By Zach Schepis
Drew Nugent & The Midnight Society. Photo courtesy of Jane Kratochvil.
As you tread the forlorn and frostbitten streets of Brooklyn, looking for a place to keep warm, you notice what seems to be an abandoned warehouse.
Curious, you step inside and find yourself standing before an unmarked door. A wild manner of strange noises beckons from within. The door opens.
You are greeted with lush crimson walls and flickering candelabras. Chandeliers sway to the brassy romp of a hot jazz band, before which an audience dances with slick abandon, clad in ‘20s and ‘30s get-ups.
Welcome to the Shanghai Mermaid, one of New York City’s premiere underground speakeasy cabaret parties.
Perhaps “welcome” isn’t the best word. You need to be invited, plus decked out in attire from the era, or else you’ll be turned away immediately.
The events are unlicensed, meaning they are illegal. The website lists little more than cryptic press coverage and no address to be found.
Juliette Campbell is the woman behind the controlled madness. The idea came to her nearly 10 years ago. One night she was sitting in Park Slope’s Club Barbes, listening to a live jazz group play staples from the ‘20s and ‘30s, when a vision literally descended upon her. She saw a room that looked like Paris in the ‘20s–a red nightclub where everyone was dressed to-a-tee.
The whole scene was definitely edgy and underground, but simultaneously elegant and glamorous too. Around this time, Flatiron’s Milk & Honey was quickly forging a scene around its classic cocktails, and Campbell knew she could incorporate this tasteful refinery into the speakeasy atmosphere. As an ex-actress, the idea for cabaret soon integrated its way into the imagined experience.
Campbell thought of a restaurant in Dumbo that was then flourishing in the midst of a rich artistic scene. Across the street was a warehouse that musicians would use as a practice space, replete with red walls and a stage with superb sound and lighting equipment.
That was the perfect place for Campbell to spearhead her vision.
“I remember a friend asking me, ‘who do you think is really going to come to this?’” Campbell laughs. “You know, who is really going to dress up, how many people? I figured if I thought it was a good idea there must be at least a few other weirdos.”
Campbell was right. She just had no idea how many weirdos would catch on.
The first party was small and crowded, but still a rousing success. People accustomed to the plastic-cup culture of underground parties were thrilled to discover real chinaware, martini glasses, bistro tables and chairs, candelabras, chandeliers, burlesque dancers, and live jazz.
The spirit was there from the beginning–it’s just grown tremendously.
Part of that has to do with time, and part of it with the changes in location. The police and fire department eventually shut Campbell’s warehouse down, but that didn’t stop her. She found herself bouncing around for a year, hosting the Shainghais in random buildings until she stumbled upon the Red Lotus Room in Crown Heights. The space hadn’t been used in 18 years, and existed in the heart of a neighborhood that was a far-cry from the safest.
Campbell enjoyed a residency there for four years, where the Shanghai Mermaid continued to grow.
During this period, Campbell remained relatively unperturbed by legal hassles. The local precinct, which already had their hands filled with shootings and other local crimes, actually encouraged the underground parties. They believed the Shanghai Mermaids made the neighborhood safer by attracting a different crowd.
“This first time they showed up, I greeted them at the door,” Campbell remembers. “They were all pretty impressed actually, and kept saying how ‘cool’ it all was. Then one of the officers picked up a drink menu and put it in his pocket. I said, ‘oh man, I must be in trouble now for illegally serving alcohol,’ but the officer just smiled and said that he was bringing it home for his wife to see.”
It hasn’t always been this easy for Campbell, however. She recounts how much the city has changed since she ran away from her home in California and moved here at the turn of the millennium. While many establishments have taken their cues from films like The Great Gatsby and Midnight in Paris, adopting the retro craze by proclaiming their bars to be “speakeasies,” most of these places are legally licensed to sell alcohol.
Campbell’s Shanghai Mermaid, however, is a speakeasy in the truest sense of the word. It has remained unlicensed since its inception.
“I think the term is a bit overused,” she says. “Pop culture has always taken its cues from the underground, and I think we’re all intrigued by things that are hidden and secret.”
Despite the expensive realities of New York City, Campbell still throws Shanghai Parties once a month. Still, a cancellation or closure due to fire codes or other legal entanglements would be financially devastating.
“Nowadays you need investors that are corporate to make everything happen,” she says. “Because I don’t take that route, and spend thousands of dollars on bands, dancers, performers, and staff, I have to be really conservative where I throw the parties.”
In the end, Shanghai Parties are a hit. The crowd always has first timers, and consists of an all-age mix, from those in their 20s to late 60s. Campbell even laughs as she mentions a 70-year-old couple of artists from Dumbo who have been regulars since she first started.
While she recognizes that there isn’t as much freedom anymore for art and the nightlife in her city, the desire for more keeps feeding the experience. Just as poor families in the ‘30s, faced with the Great Depression, would shell out their extra change to see a movie and escape from reality, so too do those today looking to be transported to another time and place.
“I think there is a universal unconscious,” says Campbell. “And I think it’s really important to see that we have a lot of the same struggles now that we had then. The reason why the underground survives is because it’s about people being inspired by something enough to break the rules and make it their reality.”
Looking to attend a Shanghai Mermaid? Join the mailing list on their official site, and keep an eye peeled for the next one, The Dragon Ball, taking place Saturday, Feb 21.