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The Short, Drunken Life of Club Row

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A Saturday night inside Pink Elephant.  

An anachronism of Sacco’s was her refusal to monetize her milieu, but two of Sacco’s younger friends had no such qualms. Celebrity, in New York, was changing. The first to make the most of it were Noah Tepperberg, a balding, gravel-voiced Stuyvesant graduate, and Jason Strauss, his boyhood friend from Riverdale. Still in their twenties, they dreamed of creating an exclusive club like Sacco’s but on a vast and far more profitable scale. They would manage that feat by systematizing what might be called the club cascade effect: Celebrities attract models, models attract businessmen, and businessmen bring dollars.

The financial basis for this dream already was in place in the form of a high-profit sales technique developed by David Sarner, an owner of Soho’s ever-crowded Spy Bar. In 1995, Sarner realized he had more customers than his bartenders could handle. So Sarner brought the bar straight to the tables. He delivered vodka, mixers, ice, and glassware and allowed customers to pour their own cocktails. The next year, at Chaos, Sarner and his partner Michael Ault made bottle service mandatory—if you wanted to sit at your own table. Buying a bottle became a badge of status, and nightclub owners found a brand-new profit center.

Tepperberg and Strauss implemented bottle service on an industrial scale. In an abandoned taxi garage on the southwest corner of 27th Street and Tenth Avenue, just a few hundred feet from Bungalow 8, they created Marquee. The centerpiece of their $2.5 million renovation was a gleaming Philip Johnson staircase. “If a pretty girl comes from the top of the stairs all the way down, the whole crowd can watch,” says the club’s designer, the former Life director Steven Lewis. “If a celebrity walks up the stairs, people see them going up. That was not done by accident. It was all on purpose. The idea is to see people.”

Many of the celebrities spied on the staircase were there for business reasons. Marquee’s “special sauce,” as Tepperberg calls it, was a separate marketing company, Strategic Group, which placed the young club owners in the center of a burgeoning celebrity-industrial complex. Strategic connected Tepperberg and Strauss with companies that wanted to reach influencers and trendsetters by bankrolling parties inside Marquee. Motivated by the chance to appear in the gossip pages, celebrities arrived to host events. Models of all kinds—runway girls, commercial girls, faces, legs, pretty young things from West Virginia—came to cozy up to celebrities. Bankrolling it all were the “bottles”: the term of art for businessmen who plunk down $400 for $40 worth of vodka.

So many people packed Marquee in its first year, 2004, that the crowd of cars and people often blocked several lanes of traffic on Tenth Avenue. Inside, a parade of celebrities canoodled, guest D.J.’d, or threw premiere parties—a vast boldface honor roll recently trumpeted on the occasion of Marquee’s third anniversary and mocked by the Website Gawker under the headline WE CANNOT DEDICATE, WE CANNOT CONSECRATE, WE CANNOT HALLOW THIS GROUND.

It wasn’t Gettysburg, but the dance floor at Marquee sparked a phenomenon: the most concentrated and expensive burst of club development in the history of New York. So many nearby spaces came up for rent that the real-estate broker Steven Kamali would park his car on the street and spend all day marching club owners through their options. “It was like the gold rush,” he recalls. Cain arrived, then B.E.D., then Home, Guest House, Pre:Post, Pink Elephant. “They weren’t saying no to anybody,” Sacco recalls. “If you had a bank account and a heartbeat, you could get a place.”

Twenty-seventh Street became club row, a one-stop party shop. For a moment, it was magical—like an amusement park for adults. Instead of taxiing from one neighborhood to the next, clubbers could flit across the street. Marquee was the “Page Six” spectacle. On quieter nights, when a vacation vibe seemed best, one would start on the opposite end of the street, under the game-lodge tent of Cain. Bungalow 8 was for late nights, and in the middle of the block, one could mix it up with the mainstream.

Except for Bungalow, all the clubs had one thing in common: bottle girls, women in short skirts who ferried over ice and spirits in exchange for plastic. Nightclubs were big business now. If you carried a black AmEx card, you could count on getting in, somewhere. “Bottle service—it was a killer,” one club worker recalls. “Because now you didn’t have to look right to get in. The owners didn’t care about the quality of the crowd. The bottom line was the money. It was, Sell those tables, sell those tables, up-sell, magnums, bottle minimums. And you now had—forgive me for saying it—every undesirable seated in a nightclub.”


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