Industry Insiders: Michael Ault, International Spy

Michael Ault, owner of the Pangaea clubs in Austin and elsewhere and the man behind legendary New York clubs like Spy and Chaos, checks in with the scene (New York) where he once reigned.

How did you start in the nightclub business? Growing up in Palm Beach in the 1970s, every night was a party. All the families on the social scene were expected to host large events at their homes, mostly charity balls and large dinners. Both my mother and father’s family took this ethos to extreme lengths. So as a child, most of what I recall were large parties, planning, logistics, caterers, florists, car parkers, bands, guest lists, phone books, and fun. No one ever considered them “businesses,” because they weren’t, but they were extremely complicated productions to produce and promote. To be completely frank with you, I’m not certain that I was ever really a component of the nightclub business. In many ways, the concept of a business and “party” are often mutually exclusive. If you’re concentrating on the business, you’ll often lose sight of the party. And naturally the reverse is invariably true. But to answer your question, my first clubs as an owner were Merc Bar and Surf Club.

What are the places you have owned or been affiliated with? During the 1980s, I promoted virtually every major club in New York City. I did a lot of openings, or closings, mostly one-offs. I can’t recall them all, but certain rooms stand out; The World, Tunnel, Palladium, Area, Visage, Club A, Regine’s, MK, Zulu, Maxime’s, Mars, Au Bar, and Tavern on The Green. By the mid-1990s, however, I really felt that the scene was missing something. The excitement of the 1980s was gone, no one was dressing up, no sense that anything could happen or would happen. The mix had evaporated, and everything was quite flat. I wanted to try something really outrageous, a synthesis of Blade Runner, a haunted house, a New Orleans bordello, and the Soho loft none of us could afford. That was the birth of Spy Bar. Spy changed everything. Spy had such a sublime aspect to it; the energy, the way people moved and mixed. Spy really launched the international lounge craze. Although, so few really got it right.

When we built Chaos, the next year, it was really a product of Spy, plus two fresh concepts, house music and bottle service. We went on to build other Chaoses in Sao Paolo and South Beach. Towards the end of the Chaos run, the concept had drifted somewhat, as had the city. Nightlife was fairly pedestrian. I needed something new, something super-intimate, wacky; something that transported me to another world, that might bring us all together again. So two weeks after 9/11, I opened Pangaea. It was a smash. I don’t think anyone has had that much fun since. I went on to build one at The Hard Rock Casino in Florida, Marbella, Spain, and Austin, Texas.

What do you feel has changed? For better, or worse? The scene has changed so completely, it’s unrecognizable. There are very, very few really creative people in the business. It’s mostly about making money, which they most often don’t. Most operators would not know a great party if it fell on them. The bottle concept was ruined and taken to ridiculous lengths. When you bring bottle service to a city, as we did in New York, Miami, Sao Paulo, and Austin, you must remember: it’s not about the bottle, it’s about service. It’s about creating an intimate party where people can pour their own drink, and more importantly, others. It’s the best way to meet someone — “Hi, would you like to join me at my table, what are you drinking.” Sadly, the concept was squandered. Now it’s a tool to rip people off. Greed and excess can destroy everything, as it has the club business.

What has affected nightlife most? The wrong people are driving the bus. And the regulatory environment is absurd.

Is there another city that you think may have better nightlife now? Definitely. A few cities that come to mind: Berlin Barcelona, Marrakech, Amsterdam, Oslo, Moscow, Sydney, Sao Paulo, Kiev, Cape Town, Milan, Buenos Aires, Vienna, Krakow, Madrid, Shanghai, and many in between. Although I think New York has some very good operators, and a few extremely creative and talented hosts. Generally, the restaurants are much more fun.

What are your current projects? We have two very large clubs at the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida: a Pangaea and The Gryphon. In a few weeks, we’ll be starting our fifth year. We’ve been blessed with a fabulous team in Florida, and both clubs continue to rage very hard indeed. Since we opened, we’ve seen a few generations of South Beach clubs come and go. South Florida will always be a great market, but with the economy in such dire condition, one must be very careful. I also have an enormous Pangaea in Austin, Texas. It’s by far my most beautiful space. It really is a complete African safari lodge, within a 9,000-square-foot 1860s brick warehouse. And of course, Austin is a wild party. Great-looking kids that really are determined to have fun. The combination is truly a spectacle.

Projections: I’ve been looking at spaces elsewhere in Texas, California, Arizona, Europe, and flying to Dubai next week. I like East Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Traveling to new cities, discovering the complexities of a market, meeting everyone, designing, staffing, building, and ultimately, operating nightclubs is incredibly exciting. I’ll do it anywhere. Secretly, I am plotting to come back to New York and take a fresh swing at it.

Is there any person or place in New York that you feel is doing it right? Nur Khan always does a great job. His opinions and perspective are purely authentic. He knows what he likes, what his friends like, and he keeps his eye on that goal. Wax was so much fun. Studio 54 can never be topped, and the same is true of Area, but the Golden Age was Spy and Wax. However, with that said, there are so many people in the business that I sincerely love. I’ll go out generally just to see them all. It’s a wild, dark world, and as you might imagine, some bizarre people inhabit it. Most of us have been competitors over the decades, sometimes partners. And although most of us have been deeply scarred by the business, usually by each other, there’s still a lot of love between us all.

When you are in New York, where do you go out? I love bouncing through the restaurants. It’s easier to see and speak to people. If you see me at a club, I’m likely to be building a new team for the next adventure.

Industry Insiders: Chris Barish, Martini Park Ranger

Martini Park and Marquee co-owner Chris Barish on underage promoting, the power of the water-sipping celeb, bringing club culture to suburbia, and growing up with the Governator.

Point of Origin: I’m from New York. I started throwing parties at my parents’ home when I was young. We’re talking really young, like 15, 16 years old. You know, there used to be fun clubs in New York. They would have an off night, and I would come in and make a deal with whomever the owner was, because either they were failing a bit or they wanted to make a little extra money. I’d promote to the various people I had met in grade school who had then graduated to high school. When you think about it, we were really young, and I can’t believe these clubs would let us do it. It was New York, and it was a different time, different era, different laws, and a different mayor.

Occupations: I started off investing in Moomba because I just knew that it would be a great success. Jeff Gossett (Moomba owner) had become a good friend and asked me to invest. It became my little playground. In the last 18 years nothing has reached that level. It was celebrity heaven. You had to be in in to go. Which was the opposite of what I ended up doing with Light in midtown.

Light opened September of 2000. I remember we opened on a Tuesday night. There were maybe 20 people in the room. I was nervous. Then Thursday night, Charlie Sheen, who had stopped drinking, did me a favor and came in and only drank water. By 5:30 that evening, there was a line wrapping all the way around the block.

We opened Light Vegas a year later in the Bellagio — same name, but a nightclub. We did something that Vegas had not done in a long time. We flew in over 30 movie stars, athletes. We got a business Boeing jet and flew up Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Jeff Gordon, and Sting. Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards were there and happy. We got press everywhere [for that]. We then opened up a place called Caramel at the Bellagio and a place called Mist at Treasure Island. When I turned 30, I got a nice offer by the Bellagio to get bought out after only being open two years. By 2005, I started scouting locations around the country (for Martini Park). I felt like there was a need in the marketplace for people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and on for an upscale nightlife experience that starts after work and leads into the rest of the night. We’re a hospitality-driven nightlife experience for everyone — for people like me. It’s a playground for grownups. We opened in a [Dallas] suburb called Plano, Texas. Then opened up in Chicago and now we’re about to open in Columbus, Ohio, in late October. We will open three to four next year.

Side Hustle: I love film. I produced a short film [called “Kill the Day”] for a very talented friend. I like to play tennis. I’d like to be a yogi, but I can’t really find the time. I’m a new daddy now so everything changes.

Favorite Hangs: When I’m not traveling, my home away from home is Da Silvano. Besides Silvano, I’ve been a fan of Raoul’s for 20 years. When I did go out before [my wife] Michelle’s pregnancy, I’d go to Soho House, Rose Bar, and Waverly Inn. I know it sounds predictable. My favorite old school bar is Merc Bar. It will never close. John McDonald is the owner and a good friend.

Known Associates: I admire, respect, and am good friends with Mark Packer, the owner of Tao. I think he’s one of the best operators out there. Noah [Tepperberg] and Jason [Strauss] from Marquee are colleagues and great friends of mine. Also, Steve Hanson from B.R. Guest Restaurants. He owns about 17 restaurants in the city. He’s a friend who I can email or text, and I know within an hour he’ll text back. Also, my father (Keith Barish) was in the film business and produced 18 films. When I was 12 years old, I walked down the stairs, and there was Arnold Schwarzenegger. He and Dad did The Running Man together and became partners in Planet Hollywood. He did this great thing for my engagement party. He warned me, “First come the engagement ring, then the wedding ring, then suffe-ring.”

Industry Icons: Steve Hanson is someone I want to emulate. He works day and night. I’m naming friends, but they are also people in the industry. I’ve seen a younger generation do great stuff. For example, I’ve watched Jason Pomerantz from the Thompson Hotel do his hotel expansion and he does a very good job. Eric Goode and Sean MacPherson. I don’t know Sean, but I know Eric really well. Here’s an example of someone who started off in nightclubs, had success in restaurants, and now has the Bowery Hotel and the Maritime Hotel. His taste is unbelievable.

What are you doing tonight? I’m going home early from work and I’m testing out our stroller. My wife and I are taking baby Bea out and seeing if we can get our Yorkie to fit in the undercarriage so she doesn’t feel left out.

Photo by Chelsea Stemple.