Bright Lights, Medium-Size City

Peter Gatien in his office at Circa on May 15, 2006.Photo: Mark Heithoff

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.”

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

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.”

Three months before its official opening (now scheduled for June), Circa, still under construction, looks less like the superclub of tomorrow than the cavernous remnants of a party that ended and petrified. “When Peter called me, I said, ‘You know, I don’t do this stuff anymore,’ ” explains Travis Bass, who is serving as my high-energy tour guide, and whose oversize black-rimmed glasses could almost pass for goggles. Bass, 38, moved to New York from L.A. in 1998 to design art and light installations for Limelight and the Tunnel before becoming a full-time event planner. “But I came up here because I love Peter. Then I saw the venue and right away went, ‘I’ll do it.’ ”

As we tour Circa, Bass clutches a pile of design mock-ups and gestures wildly in the space, conjuring up the planned attractions: a seventies-themed Swedish sauna bar, a Fellini-esque surrealist ballroom, the “Washroom Bar,” a gay-bathhouse-themed disco that also houses the actual bathrooms. “It’s an homage to the bathroom bar at the Tunnel,” Bass says. In fact, the whole club has a self-referential feel, like a meta-club whose broad theme is the kitschy excess of Gatien’s past venues. Yet despite the retro feel, Gatien and his associates fully expect Circa will be among the most culturally significant venues on the planet. “We’re thinking world,” Bass says. “We’re thinking, What artists from Japan can we bring in? What artists from Paris?” He points to an incongruous mall escalator, leading up to the second floor, a remnant of the previous tenant, a video arcade. “Hilarious!” he declares. “At random points in the evening, we’ll project video onto the escalator to create a cool hologram effect. So maybe at one point you’ll see fish swimming up the railing! Or a fat kid sliding down!”

He rhapsodizes about Toronto as a sort of New World—fresh-faced and wide-eyed—just ripe to be set alight by Gatien and his expert team of party people. “There’s almost no way I would’ve done this project if it was in New York,” says Bass. “I’ve been falling more and more in love with Toronto. It’s probably comparable to New York fifteen or even ten years ago. People who had that edge or that artistic quirkiness—Peter represented those people. Now the only people you’ll see at big clubs are very rich Upper East Side kids with their bottle service who believe they’re VIP because they’re sitting next to Paris Hilton. When they had to pay $500 to sit on some cheap ottomans! That’s not what New York was.”

It’s an intoxicating, if jarring, vision of New York’s extinct past resurrected in Toronto’s immediate future. If Gatien can pull it off, it will certainly transform the city’s nightlife—traditionally, Toronto’s nightclub scene has never attracted artists, celebrities, or the social elite, who prefer dimly lit lounges that “nobody” knows about. Instead, Circa’s neighborhood on Richmond Street, with its colorfully painted, laser-happy establishments with names like Joker and G Spot, is a magnet for the ball-cap-wearing suburban boys and their girlfriends in rayon minidresses. “It’s a really risky proposition, particularly with that kind of club,” says Shinan Govani, a gossip columnist for Canada’s National Post. “In New York, there are just more socialites, more dilettantes, more arty people, more mystery expats—that whole mix of colorful people you need to make a place burst. But I’m certainly not counting him out. Torontonians more than anything love to be compared to New York, and they endlessly compare themselves to New Yorkers, so there’s kind of a Sally Field–ness here. Yes, he was deported here. But you can sort of conveniently forget that he’s not here by choice.”

The stairwell leading up to Gatien’s fourth-floor office is adorned with crude graffiti sprayed by Xander—JUNIOR CLUB KING, most of them say. (“He’s practicing,” says Gatien’s publicist.) Gatien’s office is beige and lit with fluorescent tubes. It contains sparse, mismatched furniture, a single filing cabinet, and a large wooden desk pointed awkwardly toward the door. The cheap industrial carpeting, also plastered onto one wall, gives the office the feel of a suburban call center.

Stripped of the reputation, the glitzy context, and the eye patch (“It was a hot look when I was younger, but I stopped wearing it in 2000 because it made me too recognizable,” he says), Gatien is unexpectedly gracious, even deferential. His glasses, which at first strike you as a little sinister, eventually seem to function more as a shield for his protection. He is dressed casually, in a striped shirt with a gray T-shirt layered on top, jeans, and a pair of khaki sneakers with bright-orange laces. He leans back on an old office chair, with his feet up on another one, smoking a Marlboro menthol. He has the air of someone grown accustomed to cross-examination. “I don’t think I’m being delusional about it,” he says. “Most people believe I took a royal screwing.”

Gatien still loves reminiscing about the wild times people had in his clubs. He cracks up at the mention of Alig’s notorious flash parties, where he’d recruit 600 club kids and drag queens to storm a Burger King with a ghetto blaster and gyrate on tables in front of the bewildered staff. Gatien still corresponds with Alig three or four times a year. “I can’t help it,” he says, grinning. “I like the guy. Obviously what he did was horrific, but the drugs had a lot to do with it. Michael is a gay, 130-pound, nonviolent guy. I mean, if someone walked into the room and said, ‘Guess who committed a murder last night?’ nobody would say, ‘It’s gotta be Michael Alig.’ But he got strung out.”

Most people, especially New Yorkers, assume Gatien’s not in Manhattan because he can’t be. But he says he wouldn’t come back even if the city welcomed him with open arms. “I loved New York. I loved the people,” he says. “But in New York, there’s been such heat by local government that they almost have to operate like a prison, where everyone has to be body-searched. The fun’s been taken out of it. I quite frankly—I shouldn’t go there—but I think Giuliani single-handedly destroyed nightlife in New York.” He claims to be happy right where he is. “In balance, do I prefer being in Toronto? The answer is yes. I really believe that Toronto is the right time, right place, right energy, right everything.”

His lawyer, Ben Brafman, thinks maybe Gatien’s feelings are a little hurt. “I think Peter is very angry about how the United States of America treated him. They set up to destroy him, and at the end of the day, they succeeded, at least for a time.” Still, if Circa’s a hit, then who knows? Brafman says, “For several years since the federal trial, we have been working without fee to be able to get Peter back into the United States. Because I’m betting on him being on top of the club world both in New York and in Canada in a very short time. Because he’s a genius.” Gatien’s attorneys even found a loophole in immigration law that says a Native American cannot be deported. “And Peter is legally Native American Indian,” Brafman says. (Both of Gatien’s grandmothers were Native American.) “Having been certified as such, he could now come back to the United States whenever he chooses.” Gatien shrugs off any talk of the future; he’s not the kind to have a five-year plan, he says. But he now carries a card in his wallet that certifies him as a member of the Mohawk tribe. Next: Clubbing in Toronto vs. New York


Party GhettoThe meatpacking district.Richmond Street’s “entertainment district.”Hipster AlternativeWord-of-mouth Bushwick loft partiesThat one dive bar where Broken Social Scene hangs out.Typical Celebrity Sightings

Kelis; Shaggy; Lindsay Lohan in a scrum of people pretending to ignore her.

Ryan Gosling; whoever’s in town shooting; whoever’s in town promoting at the film festival (September only).Implausible Claim“I totally used to party with Warhol.”“I totally used to party with Vince Carter.Post-club RitualEggs at Florent, open 24 hours.

“Street meat” hot dogs from a vendor, open 24 hours.
(With sauerkraut!)Fashion Lunacy

Women: stilettos on cobblestone. Men: graph-paper-patterned shirtsWomen: bare legs in sub-zero winter. Men: graph-paper-patterned shirts.Scene PariahsBridge-and-tunnel crowd (Manhattan); Manhattanites (Brooklyn).“905ers” from the suburban area code; people from Ottawa.Jackass AlertArriving in a
stretch Hummer.

Arriving in a Maple Leafs jersey.Troubling DevelopmentMurderous bouncers.“New York–style bottle service.Ongoing Industry IrritationMeddlesome neighborhood associations.

2 a.m. last call.

Saturday Night ChillsClubbing in Canada vs. NYC

Bright Lights, Medium-Size City