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Bright Lights, Medium-Size City

Peter Gatien has grand plans to build a huge new club with Manhattan's hottest talent—in Toronto, his own personal Elba.


Peter Gatien in his office at Circa on May 15, 2006.  

Peter Gatien has installed himself at the head of an enormous table in a private dining room at a “restrolounge” called 8, and he’s surveying the room like the don of some clandestine party mafia.

Compact and gaunt, he’s dressed neatly in a slim-fitting navy-blue suit, a dotted red tie, and a pair of vaguely ominous blue-tinted glasses, which, like his now-discarded signature eye patch, serve to conceal the left eye he lost in a childhood hockey accident. When a vigilant waitress appears over his shoulder, he instructs her not to bother offering the duck hors d’oeuvre to his wife and consigliere, Alessandra (he calls her Alex), who’s seated at his right. “She won’t like it,” he mumbles, almost inaudibly. Alessandra, Gatien’s third wife, is his dispositional antithesis—an elegant, gregarious film producer fifteen years his junior, outfitted tonight in Paltrow-casual style, with jeans and a black blazer, her dark hair tied loosely back. After seven-plus years of legal skirmishes, financial drain, and public scrutiny, she is clearly impatient for her family to reclaim its prior life. “It was hard,” she says with a bright, incongruous smile. “I’m so glad it’s over.”

Moreover, she’s eager to introduce me to the rest of the guests at the table. At her side is Paul Budnitz, the boyish, redheaded, T-shirt-wearing founder of the cult hipster toy company KidRobot. “My son, Xander, is crazy for him,” she says. “He calls him the Disney of his generation.” (Budnitz is later described to me by another associate as “Warhol meets Willy Wonka.”) Farther down the table are Greg Bradshaw and William Harris, both principals of the Manhattan design collective AvroKO, responsible for such restaurants as Public and the Stanton Social. The German avant-garde architect Joakim Hannerz and his flamboyant business partner, Travis Bass, a party planner for Diddy and 50 Cent, arrive late, make their apologies, and take their seats. Rounding out the group is a handful of lawyers and financiers in dark suits and designer eyewear. Alex motions to an empty chair. “Funkmaster Flex was supposed to be here,” she says. “But he missed his flight.”

The Gatiens have assembled this rogue cabal to collaborate on Peter’s newest project: Circa, a four-story, state-of-the-art nightclub/art museum/music-and-film venue designed to be more spectacular, more excessive, more hysterically fun than Limelight or the Tunnel ever were. At the table’s head, Gatien, who’s 53, dominates the gathering, not by charisma but by the force of his outsize reputation. So when the conversation turns to the 2003 film Party Monster, starring Macaulay Culkin as Michael Alig—he was Gatien’s star club promoter, who later murdered one of his fellow club kids in 1996—all eyes turn, a little tentatively, to wait for Gatien’s response.

“I was played by Dylan McDermott, so I can’t complain,” he says, rubbing his hand over his mouth, a nervous habit. “But Alig was all wrong. Michael was not this snotty, bitchy queen. He was, for the most part, a pretty likable kid.” Then Alessandra waves away the subject like a bad odor, and the conversation is rerouted back to the present and their more immediate concern: to re-create the manic excitement and artistic pandemonium of Gatien’s early-nineties heyday here, in his new home, in present-day Toronto, Canada.

It’s been nearly three years since Gatien’s glittery nightclub empire was yanked out from under him by an unsympathetic Immigration judge. In some circles, Gatien is remembered as a noble protector of New York’s endangered artistic fringe, a man whose club kingdom—Limelight, the Tunnel, Club USA, and the Palladium—served as cultural incubators for disparate, marginalized tribes. In others, he’s remembered as a crook—the tabloid-friendly overlord of a hedonistic playground populated by deviant club kids and fueled by illicit drugs.

Either way, by the time Mayor Rudolph Giuliani decided to crack down on nightlife in the mid-nineties, Gatien was the scene’s most logical target. In 1996, his clubs were raided for the first time, and over the next seven years—which included federal drug- conspiracy charges, microscopic police scrutiny, and persistent closures of his businesses—Gatien, with his piratical eye patch, became the public face for many of the city’s ills. “He was the rare nightclub entrepreneur that really never felt comfortable being part of the party,” says Michael Musto, nightlife columnist for the Village Voice. “He would always kind of retreat to his office and count the money.” Gatien’s private life, though, became the subject of very public rumors; for example, that he used his nightclub profits to hole up in expensive hotels with high-priced hookers and feed a constant crack addiction. The more outlandish theories were collected in Frank Owen’s 2003 book, Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture, a book Gatien’s never read. But he strongly denies the stories—to a point. “How am I supposed to be operating four clubs, managing 1,000 employees, and have a crack problem?” he asks. “Have I partied every now and then? Yeah. It’s been documented. Anywhere from zero to three times a year, I would rent a hotel room and do my thing. Am I proud of it? No. But there it is.”

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