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.
Last year at this time, and the year before that, and the year before that, I ended many of my evenings at subMercer, that Andre Balaz subterranean paradise in his Mercer Hotel. I would hang outside with lifelong friend/door guru Richard Alvarez and his sidekick Moses, or join the scene downstairs presided over by totally cool, hip, fun, temptress Gabby Mejia. Gabby was the reason to be cheerful for a mixed bag of adults who found this small joint with big music important. It was the kind of place that you didn’t have to think about "what was going on.” There was always Gabby, Richard, and Moses. There was always a great DJ, except maybe when I played, and the crowd was always sexy, always smart, and were never-looking-for-the-same-ol’-predictable programming featured around town. It was my secret spot that I told everyone about. Every summer it would close down as the Balaz crew headed to Shelter Island or other exotic lands to reboot.
Every year, when I lamented the end of summer, the knowledge that subMercer would now reopen was a reason to be cheerful. This year it hasn’t reopened and Gabby has moved on. They say it’s for renovation and I’m hoping they get it open again soon. Without Gabby I’m not sure it will be the same. It might be like Casablanca’s, Rick’s Cafe American without Rick, or Studio 54 without Steve Rubell. Often, a persona is bigger than a place. Andre Balaz didn’t get where he is without some smarts, so I figure he’ll make it right but won’t finish the "renovations" until he does.
Meanwhile the amazing Gabby Mejia is throwing a party and she has lined up all her usual and unusual suspects to make it right. It’s this Sunday in the basement of Santos Party House. It’s free. There are dozens of DJs lined up, including Arthur Baker, Stretch Armstrong, Cosmo Baker, Eli Escobar and Lloydski, Justin Strauss, Citizen Kane, Geology, Rok One, and so many worthy etceteras. I caught up with Gabby and asked her to tell me all about it.
Tell me all about the event.
The party is titled “Break Up The Family,” after the Morrissey song, because it’s a final family reunion of sorts, as the tight clan we’d formed over the last three years in subMercer is dispersing in order for wings to spread, as they purposefully should and inevitably always do. After three incredible years as subMercer’s director, and having started the first legitimate music label putting out original productions (and vinyl) for a hotel, I decided it was time to pursue new musical ventures. I stepped away from management and operations in order to focus primarily on musical programming and curating, and everyone else on the team was sort of naturally graduating onto the next phase of his/her life, too. I thought the song was very fitting, as its lyrics denote a certain maturity in reflecting over the years and one’s own evolution, then realizing it’s time to fly the proverbial coop – but not without first wanting to see and hug all your old friends and peers that were with you along the way.
When subMercer closed for renovations, I was bowled over by the public’s reaction – all the heartfelt letters and social media testaments of the positive cultural impact we had had on the underground music scene – all by fostering an environment of creative freedom for DJs to fully express themselves and their individual styles on the decks. I realized then that we had to get the gang back together one last time for a proper farewell, so I wrangled all our residents for a final showcase of their talents on the decks.
And the legendary Arthur Baker is in this?
I also called Arthur Baker, who is a dear friend, mentor, and personal hero of mine, and he happily agreed to fly from London to headline the party. Arthur is a seminal and legendary producer, who arguably changed the trajectory of dance music when he and Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force emerged from a late studio session one night with the groundbreaking hit "Planet Rock," which introduced the world to the revolutionary new sound of the Roland 808 drum machine. He also went on to produce hits for New Order and Rockers Revenge, amongst others. His music greatly influenced a lot of today’s dance music and inspired the careers of many of our DJs. It’s a great boost, too, for any DJ to get to play alongside such a musical pioneer.
Tell me about the decision to move on…and leave the wonderful Andre Balaz family. How could you leave this gig that’s seemingly a dream?
Leaving AB was a hard decision because he was always so encouraging and gave me total creative autonomy at sub to develop and curate it as I saw fit. I’d been with the company on and off since 2004, between four hotels in NY and Miami; but in the end, I realized I had my own, independent goals I needed to pursue, and they understood and supported me in my decision. What is the legacy of subMercer?
subMercer was the best professional experience of my career thus far, and the one of which I’m most proud because we built a reputation of never compromising on the quality of the music or talent that played there. It was so intimate that it really ran like a family. There wasn’t any sort of clear vision I had for the place when I took it over. I DJ myself, and most of my friends are DJs, so it just sort of happened very organically that it became such a music-driven club. Once it started to come together, we really focused on making it really NY-centric to support the underground music community here. A lot of clubs in the city these days tend to book European DJs, but we wanted to support our local community. NY has always been at the forefront of cutting-edge dance music, and we want to keep it that way.
Nightlife in NYC is very bottle dependent. Can a standalone club survive without being in a hotel or part of a larger corporation?
No, I don’t think independent, free-standing clubs need to be bottle dependent to survive. I think you just have to have confidence, high standards, and maintain your integrity in the biz. Integrity is everything; it establishes your credibility and often adds to your longevity. When your output is consistently associated with good quality, people start to rely on that consistency.
A woman in a managerial, programming position is rare in nightlife. What did you do to be one of the boys, or did you just say “fuck that” on day 1?
It certainly wasn’t always easy being a woman in senior management and being a music booker (two completely different jobs) – but I wear velvet gloves over my iron fists, and I’ve learned how to assert myself if/when necessary. In the end though, that’s really all irrelevant. Once again, it’s your integrity that earns you the respect of your peers.
You spend a lot of time in Miami and you confided in me that you will be spending more. You have a decade of excellent nightlife experience and a strong musical base. Tell me about the cultural differences between NYC and Miami besides the beach, the weather, and the Cuban sandwiches.
So much that’s great about Miami — for starters, it’s culturally Latin. There’s great music and a burgeoning art scene and Art Basel. I’d like to bridge the two cities musically more, bringing Miami DJs up here, and vice versa. Last year, for Miami’s Winter Music Conference, I was able to put together a two-night underground party with a killer lineup that included Arthur Baker, Radio Slave, Rory Philips (who flew in just to DJ our party), and a slew of other big name DJs from LA, London, and NY, as well as too many DJs asking to jump on and play, too, after they had just headlined at Ultra. It was a ridiculous lineup that would have taken most promoters months to coordinate and organize, but I got it done in one afternoon, four days before the date of the party.
I don’t travel well. Plane, train, or automobile, it doesn’t matter. Once I cross a bridge, or hop on some instrument to take me away from Manhattan—I simply collapse. My wives say I’m strapped into the city. The streets and sounds are as much a part of me as my blood. I just don’t like small towns, and for me, Chicago is a small town. In the classic flick My Little Chickadee, W.C. Fields is being dragged to the gallows. His character, Cuthbert J. Twillie, a con man who had become sheriff of Greasewood City, begs for a customary final wish as the noose is tightened. The mob grants it and Fields deadpans, “I’d like to see Paris before I die.” The crowd jeers and he lessens his demand with “Philadelphia will do.” For me, Philadelphia just might do, and maybe San Francisco, but other than that, it’s all Greasewood City to me. Oh, I did spend a year in Los Angeles one night, and I can absolutely tolerate Miami for 3 or 2 days, so long as nobody talks to me, or takes me to a club. America offers places I can get away to, like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Death Valley National Parks, but the cities and towns on the way are just truck stops or ghost towns to me. Tom Starker, one of the most infamous doorman in this town, moved away a long time ago to a place called Columbus. I looked it up. It’s in Ohio, which is a big left if you somehow end up in New Jersey. I am told it is a very pleasant place. It sounds like the kind of place those NIMBY’s on community boards would just love, but that’s another story.
Back in the day, there weren’t as many clubs as there are these days, but there were many more really big ones. They were fabulous malls where as many as 7 DJs played different music in different rooms to different crowds. People thought different was more interesting than the same. That sums up the problem with today’s clubs in a flash, but that’s a different story. It was one stop shopping, as the gays and the straights and the house heads and rockers all got along, and exchanged thoughts and, often, DNA. Now it seems like that mall was ripped apart, and sections of it form mini clubs, each with its own patented vibe.
Neighborhoods are club malls, but diversity is an elusive commodity. The doormen of these current joints are generally looking for one type of patron, looking for “their” crowd. Who or what is fabulous and VIP’d at Kenmare may not get hustled inside at 1Oak. The doorman may kiss the cheeks and the ass of one dude at Avenue but the same fellow might enjoy more of the night air than he is used to outside The Box. In times of yore, doorman needed to know or be able to recognize players from all sorts of crowds. Tom Starker was a superstar doorman. He worked at places that are legendary, such as Area, the World, Palladium (Rubell/Schrager incarnation), Heartbreak, Saturday’s, the Saint, Save the Robots, Limelight, The Red Zone, Palladium (Peter Gatien edition), Tatou, and Club USA. His 6-foot (and a lot more) frame was topped with a massive, trademark cowboy hat. Everybody had to be nice to him. Suddenly, he was gone and living and working in the hinterlands of self-imposed exile, far from any main street. I chatted with Tom as he contemplates a return to New York.
After many years in the wilderness, you showed up at a Danceteria reunion. Where have you been, and what have you been up to? Good analogy, wilderness can be good. It can impart wisdom if you stand still enough to listen. Leaving NYC for a time was exactly that for me. I returned to Columbus Ohio where I grew up, with hopes to take some of my industry knowledge and open a club here.
And I guess you did. What is Spice and BoMA? BoMA was my baby. It was a project 10 years in the making. I turned a 19th-century stone church into a 4-star restaurant, night club and art gallery that was named #1 for food in the city and a club that was nominated for 3 international club world awards, including best new club, where we were up against Circa (Peter Gatien’s club in Toronto-Winner), Tao Beach (Vegas), Set (Miami) and LAX (Vegas). I eventually sold BoMA and opened Spice Gastro Lounge, another high-end concept restaurant, 3 stars, that was inspired by the gastronomy movement that was happening at the time.
You were a doorman in NYC for years. Tell me about the clubs you worked for. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a whole life cycle of entertainment in NYC that we now can look back upon as a golden age of clubs. I started my career at Aria in the early 80’s; the brilliant club that changed its theme every 6 weeks: Arthur Weinstein then brought me over to do the door at The World. Arthur and Frank Roccio used to do a Rock and Roll night at the Palladium, based around the music scene with bands like Love and Rockets. They asked me to do the door, probably because of my Rock/Biker persona. Palladium was a star-studded icon. The venue was mind boggling, and the Michael Todd’s (VIP) Room was actually a club within a club. How do you describe a room that has a massive Michele Basquiat painting over the bar? Steve Rubell asked me to do the door on a full-time basis, how do you say no to Steve Rubell? It was an honor to work for him.
A lot of other great clubs sprung up in the scene during that time, and many times I would be asked to do a particular night, and the job description would grow into something bigger. I went on to work at venues like Heartbreak, the Saint, and Save the Robots. In a classic move, Peter Gatien asked me to do the door at the Limelight on Sunday nights, which was Rock n’ Roll Church, and a few weeks later, I’m full time. But that’s what the clubs were like, it was a scene, and being versatile, and moving around, was so much a part of the energy of the business.
In the mid-80’s, in the heyday of the mega clubs, I opened my own intimate space called Saturdays. It helped that I was a part of the scene because the regulars and the celebrities followed me there for a time, and Andy Warhol described the club in his diary:
“Saturday August 16, 1986… and then we walked up Church street to a new place called Saturday’s…. We got there and it was all beautiful straight models dressed to the hilt, accessorized with jewelry and T-shirts torn just the right way, like Weber photographs, and they all look like they just fell out of a magazine. And the right age, like 28-30. They park their motorcycles out front… and beautiful girls too. This place overflowed onto the sidewalk, it was so chic. “
The co-op board of the Saturday’s building eventually shut us down, because the crowds became too unwieldy, with people pouring in to the streets and waves of motorcycles firing up at 3am, waking up the entire neighborhood.
In the late 80’s and 90’s I did the Red Zone, another mega club and eventually went back to the Palladium under Peter Gaiten, who I worked for at the Limelight. Eventually, I did the door at an uptown club called Tatou, and then Club USA. The Red Zone and Tatou, interestingly, were venues that were also restaurants, a concept that really struck me, and eventually inspired me to realize that there can be more to a nightclub than loud music and massive crowds.
Why did you leave and what were you seeking? Did you find it? I actually never intended to leave for so long. I came to Columbus (my hometown) to open the Easy Riders flagship venue for Paizano Publications, publishers of Easy Rider Magazine. When you leave home at 21 and live the life I did in NYC for 15 years, being around family again reminds you of the things you are missing from your life. Next thing you know, you buy a house, and 17 years has gone by. But, as I take a breath in between projects and take stock of what I’ve seen, and what I’ve done, I’m experiencing the same epiphany, but in reverse. It all come full circle, as things should, and I desperately miss the city, its energy, and all my friends I met in that life, that are also like family to me. To ask if I found “it,” since being away, I discovered part of myself back home, but now I’m realizing that some part of me is also indelibly NYC.
You wore a trademark cowboy hat for eons. Why? Are you a forreal cowboy, or does it mean something else, or do you think you look good in it? All of the above, and don’t forget, I ride an iron horse. Steve Rubell did say after all, my country western party in the Michael Todd Room was the coolest party he had ever seen.
Clubs are made of people. What did you glean from the many club personalities you worked with? The club people of those days were reflective of every aspect of NYC, which in turn is a snapshot of every walk of life. I have to say that being in that environment at 21 probably was instrumental in becoming who I am today. I learned from the best of the best in an industry filled with unique minds and outrageous creativity, including you Mr. Lewis.
You’re contemplating a return? Why and what would you do. Yes, I have a concept I would like to open in the city that is along the lines of what we accomplished with Saturday’s. Having build, designed and owned large venues I don’t think this is the time for mega anything. People are valuing their relationships, their time, their money and quality experience is king. I would return not as a former self living in some pale limelight but as an evolved industry veteran who wants to again plug into a bigger picture and community of fantastic people.
Do the fundamental things apply as time goes by? How do you think the NYC club scene has changed? he fundamentals are creative genius, and the right time and place. I think we have all watched the club scene change over time. My “era” is now looked upon as an iconic time when large clubs, celebrities, exclusivity and glitz were everything. But we started to see politics and money play into the gentrification of every aspect of the city which took the life out of the club scene because we silenced the creative voice in exchange for highly controlled development. As we lost the grittiness that was the source of NYC’s scene we simply had to wait for the new time and place. What has developed are smaller venues with distinct concepts that have style and panache. I love what I’m seeing in this new evolution because its has brought Manhattan back to herself and it’s the kind of environment I can see myself being creative in again.
Do the fundamental things of the NYC club business apply in Columbus? NYC is unique, and the rules in the Midwest are completely different. Concepts do not play here the same way as they play in NYC so there are inherent differences in the approach.
On August 7th there will be a reunion for the World, a club that I have declared one of the 5 best of all time. My part in the history of the World came when I was a thin, unstoppable, whirlwind of substance and fluff with the requisite model wife and an ego that jostled with my reputation and anyone that got in my way. I weighed a buck thirty-five with bugged blue eyes and I was having a meeting with my staff at the Holiday on St. Marks Place. The Holiday was my “office” back in 1986. The owner—Stefan—never minded. I’d sit there for hours sipping Cokes and meeting models and promoters, building my little empire on beer- soaked wood tables and café chairs. The meeting was about some fashion extravaganza we were hosting at Danceteria —or was it at Café American? Or was it Café Americano? Anyway, it’s Nobu now. We were organized. We were doing 100 shows a year. Ivy Bernhard was doing hair and makeup. Cee Cee Borisovitch was putting the right ass in the right dress with the right shoes. We had a PR team landing us in important papers constantly and a promotional team bringing thousands to everything we did. We were bringing events in from London, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam—and Houston and New Orleans as well.
What I didn’t know was that I was being watched. A man with long gray hair in the corner booth was listening to every word. He had a joint that almost always made it but never really did. In this business almost anyone can make money and almost anyone can do cool, but to do cool and make money requires a certain type of smarts and a certain type of cool and few can do both. A few months later the gray haired man asked me to run The World. His name was Frank Roccio and he’s a man who might still be alive but nobody is looking for him—and that includes people he owes money to, which some say would sell out Yankee Stadium. He doesn’t owe me loot. He tried that once, and I explained how bad an idea that was to him. I was feisty in my youth. The World was a club on East 2nd Street near Avenue B that had an on-again, off-again history with moments of magnificence. It was sometimes opened and almost always closed soon after.
Making money on Avenue B and 2nd in those days came mostly from guns and drugs and a few bodegas. It was a burnt-out block which hosted an open air flea market where anything illegal could be purchased from the fleas. Frank booked a flight to L.A. and me and my lovely, and his daughter checked into the Sunset Marquis to plan a club that would matter and make money. Frank felt going West would give us room to breath and think.
Our plan was to embrace the social scene, the fashion scene, the gay and not-too-straight scene that I was hooked into. Back then I could draw a thousand people to watch me eat lunch. We would couple my following with music being played in underground clubs like Black Market and Choice and the Paradise Garage. We were going to shove this sound up their tight asses. It was like Obi-Wan Kenobi, ”You will like hip hop… you will like house music.” And so they did. Everyone paid to get in back then unless you were in a band, worked at another joint (club courtesy), or told us you couldn’t afford to. If they couldn’t pay, but liked the place enough to keep coming we gave them a job. We always had room for a busboy or coat check or a go-go dancer or a flyer distributor.
We opened in September 1987 with Public Enemy onstage. I paid them $1,100. I followed with Kid and Play and krs1. I was paying bands that would become national acts $300 bucks because it was young and we were hip. We moved Frankie Knuckles in from Chicago and gave David Morales an opportunity to play House instead of the freestyle I was used to hearing from him.
We were, in the words of legendary co-owner Arthur Weinstein, “a hit.” The “Dean Johnson Rock and Roll Fag Bar” was the best Tuesday in town. We added Larry Levan to our Wednesday to keep the juggernaught moving forward. Bowie played the room and Neil Young and Sinead and Bjork and even Pink Floyd. Celebrities slummed with the kids from the projects and the club kids, who were just finding their niche. After the first year we smashed through the walls into the tenement next store rousted the addicts and called it “IT” and it was 3 floors of grand: Caroline Herrara wearing legendary emeralds while hip-hop kids mouthed lyrics that should have made her nervous, is a fond memory. It was Madonna, Brooke Shields, Stephen Sprouse and Prince surrounded by paupers, fashion addicts and drug addicts. It was sometimes dangerous but that was very much a part of its charm. Andy Warhol would pop in and a tuxedoed Steve Rubell. I learned from him to often wear a tux even if you weren’t coming from somewhere. It made them think you were just from some swell uptown affair and that was the conversation for the evening. Assholes lurked in the shadows and games of cops and robbers were always a part of the challenge.
The club died as newer slicker joints embraced the 90’s. I moved on to do Redzone when the money could never be enough to cover the legit expenses and the ever expanding special needs of those involved. The reunion will be one of many slated for the next few months. There’s a Mudd Club shin-dig coming up and a Save the Robots soiree’ too. The Nells crew will get a night at their old space once it’s completely redone for the new decade for the new wonderboys Scott Sartiano and Richie Akiva. It has a name and I’m just dying to tell you but alas that’s another story. Nostalgic revivals of long extinct spots wont bring back those days or make us any younger. It won’t justify our actions or apologize for our misdeeds from years ago or raise the dead or rekindle romances. However, we learned from the Danceteria reunion that it’s nice to catch up with people we crossed paths with a long time ago on our way to today.
Alan Philips and Josh Shames are founders of SKY Group and Deluxe Experience. Their clients include One Group (STK), Gerber Group (Whiskey Bar), Morgans Hotel Group (Hudson, Royalton, The Shore Club), Borgata Hotel, Brier Group (Highbar) … the list goes on.
What are your favorite places in the world? Alan Philips: Sushi of Gari. They have the freshest fish, simply and creatively prepared, in understated surroundings. I don’t think that there is anywhere you can experience something as delicious and unexpected as the salmon tomato onion sushi. Bagatelle has incredible energy and music, very New York. I recently had the pleasure of staying and experiencing the newest Morgans Hotel in Miami, Mondrian Miami. Marcel Wanders has designed a spectacular hotel that captures the surprise and whimsy that you first felt when entering the Delano 20 years ago. Josh Shames: The Box is an amazing New York experience, and I’ve never felt the energy from a nightclub that I have felt at Palladium in Acapulco, Mexico. 2000-plus people, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls over looking the Acapulco bay. As for restaurants, the China Club in Hong Kong or Il Latini in Florence, Italy, are the two of my favorite dining experiences. If I had a last meal, then it would be Don Pepe’s in Ozone Park.
Who do you admire in your industry? AP: Ian Schrager has continued to innovate for decades and maintain an individual point of view. The amount of time, energy, and commitment to your vision it takes to do what he has done is incredible. Imagine having Studio 54, Morgans Hotel Group, Palladium, Gramercy Park, and now this partnership with Marriot on your resume. Nobu Matsuhisa — he did not just create a restaurant, he created a whole other cuisine. Then he opened tons of locations that never sacrifice the quality of product. And just when you thought he was done, he kept creating new and intoxicating dishes that never cease to amaze. JS: Its cliché, but you have to mention Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager as they changed New York nightlife and the hospitality industry forever. No matter what has been done since, it has all been an extension of what they accomplished years before.
What are some positive trends that you’ve seen recently in your industry? AP: I like that people have been offering more inclusive experiences. Jamie Mulholland and his team did it this year at Surf Lodge. The vision and customer experience is all-encompassing from beginning to end. The restaurant, the bar, the hotel — it all goes together and is fabulous. I believe that customers want more for their hospitality dollar, and in this economic environment, they won’t mind spending money, but the quality and excitement better be there. I don’t think there will be tolerance for products that are sub-par. Additionally, I am excited about things moving away from bottle service. I like table minimums, and I believe that this will force operators to be more creative. Great ideas come out of necessity. JS: For a while, people thought that if they opened a nightclub or lounge and put a door person outside behind ropes, their place would be filled and generate revenue. I believe people have wised up since then. Operators, owners, and investors are starting to be more creative with their venues and concepts than they were five years ago
What is something that people might not know about you? AP: I love to cook. When the family gets together, my job is to cook. JS: I am left-handed and I go to every Broadway show.
What are your staples? AP: Books are Wolf of Wall Street, Good to Great, and Outliers. Artist is Da Vinci. City is New York to live and Miami to visit. JS: Destinations are Florence, Italy, and Aruba to relax. Politicians are Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
What are you doing tonight? AP: Going to Nobu 57; I’ve been obsessed with Dover sole tempura since I got back from Miami. Then Ella to hear Brooklyn Dawn spin. JS: I never make plans that far in advance.
What is your guiltiest pleasure? AP: DVR. My girlfriend and I watch way too many shows. Lost, Sopranos, 24, Big Love, Californication, Gossip Girl, Weeds, Brothers and Sisters. Okay, this is getting embarrassing. JS: My Blackberry.
Drink of choice? AP: Patron Silver on the rocks with two limes. JS: Iced coffee in the mornings, diet raspberry Snapple during the day, and anything with ice in it at night.
Person you’re dying to party with? AP: My mom. JS: Myself. I’m always so concerned with everyone else’s experience, I forget what its like to have a good time.
What’s next in ’09? We’re developing a new web-based project called Deluxe Experiences that will launch in early 2009. I have been working on it for a year, and we are really looking forward to seeing it come to life. We are also managing an artist Brooklyn Dawn — she is a super-talented female DJ whose energy, skills, and sound are something totally different in the downtown scene. Everything she does is so genuine and exciting. Also, began a new area of our business focused on servicing our lifestyle clients and synergizing them with our hospitality clients. 2009 is going to be a very interesting year in the hospitality business, as people are definitely going to have to find new ways to make money.
Carmen d’Alessio doesn’t stop. She can’t be stopped — for proof, see part one of our interview. There isn’t a club operator today in this city of New York that has the vision to support her ideas and therefore her crowd. She is loving Greenhouse and has a weekly party there, but it can’t be the same. Andy and Liz and Truman have all moved on to greener pastures, and I haven’t heard about Mick or Bianca at a club for quite some time. Well maybe Andy is Julian Schnabel now, and Mick is Dave Navarro, and Leo and Mark Wahlberg will be looked back at in time with the same luster … but I just don’t think so. It was bigger then. Carmen — the survivor, the originator — is still here with us plying her trade, devoted to showing us just how much life should be in nightlife.
Steve Rubell once asked me to obtain an elephant for Brooke Shields’ birthday party at the Palladium. Well, I got that elephant from — I think — Dawn Animal Rentals. It was a baby girl and the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. A twinkle in her eyes to rival Carmen’s, she played with half the staff while waiting for her grand entrance. So there I was: the club’s “director,” and I was going over the details of how the cake needed to be placed on the special rig on the baby elephant’s back, and the lighting cues, etc. While I was doing this, I thought some insect was buzzing in my ear, and I kept on reflexively swatting at it. Well everyone was giggling and holding back laughter. I turned around and saw that it was the baby elephant tickling me with her trunk. She raised up her trunk in glee with an unmistakable smile on her face, and we all laughed and touched and petted her. It was grand. And you’ll never guess whose idea that was.
Tell me about your time at Studio 54. First, as a preamble, I want to make the story clear. There are a few ingredients that put the whole concept together. Number one, the five languages. I was a real international jetsetter before Studio. Number 2, I did work for fashion as well, I did PR for Yves Saint Laurent, then Valentino, so I was living five years in Rome. I came back, and everybody saw me moving around with the jet set, so it became natural for a club owner — Peter Martins, who was Brazilian and had a club called Tropicalia — to ask me to throw parties. Little did I know that I was as going to be throwing parties, having drinks with my friends, dancing the night away, and making money. I loved it! Then, as it turns out, Maurice Browns came to check out this girl that was making so much fuss. I was in W, in WWD, Daily News. Even magazines in planes were writing about Tropicalia … in fact that’s how I met Rick. He was in his private Warner Brothers plane, and his friends told him you have to stop in New York to see Tropicalia, and the rest is history. Infinity was a total success, and it made the cover of the Wall Street Journal.
I was with Maurice and Vivianne recently, and they were actually shocked at the success of Infinity. It was phenomenal, making more money than any other club in the world. I was the one that did the opening night. In fact, Ian and Steve went to check me out there, and they demanded to know who was the person luring so many people. So that’s the way they met me. I was larger than life and they had to have me. But I didn’t want to pay them any attention because they were still at Enchanted Gardens in Queens. And they pursued. The situation was getting nowhere, because I suggested that they should look for something local. But one day, Ron Ferry, who had designed Enchanted Gardens, and was a very dear friend of mine, invited me for lunch and who comes for coffee, Ian and Steve. The first time I met them in person. Steve was charming, so convincing, such a big smile, he told me, “I would like to invite you to dinner anywhere you want, you and your husband.” So they wine and dine us, the whole goodies, then we ended up at the Enchanted Gardens, which at that point I thought was really an attractive place.
But let’s face it, Enchanted Gardens was way out in Queens. So these guys took a way out in Queens concept, managed to make it work there, and then they opened up the best club that ever existed. I say there’s no way I can help, I don’t know anybody in Queens. What can I do? And then I thought, I’m just going to throw some crazy at them, and they’ll have to turn me down. So my first idea was to do 1001 Nights — let’s bring elephants, camels, the tents, everybody in turbans, bellydancers. Let’s do it.
OK! We did it, and it made the cover of Newsweek, so from there on it was history. I did a fashion show with Halston, and the models were The NYC Ballet. Then I had Grace Jones for the first time…then I was offered the Studio. It was a completely different group, it was Frank Lloyd from Marlborough. He was going to be the original owner and Uva Harden. Uva was going to be the general manager, and it was Uva who called me to do PR. So that was going to be the original team, but eventually because of money issues, they needed backers. And I brought Ian and Steve to see the place, that’s the way it happened. This was illustrated in Any Warhol’s Exposures. It says, “Carmen brought, hand in hand, Ian and Steve to the big Apple.”
I’ve met Andy a handful of times, and I always was blown away by him. The few sentences he spoke to me had such a profound effect on my life. But you dealt with this person constantly. What was the real Andy like? I’d met him in so many fabulous circles, the first time I met him was way before Studio, in Europe when I was working for Valentino. It was during the movie Frankenstein and … we connected beautifully, because Andy was someone who really appreciated the international jet set more than anyone I’ve ever met. In fact, in the book Exposures, because of course he mentions me in every book, he writes that I am the jet-set. That is something that I would like to have on my tombstone, “Here Lies the Jet Set,” because he used to say, “She has gone everywhere from Rome to Rio. Anywhere there is a party and until the party lasts, she’ll be there, because she has a list of the rich, the beautiful and the young.” So there we have the essence of our friendship, the fact that we went through life appreciating the same things and we would be together from the moment I opened the Studio and on, he would favor me with his presence. We would sit down and check the beautiful guys, till at one point we even talked about doing a modeling agency together called Twinkie. We would enjoy just sitting in Studio and checking out the young guys and we had the same taste. He’s a Leo and I have had a lot of people in my life that have been very strong personalities that have marked my life, and all of them all Leos. Mick Jagger is a Leo.
And of course another important influence in my life was Malcolm Forbes. If you tried to get into Malcolm Forbes’ office through the front door, it would take you years, but you could walk up to Malcolm at the club. He went out all the time on his motorcycle and you could walk up to him and talk to him about the Yankees, or anything else, and he listened. We had a lot of beautiful experiences, but one of the ones that are more memorable was when Gloria and Johannes von Thurn und Taxis invited me for … These were beyond and above. He was the richest and he was 100% gay, but at one time he fell for Gloria because she was also bisexual. They were a combination and they both liked to party. They came to New York and I had a sit down dinner for them at Studio … and I have to say this about Ian and Steve, the sky would be the limit. I would sit down in meetings with them every afternoon, a little joint here, and then they started the meeting. And I would say Valentino wants to have a party, he would like to have a circus. Fine! Lets bring Barnum & Bailey. Next, Armani wants to have a party but he would like the whole studio converted into an Italian palazzo. Fine! Next. And that’s the way we would do it, the fantasy was beyond belief and there was no limit.
And they made money! No one ever since then has ever spent so much money and has made fantasies become realities in such a manner.
Steve came to me one day and said, “We’re having Brooke Shields’ birthday party, get an elephant. We’re going to put a cake on top of the elephant.” That was my party! I needed a baby elephant for Brooke!
Well, I got the job of getting the elephant. I remember also having a birthday for Mick Jagger, Baryshnikov, and Boy George.
This was all at the Palladium, it’s just different now, Carmen. Is it because the celebrities are different? No, it’s because in those days, I would approach the celebrities, but I wasn’t going to suggest just a night at the club. I’m offering you a party — what would be your fantasy. When you tell me your fantasy and I make it come through, it’s easy. How about Bianca Jagger with Lady Godiva on the white horse? How many times would you see that again? Never. We created history, and we created history because we did surrealistic things, until it came to the Palace in Paris trying to copy us, because from that moment on everyone wanted to come here. The moment I exposed them to Studio 54, I told them, this is going to be a studio not just a nightclub … to do fashion shows, TV shoots, etc.
Is that where the name came from? Where did the name come from? It was originally the famous opera house of San Carlos, then the place where filmed The $64,000 Question, it had a great history. The fabulous thing is because I had the fabulous background, they were just coming from Queens, so I installed in them the sense of glamour. When we were going out before Studio opened, I was taking them around to meet my friends. I was taking them shopping, to Barneys, to wear Armani, to look very chic and forget about polyester. I was changing that whole image, particularly in Ian who decided that that was his vocation. I introduced him to Philippe Starck, to Norma Kamali.
[See Part 1 of Steve Lewis’ interview with Richie Notar.] We’ll get out of this recession, and Richie Notar’s Nobu will thrive through it. He believes, as I do, that the high-end joints will survive, while a lot of the wannabes will close their doors. People will eat at a Nobu, or have a cocktail at Rose Bar, even if they’re about to hock the Bentley, if only to show their peers that they’ve still got it. Sure, the cuffs may be shot out to hide the “stainless” Rolex, but those on top always know what time it is, anyway.
I enjoyed my sit-down with Richie. He made me feel like he wanted to always be my friend, like he really was happy to be next to me, having a chat. The cell phone didn’t ring, and no minion came to interrupt us with something “important.” I believe these traits are most important for a person in the hospitality field. I remember when I worked for Steve Rubell, and I would have this weekly meeting, and the phone would be ringing off the hook, the secretary blasting names — “Steve, Liza Minelli on 3, Calvin on 4, Jellybean on 1, Bianca on 6 …” — and he’d just wave them off because we were working. It was an amazing feeling that he would postpone talking to theses giants because he was talking to me. I went through walls for Steve, worked insane hours to prep for those meetings. I’d have every statistic, every angle covered because he felt our time together was that valuable. and I was honored to work for him.
Richie came through that system, and I think, like me, he still puts in the hours, still prepares, still values the time of others. There is no way anyone can describe what Steve Rubell was really like. I can tell you when I was running joints, I looked around my room and always thought to myself, “What would Steve or Andy (Warhol) think if they walked in right now?” Sometimes they did. When those two passed — way too soon — a little bit of that edge was lost. So guys like Richie and I do our best for ourselves, for those memories, and for a public we just can’t get enough love from. I build them now and write about them and I get paid some loot, but I do it for the love, for the action, and I think I see that in Mr. Notar, too. It just feels great when you sit in a room that you created and watch cool people enjoying their lives.
You’re opening a location in Los Angeles; tell me about it. Is this your first one in LA? Yes, we have one in Malibu, but the origin of it, which I’m not involved in, is called Matsuhisa, (which) was Nobu Matsuhisa’s first little restaurant that he opened 22 years ago. De Niro fell in love with the food, and it became his Hollywood canteen. There’s no real design; movie pictures and plastic lobsters on the walls; it would be considered almost kitschy, which is cool, because it’s back-to-basics. But here’s the dilemma for me: That’s the original, it’s a different partnership, but it started from there. How do we not hurt that or compete with that, but create a different persona for the restaurant? I’ve said this before; you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Japanese restaurant in LA, so how can we be different? I’m still trying to get my head around the dining habits of Hollywood. It’s a spoiled city, they want a lot of love. It’s me, me, me, so I’ve tried to do that with them.
You’re all over the world, and LA is coming now, 17 joints later — is it about not understanding LA? I don’t understand LA. Well, I kind of like Malibu. I’m a kid from Queens, so I see a dolphin and some mountains, and it’s a good day, you know? We’ve had the place in Malibu for ten years, and it’s very hippie-ish, and very cool, but LA was a no-go zone because Matsuhisa was there.
So now you’re just now figuring it out? Yeah. First: Does LA need another Japanese restaurant? Probably not. So what we’re focusing on is an experience. I don’t want to compete with the sushi, because if you have well seasoned rice and good fish, our sushi’s not going to be too different from yours; so it’s Nobu’s signature dishes, the bar, the lounge and our outdoor patio that are really groovy. We have a driveway with a fence that’s paparazzi-proof, and turns out that’s a high point in Hollywood, so people like David Beckham and George Clooney love coming in.
Everyone knows we’re in an economic downturn. How’s the Nobu client being affected, and what’s Nobu doing to address this? You try to avoid it, but the reality is everyone’s in denial, and sometimes, it really smacks you in the face. In certain restaurants, like London, it’s really fantastic, but little things like lunches downtown, because it’s so close to the Wall Street area, you could feel it. But places like Las Vegas, it’s very difficult, the food traffic is down. We’re still doing OK compared to other people who’re closing, but in places like LA, we’re going to do something cutesy, like “tightening your belt hour” or “bailout bites.” I was trying to motivate the staff, and I told them this is history; whether it’s the 1920s or Prohibition, or even when 54 started and New York was stagnant, things go in waves.
But you can’t keep people down, certainly not New Yorkers. So I think soon people will digest that they have to change their lifestyle a little bit, and then they’re going to persevere and have “fuck the economy” parties. You’re already seeing them around a little bit — maybe people aren’t going to buy a third home in Palm Beach, but they’re certainly going to go out. And actually, for us, it’s almost a reverse psychology, where people will come to Nobu and they’ll sit at one of the front tables because they want to show people that they’re okay in this economy. We’re involved in a lot of egos in this world, and they want to sit up front and go, “I’m fine.”
You have this great mantra, “In order to have a good dining-out experience, you leave your cellphone at home, surround yourself with people you like, go where you feel comfy, not the expected place, go local if you can, and do not network over food.” I think just like they hang those choking signs, they should hang that in the front of the restaurant. I think the question was “What’s a good time for a night out?” and I think people expected me to say something pretentious. I’ve been around way too long to be impressed by something that’s not meaningful, and I love neighborhood joints. Maybe it’s the Italian in me, but in Italy you dine among friends, and it’s about the conversation in addition to the food being good. It’s this banquet, you’re chatting, and it’s an event. I always try to remember that, especially in the restaurants. We do family style here, and you feel more at ease. This is the type of place that’s user-friendly; you’ll come two or three times even in a week; I’ve had people come for lunch and dinner. If you go to some of the bigger event places, you’ll go for an anniversary or a birthday, and you don’t go back for a year.
Now, one of the things about the recession is that you have Nobu Next Door, downtown. Is that an everywhere thing, or only in New York? There was a space that became available next door, and at the time, we were saying no to more people than we were saying yes. We didn’t want to lose that opportunity to have something, and we thought just like Armani has Black Label, Emporio, and AX, we’ll try to provide something for a different demographic. So I’m going to take a little credit for this. I said, “Why don’t we just call it Next Door?” They loved it, and we just called it Next Door.
How hands-on is Robert De Niro? How often do you talk to him? I talked to him this morning, to be honest with you. He’s an interesting guy because people don’t know what to make of him, he’s very quiet and protective of his private life. But it’s no secret that Bob De Niro was instrumental in putting together Nobu by bringing it to New York, by taking the chance. I didn’t know anything about it — my friends made fun of me when I said I was going to run “this Japanese restaurant”. He’ll add his input, but at the end of the day, he’ll say, “OK, I would probably do A, B, C, D, but you do what you want, or what you need to do.” I value his opinion. Both of his parents were artists, he grew up in the Village, he’s incredibly sensitive, he’s well traveled and has great taste.
And he’s really responsible for holding Tribeca up. When I lived there, he was one of the champions of that neighborhood, and it wasn’t as easy to live there as you think. Years ago it was a ghost town, it was tough.
What’s coming up? We’ve opened up in Dubai, soft, meaning it’s not really a big splashy party. It’s on Palm Island. Dubai is like the Hamptons now — everyone from London and Europe goes there.
So, from dishwasher to Dubai? Yes, no doubt, it’s been a great ride, with so many experiences; we should collaborate on a book. But it’s true, I’ve been really fortunate, because life experiences to me are more valuable than driving around in a Bentley or anything that’s materialistic and comes and goes.
I agree with that, what I take with me from the past — I don’t remember the cars I was driving, but I do remember some of the people that were in them with me. Yeah, you know, sometimes it’s great to stop and reminisce about those times, because when you talk about a bad climate now, people are referring to times that were really just … fun. Hands down. You still go to places in London, and there is a Studio 54 night.