If your idea of “clubbing” is buying $300 bottles of vodka at a glorified lounge, you’re late to the party. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, New York’s club scene boasted enormous venues where celebrity creatives mingled with diverse crowds to party and push the envelope. Nobody fostered this heady mix more than Peter Gatien, a Canadian businessman who changed the face of NYC nightlife when he converted a church (the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion) into the iconic Limelight, one of four massive clubs that he ran (including the Tunnel).

In Limelight, documentary director Billy Corben (Cocaine Cowboys) examines the rise and fall of Gatien’s nightlife empire, which came under scrutiny from former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Feds, who accused the King of Clubs of being a drug kingpin. We caught up with Gatien, 59, who was eventually deported and now lives in Toronto, to discuss his legacy and why NYC’s current club scene depresses him.

Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)

Complex: What inspired you to convert a church into a club?
Peter Gatien: In the late ’70s, clubs were miles of neon and chrome spinning wheels, sort of the Saturday Night Fever look. Studio 54 was the benchmark, and had I opened Limelight with 40 spinning wheels rather than the 20 Studio 54 had, or five miles of neon rather than three, it wouldn’t have had much impact. I felt the way to go was architecture. A church is basically a design for public assemblies, with a lot of extra doors, which you need for city code.

How important was shock value?
It really wasn’t a consideration. New York is a very progressive city. Opening night, there were maybe three people with plaques like “Don’t dance on our religion.” I was raised Catholic, and I personally felt comfortable that it was a deconsecrated church, which is a sacrament that is performed by the Church. If it was good enough for them to feel like it was no longer a house of worship, then it was good enough for me.

While the architecture was key in your clubs, the interior designs were impressive as well, from voyeuristic S&M-themed rooms to grandiose rooms that commented on over-commercialization.
I chose the right people that understood what I felt would make a really strong impression. There was definitely a lot of thought put into the design, it wasn’t just a light show and a booming sound system, it was a lot of thought put into it, and a full-time art department that tailored any given night to whatever party might be happening.

We did everything from Shirley MacLaine’s 50th birthday party to the opening of Amadeus to the Jackson Five tour, record releases, I could go on and on. We did a lot with rock 'n' roll and the alternative music scene. When people went to the clubs, whether you’re 22 years old or 60 years old, even if you left the place, you could say, “It may not be for me, but the guys who put this together were really smart.”

Why were you so concerned with having diverse crowds?
One of the big attractions of going to a large club is people-watching. The guy in the Armani suit will think the person in the sequins is a total loser, the person in the Mohawk will think the guy in the Armani is a total loser, and they end up entertaining each other. In one corner of Limelight’s VIP room you could have blue-blood art gallery owners, in another rock 'n' roll people, in another gay fashion people, and by the end of the night, they’d all be talking with each other. It created a forum where people could exchange ideas.

My orders to my staff were always that we're here to create culture. I felt that nightclubs were the incubator of ideas, where you want to get up-and-coming and passionate artists, fashion people, musicians, and provide them a forum where they can do their thing. Your club can be gilded in gold, OK, but it’s the clientele that makes you eventually a institution, which I think my clubs clearly became.

What is your take on what clubs represent now?

 
Nobody was ever killed in the [Tunnel]. The worst we had was a wheelchair guy got in with a gun and accidentally discharged the gun in his calf.
 

I find it depressing. Now, the ideal profile of the customers is somebody who can pull up in a limo or a BMW and buy three bottles for $1,000. A black or platinum American Express card somehow projects your whole being. It’s not like we abused you if you pulled up [to Limelight] in a limousine or a BMW, but you certainly weren’t thrown the red carpet, by any means. We put a lot of energy into drawing the creative community and a real diverse clientele, and I think in today’s market it tends to be, everybody sort of looks like Paris Hilton, and buys bottles, and that's what energy is focused on, where ours was about movement and creating culture and really contributing to the scene.

I remember people like [fashion designer] Thierry Mugler used to come to the clubs basically to see how the clientele was dressed up. A lot of kids wore really well-put-together outfits. And then next season you see Jean Paul Gaultier or even Tommy Hilfiger come out with something similar. Their outfits would be with better fabrics and nicer accessories but you definitely could tell they’re getting their inspiration from the streets, so to speak.

The Tunnel’s Sunday hip-hop party is legendary. Were you aware of its significance then?
You knew you were into something special. Most promotions or nights at a club, if you get a year-long run, it’s a lot. Within months of that night, we knew that we were doing it right, and it lasted for years. We had everybody from Jay-Z to Cam’ron to Puffy to you name the group. They were performing for free back then because it was really important for them to get the credibility. A lot of record execs and producers used to be there. There were a lot of deals being made.

How much did the Tunnel’s reputation for violence feed the legend?
Any time you get two or three thousand people together, there are going to be some issues. But the amount of violence in the Tunnel was far less than when Madison Square Garden or the Meadowlands would do a Hot 97 [concert]. It was a nine-year run and nobody was ever killed in the place. The worst we had was a wheelchair guy got in with a gun and accidentally discharged the gun in his calf. There were fights, but it wasn’t like there were brawls every time, otherwise nobody would have gone, or it just would’ve ended up being just guys there. One of the reasons the night really worked well is because we used to get an extremely high ratio of females going.

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What were your most memorable interactions with rappers?
Flex and I are good friends, and, quite frankly, he deserves more credit than I do for establishing the night. I met pretty much all the rappers. It’s flattering that Jay-Z mentioned me in one of his songs. [In "Foundation", Hova raps, "Me and my operation, running New York night scene, with one eye closed, like Peter Gatien."] I wasn’t part of the party in my nightclubs. I was certainly gracious toward them, but it wasn’t like I sat down with Jay-Z or Puffy and knocked back a bunch of bottles of Cristal.

Do you wish you had?

 
If the New York City police department were not arresting people for [ecstasy], what the hell was I supposed to do?
 

No. After my first club, when I was 19 years old and drinking and having a good time and checks started to bounce, I concluded you have to be on the ball when you’re in the hospitality business. From that point on, I never drank in my clubs again. My staff had to respect me; if I'm not in full command of my senses, I can't be giving people instructions and expect them to carry them out.

Giuliani and the Feds eventually went after you for drug trafficking, claiming you were complicit in sales at your clubs. Did you ever get the sense, while running these four clubs, that you had lost control of a beast?
No. I gotta tell you, I never went to bed at night saying, “I could get arrested tomorrow because I’m doing something wrong.” Basically it was a case that scared the hell out of me. The federal government wins 99% of its cases, but I had a jury that was not a progressive-club-kid type of jury—probably the youngest person was 55—and I was acquitted in two and a half hours. The [prosecutors] had an opportunity to make their case and they didn’t.

Still, in the film, several former employees describe rampant drug use.
I’m not going to say there weren’t any drugs, by any means. I always felt that nightclubs, including mine, are a microcosm of society; if 20% of people do drugs, then 20% of my clientele will, and there’s nothing I can do. Limelight, Tunnel, or any of my clubs can’t be an oasis where no criminal activity occurs.

In New York City, until 1998, ecstasy was not a listed controlled substance, which meant that New York State prosecutors were not prosecuting anybody for ecstasy. And people's mind-set, back then, was ecstasy was not illegal, it was ahead of the curve. So, if New York City police department were not arresting people for it, what the hell was I supposed to do?

Do you think New York City can ever recover from Giuliani's "Quality of Life" campaign and return to the culturally vibrant era of clubbing?
Honestly, it’s impossible to say. Part of the problem is this whole War on Drugs. When you set up an organization like the DEA or all these drug squads, it becomes like a monster-out-of-control kind of thing. Giuliani, the first four years he was [in office] weren’t so terrible, but I think, beyond the first four years, when he ran out of homeless people to persecute, then it sort of became like, “OK, what do I do with all these guys now?"

In 2010, the Limelight reopened as the Limelight Marketplace. Is it more sacrilegous to convert a church into a club or into a mall?
I don’t think either one is sacrilegious because people and activity define what a space is, not the building. I’m flattered that Limelight sort of became one of those jewel properties in New York. Somebody asks you where St. Patrick’s Cathedrals is, everybody knows where it is, but to have a building the size of Limelight identified as Limelight, and a lot of people know exactly where it is, I guess, in a way, is pretty gratifying. We must have done something right.

As far as it being a mall, it’s sort of like the corporatization of New York, the gentrification. It’s just like, at one time, there weren’t that many Gaps. I guess that's why a lot of people, a lot of creative communities, are moving to Brooklyn, moving to L.A. New York has become too commercial, I guess.

After pleading guilty to tax evasion in 1999, the government deported you back to Canada in 2003 for being convicted of a felony.
I was told by the judge that when I pled guilty [for tax evasion] that this was not a deportable offense. In my mind, America is the champion of family values. You had three American citizen children, an American citizen wife, they’re legal for 30 years.... It was definitely the revenge of the Feds. It’s just very unfair, but I’m not the only one.

Do you have any interest, at this point, in coming back to the U.S.?
I'd like to have the ability to travel back and forth, which, hopefully, will happen someday. I love living in New York, but I don’t like the direction of the country. I think America is way too money-driven, and you really notice the opulence in the United States, as compared to Canada, where there’s people making money but the opulence isn't in your face. The wealth disparity is just…off in the United States now. Corporate America and special interests are just killing the middle class there. I still have friends and family in the U.S. but I like the standard of life, the quality of life better in Canada.

Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)