build empires now and with these empires and so many properties in diverse and faraway places, how do you stay hands-on? Have you learned to delegate? How easy or hard was that for you to do? It’s always an issue for me, delegating. Because everything I do I think is a personal reflection on me. I’m maniacal about every detail, and I think it’s very personal. For me, I never know what detail is responsible for pushing something over the top, and therefore every detail becomes a matter of life or death. I think that’s been the key. I’ve been fortunate to be successful, and I think anyone who is successful has that kind of mania. It’s not quite certain what it is that makes something so successful. So therefore every single aspect, every single element, every single fact, the height of the table, everything is important. It’s like something becomes combustible, and you put it all together and it makes a spark. And you can’t really talk about that.
Thank you for teaching me that. I’ve carried that lesson I learned from you throughout my endeavors. When one walks through The Gramercy and it’s Warhol, it’s Hirst, it’s Richard Prince, it’s Cy Twombly, Haring, Basquiat, and many others. They adorn The Gramercy like a museum or an art gallery—is it a matter of associating your brand with this work, or is it more of a design decision? Julian Schnabel’s and your vision, elevating the design to a level that no one can reach? It is after all, 50 to 60 million dollars worth of art. No, buddy, it has nothing to do with that. You know what it is? I want to say it quite simply: It’s always the ideas that interest me. Andy started it by taking the pretension out of art and making it accessible to everybody. It’s really that idea. To me, why should art be limited to just rich people who can enjoy it in their home? Or you go to a museum and you have to crane your neck like you’re in a subway station looking at the art. Why can’t it be in an environment in a public facility like a hotel? Where you can come in, sit down, and have a drink. You can be sitting and having a conversation with someone, and look over your shoulder and see some great art. It was just that idea that I found interesting. It has nothing to do with the art, it has nothing to do with branding—it’s just wow, what a great idea to make this kind of stuff accessible to lots of people. Whether they come in for a drink at the nightclub or they stay in the hotel, it just seemed like a modern, great idea—something that Andy started, and just making it accessible to lots of people. I actually think that making that art accessible like that is one of the greatest ideas to come out of The Gramercy.
How do you obtain the rotating masterpieces at the Gramercy? It doesn’t seem difficult to get people to lend us the art, because a lot of the modern pieces are quite large and collectors don’t have a lot of space in their apartments. They love the act of showing it at the hotel and giving it a good platform. So we keep rotating it and turning it around. So they were there, they move out, and others take their place. And it keeps moving like that.
At the Palladium, the Michael Todd Room was filled with these Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings. In the end, where did they go? We were very much into the arts at the Palladium as well, as you know. And it was the same idea there as well. There, those two Basquiats that we had in the Michael Todd Room, the estate took them back because everyone thought those were museum quality. They’re quite large and his father now owns them.
What drives you now? Is it the art of creating something? It can’t be the money at this point. It was never about the money. The money is an interesting byproduct Steve. You want it so you can support your lifestyle, I suppose. But I could never be motivated just by the money. It wouldn’t be enough. The money is a natural consequence. I’m motivated by doing something that blows people away, and doing something special, and doing something that people have never seen before. It still turns me on. It’s still my reason for getting up and working. It was really never about the money. It never was and it never will be.
Retirement. I heard those words mentioned a few years ago. It doesn’t sound like you’re a person anywhere near retirement. I hear there’s a hundred hotel projects. What’s the end game? There is no end game. What you learn is it’s just a trip. That’s the only thing there is. There’s no destination, it’s just a trip. You enjoy the fame when you’re fourteen, or forty, or eighty, it doesn’t matter. I’m just enjoying the trip and I still love what I’m doing, so I’ll keep doing it. The minute that I don’t, that’s when I’ll stop.
Arthur Weinstein, you mentioned him. I understand that for many years when he was ill and dying you were helping out with the money. You do things like that quietly, as you’ve always been a very quiet person. You’re talking right now, but you always keep your cards close to your vest. Tell me about Arthur Weinstein. Tell the people who read me who he was. Arthur was like a Damon Runyon-esque kind of character in the nightlife business, but I don’t think people ever really understood the kind of character, and that he was a real gentlemen and a real mensch, and I don’t think people really got that. I always understood it, and I think the way he died and dealt with his illness was with such dignity. It wasn’t a surprise to me and it reinforced what I had always thought about him. You had to see through his scruffy persona and the way he might have looked from the outside, but on the inside there was a reason that I had been friendly with him for thirty or forty years. New York nightlife is the worse for his passing.
Ben Pundole received an unorthodox education at The Groucho Club, London’s infamous members-only haunt. The entertainment honcho for Morgans Hotel Group opted out of a traditional university education, becoming instead the general manager of the Met Bar at the pioneering Metropolitan Hotel in London. It was there that he befriended Madonna, who later introduced him to hotel and design icon Ian Schrager. He also worked with Amy Sacco at Lot 61 in New York, then moved to Morgans to open Skybar in South Beach and the neighboring Florida Room at the Delano with Lenny Kravitz. In total, he balances his time between 14 properties. Most recently, he partnered with GoldBar mastermind Rob McKinley to construct Good Units, a raw events space under the Hudson Hotel in a former YWCA gym.
Background: I’m from London. I’ve been in the States for almost 11 and a half years now. I started off when I was 18 at The Groucho Club wheeling in wine deliveries, changing light bulbs and cleaning chef’s dirty laundry. I became a bartender and later a manager. Then, I worked at a sister restaurant, 192 in Notting Hill.
On life at The Groucho: I really had no idea what The Groucho Club was. One of my mother’s friend’s son was a chef there and got me a job. I was the lowest of the low when I started there and I loved it. I ended up not going to university because I found my location in life there. One night, Damien Hirst pulled himself over the bar and dragged me to the floor and poured tequila in my mouth. Then, he poured the rest of the bottle of tequila on my face.
On befriending Madonna: It was very, very strange and peculiar. She came into the bar one night completely unannounced. The Met Bar was small and all the tables were filled with people I just couldn’t move. I think I had Pierce Brosnan at one end and maybe Kate Moss and Jude Law and their whole crew on the other and hip people smashing around in the middle. She came in and I greeted her. I said, “Hi. I’m Ben. I’m the manager and I’m terribly sorry, I can’t give you a table right now. If you want to take a seat at the bar, I’ll make you a drink.” So, she and her friend sat at the bar and I made them drinks and I had a drink with them. She seemed to like the fact that I wasn’t just putting her in front of everybody else that was already there. Then, she came back a few times. When I was 23, she flew me out to L.A. to go and have dinner with some friends of hers. It was all fairly weird. She took a liking to me.
On meeting design heavyweight, Ian Schrager: I had a very fortuitous introduction to him by Madonna. He took me under his wing. I helped him when he was opening bars and throwing events, doing parties and promotions, marketing and whatever he needed me to do. I was his run-around kid. He’s a genius. He invented the whole way we stay these days. He left Morgans to open up the Gramercy Park Hotel. I stayed with Morgans and for the past two years, I’ve been the Vice President of Entertainment. I oversee, support, and develop partnerships, nightlife, marketing strategies, produce CDs. But I still make tea too.
On the contemporary definition of the term ‘Boutique Hotel’: Things got lost in translation. I honestly don’t think there’s a definition anymore. It’s a phrase that’s been overused, misused, and misconstrued. It certainly made sense when this type of hotel was born in the late ‘80s. It was more kind of luxury, lifestyle, and design oriented. Now, it seems like every hotel is like that. So, I don’t think there is a particular boutique market. Ian, obviously, does it very well. Andres Balazs does it well. The Thompson Group. I think Soho House does it very, very well. Although they’re slightly different.
On Good Units: It gives us real creative freedom. Usually, we build a hotel and we put the chair in place and that’s where the chair stays for years. That’s the way it goes. However, Good Units is a mobile space. It’s this 6,000 square foot space with an amazing mezzanine and a double high ceiling in the main room. It’s very much like a venue—similar to the Williamsburg Music Hall or Bowery Ballroom. Everything can be moved in and out, whether it’s the bars or the furniture. We opened with the 40th anniversary of Interview Magazine. Then, we did a great partnership with Patricia Fields and Susan Bartsch. We had an Erykah Badu performance there. We recently had a Twestival as well.
On the vices that come with a career in nightlife: In London it’s far more of a business whereas here, it’s more of a lifestyle. I think there are different levels of involvement. I think a lot of the reason that people get into nightlife and events is that they can live a certain way.
On the Florida Room: I met Lenny Kravitz when I was working at the Met Bar and I later approached him about this project. It was certainly not something I just wanted him to put his name on. He’d just started this design company, and I thought, “The last thing I want is for it to just be a bar with Lenny’s name on it.” But he was really involved with everything from the design to the glassware to uniforms to the music. If I told him I didn’t like something about the proposed design, he came to the office and defended his design or we came to a happy conclusion together. He’s a true artist. I didn’t know what Florida Room was. Lenny said that his aunt had a Florida Room. When he was growing up, it was where all the adults would go and drink and listen to music. The kids weren’t allowed in. Once he told me that, I thought it was a brilliant name.