Nightlife ‘99: Nightclub Limbo

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.”

Salvesen won’t say exactly how he did it, only that the increase had more to do with manipulating the building codes than with the actual size of the location. “A nightclub takes anywhere from a week to six months to get approved,” he says. “You have to file construction permits, plumbing, mechanicals, sprinkler systems, electrical … and we don’t even get involved with Liquor, Health, or Consumer Affairs.”

Had Marvisi needed a new location, he would most likely have called Alex Picken, a commercial-real-estate agent and former D.J. at Red Zone who systematically scouts for possibilities. New establishments generally open only on the site of previous ones, since existing dance clubs already have a cabaret license, the hard-to-qualify-for permit that the city insists upon for every premises with dancing. “In recent years, the only new cabaret license to be granted in midtown that I can think of was for the China Club,” says Picken. That’s why he keeps a list of all the existing cabaret licenses in the city (there are currently 142 in Manhattan and 697 citywide), as compiled by the Department of Consumer Affairs. In his spare time, he cold-calls preexisting clubs with licenses and asks them how they’re doing.

Noise complaints your problem? Give a holler to Al Fierstein, a professional acoustic consultant who makes the bulk of his living telling clubs like the Tunnel and the Roxy how to keep quiet. “Some of the measures I use – and this varies in every case – include putting up extra Sheetrock, lead lining for the walls, baffling on air-conditioning systems, concrete-block walls and sand-filled walls and ceilings, sound locks so noise doesn’t travel around doors into the street,” he says.

The savviest owners, however, also take their own precautions. The proprietors of Chaos, a trendy nightspot on East Houston Street that opened last month, tout their indestructibility nearly as much as their South Beach vibe. “This is a dance club without a real big dance floor,” says co-owner Tony Theodore of a domed room dripping in red velvet. “Every piece of furniture in this space, every table, every couch, is structurally designed to be able to withstand somebody dancing on it. The chandeliers are high enough away. The curtains are bolted into the rods.” Adds Theodore’s partner Michael Ault: “Everything is puppyproof and fireproof, and we’ve got guards everywhere.”

Back at Exit, David Marvisi, dressed in head-to-toe black, slumps in a banquette at the back of his club and ticks off other hassles with the antenna of his cell phone. Zoning changes, which have empowered residents in commercial and manufacturing neighborhoods to register noise complaints, resulting in fines starting at $4,000. Disorderly-premises violations, issued in any instance that Marvisi has to call in the police. Even his club’s name reflects the current compliance mania, especially with egresses. “Every time I look up, I see another exit sign,” he says, “so I figured it would be the best name.”

Once, being a partner in a nightclub was viewed as the ultimate ticket to city society, a stylish sideline desired by every swinging young banker with a $500,000 bonus. The hipster cachet is still there, but even for a businessman like Marvisi (who made his fortune in the Uncle Steve electronics empire), being part of the game exacts a steep price. “What it takes,” he says with a sigh, “is money and time.”

More and more, that money is being diverted from the more glamorous elements like celebrity D.J.’s and posh VIP lounges. Of the $9 million that Marvisi pumped into Exit’s renovations, $250,000 went to soundproof the club with triple layers of Sheetrock and a specially designed metal-and-plastic ceiling, and another quarter-million bought a cutting-edge in-house video security system. His 70-man security staff, all of whom must be EMS-certified – including the five guards who patrol the 300-foot perimeter outside the club during operating hours – costs him $9,600 per night.

With start-up costs so high, few establishments go into business solely as dance clubs, anyway. Many live more conventional existences by day, as restaurants and catering halls. One 51, a fledgling establishment on East 50th Street at the site of the old Tatou, also functions as a restaurant and the room-service facility for three neighboring hotels. “When I’m leaving on Friday or Saturday at six in the morning after doing all the reconciling, my crew is here setting up for the breakfast at 6:30,” says Chas White, One 51’s owner. “We’re trying to juggle a lot of things.”

Exclusive velvet-rope policies are largely a thing of the past, too, thanks to owners desperate to recoup their overhead. “Here, if you have the right dress code, if you look good, you get in,” admits Marvisi, who charges a $25 cover. “We can’t afford to be that choosy.”

Many in the industry believe they shouldn’t have to go to such extremes. After all, according to Andrew Rasiej, president of the New York Nightlife Association, Manhattan nightclubs have a $2.9 billion economic impact on the city. In 1997, his trade organization hired Audience Research and Analysis, the same firm that took Broadway’s pulse in 1994, to do a survey, which revealed that nightclubs provide 27,000 jobs to the city and $240 million in state and city taxes, plus higher attendance than all of New York’s professional sports teams, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Empire State Building, and Broadway theaters combined. Then there are the other Manhattan mainstays that hinge on nightlife’s survival. “The average New Yorker spends $2,500 a year on clothes just to go out at night,” Rasiej points out.

So what future does the mirror ball really hold? While big clubs are likely to weather the current storm, smaller homegrown venues may get washed away. Philip Rodrigue, owner-manager of the tiny electronica-oriented club Baktun, says he worked 75-to-80-hour weeks for a period of fifteen months just to sort out the permits for his 200-capacity space after getting a series of $200 tickets for not having a cabaret license. The city wouldn’t close his case until he presented every last paper to a judge. By that point, he had more than once contemplated bankruptcy.

Ironically, it is only ultrahuge venues like Exit, the very clubs the city abhors the most, that have the cash and connections to withstand an extended ordeal. Still, David Marvisi isn’t taking any chances. Every Friday night, starting this week, before the bacchanalia at 56th Street begins, a Cirque de Soleil-like dance troupe will put on an hourlong performance in the main room – an added benefit included in the price of admission. “I’m hoping to do many more corporate events; we might even do a Broadway show here,” he adds optimistically. “The stage is designed to fit an eighteen-piece orchestra.”

Additional reporting by Ethan Smith.

Nightlife ‘99: Nightclub Limbo