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Bright Lights, Medium-Size City


Inside the new super-club Circa (Gatien is standing at far right); the space, complete with escalator, used to be a video arcade.  

In 1998, Gatien was brought up on federal drug-conspiracy charges. The prosecution alleged that, if he was not directly involved in the sale of narcotics, then he was guilty of conspiring to allow the sale and open use of drugs in his clubs. The jury acquitted him in a matter of hours. Still, Giuliani seemed determined to get him “on something, on anything,” says Musto, “just to prove to the family-values crowd that he had rooted out the evil in New York.” In 1999, Gatien pleaded guilty to state sales-tax evasion (“He had violated the law, and he wanted to accept responsibility,” his lawyer says), paid a fine of $1.9 million, served 60 days of a 90-day prison sentence, and believed he was free and clear. But in August 2003, during a routine immigration hearing, Gatien discovered his story had taken a sudden twist—a judge had ordered him out of the country, under a clause in immigration law that says any noncitizen convicted of an aggravated felony can be deported. (Gatien is Canadian.) “Two or three guys came into the office, flashed their badges, and one said, ‘Come with me,’ ” he says. Before it deported him, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services detained him over a period of months—standard procedure—first in Manhattan, then in Buffalo, and, finally, in a “real shithole” in Berks County, Pennsylvania. “For the first ten days, no phone calls, no access to anything but your tiny cell,” he says. “Mealtime comes, the door opens, you get a tray. No daylight. No windows. No concept of whether it’s seven at night or three in the morning. You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.”

By the time he stepped off the plane in Toronto—“because that’s where they sent me; it’s that simple”—his life had become unrecognizable to him. He’d blown all of his millions on legal fees, even after the sale of the Tunnel and Limelight. He had no job, no friends in Toronto, and in New York his reputation was stained by tabloid tags like “the Dr. Evil of Ecstasy.” He spent his first days in Canada reading crime novels (Michael Connelly was a favorite) and working on an autobiography, beginning with his “Tom Sawyer youth” in the paper-mill town of Cornwall, Ontario. Alessandra stayed in New York with Xander, so that he could finish fourth grade in the same school he’d always attended. But they had to give up their 10,000-square-foot home in Gramercy Park for a 700-square-foot apartment on Manhattan’s “way, way East Side,” Gatien says. “We had to scramble, to say the least. There were months where she’d come to see me every weekend. And there were months when, quite frankly, we couldn’t afford it.”

Soon, though, the exiled emperor of disco-decadence started warming to his personal Elba. He liked the trees. Good libraries. Clean public transit. And a burgeoning arts scene. “I don’t know if people in Toronto take it for granted, but the quality of life here is great,” he says. “Even the simple stuff, like the cleanliness of the city. Toronto is a really intelligent town.” He met some people. “You know, in the park, walking my dog, that kind of stuff. They were nice people, but not exactly a crowd of movers and shakers.” He started thinking about maybe opening a business. Maybe a hotel. Then he was introduced to John Cheong, the chairman of a Toronto company called Hingson Entertainment, built out of his father’s finance-and-construction company. A stocky, affable man in his forties, Cheong had recently gotten into the club business, but so far he hadn’t had much luck. He’d built a cheesy big-box club called Lucid, but it had been poorly designed and plagued by employee theft. A lawyer he worked with heard that Gatien was in town and encouraged a meeting. At first, Cheong was a little reluctant to partner with a guy he’d never heard of, especially one who had a criminal record. But as he learned more about Gatien’s past, he began to see it as a benefit. “I’m a businessman,” he says, “and with the club scene, sometimes colorful pasts can be an attraction or create a following. There is baggage that comes with any legend.”

Gatien agreed to look at Cheong’s space—a 53,000-square-foot building in the center of Toronto’s downtown entertainment district—and was taken by its potential. After running it by Alessandra—who was feeling a little club-weary—Gatien signed on to be Cheong’s “resident visionary” for Circa and a new series of venues, including a boutique-hotel project in which Gatien will have equity. Then the Gatiens started contacting their dream players in New York. Their plans for Circa met with only a few minor setbacks; for example, when the Toronto police found out Gatien was getting back into the business, they paid a few visits to Cheong as the company was trying to update its liquor licenses. “They just wanted to make sure that we understood everything about him,” Cheong says. “And cover ourselves accordingly.”

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