Hammerstein looks pleased; the song was his touch. Now the crowd is up on its feet, ducking and weaving in the aisles. “Use me, use me, use me,” Yozmit belts out with her hands in the air, dancing in her chair. She contorts her body into something desperate and grotesque. “Use me … until you use me up.”
When Hammerstein opened The Box in February 2007, it was a conscious attempt to introduce something different to New York nightlife—and for him, a departure from the world of theater. The grandson of the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, he had spent a handful of years in New York trying to make it as a theater director, with unsatisfying results. “All my friends who I would go out at night with and drink with, they had no interest in seeing plays,” he says. “It wasn’t in their vocabulary. It was very frustrating to think that you could dedicate your life to an art form that no one gave a shit about.”
As a kind of antidote, he had the idea of doing a late-night show at the former Maverick Theater in Chelsea. He envisaged entertaining a young and diverse audience, but the location was too bleak, and the format too straight-up traditional, to attract a crowd.
The solution, he realized, was to bring theater into the world of nightlife. “No one wants to commit to a two-hour play,” he remembers thinking, “but they’re happy to commit to a late-night hangout for four or five hours.” He teamed up with Serge Becker of 205 Club and La Esquina fame, The Donkey Show’s Randy Weiner, and Richard Kimmel, an associate with the Wooster Group, to create a theater reminiscent of New York’s old vaudeville palaces. They would support the business through bar sales, but Hammerstein would rely on an advisory board of boldfaced names—people like Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, and Josh Lucas—to bring a highbrow attitude to the place.
And incredibly, it worked. The format they settled on was vaudevillian variety show, with a troupe of sometimes-topless dancing girls called the Hammerstein Beauties and a nightly variety show featuring sexual acts and magicians and musicians and acrobats. “It was dinner theater,” remembers one longtime employee, who, like others I spoke with, requested anonymity when talking about the club. “We had cancan dancers. It was all class. The patrons came in dressed to the nines. And we gave them a free bottle of Champagne.”
Nevertheless, Hammerstein was a bit unprepared for the role he had created for himself; as The Box’s public face and creative mastermind, he was no longer just a backstage director. “At first Simon was shy,” says this employee. “We’d try to get him to go from table to table to introduce him to guests, and he didn’t want to do it.” He entered uneasily into the sexual material; once introduced, though, it seemed to accelerate on its own, becoming more aggressive night after night. “When we first started,” Hammerstein remembers, “I was easily shocked. There were a lot of numbers where, on the first night we did them, I said, ‘There’s no way we can do this. People are going to throw things at us, and they’re going to be horrified.’ ”
But Hammerstein rented an apartment next door, and over time, as The Box attracted long lines of exactly the sorts of patrons he had hoped to bring in, his confidence grew. There were no expressions of outrage in the audience; table reservations were going for a grand a night, with patrons readily spending another two or three or ten on Champagne, and there was no interference from the police.
After about four months, the balance between theater and nightclub started to change. There were still over a dozen performances a night, but one employee noticed Hammerstein dialing up the sexuality in each, and the raucousness of the stage show was infecting the crowd. Rumors started to emerge about performances of public fellatio and roving drug dealers and scantily clad women who might be willing to do anything if one paid them enough. There was a topless girl on a hoop swing, people blowing coke off their tables, and regular sightings of Lindsay Lohan, sometimes twirling on a stripper pole.
Everyone at The Box should feel like it’s a constant bath of Dionysian debauchery,” Hammerstein says. “That’s what I’m selling: mystique and mystery and sexual openness.” To keep the program fully scheduled, he conducts auditions for new acts at The Box about twice a week. It’s an intimidating process. Hammerstein sits with Kimmel, The Box’s executive director, on a couch in front of the stage, shouting into a microphone for the band or the tech crew or the lighting guys. Go find the costume girl! Get me some food! Why don’t we have fifteen silver dildos?