'Club King' Peter Gatien on How Rudy Giuliani Killed NYC Nightlife

Admittedly, talking about New York nightlife at this fraught moment, when the city that never sleeps is understandably much quieter and palpably on edge, feels strange. But when the city does roar back to life, live music venues and dance clubs — as essential to New York City as Wall Street and Broadway — will be a huge part of that comeback.

Few people know the evolution of NYC nightlife better than Peter Gatien, the one-time nightclub impresario who at his ’90s peak ran four Manhattan mega-clubs: Club USA, a Blade Runner-meets-Times Square funhouse; the legendary Palladium, which Gatien gave new life after an ’80s run under Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell; the unforgettable Tunnel, fashioned from a warehouse-freight train depot on the West Side Highway and the home of Tunnel Sundays, one of the most iconic weekly parties in hip-hop history, presided over by Funkmaster Flex; and Gatien’s flagship, the Limelight, a deconsecrated Episcopal church in Chelsea that hosted queer nights, rock n’ roll nights, techno nights, fashion parties and the Club Kids’ storied Disco 2000. From a splashy 1983 opening, through the dark days of the AIDS crisis, Rudy Giuliani’s ’90s “quality of life” harassments until Gatien’s departure in 2000, Limelight managed to last 17 years – an exceptional run for a New York club.

If you were in New York and of partying age in the ’90s, you almost certainly spent time in one or more of Gatien’s spots. But the entrepreneur’s story has many more chapters to it, chronicled in a just released memoir, The Club King: My Rise, Reign & Fall In New York Nightlife. It’s the improbable story of a 1950s kid from the hardscrabble paper mill town of Cornwall, Ontario, middle son and the decided rebel in a family of five boys, who loses an eye at age six in a game of stickball (not a hockey game as club legend retold it) and takes to wearing an eye patch that would later become his trademark. Success in opening Cornwall’s first jeans shop led to his first club, the local Aardvark – an up-and-coming Rush played an early gig there – which in turn made possible Gatien’s first foray into the States in the late ’70s. First was the Limelight in Hallandale, Florida, and its successor in Atlanta. They became disco-era destinations with celebrity clientele, and paved the way for Gatien’s moves to Manhattan, Chicago and London, and finally, his pinnacle, the New York ’90s foursome.

There was no bigger fish in nightlife at the time. And that, Gatien argues in the book, is what led to his “takedown” at the hands of a sanctimonious mayor named Rudy. The Club King recounts Giuliani and his surrogates’ pursuit of Gatien with almost an Inspector Javert-versus-Jean Valjean obsession. Most notably there was a failed federal case brought in 1996 that attempted to link Gatien to the sale of drugs in his clubs, painting Limelight as a “drug supermarket.” High-powered attorney Benjamin Brafman helped Gatien win an acquittal, but court battles with the city continued like whack-a-mole, and eventually it was a state tax evasion conviction that felled the king. It led to an arrest by INS agents in 2002, and a year later, his deportation to Canada, where he hadn’t lived in decades, with $500 in his pocket. “If the government decides you are going down, you are going down,” Gatien writes in the book. “And if you slip through the clutches of someone like Rudy Giuliani, you can rest assured he’ll come back to get you.”

The Club King also covers one of clubland’s darkest chapters but doesn’t dwell on it — that of Michael Alig, the renowned Pied Piper of the Club Kids who held court weekly at Limelight. In 1996, Alig, along with a friend, killed and dismembered fellow Club Kid Andre “Angel” Melendez; he spent 17 years behind bars for the crime. Alig’s story has been given more than enough oxygen, via James St. James’ 1999 book Disco Bloodbath, which became the 2003 film Party Monster starring Macaulay Culkin. And there were other accounts of the era: Frank Owen’s 2003 book Clubland, and a 2011 documentary, Limelight, produced by Gatien’s daughter Jen. But The Club King offers Gatien – with the aid of co-writer Gil Reavill – a chance to tell his own story, He even has an Amazon movie in the works, with a script by Nick Pileggi (Goodfellas, Casino), as well as a doc planned on Tunnel Sundays and its legacy in rap.

Full disclosure: I spent more nights in all four of Gatien’s NYC clubs that I could possibly count. In 1996, my partner wrote and directed an indie film, Shampoo Horns, shot at Limelight, featuring many of the Club Kids (including Alig) as themselves, in which yours truly made a cameo. But I also frequented many other non-Gatien clubs, and the suggestion that Peter Gatien’s spots were any more “drug supermarkets” than other venues is patently absurd. His legacy is – or ought to be – one of dogged entrepreneurism and a creative culture-centered approach to nightlife.

Gatien has since been allowed to return to the States, and these days divides his time between New York and Toronto. On the day we spoke by phone, he had just returned to Canada, as the COVID-19 quarantining of New York was ramping up. The dire circumstances brought to mind a pandemic of another time.

Peter it’s great to talk to you! I’m sorry it couldn’t have been in person.

Yeah, I was thinking of staying in New York longer. But then today as things got crazier, I was like, “It’s time to go.”

I wouldn’t have thought a couple of weeks ago that we would begin by talking about something like this. But someone asked me the other day if this was what the AIDS crisis felt like. And the best I could say is that when I started going to clubs in the late ’80s we knew HIV was sexually transmitted, so it wasn’t like this, where you can’t even be in a room with other people.

But in the first couple of years, when it was really New York and San Francisco that got hit, at least half my staff was gay, and we lost a lot of them. There were definitely casualties within the “Limelight family,” we’ll call it. But a good year or more went by – ’85, ’86 – when people didn’t know whether you could get it from a kiss, or a dirty glass, and they were watching friends’ bodies just deteriorating before their eyes. So it was a scary time in New York. And yeah, it reminds me of the era, for sure. We’re just at the beginning of it now. And early on, it was just as eerie back then, scary as hell.

But eventually, nightlife rebounded in a big way.

Oh yeah. Like I say in the book, by the ’90s, once AIDS was not the death sentence that it had been, hope returned and there was a real euphoria everywhere.

How long has this book been in the works? I read that when you were deported [2003], you were thinking about writing a memoir back then.

So many people back then were like, “Peter you’ve got to write a book, it’s such a great story.” But when I was deported, thank God I didn’t try to push a book that first year, because I was shellshocked, PTSD, I don’t know, whatever you want to call it. I was angry. And it’s better that I waited until now. It’s better to have stuff in context and – honestly, it’s made me a more compassionate person. Once you see what’s happening at the border, kids in cages and stuff, for them my heart is broken. And my experience – while it was not a pleasant, fun experience by any means, compared to what these poor, desperate people have to do to try and improve their lives? C’mon. But organically, this was the right time to do it. And then, Nick Pileggi is writing the screenplay for the movie.

It’s a movie based on the book?

Well, most of its focus is gonna be from 1990 to basically when I get deported. It’s a full feature, can’t say the title yet, and I’m not gonna disclose names that have been talked about to play me, but it’s some A-list people saying, “We want to see the screenplay first.” And they know Pileggi. Amazon are putting up the money, it’s a 50-million-dollar budget, and they’ve been great to work with. If this virus hadn’t happened, we were hoping to start shooting in the fall. Now it’s probably gonna be delayed some, but it should be shot by the spring. And then I’m also working on a documentary on Tunnel Sundays, which was legendary in the hip-hop world, and ran for like eight years.

Oh I remember very well. I first met Lil Kim on a Sunday at Tunnel!

Oh yeah? It’s funny, I did a party with Funkmaster Flex a few weeks ago, a Tunnel party at Avant Gardner in Brooklyn. And the crazy thing is, that original Tunnel space, they’re putting up a high rise there, and we got a call from the owners asking if we wanted to throw a last party at Tunnel since it’s not gonna exist anymore. But now obviously, with all that’s going on, nobody’s going to be doing parties in New York for a while, that’s for sure.

A high rise where Tunnel was? For years now there’s been an NYU dorm where Palladium was, and Limelight – they can’t tear the church down because it’s got landmark status, but it’s now “Limelight Shops,” a kind of mini-mall. My heart always sinks a little when I walk by that.

For what it’s worth – I don’t know whether they’re gonna brand that new building “The Tunnel” or not, but it’s a brand that I’m really proud of. And the Limelight building, the church, it’s always gonna be referred to as the Limelight. And it’s the same thing with Tunnel. People know that building to be a landmark, and people will remember the Tunnel name forever.

What’s the status of the Tunnel doc?

Sacha Jenkins is involved, he’s a director who did that Wu-Tang project [2019’s Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men]. We’re just starting it now, but our hope is to get everybody from Jay-Z to Puffy to Mary J. Blige to Lil Kim and more all in it and talk about their experiences at Tunnel and what it was like in New York in the ’90s. The guy is a brilliant director. And Flex is an executive producer on that.

So do you feel like this book and the movie are a chance for you to kind of set the record straight? A response to those who might only want to talk about the “notorious” Limelight, or the drug case the feds tried to pin on you, or the Michael Alig saga…

As far as Michael Alig, as I say in the book – obviously you feel for Angel’s family [Alig’s victim, Angel Melendez] – but that whole Club Kid scene has been tainted now by Michael Alig. People think “Club Kids” and they think Michael Alig. And it’s really unfortunate because a lot of those kids were just people who wanted to be different, wanted to be noticed, wanted acceptance. It’s unfortunate that the press made it all about Michael Alig. I am saddened the way they presented that whole movement, which really inspired a lot of fashion and art and inspired a lot of kids to come out and be happy with who they were. And a lot of that had to do with the New York Post, who beat the shit out of me for years, talking about Limelight. People who didn’t go there themselves, they really don’t know. It’s like that “drug supermarket” stuff that was always following me. You’ve been to clubs many times, look anywhere else in New York City, if you knew where to get it, you could get it. But it isn’t like people were hawking it as though it was a grocery store.

Of course.

You were there, John. I don’t need to tell you what it was like.

But a lot of what you call the “takedown,” not only the federal case but numerous run-ins with the city over this or that, is a campaign you lay squarely at the feet of Rudy Giuliani.

Of course. And my theory is that Giuliani woke up one morning, and he’d run out of squeegee people [car window washers asking for money, a practice Giuliani cracked down on]. And he looked around and said, “Okay, who else is vulnerable?” And he went after the museum, [the Brooklyn Museum’s 1999 Sensation exhibition], and other things, and me. But a friend of mine who’s very political has another theory. In ’96, I was on that CNN TV show Pinnacle – and they had tons of people much more high profile than me on that show – and that same year the Olympic Committee came to me and asked me to design a club for the athletes. And then they were renovating 42nd Street, and I was getting offers, like “Peter please come do this, and we’ll give you all this money…” And the theory was that Giuliani looked at all of this, with all the f—-ts and black people and everything, and thought, “We’re not gonna allow this to be mainstreamed. We’re just not.” Let’s face it: I was the face of nightlife back then. It’s not like you could say there was Peter Gatien, and there were other big dogs. There were no other big dogs at that time. So they came at me, and I kept winning, and they kept closing me down, and we would go to court. And when I won the federal one in ’98, I just figured they took their best shot at me. It was a five-week trial, I didn’t win on a technicality, the jury came back in three hours, which is unheard of in the federal system, and they acquitted me. And I just figured, “Let me lick my wounds and I’ll come back…” – but in hindsight, I should have just picked up my tent pole and moved out of the city.

But you did last another five years here after that, until the deportation.

Yeah. In fact in the movie, the arc kind of goes okay, he gets acquitted, and that’s like half way through, and you feel good. But then the real shit happens, between his acquittal and his deportation. I mean, me being deported – that was beyond ridiculous. And I would have won that, but I would have had to have stayed in INS detention for like two years for my case to come up. And I thought, “You know what? Here’s the white flag.” And I just decided to go back to Canada, even though I hadn’t been there really in 30 years. I mean, my kids were there [in the States], I had been there for 30 years, my house, all of my personal and business relationships were in New York. So that was a hell of a body blow.

You think that some people will read this book and think, “Oh there’s Peter, still acting like he’s the victim, and not being accountable”?

Give me a friggin’ break. Do I think I was a victim? Yeah absolutely I think I was a victim. What happened to me is not the worst thing that ever happened to anybody, obviously, but you were there, you knew a lot of the players, people who worked there, people who were promoting nights there. This was not a drug organization. Their effort went into ideas and passes and promotion and DJs and art shows and fashion shows, and book releases and all sorts of cultural events, and young people could show their work and hopefully realize their dreams of coming to New York.

I can only imagine what you’ve thought these last few years watching your old nemesis Rudy turn into Trump’s crazy-eyed “fixer.”

Whoa, whoa. He didn’t “turn into” anything. I know, the perception is, “Jeez, what happened to Rudy?” I got news for you. Nothing happened to Rudy. He was always a bully, he was always mean, he was always someone who did anything he could to get press, no shame, no – I mean think about it for a second. While he was torturing me, and torturing a museum and artists, meanwhile he was having a friggin’ affair on his wife! How do you look at yourself in the mirror, pontificating all this sanctimonious bullshit all day long? It’s “There are no rules for me, there are just rules for everybody else.” But hey, most clubs have like a year and a half, two-year run. So to have what Limelight did, 1983 to 2000 – and we’d probably still be going if Giuliani didn’t have such a tortured mentality – that’s a lot of work. A run like that doesn’t happen by itself. And the point I am getting at is, Giuliani single-handedly destroyed nightlife in New York, through over-zealous law enforcement.

Nightlife has changed in some pretty big ways in the past 20 years.

Now there’s also social media. Back then, if you wanted to see what people were wearing, to hear cutting-edge music, see fashion, art – you had to go out. There was no going on your computer and finding like-minded people. Even up into the ’90s people didn’t have cell phones. There was no Twitter. If you went out, you didn’t get a text from someone saying, “Limelight is packed tonight” or whatever, you had to go out and press the flesh to find out what the hell was going on. And, it was much more egalitarian back then! Now, in clubs, you’re valued as a customer if you can buy a table and spend a thousand dollars. Whereas we valued customers that put in some effort into their outfit, whether it was a little accessory, or sequins, or this or that. They were a more prized customer than a guy pulling up in a friggin’ limousine.

The changes began around the turn of the millennium. There was the rise of Lotus, Marquee, 1 OAK, TAO…

Yeah yeah, but there’s no legacy there. There are no legacy clubs anymore. People that worked in my clubs would tell you that those were some of the best years of their lives. They had fun coming to work, and they knew that we were doing something that was exciting. I wish I had documented more at the time of what we did, because you don’t realize that you’re creating legacies when you’re doing it. Like it or not, Limelight is an institution. It’s still known as the Limelight building, and it always will be. The same way the Chrysler Building will always be the Chrysler Building. It’s pretty gratifying that that happened.

So, no final New York nightlife comeback for Peter Gatien? I know some people would love to see that.

Nah, nah. It’s a young man’s game. It’s a lot of work and I don’t see myself being up ’til 4, 5am, then going back to work at 11 in the morning. I can’t do that. But hey, unless the world collapses, this movie is happening, and having a movie being done about you, you know what? That’s pretty damn cool! So, that whole campaign of Giuliani’s really caused a lot of trauma, for my family, for the people that worked for us and for others. But listen, I’m alive, I’m healthy, I have a wonderful family, and so I feel good about myself.