Remembering Gilbert Henry Stafford

With a new decade upon us, all is not cheery and bright as the nightclub world mourns one of its own with the passing of venerable nightclub veteran Gilbert Henry Stafford, who died on Jan. 1. From coast to coast, Stafford was known as the always dapper and eloquent hulk guarding the velvet ropes at some of the nation’s biggest and hottest nightclubs. From Miami to New York and Los Angeles, Stafford had the unique ability to make friends while still upholding the tight restrictions and tighter door policies of the venues where he worked.

Gilbert Stafford

In the early ’90s, Stafford was a familiar face to the throngs who packed AREA, Chaos and Risk, to name a few. Then he headed to New York, where he spent time at Crobar NY and Remedy, among others. After two years away from the business, City of Angels nightlife scion Rob Vinokur had lured Stafford back into the business and out to the West Coast where he was opening Playhouse. While now older than most of the patrons visiting the venues where he worked, he jumped on a plane to Los Angeles noting, “I get the sense that the big thing hasn’t happened [in Hollywood] yet, and I want to be here when it does.”

To honor Stafford, we turned to his friend and Big Apple nightlife designer and scribe Steve Lewis, who penned an amazing piece for Blackbook. Below are excerpts from Lewis’ piece; his full article can be found here. Thanks to Steve for letting us re-run his piece so our readers can learn just how important and influential Stafford was to the business. Rest in peace, Gilbert. You are missed.

“My phone screamed for attention but the dial said private number. On any other day but New Year’s I would have ignored the call, but it seemed somewhat ominous and I went for it. "Gilbert passed," said the very recognizable voice on the other side. "In L.A., lung problems. Just a little while ago. Let people know." As the new decade slipped into our present, Gilbert slipped into eternity and club immortality.

It only took a little while for my calls to come back at me with sad confirmations and questions. Facebook tributes popped like those champagne bottles just a few hours before. The enormity of our loss hit home. Every significant nightlife denizen from New York to Miami to L.A. climbed out of their New Year’s Day stupors, relaxations, reflections and resolutions and spread the word and talked of the great man. Gilbert was one of the most recognizable door people in clubdom. Door people make enemies like Magnolia makes cupcakes, yet all the people that I spoke to agreed Gilbert had none.

Gilbert was a flamboyant gay presence at the doors of mega clubs. He serviced the celebrities and dignitaries that might show up at any time, but more importantly presided over the thousands gathering to hear the big DJs. The crowds gained his respect or they were denied entry. His denial was always done with class. While others might just say “not tonight” or worse, Gilbert took his time to explain what it might time. The bond between what is affectionately called the guido crowd and Gilbert was profound. He was a father to them, an educator, a stern disciplinarian and a friend.

The positive impact of this openly gay role model, found in door people like Kenny Kenny, Fernando, Justo, Damien, Haoui Montaug and Gilbert affected generations of tri-state young people. He always had class. He always dressed the part. He strutted. He blustered. He bellowed. He was always a show. I wanted to include testimonials here but his facebook tribute page is a better forum. I received hundreds of anecdotes, too many for this blog. Here are a few:

From Russian Rob in L.A.:  Gilbert was a true gentleman, one of the last representations of true class in this evolution that nightlife has taken.  He was a lover of music, a talented writer and a personality. Not to be cliché, but he was a rare renaissance man who had an appreciation for the arts, a well made suit and loved to cook. That’s rare in nightlife these days, where the art has been replaced by Ed Hardy and the soul is so often missing. I was trying to change L.A. nightlife with Playhouse and felt it could only be done with Gilbert. I could not have imagined the project without him. PS. His favorite cocktail - blended scotch whiskey - Jameson or Dewars

From Willy: I call Gilbert “the black John Wayne.” He smoked non-filters, told off-color jokes and loved a good steak. Wash that down with some Dewars, repeat. He loved and lost more than most. Drama ruled his world. At one point he threw a fit at me in a drunken outburst, accosting me for pointing out that life was all about him, which it was. We were in an apartment I had found for him. He was a painter--several works are in his apartment. He was a SAG card holder and would consistently get checks for a few cents for some voiceover work from years ago.

I tried to stay home, but tear-filled eyes are often hard to close. I remembered Pacha was in the middle of a 36-hour New Year’s Eve marathon with Victor Calderone and Jonathan Peters. It was 3:30am Friday night. I texted Rob Fernandez and asked him what the story was. Rob was one of the first people I called when I got the Gilbert call. He told me, “There are people here since 9pm Thursday and it’s not pretty. There’s 2000 people here but you shouldn’t come over, come tomorrow night.” I told him I was on my way.

A man once said, “One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure its worth watching.” As Gilbert’s life is flashed, facebooked and obituaried before our eyes, his lessons are still heard loudly. He believed in others and loved this life. While I and many have described clubdom as a game of smoke and mirrors, people like Gilbert, and there are only a very few, showed us that it isn’t greed, money or lust that drives the good ones. Clubs are a world of love and exploration and self-searching and beauty. Gilbert leaves us way too soon. He has gone through the looking glass to a better place.

As I looked at the massive 6am Pacha crowd, I thought how Gilbert would have loved this, loved them. They were his children and he demanded their respect. He set limits to their crews, hair dos and gear. He doled out tough love and pushed them all in a better direction. He could be very hard, especially to those who would never grow, never lose the hate they carried inside. He saw hope in almost everyone, even me. I wasn’t above a scold sometimes, a real loud admonishment to check my head or a harsher one whispered in my ear. He would tell me to be humble when I was falsely proud and to be proud when the world humbled me. He once yelled at me at 5am in a Korean deli, “Dairy after midnight Steven Lewis???!!!” I haven’t had a late yogurt since. He saw hearts without seeing color or status. He wasn’t that impressed with someone’s press. At the door he had a heart code rather than a dress code. When the world sat on my head and I was crushed, small and mostly alone, he treated me like Elvis fucking Presley. He was a rock. He helped me stand straight and even adjusted my Windsor knot. He goes out with class, with love with respect, a life well lived.

Jonathan Peters was smiling as he blew Pacha up. I think Gilbert would have liked that I was there having fun, thinking about him among his friends and children. He’d say quite loudly, “Oh please, just have fun and no dairy when you get home Mr. Lewis.” Doormen rarely go inside to party. Their job is outside on oppressive humid summer nights or stealing warmth from space heaters when it’s 10 degrees and the howling wind is the only music. They welcome the crowds, they make them feel like part of the club and push them into the fray. It’s always a kiss kiss, some small talk and an, “oh please, go inside have some fun.” You see them again on the way out. Gilbert showed us all a better way. He scolded and cajoled and pleaded with us to be better people. Hopefully I’ll run into him again… on the way out.”

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