New York Classics: Pre-Nell’s to the Darby

Damn Monday nights. A little while ago I’d use Monday nights to get rid of the idea that the weekend was over, and the next one so far away, by promptly leaving work and tossing back copious amounts of open-bar booze at some after-work affair. This would be promptly followed by a barrage of whiskey on the rocks at Lit Lounge, until I would promptly go to bed around 5 a.m. It made me feel better about participating in the workforce. These days, I’m a bit gun-shy about pulling the trigger on a Monday night. It’s dangerous when you’ve got some real responsibility, but I still get a little antsy. So I’m home in my gym clothes, still trying to look cute for my bf, who is clearly more interested in whatever spread sheet he’s glued to. Could be work, could be some kind of fantasy football thing, could be some kind of elaborate date plan he’s mapping out. Right. I pour myself a monster glass of wine and think about the fun things I could be doing if it wasn’t 10:45 already, and I wasn’t an hour away from looking decent.

The list, just to prove how strong my willpower is these days: Eric Richman’s game night at Soho House with a bunch of swells and tarts; The Swarovski Elements 22 Ways To Say Black Charity Auction, held at Phillips de Pury & Company, my invitation to which, judging by the guests who did attend (Halle Berry, Sofia Vergara, Julianna Margulies), I’m quite certain was a mistake in the first place; Women: Inspiration and Enterprise cocktail party hosted by Sarah Brown, Donna Karan, and Arianna Huffington, an event I’m not sure I was actually invited to, but rather a party-crashing friend bribed his way in somehow.

Instead, I’m sitting on the couch with the aforementioned monster Rueda, reading a book set in the ’80s where all these little party girls overrun Nell’s, and I’m thinking about how every generation of partiers is basically the same. Only the sets change. I’m sort of tired of old writers talking about “the good old days” of nightlife, without actually telling me what made the old days that good, so I decided to find out myself. What was Nell’s will soon be The Darby, with owners Scott and Richie, who are about to be as famous as Steve Rubell himself. (Don’t tell any of the older writers I said that, because until there is a movie made, that statement can’t be totally true.)

Part of the fun of sitting at any bar in the city is the realization that someone sat there before you. I’m talking about a hundred years before you. One of my favorite places to sit around and contemplate this is anywhere on the Bowery, with its flea-ridden tramps and easy women. There’s the Mike Lyons Restaurant that shuttered in 1910, which brought together politicians and musicians and people from all walks of life around the Bowery’s dance-hall days, before the Bowery was punk rock alley. The space that was Nell’s must be just as rich in sordid history. So this is becomes my Monday night: replacing uncomfortable shoes and cab fare with a quick history lesson near the eve of the opening of The Darby.

Birthdate: Nell’s opened in 1986, and the 246 West 14th Street spot was run by Rocky Horror actress Nell Campbell, presiding in see-through shirts and wacky Rocky outfits, though it was actually Keith McNally and then-wife Lynn Wagenknecht, who were probably responsible for the daily grunt-work of the operation. Before it was known as Patrick Bateman’s favorite spot, it was known for transforming nightlife. It was the trend that lead A-listers and other New Yorkers away from the giant discos popular at the time. It was also known as one of those places that actually turned away celebs. In the ’90s it had a rebirth as a rapper’s haven. Biggie Smalls shot “Big Poppa” there, and Tupac was a fixture.

image Nell Campbell

Neighborhood: 14th Street between 7th and 9th Avenues was once a community that housed mostly Spanish immigrants. Across the street from Nell’s was a famous speakeasy that thrived during prohibition called the Tammany Tough Club. Next to that was the Andrew Norwood House, an esteemed mansion built in 1847, whose exterior is a designated landmark. The mansion was sold after Raf Borello, the owner of the house, died in February 2005 after lovingly maintaining the estate for 29 years. What you see now is the members-only club, Norwood. Signatures: $200 black membership key rings given out to a lucky few, shabby-chic gentleman’s club interior, peep-hole door. Famous Patrons: Calvin Klein, Bono, Warren Beatty. Vibe: From the New York Times article “Glitz, Funk, and Victoriana Enliven New York’s Discos” published in 1987: “As if emerging from a Ralph Lauren ad, many here seem to inhabit a world blending bored detachment and grand theatricality. Black taffeta regularly appears next to faded denim, and English accents – both real and fostered – abound. An artist from New Zealand, lounging on a sofa with a cigarette, mused as to why he was admitted: ‘They go for people who look like they don’t care whether they get in.'”

Post Nell’s

NA Birthdate: Noel Ashman’s baby (and for who the club was so-named) opened the Bungalow-esque NA in 2004. Damon Dash and Chris Noth were some of the high-profile investors involved. Signatures: Resident DJ Mark Ronson spun, $1,086.25 membership fee, palm fronds. Famous Patrons: Ivanka Trump, Puff Daddy, Mischa Barton.

image Noel Ashman

Plumm Birthdate: In 2006, after a nasty investor battle, Noel reopens the spot with Michael Ault, who was known for Spy Bar. It was co-owned by Chris Noth, Samantha Ronson, Joey McIntyre, Damon Dash, Jesse Bradford, and Simon Rex, to name a few. Signatures: Purple, no membership fees, Lindsay Lohan, Agyness Deyn, and Joel Madden guest DJed, Tommy Hilfiger and Axl Rose got into a famous fight. Famous Patrons: See investor list. Vibe: Fashionable, purple, “My ideal mix would be an underground kid from Williamsburg, some models, a few European aristocrats, socialites, and a hip-hop mogul or two,” says Ashman.

The Darby Birthdate: Set to open, um, soon? It’s missed all of its perceived opening dates, no doubt because of the city and her licensing ways. Should be ready next month. Signatures: Butter/1Oak‘s Dream Team, Butter’s chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli Famous Patrons: So far Jay-Z threw Beyonce’s birthday party here, so there’s that. Vibe: “I want to bring back an old-fashioned sense of class from the ’50’s and ’60’s, like El Morocco, a place where you can dress up, have an amazing dinner and some music and entertainment,” Akiva told the Times.

Doormen Never Die: Irv Johnson’s New York Memories

There’s a quote that goes, “Old doormen never die, they just fade away.” Or something like that. That’s the way Irv Johnson slipped off my radar. I always stopped to chat with Irv when he worked Pink Elephant. My nightly rounds brought me over to the 27th Street corridor, and Irv and another doorman, Stefan, were a constant. Then it was only Stefan, and then nobody bothered with 27th Street, and Irv was reduced to a rumor. Facebook linked us together again. Club people, like hookers and strippers, need to have an exit strategy. Very few make enough loot to retire to a condo in Miami, or a ranch in Montana. For many, it’s just a roller coaster ride of loot, toot and booty. Many, like myself, one night find themselves too old and disinterested, and look to get out. Nightlife isn’t good for most resumes, and unless they have a plan, they have a problem. I managed to segue into design and writing, but many club people’s only skill sets have to deal with model wrangling, or slinging shots, and as time moves them away from the beat of the street, they become less effective. Irv is a pro. He had all the right tools to do the door right: a great memory for faces, style, knowledge of the business, and most importantly, a big heart—which got him through the most trying of nights. With a few notable exceptions, most great door people love people, and approach their gig as if all are equal, but they have a job to do.

Sometimes, a person rolling up to the ropes is unaware that 5 minutes earlier, the door person was physically threatened or verbally abused. The doorman is required to move on, and get the people in with a smile, and a friendly hello. Door people endure abuse, inclement weather, off-hour fears, and very late nights with too many bad distractions. It takes a certain type of person to remain professional. All the great ones take pride in their work, as they orchestrate every night.

Steve Rubell, Peter Gatien, and many of the most successful owners were constant fixtures at the door. They knew that the night depended on what happened there. Now, many clubs are abandoning this concept and using a forced RSVP, text messaging, and other technologies to control the entrance sequence. It seems to be working well at Provocateur, and other high-end venues. There may be a time where the doorman position will become a forsaken trade. I always thought it to be an art form, and I was privileged to work with some of the best there ever were: Kenny Kenny, King, Wass, Richard Alverez, Howie, Ross, Irv, Andrea, Tom Starker, and others who have faded from this morning’s memory. I caught up with Irv Johnson and asked him where he faded to.

I heard that you are returning to NY the first week of August. What will you be doing here? The fall season tends to be very busy in the television ad, and promo world. I suspect I’ll be working on different TV spots. In the immediate time, “Boy Wonder” written and directed by Michael Morrissey, and the latest film I scored, will screen at the Rhode Island International Film Festival on the 12th. I’m going up there to support and meet with other filmmakers. I also will score a short by Andrew Bowler called “Time Freak,” a really funny piece on obsession, and I’ll start work on a pseudo documentary by Moniere Noor called “Zen Nation,” a piece about a man’s distant travels throughout the world to find higher levels of consciousness.

Where are you living now and what are you doing? I am in Copenhagen, Denmark, where my wife, son and I have an apartment. We also have a loft in Bushwick, where we live as well. I’ve been in Copenhagen since May, playing with my boy, meeting with filmmakers here(and in Malmö, Sweden), and learning to speak Danish.

When working at clubs, at either the door or promotion, was it always a means to an end? Or at one point did you decide you needed an exit strategy? When I first landed in the club business, it was a much different environment than it is today. Clubs were more artistic, and those who worked there were respected. Creatives of various disciplines found themselves working in some capacity, as it was both an artistic outlet, as well as a good source of income. When I started, I was between bands and launching my first production house. I quickly became a popular fixture on the scene, and also managed to earn a good living— enough that I left the music business to pursue it full time. I soon realized that I was, at heart, a musician, and could never really escape that reality. On the other hand, I enjoyed the club business too, so I endeavored to have it both ways, much like Wass, who has done an amazing job at balancing two diametrically opposed worlds. That said, I guess my ‘exit strategy’ was to leverage the vast contacts I harvested while acting as a club impresario, and use those relationships to segue into the creative world. At times it worked great, other times it was hard to shake others perception of me as a night life personality, in favor of the classically trained musician I am. However, clubs did give me my first breaks into what I am doing now.

If you were to return to clubs, where would you work and at what capacity? Good question. I’ve been offered money at times to open up my own place. I could consider that, or to become an adviser or creative director. I don’t have any formed opinions.

Tell me a door story. Once, while working the door at the Supper Club for Nelson and Anthony’s popular Thursday night party, a royal, who I shall not mention, wanted to come in. The problem was, he was in company of too many men, and all were ‘casually dressed.’ I gently and with respect, explained that I could not accommodate his entire party and so was refused. The following week he came back with his driver and car, with the right combination, and gained entry and thanked me for my handling of the situation the week prior. Those who may read this article and are of modern day club world would find my refusal reprehensible, or say that I was a horrible doorman and was on an ego trip, ad nauseum. Most clubs today thrive on what celebrity was at the party, or how much money was made. But in those days, for those parties, gaining entrance to a club was the all time equalizer, and it didn’t matter about your status or your money. People who went out knew what they were getting into, and for the most part, played by the rules of the game. I would like to add that I never allowed my ego to get in the way of choosing people to get in. To me it was a job that I wanted to perform well. I would never turn down someone for sport, or with the attitude that I was better then them, or that the party was too good for them. Rather, my snap decisions were based on attire, attitude, company, what the party was for, the clientele inside, and if I thought they would have a good time if let in. If I let someone in who probably wouldn’t have a good time, but thought they would, they would be a drag on the overall energy of the party—or worse. Imagine being in a room full of people having a good time, and you’re being ignored? Not fun for the person, add some drinks, it could equal chaos.

What have you missed? Creativity in nightlife. A thinking outside the box in entertainment, that would make someone totally escape the drudgery of their day-to-day lives, only to have an adventure at night.

You worked at every significant club, except Life, how did that happen? If you mean, “Why did I work at every significant club?” then the answer is a short one: I was very popular at the time, every club/promoter wanted me to work at their venue. If the question is “Why didn’t I work at Life?” It was because you never asked me to. I was quite surprised, given the times, but I am sure you had your reasons, and I totally respect them. In the end, “Life” was a huge success, even without my participation.

In your time, what were the best clubs, and why? There have been quite a few, but I will limit mine to 5, and what I see as the firsts in a genre.

AREA: Although I was way too young to be going out at the time, I caught the last remnants of Area. Area changed its theme and interior from month to month. It was true, expressive, real-time, chic, performance art.

NELL’S: It was the first of the smaller ’boutique’ clubs of its time. It hired only the best of the best, and had the most notorious—and strict—door policies ever. But once you were in, somehow you felt as though you were part of a family.

SOUND FACTORY: The original, before it became popular. It was a late night spectacle. When I yearned for seeing something original, and not be seen, this was the club I liked to go to. It was a primarily gay club, but was frequented by straight people from time to time.

LIFE: Life was an original in that, although it referenced older clubs, like Nell’s, it also addressed the needs of the times, and became its own unique product, a hybrid if you will, that others followed.

LOTUS: Although I didn’t frequent it a lot, I mention this club insofar as it made a big impact on the ‘new’ downtown/bottle service/model/euro trash venues. Lotus was the paradigm for those that followed. Although it referenced places like Chaos, and other “bottle service” venues, it seemed to synchronize all the right parts to make a whole. There are, of course, many more but these are the ones I felt worth mentioning, and by the way, I purposely left out the ones I worked at, which were also amazing and ground breaking.

For those who want to know more about Irv: www.chameleonsoundesign.com www.reverbnation.com/irvjohnson

The Darby Gets a Name, Carnival is a Hit

Sometimes, wearing two hats doesn’t stop the rain. I was kept late at job sites yesterday evening, as my designer hat kept me deep in sheetrock, dust, and paint fumes. My firm is currently finishing four venues that will open between now and Labor Day, and I don’t have enough hours in the day, or showers, or clothes, stashed around town. The Richie Akiva/Scott Sartiano restaurant on 14th and 8th has been named The Darby. I’ve known this for a while, but needed it to break in The Times, first. That’s where the two hats get into arguments with each other. I am so excited about this project, as each day the place looks more like the vision my partner, Marc Dizon, and I developed months ago. I’ll talk about this more in the coming weeks. Next door, at the old Country Club/ Dirty Disco space, now known as Snap, a woman and celebrity-friendly sports bar/restaurant is shaping up. The restaurant at 146 Orchard Street is in its final stages of construction, and looking like a winner. Stand Up New York, our first comedy club, is open to the public, while final finishes make it sweeter every day. Needless to say, my schedule is hectic, and I missed two events that I swore I’d attend last night.

The Jersey Shore soiree at Marquee was my biggest loss. I was promised access to the “talent,” and I was preparing questions all week. Most started with “YO!” In what had to be the biggest cultural ying-yang in quite some time, the Paul Kasmin Gallery next store opened David Lachapelle’s “American Jesus” exhibit. No press flack had the gumption to drag The Situation next door to the gallery, nor did David go to Marquee. Combining these two crowds would have been a snap. The images at David’s show, available online, feature an angelic Michael Jackson—with wings and all. They looked insanely hot. My Blackberry screamed to me that Julian Schanbel and Lenny Kravitz were there, and everyone who was everyone, as well. Afterward, the swells took their boom boom to the Boom Boom Room, which I hear will go private in a snap of Andre Balaz’s well manicured fingers. To almost everyone, that means very little access granted, and while people are always denied, it will discourage the mediocres from even trying to get in. I’m sure the fabulous aren’t affected much.

I was motivated by midnight, and headed to Amanda Lepore and Kenny Kenny’s Big Top party at Carnival, held at Bowlmor Lanes. Now, that’s a mouthful of candy corn for sure. I wanted to say hey to David Lachapelle, who I haven’t seen in a few years. It was advertised he would be there, and everyone knew he would. He has been mussing around with Amanda forever. I found David surrounded by a sea of paparazzi and iPhone photographers by a throne in the big room. He was wearing a gray Shepard Fairey T shirt, and a red baseball cap. Drag queens and flash dancers vied for his attention with big—real and store-bought—grins. Everyone was smiling, as “good nature” is considered classy with this fashion gay crowd. David posed with everyone. I saw photographer Roxanne Lowitt grab a few minutes while adoring fans jockeyed to be next. This scene latches onto its home grown celebrities like David and Richie Rich and Ru Paul and others who, for so long, have sipped cocktails in the same places and have now achieved international celebrity. The dress, style, and sensibility of this crowd loves to be validated with these success stories. Dressing up in fantastic costumes is high fashion, and high style, when one of these ambassadors “sells” it to the larger culture. The way of life has its own rewards, for sure, but it’s nice to be recognized. David is the real deal and it was nice to have him home again. I said hi, and we exchanged the “how good you looks” and all. He was always there for me over the years. He provided beautiful floral images for use on invites when I opened the Palace de Beaute with Larry Tee and Michael Alig. That was where the PetCo in Union Square now lives. Andy Warhol had his Factory upstairs. When my ex wife was putting out a record on Next Plateau Records, David shot it. He was always around to lend his brand to fabulous events, or have his after-events with my crew. He was always a wonderful, fun, and intelligent person—great to be around.

The crowd swarmed, posing, selling their fabulousness to him and each other, swarming his candle light. It was nice to be in a club where the idols were artists instead of moguls. Nearby, muscle queens took exaggerated hammers and rocketed energy up a 14 foot shaft to ring a bell. Others stood by with admiration while sipping vodka through straws. A successful slam had a huge LED sign begging, “HIT ME AGAIN.” All were delighted by this spectacle. Delicious cotton candy was being hawked by delicious young men, as a gymnast-type hoola-hooped in short shorts. 7-foot drag artists, with air-brushed makeup, air kissed each other and exchanged pleasantries. Gym-built bodies hawked games of skill and luck and distributed stuffed purple prizes, and sexy smiles to winners. The carni-shtick made wallflowers into entertainers. It was smiles all around, and forward music for a forward thinking crowd, who remain years ahead of it all while, doing much of the same as 10 years ago.

Kenny Kenny was pleased as he surveyed the room with me. He knows that he, Amanda, and Joey have created something that can be built on. “It’s good,” he humbly proclaimed. The crowd is fresh, unjaded, and uber friendly. They dress the part, and are aware that something is happening here that borrows only the best parts of the bawdy past. It is respectful of the legacy, and embraces the success of what came out of that era that broke it all out, but they don’t relate to the pitfalls of that time. David and Amanda, Kenny, and so many others from long ago bathe in the new light. I love Wednesday’s at Carnival.

Paul Alexander, who has always been an oracle—a person to ask when you want to know the story, the scoop, and what’s really happening—is hosting a Sunday night shindig at the Pearl lounge on 17th and 8th avenue. It’s an early gig, meant to fill those hours between dinner and Suzanne Bartsch and Kenny Kenny’s late night affair at Greenhouse. It’s cocktails and flirtations, 10 to 1am at Pearl, and then everyone heads downtown. Paul’s parties at Jackie 60/Mother, Caine, and so many other places, have been reliable fun for the sometimes, somewhat unreliable set.

First Looks, New Openings and a Look Back

Sometimes I make people mad at me. It happens. My editors fume if I am designing something and some other blogger gets the inside scoop first. “Oops” worked once. “I forgot” another time. When you’re getting close to the conclusion of construction the PR peeps come swarming in and want to control the spread of information. They interview me or get a few sound bites about design intent and then flitter away. They don’t send me a release or keep me in the loop. I guess they figure I know what’s up. Well, here we are again. A few joints on the cusp of being fabulous.

image My design firm Lewis and Dizon is finishing up BEBA at 71 Spring street, just west of Lafayette, opening with veteran chef Tom Papoultis. It’s the old fr.og space, which did so poorly when every other joint in the hood was thriving. fr.og was all about bad food, awful design and ridiculous attitude, but it was in a great location. The location wont change and the Mediterranean food will be fabulous and the design will be more of my unusual. They’re hiring staff and want to get it open next week. I’ll sneak a camera in tomorrow.

image The long shuttered 146 Orchard street space is back in full tilt construction again with Camille Beccera, late of Greenpoint eatery Paloma, in the kitchen. Although it still has no name to my knowledge, Camille will offer farm fresh and local fare every chance she gets. A mid to late May opening is expected. It’s a Lewis and Dizon design as well. The design is based on the history of Orchard street, with modernized elements of the fabric of street life in the LES influencing the aesthetic.

image Everybody wants to know about the former Nells space we are producing for the 1Oak/Butter team. I expect that to open mid-may as well. Everyday it gets closer to the realization of our vision. I can’t speak much about this other than to say we have been true to the aesthetic of Nell’s, but have added sweeping decorative elements to satisfy these modern times. That means we respected the old school and pushed in the new school. The engagement of my pal Butter/1Oak owner Scott Sartiano to the charming model Allie Rizzo pleased us all. When it was whispered in my ear last week I sent him a text telling him I finally found the elusive name for his 14th street super supper club: Fiancé. He text laughed at me. I’ve seen the ring, this place better make money.

Last night, dressed in all my Easter suaveness, I visited Suzanne Bartsch and Kenny Kenny’s Sunday night soiree over at Greenhouse. It was magnificent. The positive energy of the enthused crowd all frenzied up by DJ Johnny “Daddy” Dynell made me a believer. This is the way it was, is and should be. It was a mixed crowd of mixed nuts and other nightlife denizens air kissing and showing off their easter finery. Billy Erb, Paul Alexander and faces I haven’t seen since I left this scene greeted me warmly and told me I must come more often. I told Kenny I had uncovered bags of old photos, many of him. He told me he didn’t want to see them. Maybe he is right and you just can’t look back too much. That’s why I’ve been a stranger to this weekly party, seems like I had been there and done that . However, the place was jumping with new faces (or is it fresh meat?) and I realized that this party was thriving in the present and the smiles were for that last track or the new person that caught their eye. The purity of that was refreshing. I don’t ever go to greenhouse. I don’t particularly like some of the people there or the way it is run, but I will go next Sunday. I cabbed to see Jon Lennon over at GoldBar . The Sundays have become undeniable. He was sipping bubbly water at a table next door as hordes of sweet things approached the door. Sundays seem to be close to becoming the new Mondays.