Circumstances beyond my control prevented me from attending the 2011 Jameson Bartenders Ball, which was held just a hop, skip, and a jump away from my abode, at the Knitting Factory in beloved Brooklyn (like me, the Knitting Factory used to have a home in downtown Manhattan). The idea of a Bartenders Ball has been around for a while. The RSVP for this event had a short application that asked which venue you worked at. They were keeping it real, keeping it industry.
Previous incarnations of this type had corporate sponsors like Camel cigarettes–when they were allowed to be smoked in clubs and restaurants–and were held at mega spots like Roseland Ballroom or the Hammerstein Ballroom. Thousands of club employees attended and drank and ate for free, while being entertained by incredible entertainers. I wrote about this in June 2009 as I produced The New York Nightlife Association’s Nightlife Preservation Community event, which was held at the now defunct M2.
A long time ago, a very bright guy named Jon Deitlebaum over at KBA Marketing sat with me, and together we came up with the idea of an end-of-year party for club/bar personnel. The Bartenders’ Balls were not just a magnanimous gesture from R.J. Reynolds (of Camel Cigarettes fame) and the liquor brands that sponsored them, but rather an attempt to project positive thoughts about specific brands into the minds of those pushing them on the street level. Even though the balls–like all corporate endeavors–were rooted in greed, the enthusiasm from corporate executives trying to make the event better each year was simply unreal.
The first Bartenders’ Ball was held at the ancient Roseland Ballroom. I remember going with Michael Blatter to see the ancient venue. Gray-haired couples slow-danced to ancient music as we did our tour. The first Bartenders’ Ball also featured Grace Jones and Run DMC. In later years, Debbie Harry performed, plus Ru Paul, the B-52s, James Brown, and Lenny Kravitz. These affairs were eventually held at the Hammerstein Ballroom as the acts and crowds got bigger. Open bars and free food made this annual post-Christmas affair a must-attend soiree for club staffers that hadn’t had much of a break during the preceding holiday season. In time, however, they kicked cigarettes out of the clubs, and the Bartenders’ Ball faded away. Every so often somebody does an event and they use the name, but these were the winners.
The M2 Bartenders’ Ball-inspired event of June 2009 was designed to show invited political figures the faces of the people in the nightlife community, which at the time was under tremendous pressure from enforcement agencies. Joints were being harassed out of business, in what was seen by many, including myself, as an attempt by real estate interests to reclaim neighborhoods. The formerly derelict hoods that had been set aside for nightclubs were now attractive to the co-ops and condo development crowd. The dream — now turned reality — of The High Line was invigorating areas traditionally interesting only to whores, pimps, scum, and the people who find those types interesting. Ironically, M2 fell victim to this assault. The area which it anchored — the West Chelsea club district — has little of the vibrancy that it did at that time. Gone as well are Cain, Bungalow 8, Home, Guesthouse, Pink Elephant, Bed, and Stereo. All of these joints had their moments — and sometimes years — in the sun and moon. While the negative types out there will say “good riddance,” I say that they were good businesses directly and indirectly employing thousands of people. In a city where jobs are often as scarce as good manners, the virtual closing of this hood to nightlife was a painful game. Only Marquee still stands of the relevant places. Its location just off the main club strip on 27th Street and the uber-diligence and professionalism of its staff weathered the imperfect storm that devastated its’ neighbors. It still makes money, still packs them in on weekends. Rumors abound that the whole hood is about to make a comeback of sorts. The Home/Greenhouse/Bed/Spirit building is to be a Box-related, performance-based joint. There are maneuvers up and down the block with the Cain space transforming and even action over at Marquee. The economic downturn is a seam in the real estate bubble that gives new life to previously licensed places that aren’t going to be made into housing …in the short term anyway
Throughout Manhattan, and in Brooklyn and Queens, nightlife has learned to live within communities for the most part. Although everyone complains about how impossible it is to get approved for licensing, people still manage. It takes more time and costs more money, but in many areas it certainly seems easier than two years ago. Places are still popping up. Every week this or that writer speaks of a new joint launching. The process surely favors the pros and the deep pocketed, but even the adventurous have adapted and many just give new birth to failing joints. The people who hosted that one-off at Jobee this past Saturday told me yesterday that they’re coming back for more, probably a weekly. All of a sudden a place we never heard of is a viable choice for the creatures of the night.
The event I produced with the guidance and support of so many others at the ill fated M2 in June 2009 had thousands show up to celebrate the idea that nightlife is an integral part of the city that never sleeps. Nightlife has renewed Vegas and Miami, where the local politicos recognize it as a driving force behind their brands and their economies. Alas, a city like New York built tall on an island has had little tolerance for the noise and litter that party animals create. I, and others, asked a bunch of the city’s most talented DJs to play that summer night so long ago, and they all showed up and were impressive. Among them were Louie Vega, Danny Krivit, Junior Vasquez, The Martinez Brothers, Peter Rauhofer, Q-Tip, The Misshapes, Paul Sevigny, Jus Ske, Mel DeBarge, Alex English, Eve Salvail, DJ Berrie, Marky Ramone, and Funkmaster Flex. Chloe Sevigny hosted. A good time was had by all. One of my many beefs with the New York Nightlife Association and New York State Restaurant Association, which sanctioned and benefited from this bartenders ball-inspired gathering, was that no one ever thanked these performers or the interns or so many others that worked so hard to make it possible. I have asked a dozen times and they always mean to get around to it. The Jameson Bartenders Ball stirred my memory and gives me the opportunity to say thanks.