Nightlife Movie in the aLimelighta

Magnolia Pictures recently purchased filmmaker Billy Corben’s latest documentary “Limelight,” which chronicles the rise and spectacular fall of club legend Peter Gatien of The Limelight, Tunnel, Palladium and Club USA fame. The movie premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23.


Peter Gatien, king of the New York City club scene in the '80s and '90s, owned the former Limelight nightclub chain.

Gatien was the undisputed king of the New York City club scene in the ’80s and ’90s, and thousands of revelers partied under the Canadian native’s roofs every night. After years of legal battles and police pressure during the mid-’90s, the writing was on the wall. The setbacks lead to the dismantling of his empire, his deportation to Canada and the end of a glamorous and glitzy era in New York City’s nightlife history. His contributions to the industry defined an era of New York City culture that has been practically impossible to emulate since his departure.

The movie’s creators spoke to many nightlife staples and power players who were documented weighing in on what went right and what went wrong. Included in those narratives are some solid lessons current owners and operators would be remiss to overlook.

Steve Lewis, a nightlife guru and journalist who previously worked as Gatien’s aide, shares that modern venues focus on very little of what clubs highlighted during Gatien’s heyday.

“The Limelight was a massive club where music was really important, but the sociality just as important,” Lewis says. “Now, we have places like Pacha, where people don’t really know each other and there’s no scene, but the music’s just as good. And then we have clubs like 1Oak and Avenue where the music’s mediocre but the scene is really important. The Limelight was doing both.”

“We were trying to have all different classes of people mixing in one room. Limelight was really a little city in and of itself and represented a cross section of everything that was going on in New York. That hasn’t been seen again, since our society is becoming more closed. It’s a shame when we go to a club, and it’s all white people or it’s all black people or it’s all gay people or it’s all straight people. That was unheard of in my time. We worked very, very hard to make it the way we did,” Lewis says.

Junior Vasquez, a renowned DJ who spun in Gatien’s venues, thinks there’s not enough focus on the main point of the clubs: the music.

“Now you can walk into a venue and see beautiful carpeting and chandeliers all over the place, but it’s missing something. The music. The DJ booth is an afterthought, sometimes even like a cage off in the corner. It’s not the right way to do things,” Vasquez admonishes.

Jen Gatien, Peter’s daughter, says the focus isn’t on the true essence of nightlife anymore.

“Sure, the venues have changed — scaled back so much that it’s not about the theatrical vaudeville aspects anymore, which is okay,” she begins. “But it’s the fact that it’s now dictated by black AmEx cards and bottle service that is the real issue. There was a time when you got into a nightclub because of who you were as a person, and what qualities you brought to that room. It was about the person and about their individuality. Now, it’s about consumerism and image, and if you can spend enough money and how important are you to the owners for press purposes. It’s the wrong mindset. The art of curating a crowd has been lost.”

Whenever you have that many nightlife veterans in one spot for an event like the “Limelight” premiere, stories about the good ol’ days naturally begin flowing. Lewis’ story about his realization that Club Kid Michael Alig had murdered a friend takes the prize.
Gatien and Alig

Peter Gatien with Club Kid Michael Alig.

“My best Limelight story was [promoter] Michael Alig coming up to me while I was there one night. He asked if he could borrow my car, so I asked him why, and he said, ‘I just killed Angel [Melendez, Alig’s friend], and I want to put the body in the back and get rid of it,’” Lewis says. “I said, ‘Michael, get the f*** away from me,’ and I went back to looking at the dance floor. A friend of mine came up and told me he just heard an interesting story. I said the same, and we then believed that Michael had killed Angel and had chopped up the body. At that moment, a chill went up my spine like a limelight ghost.”


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