Uncle Steve to Father Steve: Club Dads Over the Years

I spent yesterday in Queens with my family celebrating Father’s Day. It was real nice, underscoring what is important in this world, at least for me. Dad is my reality star, having fought in World War 2 and survived a Great Depression that makes our own woes seem trivial, and raising us kids with his old school and honest values. Mom and him have been together for over 60 years. When I got back to Manhattan, it was off to Goldbar to say goodbye to Natalie Glanzman, who has been my assistant for a bit. There was a birthday party for a friend as well, and everyone was to wear lingerie or bed clothes. Seemed like a good idea on paper, but looked quite odd in reality. Goldbar honcho Jon Lennon told me that he always considered me one of his club fathers, me and Mark Baker both. We’re his co-dads. I got a lot of that yesterday on Facebook, and in texts from people who see me in this light. Uncle Steve might graduate to Father Steve if I stick around long enough. After 2 marriages and no kids, I just assumed I had been shooting blanks.

Survival in club-land isn’t all that easy, and it’s arguable that I didn’t actually survive my club career as I was put out to pasture by the powers that be a bit earlier than I wanted. Still, I had a good run and am proud of much of what I have done. So many of our city’s owner/operators worked with me over the years. I hope I was a positive influence. It is nice to have bright, successful people give me props. I, myself, have many fathers besides dad to thank.

My first club father was Rudolf. Under him I learned the value of “fabulous” at Danceteria, and later, the Palladium. His partner at Danceteria, John Argento, taught me to temper the “fabulous” with a common sense, bottom line focus. I learned from them that almost anyone can actually make money in this business—just look around at the fools doing it today. Also, almost anyone can make the place fun, exciting and well, fabulous—but to do both, to make it fabulous and make money, is an art. I approached all my club endeavors with this attitude. Rudolf is in Brazil having opened over 75 joints, and John has a place in New Jersey making money, selling booze.

The greatest club dad I ever had was Steve Rubell. I was the director of the Palladium under Steve and Ian Schrager. Steve’s Rolodex of bold face names was unparalleled. He new everyone. He was always the brightest, most charismatic guy in the room. He taught me how to spend money to make money. He taught me the importance of detail. He personally hired every single employee. They represent you and your brand. I could write for hours about what I learned form Steve and Ian. Steve passed years ago and Ian has a hotel empire.

Maurice Brahms and his partner Angelo were pure grit. They taught me to watch every dollar, and the importance of people you can trust. Maurice had Infinity, the Underground, Redzone, and eventually the Palace de Beaute. He is largely forgotten, even though his joints were often the best in town. He rarely stepped on my toes. He wanted to know why, but let me and mine run it, recognizing that is what we were good at. He was the most honest man I ever met in the world of clubs, and I learned that honesty with staff and in business has rewards far beyond the bottom line. He works with a national health club chain and we remain friends

Peter Gatien built an empire with Michael Alig, myself, and a cast of characters that books and movies rarely describe correctly. At our peak we had Palladium, Tunnel, Limelight, and USA—four clubs that should figure in everyone’s top twenty. Unfortunately, Peter was the greediest of them all. His drive took him to the top of the heap, but his need to have it all left him empty. I learned how to delegate and the importance of the door under Peter. He valued sound, lights and a great DJ in coordination with the social/promoter scene I had mastered. He made me better at my job. Peter is living in Canada. An exile, not on main street, with his club Circa taken from him. I hear he is not well, and I wish him happiness and peace of mind.

Frank Roccio, Arthur Weinstein, and Peter Frank were also some of my dads. The World on East 2nd street was one of the top 5 joints there ever was. I was its director. Frank Roccio pushed me out front, where I dealt with guns, creeps, wannabe’s and real be’s. It was violence waiting to happen, and deals were made with the devil just to open the doors. Frank helped me grow my balls. There was no backing down for me, I stood up and fought the good fight and learned from him that the street is where it all comes from. The music, the fashion, and the ideas all come from the gutter. Arthur took nothing for himself that he wasn’t going to give back to the crowd immediately. He taught me about the lights, and the importance of the show. He was always comfortable with the little people and made the rich, talented, and powerful prove themselves everyday. Phrases like “What have you done lately?” or “So what?” dressed blustering swells and pseudo celebs down. Peter Frank was aware he was swimming with sharks, but managed to keep the unmanageable afloat. In the end, intellect will get you through when experience and balls aren’t enough. His thought process, honed at Harvard, defined my future. Arthur passed and everyone assumes Frank has as well. Peter’s fate is almost as bad. He’s a lawyer in upstate New York.

There were many others that I worked with who taught me so much. Barry Gutin and Larry Cohen in Philly, Suzanne Bartsch, Steven Greenberg, and many more showed me better ways to operate. But these were my club dads. They taught me more than I taught them, and I am always thankful. I had a good run in clubs. I saw a list the other day of the top 10 joints of all time, and I ran 5 of them. It’s nice now, looking back and being called Uncle Steve and such, and the Fathers Day greetings were cute. Any success I may have had was owed to the people I’ve learned from, because of the opportunities I had working for so many brilliant men. Isaac Newton said about the physicists who preceded him: “If I have seen further than other men, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

To A*Muse the Muse: Pamela Anderson and Richie Rich

My travels and travails took me to Miami, so I missed what must have been the very amusing A*MUSE fashion show, where former Heatherette designer Richie Rich debuted his latest collection. The event featured my favorite PETA player Pamela Anderson, along with Terrell Owens, CariDee English, Tinsley Mortimer and Amanda Lepore. I was also told that Richie and Pamela also debuted their new single “Hi” for the grand finale of the “Hot for Teacher” themed fashion show.

From the press release:

“A*MUSE’s collaboration with Pamela Anderson will offer animal-friendly and 100% organic styles, including: bathing suits, casual dresses and beachwear. This season the label will also be introducing graphic printed tees and zip up hooded sweatshirts, featuring images of Pamela Anderson and designer Richie Rich. Richie knew from the beginning that the first muse for this collection had to be his long-time friend, Pamela Anderson. “Pam has long been a source of inspiration to me, she has this amazing combination of the sweet girl next door but in the most glamorous of ways — I love her lust for life!” Richie describes the A*MUSE collection inspired by Anderson as, “fun, sexy, surfer girl from Malibu meets Andy Warhol.”

Richie Rich has often been described as an original Club Kid. I was there, so to deny him the prestige that goes with that moniker would be unfair. It would be equally unfair to characterize him as one of Michael Alig’s minions, or imply that he was part of the seedy side of that lifestyle. It’s not that he wasn’t having fun– Richie was just always his own “kid’. His association was artistic, he pushed boundaries without pushing anyone over a cliff. While some Club Kids consider the club years their most defining, Richie continues to create a more fabulous story.

In 1996, when I was doing my thing at the Tunnel, I collaborated with PETA’s Senior Vice President Dan Mathews and banned fur from the fabulous club. Tunnel was the best joint in town and arguably one of the best joints of all time. To his credit, Tunnel owner Peter Gatien fully supported my idea to bar entry to anyone wearing a fur coat. We wanted to make a statement that fur was not trendy or cool and we stuck to our dress code. Many famous people were forced to put their dead animal in their limo, or were denied entry. Although some revenue was lost, it was assumed that the money was recouped by the media storm that ensued. Whenever we turned down a fur-draped celebrity it made Page Six. Kim Basinger posed as our PETA model and we plastered Manhattan with posters bearing our message. We were committed to a good cause and I think we actually came out ahead, financially. Dominique Swain later replaced Kim and finally Pamela Anderson became our poster girl. I did an event with Pamela at Life and was incredibly impressed by her incredible professionalism, dedication and friendliness to all. My dog Arturo, who growls and snips at all humans, played with her for hours. Pamela continues to support the rights our friends who cannot speak for themselves. I caught up with her while she was at her Malibu home.

How did you and Richie Rich meet and what to do you love about each other? 
 We’ve known each other for a long time. We met through David LaChapelle and Amanda Lepore, as well as many other mutual friends. We are like a little circus of misfits living little wild lives that just fit together and are somehow complementary, peaceful and inspiring. It’s good just knowing that we have each other. I love Richie’s sense of fun and art. He’s great with a glue gun and spray paint. He’s just altogether multitalented!

Tell me about your long standing relationship with PETA and how you feel it affects your overall image. Is it positive? Does it matter to you if it is? I think PETA is very positive and has accentuated my image. It doesn’t matter if It’s good or bad if it gets people talking and caring about important things. It’s a “now that I have your attention” kind of thing. (PETA) are smart, funny, good-hearted people who love animals. It’s a social experiment and it’s amazing what gets people’s attention, but that’s part of the challenge and the balance. I just think PETA is perfect, I love them with all my heart. Stop the seal hunt please! It’s just barbaric. What would the world do if we didn’t have PETA, can you imagine?

What about Richie’s brand excites you? I love the glitz, the glamour, the fun and the pop art element. He’s such a talent. Richie is the calm in the storm. Crowds make me uneasy and he just roller skates right through them, gluing lashes on people, drinking bubbles and pinning the models into their barely-there clothes. Everyone has such a great time, the shows are like rock concerts. It’s still hard to believe It’s a business. A*MUSE is extreme fashion like surfing, skating or snowboarding. I don’t know, it just feels edgy and a little bit like we’re getting in trouble. It’s not as fashion-y as we should be, so I’m the perfect girl for him. I really don’t like clothes, but I love to sparkle!

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.