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?
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.