Nightlife Legend Peter Gatien’s Meteoric Rise and Fall as New York’s Club King

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For those alive in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you were either at—or, more likely, wanted to be at—the Limelight, Tunnel, Palladium, and Club USA, the after-dark inventions of Peter Gatien’s imagination that defined New York culture. Filled with thousands of dedicated club-goers nightly, Junior Vasquez, Funkmaster Flex, and superstar DJ Keoki spun pounding music—from house to techno to hip-hop to rave. The amplified sounds could only to be outdone by the attending glamour of celebrities, VIPs, the fashion and art set, Club Kids, and nightlife regulars in a mélange of cultural identities.

Even Gatien, the presence behind the scenes, appeared to be out of central casting with his quiet, mysterious demeanor and trademark eye patch—concealing an eye lost to a youthful playground accident. Every element of his venues—from the party concepts to those who passed through their velvet ropes—lent to a creative scene of nightlife history in the making. “It was a different world then. Those were the golden years of nightclubs,” Gatien tells CR. “The clubs were the social media of that time—disseminating the latest through all creative channels during the heyday. If you wanted to know what was going on in music and fashion and to connect with like-minded—or very different—people, you had to go to nightclubs.”

From his career beginnings in the mill town of Cornwall in Ontario, Canada, Gatien (b. 1952) was an avid entrepreneur. His first business venture was a denim store, followed by a remake of a country western bar into a rock club, where Gatien booked then up-and-coming band Rush for its opening week. Then in 1976, he set his sights on America, and he redesigned a Miami disco into the first version of the storied Limelight, where the likes of the Village People and Gloria Gaynor performed. Atlanta Limelight came next—famed for the live panther and later, a shark tank that were installed under its glass dance floor.

Locations in Chicago and London ensued—and of course, the most famous venue situated in a former church in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. By the time New York Limelight opened in 1983, Gatien positioned the nightclub for prominence—Andy Warhol hosted its opening, as did Yoko Ono in the venue’s first week. With the ongoing A-list presence of Mick Jagger, Madonna, David Bowie, and Debbie Harry, Gatien cemented the club’s destination status, which continued for the next two decades. He went on to expand his empire and by the early ‘90s, his mega-clubs included Palladium, decorated with original artworks from Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Francesco Clemente; Tunnel, featuring some of the biggest acts in hip-hop; and Club USA, boasting interiors designed by Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler.

Then, just as quickly as Gatien had risen to nightlife acclaim, his gilded touch began to turn. Hard drugs became a pervasive issue in many of the era’s nightclubs. Also, there were the notorious Club Kids—the celebrants who brought Gatien’s nightclubs to life. Noted for their more-is-more approach, memorable Club Kids include LGTBQ legend and Drag Race creator RuPaul, trans icon and David Le Chapelle muse Amanda Lepore, personality James St. James, and partier-turned-designer Richie Rich of Heatherette. However, in a dark turn of wonderland excess, Club Kid ringmaster and Limelight promoter Michael Alig and fellow Club Kid Robert “Freeze” Riggs, murdered and dismembered Andre “Angel” Melendez after a drug-fueled argument in 1996. The extreme, infamous crime cast a bright light on the underworld of the night scene’s opulence.

During the mid-90’s political crackdown on New York nightlife, Gatien and his venues came under intense scrutiny and investigation. In 1999, he was convicted of tax evasion, resulting in deportation to his native Canada in 2003. After closing his final Canadian club venture Circa in 2010, Gatien has led a much quieter life with his family in Toronto, often reflecting on the empire he once built and the days when the party would never end—also the subject of his newly released memoir, The Club King: My Rise, Reign, and Fall in New York Nightlife. Here, CR MEN speaks with the impresario about his most unforgettable moments at the center of New York nightclubs, what hindsight has made him realize about his reign as club king, and why he would unquestionably, do it all over again.

You credit the success of your clubs to the creative community. Do you think there is an overlooked element of creativity and artistry that gets lost in the more salacious aspects of nightlife?
“Compared to the present, New York has basically transformed itself from that ‘80s and ‘90s time. Most of my staff lived in Manhattan then, which is just not affordable for many people now. There were so many artistic people like [Jean-Michel] Basquiat and Warhol, and a whole creative movement driven by the East Village and downtown scene. There is less of that dynamic now because the city is very different, which in many ways is bad for the creative community, but at that time, there was a very special energy and the nightclubs were an incubator of that culture.”

How did your clubs foreshadow today’s progressivism?
“I found that as I got into larger cities, the pool of people changed. By the time I got to New York, I was able to draw the most eclectic crowd possible. The LGTBQ movement was not what it is today and I wanted a very mixed crowd, because that created the best nightlife. That period was also pre-digital and pre-social media, even pre-cell phones. Many people had never even been exposed to different sectors of society and the clubs allowed them to have that experience. The groups in larger cities easily integrated and had fun together, and that diverse dynamic worked in my clubs for 30 years.”

Fashion has always played a large part in nightlife. How did clubs shape the styles and trends of the ‘80s to 2000s era?
“You would see big designers like Thierry Mugler or Jean Paul Gaultier out at clubs, observing the scene. Then the next season, the platform shoes that were in the clubs were on their runways. This was also true of everything around hip-hop from hoodies to street style. The designers showed the looks in better fabrics and with better accessories, but fashion was very much inspired by nightlife. The nightclub clientele itself was stylish, and styling oneself contributed to how you got in as well as the look of the party. We also did fashion and photography shows for young aspiring designers, which gave them the opportunity to show and expand their work, in many cases jump starting their careers. Patricia Field was also a big influence of the era, so everything was about pushing the envelope creatively.”

In your book, you wrote, “If I could go back to a single minute in my life, I’d take it standing on the balcony of Limelight on some weekend night in the summer of 1995. I’m haunted by the need to recreate that moment.” Why was that a defining time in nightlife?
“At that time, the representation of New York at the clubs was such a diverse, exciting crowd. The energy of the time was special because it was after AIDS was better understood and people had begun going out and enjoying nightlife again. There was the mix of people from rockers to drag queens to Club Kids to gallery and restaurant owners. No one looked the same, which made for great people-watching. It was also very gratifying to bring together such an interesting mix of people socially. It was a really great moment in the history of New York.”

Looking back at your career in nightclubs—and the fallout afterwards, do you view those decades as a cautionary tale, a success story, or some degree of both?
“I look back at those years and sometimes I wonder why the hammer came down on me in 1996. I was getting to be well known and starting to have mainstream acceptance, but the nightclubs weren’t what the political administration wanted as the new world in New York. We had a large gay and transgender constituency at Limelight and Sundays at Tunnel had a hip-hop crowd, where Jay-Z, Nas, Puffy, and Lil’ Kim performed. This was not what the politicians’ ‘Quality of Life’ campaign had in mind for New York nightlife. I was targeted and while I won in court, I hemorrhaged financially and, in the end, I was deported. It is part of my story. The silver lining is the positive impact we had on 20 million people who came to my clubs over 17 years. There are a lot of wonderful memories and I get gratification that we helped shepherd and steer people and groups who were considered marginal into mainstream acceptance.”

In your memoir’s conclusion, you write, “Nostalgia is a blade that cuts both ways. [My memories] are all bittersweet.” In hindsight, would you do it all over again?
“Yes, I would. From the time I was young, I was mesmerized by America, experiencing its TV and music culture from the small town where I lived. I always wanted to be part of that and I loved the years that I was. I think as a result of my experiences, I have also become very empathetic and compassionate towards immigration issues. I still love New York and I think America is a great land of opportunity with so much diversity and multiculturalism. I have many friends there and whenever I visit, people still stop me on the street and share stories of nights spent in my clubs. Whenever I am there, New York still feels very much like home.”

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