The Clubs That Defined the City - Discovery NYC Week

By Mark Falanga

Things change, plain and simple. No place on earth better embodies that saying than New York City, given its beginning as a tiny Dutch colony to the truly modern, center of global commerce we know and love today. New York continues to evolve, whether it be in the naming of neighborhoods (it’s not Hell’s Kitchen anymore, it’s Clinton), to the stores that move in to other neighborhoods (watch the transformation of a store in Harlem over three decades).

With all of these changes, it’s no wonder that New York has earned the title “The City That Never Sleeps.” Though the city often appears animated in and of itself, it’s really the millions of residents keeping the flow of traffic ever-prevalent, that make the city alive. A dizzying amount of nightclubs and after hours clubs that offer entertainment no matter what time of night ensure that there is always fun to be had for a price. But even these clubs, like the city itself, have changed over the years.

The first nightclub that truly made its mark in New York was the Latin Quarter, located at 1580 Broadway. The club was opened by Lou Walters, father of journalist Barbara Walters, in 1942. Walters attracted big names like Frank Sinatra, Frankie Lane, and the Andrews Sisters. The act would then close with chorus girls and risqué can-can dancers, The club remained popular until Walters retired in 1952. Without the pull that Walters brought to the table, the new owners relied less on big name talent and more on showgirls. As this happened, the image of club changed from a “place to be seen” to a place that was rather seedy, even in its advertisements.

New Yorkers quickly changed their nightclub allegiance to one that would remain the most popular nightclub in the city for 30 years, the Copacabana. It opened in 1940, on 10 East 60th Street. What separated it from other clubs at the time was that it offered the clientele not only big name singers and beautiful dancers, but also comedians, such as Jimmy Durante perform. It offered something for every taste.

Speaking of taste, the Copa was also world renowned for its food service. The quality of the food served ranked on par with the top restaurants that New York City had to offer (and that’s saying something).

“The Copacabana was simply the nicest club in New York,” said Lorraine Falanga, a former New York City resident and patron of the nightclub (and also my grandmother.) She explained to me that after her high school prom, her friends made reservations at the club for a night on the town. “The club was ornately decorated and service was top notch. We even saw the club act, Italian singer Sergio Franchi.”

As the years went on, the Copa eventually failed to adapt to changing tastes of the nightclub scene. As the 1970s approached, there would only be one nightclub that New York City would be known for.

Arguably, the most famous nightclub in the world of the era was Studio 54, located at 254 West 54th Street. In 1976, two college friends, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, seeking to develop a nightclub in midtown Manhattan, took a property formerly owned by CBS Television and transformed it into the “it” place to be during the disco era. Celebrities such as Andy Warhol, Diana Ross, Richard Gere, and even star athlete Reggie Jackson could be seen among the crowd.

What made this so successful was how the partners worked together. Schrager took a business approach to the party atmosphere, in setting up all of the details then leaving once the guests came. On the other hand, Rubell was the ringmaster, serving as doorman during the evening and even deciding which guests would be admitted. He also planned the purely hedonistic environment in a purely “almost anything goes” lifestyle.

The party could not last forever, as both Rubell and Schrager were found guilty of tax evasion and sent to prison in 1979, having served 13 months of a three and a half year sentence. The club was sold two years later in 1981. It has undergone many incarnations since, but it is still open to the public…just not as a nightclub. The Roundabout Theatre Company now owns the building and continues to perform various plays at the once mighty Mecca of partying.

Once disco died in the early 1980s, Peter Gatien a Canadian businessman who owned several nightclubs in the southern United States, tried his hand at opening a club in New York City. The building he chose for the club was the former Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion; a building built in 1844 and located on Avenue of the Americas at West 20th Street. The nightclub was an immediate success as a dance club as Gatien was crowned the king of the night scene in New York.

limelight marketplaceInside what remains of The Limelight. Since closing its doors in 2007, the once infamous Manhattan nightclub transformed into Limelight Marketplace. Photo by Matt Hurst.

Unfortunately, the music scene wasn’t the only reason that young people were flocking to Limelight.  Recreational drug use was rampant on the dance floor.  This all came to a head when Gatien’s party promoter, Michael Alig, murdered a drug dealing regular. After this, frequent drug raids by Mayor Rudy Giuliani left Gatien up to his eyeballs in legal fees, until 2007, when it closed its doors for good. Today, the building still stands but the atmosphere on the inside is completely different. It has been renovated into a family friendly marketplace, featuring shops that sell clothing, jewelry, art, and even food, completely transforming the former drug–infused dancing haven.

With time, like anything else, the nightclub landscape of New York City changes, and the way in which events are planned evolve. Dozens of new places have popped up in the past few decades, dissipating any club’s monopoly on the “it” crowd, but despite the lack of one concentrated locale to visit, there are almost too many cool places to go, ensuring that there will always be a drink to be had. As Simone De Beauvoir once said, “There is something in the New York air that makes sleep useless.”