It was 11 p.m. at the opening-night party at Exit, a mammoth new dance club on West 56th Street, and all three stories of industrial-looking girders and sleek orange-neon bars were bathed in prisms of laser light. Young Wall Streeters and buttoned-up Japanese tourists moved together to wall-shaking house music on the gymnasium-size dance floor. Homegirls in backless apron tops locked gazes with bare-chested muscleheads wearing dog collars. Michael Douglas showed up solo. Jennifer Lopez got down with Puffy in the cavernous VIP room, stocked with rustic leather couches and a big-screen TV. The evening had come off perfectly.
Suddenly, a squad of firemen in full gear showed up at club's front door. They insisted they needed to inspect the premises immediately -- despite the fact that no fire alarm had sounded -- and began snaking their way through the tightly packed dance floor. After making a tour of the 45,000-square-foot space, the squad leader grilled Exit's owner, David Marvisi, about his permits and the club's capacity before finally leaving.
But this was just the beginning. "After the firemen, the cops came into the club," Marvisi recounts. "You got six or seven police officers walking around into the crowd, which is not a good thing. It scares people."
When the fire squad returned, only a couple of hours later, Marvisi was looking a little peaked. After the third and fourth times, his deeply tanned complexion had gone pale. Even his most uninhibited guests seemed visibly rattled. At 3:50 a.m., based on a sight check and the number on the doorman's counter, the fire marshal informed Marvisi that he had exceeded the legal capacity of his club -- 3,471. "What they found was a club that was grossly overcrowded," says Frank McCarton of the FDNY press office, declining to say how many extra bodies were on the premises. Marvisi says he was issued a summons for $5,000, which he later paid.
But this kind of scrutiny is something Marvisi had better get used to. "This is routinely done to every single club in every borough, in every single city public-assembly area," swears McCarton. "This is not out of the ordinary."
All over town, Saturday-night fever has turned into a head cold. Club owners tell horror stories about unannounced late-night visits from the city's social-club task force, which can include a fire marshal, a police officer, and representatives from the Buildings and Health departments. But as difficult as it is to keep a club alive in the subzero climate imposed by the Giuliani administration, it's even harder to hatch one. While a spate of new dance clubs have managed to open their doors this fall, tales of promising establishments that might have been but never were, such as Ingrid Casares's Liquid, dot the perilous territory like detonated land mines.
"If you have the right dress code, if you look good, you get in," says Exit's David Marvisi. "We can't afford to be that choosy."
The fusillade has only worsened with the ongoing drug-and-tax troubles of Peter Gatien, owner of Limelight and the Tunnel. Industry veterans claim the city used the high-profile case as a cudgel for beating down new applicants. Attorney Robert Bookman, who helps many local club owners file their paperwork, says that new discos must obtain 26 separate credentials before opening, including a cabaret license, a certificate of occupancy, and various Health Department receipts. Some of the particularly thorny laws have been on the books since Prohibition. And since owners have to have their clubs almost completely built before going through the approval process -- showing they have physically met the city's requirements -- it's possible to spend more than $1 million on a nightclub without a guarantee that it's ever going to open.
But Manhattan is a place where anything can get accomplished -- for the right price -- so it's no surprise that a group of specialist fixers has recently sprouted up around the foundering nightclub industry. Take Steve Salvesen. Working out of a cramped office located in a TriBeCa subbasement, Salvesen offers a full array of services designed for would-be club owners. A general contractor and expediter, he helps take the sting out of whatever bureaucratic ailments might befall them.
"I have two guys whose full-time job it is to wait on lines at the Buildings Department," Salvesen says. "The key is to know which line to wait on." He also employs an architect and an asbestos investigator. Salvesen himself is an expert on how to increase a club's legal capacity, a service he provided to Marvisi, who used to own a club called Carbon on the same site as Exit. "Carbon had an occupancy of about 2,000," he says. "If I could get it up over 3,000, that's obviously a huge revenue boost."