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150 Years of Night

by Frank Owen | Manhattan magazine | November 26, 2011

From the sumptuous society balls of the Gilded Age to the seedy after-hours drug dens of the ’70s and ’80s to the underground lounges of today, New York nightlife has always mixed danger with glamour. Join us on a nocturnal journey where high class meets low, and history begins after midnight.

The First Nightclub
The origins of New York City’s wild nightlife probably run deeper than the Manhattan schist, but many historians point to the old Chinese Assembly Rooms on Broadway near Spring Street as the precursor to the modern club. In 1859, Frank Rivers converted the Rooms into the Melodeon, a “concert saloon” where patrons could watch tawdry variety shows while “waiter girls” served them watered-down drinks. Its winning combination of sex, alcohol and burlesque soon spawned hundreds of saloons across Lower Manhattan. They ranged from sin cellars where outrageous drag queens cavorted with patrons to gilded pleasure palaces where topless prostitutes hung from balconies and beckoned customers toward the VIP rooms for private can-can sessions. A night to remember: January 21, 1872. Cops arrested 65 waiter girls and various club employees from the Melodeon, along with two other Broadway venues, for failing to comply with licensing regulations—and so began a tradition of club crackdowns that continues to this day.

Where Whitman Drowned His Sorrows
Long before the now shuttered Elaine’s, there was Pfaff’s—a dingy basement saloon hidden beneath what Walt Whitman called “the myriad rushing feet of Broadway.” In the 1850s and ’60s, after Leaves of Grass failed to generate sales, Whitman held court at the bar’s long wooden tables with a select group of bohemian authors and poets. Among them was Henry Clapp, the editor of The Saturday Press, who used the influential magazine to boost Whitman to eventual literary stardom. Best bar fight: In 1862, during an argument over the Civil War, Whitman threw a punch at the fellow poet and rebel sympathizer George Arnold, who in turn attempted to smash a bottle of claret over his head. They quickly made peace and continued drinking.

The Original House Party
On February 1, 1892, Caroline Astor, the wife of real estate mogul William Backhouse Astor, Jr., invited 400 “howling swells” to the ballroom of their Fifth Avenue mansion. Dripping in diamonds, some of which were said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette, Mrs. Astor greeted guests in front of a life-size portrait of herself. So began the 400 balls—lavish displays of conspicuous consumption that would make P. Diddy blush with embarrassment, but which established Mrs. Astor as the high priestess of New York society. From then on, the phrase “the 400” was used to describe the elite members of New York’s upper crust. Non-400 member who got the last word: Edith Wharton, who used Astor as the basis for Mrs. van der Luyden in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence.

Swingin’ at the Garden
At the beginning of the 20th century, the fashionable set flocked to roof gardens: leafy sanctuaries, usually in luxury hotels, perched high above the chaotic city. One such gathering spot rings familiar: Madison Square Garden. Back then, it was a Moorish castle with a 31-story tower where the celebrated architect who designed it, Stanford White, kept a notorious love nest. After bringing showgirls and society women to his lair, he’d have them undress and sit on a red velvet swing. White’s most dangerous liaison: Actress Evelyn Nesbit, whose jealous husband, Harry Thaw, shot White in the face as he sat in the Garden watching a play. The well-heeled audience thought it was joke until they realized White was dead.

The Dinner Set
French chef Jacques Bustanoby was the Jean-Georges Vongerichten of his time. Prior to World War I, he pioneered the whole concept of café society with restaurants such as Café des Beaux Arts and Bustanoby’s, where social shakers and celebrities dined on the finest food and danced to a live orchestra between courses. “Din with dinner,” they called it. Bustanoby also created New York’s first ladies-only bar, where in-house gigolos—a then-unknown Rudolph Valentino among them—were paid $10 a week to dance with unaccompanied women. Most (ir)regular patron: The big-spending bon vivant Reggie Vanderbilt, who one night at Café des Beaux Arts arrived with his dinner date, a horse named Nellie.

White Noise, Black Music
One of the strangest chapters in New York’s nightlife history was the creation of swanky, whites-only clubs playing black music in the heart of Harlem during Prohibition. The most extravagant of these segregated sin spots was the Cotton Club, owned by the feared bootlegger Owney Madden. The Cotton Club featured an incredible cast of jazz royalty, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cab Calloway. Worst case of artist intimidation: When Calloway was lured to the rival Plantation Club, Madden sent his hoodlums to trash the spot. The frightened singer quickly returned to the Cotton.

Celebrity Smackdowns
The fabled Stork Club on West 58th Street attracted celebrities in droves. But not all famous people were welcome. In 1951, the dancer Josephine Baker was refused service at the club by owner Sherman Billingsley. Actress Grace Kelly rushed over to Baker’s table to protest, grabbed Baker by the arm and made a dramatic exit, vowing never to return. And Kelly never did. Most famous reservation: The Stork Club was hardly alone in treating black celebrities differently from their white counterparts. Another famous incident occurred at the rival snob spot 21, when the actor George Jessel arrived with the black singer Lena Horne on his arm. The frosty headwaiter pretended all the tables were full. “Who made your reservation?” he asked. Jessel replied, “Abraham Lincoln.”

Not in Kansas Anymore
Max’s Kansas City on Park Avenue was a cross between an art gallery, a rock club and a literary salon. In the late ’60s and early ’70s it brought together luminaries from the worlds of painting, music, literature and fashion, and set the template for much of the cutting-edge nightlife that followed. Starving artists traded paintings with the kindly owner Mickey Ruskin in return for food and drink. Debbie Harry waited tables. “It was the exact spot where Pop art met pop life,” said Andy Warhol, who, along with Iggy Pop and David Bowie, was a fixture at the club. In 1970, the Velvet Underground performed their last gig with Lou Reed there, a concert immortalized on the seminal album Live at Max’s Kansas City, which was recorded on a cheap cassette deck by Warhol assistant Brigid Polk. Best Max’s debut: Bob Marley and the Wailers, who opened for Bruce Springsteen.

The Club That Wouldn’t Quit
People know the Copacabana from the famous Barry Manilow song (“the hottest spot north of Havana”), and before that, as a celebrated 1950s showcase for crooners and comedians famously depicted in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Raging Bull. But by the ’70s, with the former supper club now a disco, the mood had turned darker, reflecting the decaying city outside. Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas was a regular. So was comedian John Belushi, who shot up speedballs in a corner booth. One thing remained unchanged: the Mob’s secret casino on the third floor. According to DJ Pete Denis, one night a trio of Japanese businessmen were caught cheating at the tables. Bouncers chased them downstairs, then beat the life out of them. Most infamous headline: “Three Japanese Tourists Found Dead in Alley Behind the Copa.” No one was ever charged with the killings.

The Birthplace of Punk and New Wave
A cinematic griminess permeated New York in the early ’70s, especially on the Bowery, a rundown drag lined with flophouses and soup kitchens. The idea of opening a country-music club there must have seemed doomed from the outset; you had to step over homeless people just to enter. But in 1973, after the club was thoroughly fumigated, CBGB (which stood for Country, Bluegrass, Blues) opened its doors. After a radical change in musical direction, it became the premier showcase for a raw new sound that changed the face of rock ’n’ roll. The cerebral guitar group Television got the ball rolling, followed by Patti Smith, the Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie. In the audience at those early shows was the British fashion designer Malcolm McLaren, who used what he witnessed at CBGB as a blueprint for the Sex Pistols. Best house rule ever: Bands were only allowed to play original music.

One Club to Rule Them All
There are a dozen reasons why Studio 54 is the most famous club ever, but one stands above all: Anything could, and did, happen there. Bianca Jagger riding in on a white horse, Elton John trolling for busboys, or Truman Capote and Liza Minnelli getting drunk next to Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí—the array of decadent celebrity imagery was endless. Even Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, was accused of snorting cocaine in the basement. Part of Studio’s draw was its exclusivity. Unwashed hordes lined up outside, hoping for a merciful nod from the gatekeeper, who sometimes even turned away celebrities. Owner Steve Rubell once famously said, “I wouldn’t let myself in sometimes.” Once inside, guests enjoyed a huge dance floor, secret upstairs chambers for sex and the Rubber Room, which could be easily cleaned of the previous night’s excess. Even getting turned away could be inspiring: After Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of the disco group Chic were refused entry, the duo stormed back to Edwards’ apartment and wrote a song called “F**k Off” aimed at the nightclub. With a change of lyrics, the song became “Le Freak,” which went on to sell 6 million copies in the U.S. and spend six weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts in 1978 and 1979.

Wired Up
The king of illegal after-hours clubs in the early ’80s was a bouffant-haired photographer named Arthur Weinstein, who ran The Continental on West 25th Street. He routinely paid protection money to the police, but Weinstein was wearing a wire for the FBI under his puffy pirate shirt the whole time. Then The New York Times ran a front-page story about the FBI’s probe of after-hours clubs that identified Weinstein as a federal snitch. If the nightlife baron was worried about retribution, he didn’t show it. He continued to party in public even though rumors circulated that crooked cops as well as gangsters, who also made money shaking down the late-night hot spots, wanted him dead. Blame it on Studio 54: How did Weinstein get on the FBI’s radar? Friend Steve Rubell, the co-founder of Studio 54, gave the feds Weinstein’s name to reduce his own prison sentence for tax evasion.

Same Place, A Changing Face
Despite the social malaise that gripped the city, the 1980s saw a nightlife renaissance, an unparalleled burst of freedom, experimentation and creativity that found outlets at downtown venues like the Mudd Club, Danceteria and the Palladium. The Tribeca nightspot Area epitomized the trend of club culture as a self-conscious art form. Every six weeks or so, a team of designers ripped up the venue’s insides and built something completely fresh. One month it looked like a suburban shopping mall, the next a nuclear power plant. Area was a constantly changing kaleidoscope of art, fashion, music and mind-bending chemicals, an audio-visual feast where imagination shone in even the smallest details. Best invite of all time: Area’s opening-night invitation was an oversize pharmaceutical capsule that recipients had to dissolve in water to discover the location of the party.

Before There Were Raves
While Studio 54 brought back some much-needed glamour to the nightlife scene, music was never the club’s main attraction. The real temple of boom for serious disco devotees was an alcohol-free, members-only club called The Paradise Garage in Soho, where music became a religion and whose DJ, Larry Levan, grew into a legend. If Area felt like an art gallery, then the Garage was like a church. It had the best sound system in New York and became a pinnacle of the gay scene, as well. A lasting influence: The club closed in 1987, but its legacy continued into the ’90s in the form of the rave scene, which borrowed the Garage’s basic idea of using drugs, technology and music as a platform for creating spiritual ecstasy.

Moving Violation
So-called “outlaw parties” were all the rage in the pre-Giuliani era. These moving spectacles took place in public spaces, like subway stations, and on bridges and abandoned railway tracks, usually ending when the police arrived to break up the fun. Many were arranged by the promoter Michael Alig, known as the King of the Club Kids. One of his most notorious outlaw parties was the Disco Truck: 200 revelers climbed into the back of an 18-wheeler that was outfitted with a bar and a sound system. The ultimate party crash: One night, as the Disco Truck careened around Lower Manhattan, the sound system toppled over and the people packed in the back started to faint for lack of air. The ride ended when the coked-up driver heard the hipsters banging on the inside of the vehicle, begging to be let out.

Too Much Limelight?
The Limelight nightclub—an indoor drug supermarket located in a former church on Sixth Avenue—never earned the recognition of Studio or Paradise, but it did have the distinction of being attached to one of the most gruesome crimes in clubland’s annals. On a gray Sunday morning in March 1996, drug dealer Angel Melendez walked through the icy courtyard of a luxury Manhattan apartment building, trying to avoid slipping in his huge platform shoes. He was there to collect a drug debt from Michael Alig, who worked at the Limelight. An argument erupted over money, and Alig’s roommate, Robert Riggs, bashed in the back of Melendez’s head with a hammer. Alig then dragged him into the bathroom and smothered him to death. Later, after Melendez’s body began to smell, Alig dismembered the corpse and dumped the remains in the nearby Hudson River. Horrible movie it inspired: Party Monster, a 2003 effort starring Macaulay Culkin as Alig

“I’ll Have a Bucket of Water, Please.”
During its Ecstasy-fueled late-’90s heyday, Twilo on West 27th Street boasted a stellar cast of DJs unrivaled by any club since the closing of the Paradise Garage. But new and powerful drugs like GHB and Special K were inciting chaos on the dance floor. By 2001, news had leaked that, instead of calling 911 when patrons overdosed, bouncers simply threw them into a secret back room and poured buckets of water over the comatose customers in an attempt to revive them.
Most devious attempt to stay off the cops’ radar: Twilo employed a private ambulance service to surreptitiously ferry OD victims to the hospital so the police wouldn’t be notified. Eventually, the cops raided the club and padlocked the premises.

Back to the Future
The endless crackdowns of the ’80s and Giuliani’s purges of the ’90s drove many club operators toward a “new” strategy: go smaller and make a profit by selling bottles of liquor for $400 at reserved tables. Clubs like Bungalow 8 and Marquee represented a throwback to a less edgy (and, let’s face it, snottier) form of nightlife. Thankfully, the end of the aughts saw a rebirth of underground bars and nouveau bohemian spaces, exemplified by the late Beatrice Inn. With its steady A-list draw, low-key living-room feel and anything-goes attitude, the Beatrice managed to reinject a little fun and naughtiness to an ever-more-sterile nightclub scene. Modern-day legacy: Current hot spots such as Mister H, the Bunker Club and the Electric Room reflect the exclusive yet homey vibe brought back en vogue by the Beatrice.