Through the 1980s and 1990s, Peter Gatien was the man behind four major clubs in New York City: The Limelight, The Palladium, Club USA and the Tunnel. Celebrities including Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Jay Z and Mick Jagger performed or appeared at some of these establishments. Mr. Gatien was one of the most talked about club owners at that time, receiving ongoing coverage from a variety of New York media outlets.
Through it all, Gatien battled legal problems. Most notably, perhaps, was a trial in which he was found not guilty of being aware drug use was taking place in his clubs yet and doing nothing about it. That case was brought against him by the federal government of the United States. Later on, Mr. Gatien was deported from the U.S.
Peter currently lives in Canada, the country of his birth. He had spent decades living in the United States of America. His life story is profiled in an upcoming documentary out this weekend, in theaters across the country, titled Limelight.
Listening to Peter Gatien’s entire CYInterview will help give the broadest understanding of his life story. You can find the link to the audio below, as well as excerpts of our conversation.
Listen to the entire Peter Gatien interview:
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Peter starts off by telling me he doesn’t dwell on what his life would’ve been like had he not faced any legal issues or been deported, for example:
“I don’t dwell on how it would’ve been different, whatever. I do feel strongly though had there not been this Giuliani campaign on quality of life, etc., etc. that Limelight or any nightclub as far as that goes, as long as you’re willing to put in the energy into it, you can last as many years as you’re driven to do…Every night has to be approached like it’s a Broadway production.”
As far as what he’s up to today, Mr. Gatien says he’s working on a TV series based on his life experiences:
“It takes place in the 90s, New York. It’s a New York story, nightlife story. I really feel that in a series based in the nightlife, you can really take on a lot of political issues, lot of gay, straight, racial issues, war on drug issues. I want to have like a Mayor like a Giuliani type thing where he really feels his world is holier-than thou and the nightlife world is basically staffed by degenerates and whatever and the nightclub world is in the end much more honorable than the political world.”
As far as his thoughts on America today, and if government and the media spend too much time focusing on personal matters compared to more serious issues, Peter responds by first noting that the judicial system in this country needs big reform:
“There’s a lot of things I love about America and I truly miss being there, but having said that, I think the judicial system in America is, needs serious reform. Prosecutors in America all want to be Giuliani some day and they have such wide discretion on who they indict and who they go after, whatever. Naturally if you go after a high profile target, i.e. me or Martha Stewart or whatever, the career making cases. The feds win 99 percent of the cases only because the system is so stacked in their favor…It’s a really frightening experience to have to go up against the U.S. Government. I think many other countries including Canada, the system’s not set up that way, the prosecutors don’t make the careers.”
Peter gives us a further reflection on America and where he thinks the country has gone:
“When I moved to the United States in the 70s and left in the 2000s, America is not the same country it was. I think it’s taken a really unfortunate turn to the right. I think everything from politics to whatever is so money dominated these days. And not only New York, the whole country’s gone through corporatization where I still have a lot of friends in New York. Most of them don’t live in Manhattan anymore. Very few people in the creative community can afford the real estate prices, the boom. It’s terrific for your money class, but I really believe New York has lost a lot of its soul in the last ten years and I personally think Giuliani almost single handedly destroyed the unique fabric that New York City was for so many years and New York’s no longer a destination spot.”
I wondered if Peter ever thought he could face legal exposure for other individuals doing drugs in his clubs. He says he never thought about it. He speaks about the case, in which he was acquitted of all charges:
“I never went to bed once thinking, ‘ Hey Peter! You better straighten out your act because you could end up in jail for a long time.’ The fact of the matter is, again, this is Rupert Murdoch and the NY Post and Fox News or whatever, I was acquitted in three hours ok, in Federal [Court]. The feds win 99 percent of the case and yes I had a terrific lawyer and I owe my freedom to him, but at the same token, as good as he is, the theory of the case was just total nonsense. It was never alleged that I profited in drugs or anything like that. It was alleged that I allowed it to go on, therefore I was guilty. And here’s the kicker, ok, and like people really don’t wrap their minds around this.
For all the ballyhoo that Giuliani cleaning up the city, whatever, whatever, ecstasy was not illegal in New York State until 1998. I was indicted in 1996, which means not one police officer of Giuliani’s, not one prosecutor of Giuliani’s ever prosecuted anybody for ecstasy in the period that I operated clubs…It was more illegal to light a cigarette in a nonsmoking section of a restaurant. You could get in more trouble than you would if you were caught by the cops with ecstasy…To expect that my clubs would be an oasis where no drug activity would be tolerated, meanwhile if you wanted drugs in New York City in the 90s, best place was Washington Square Park. I remember David Lee Roth leaving the Limelight one night. He couldn’t find any drugs, went to Washington Square Park and came back…It turned my life upside down and I was forever tainted as my clubs being these drug markets, etc., etc., which was complete horseshit.”
Looking back at his favorite memories, from celebrities to what he got the most gratification out of as one of New York’s biggest club owners, Mr. Gatien reflects:
“Having Mick Jagger’s 40th birthday party at my club when I’m a small town Canadian kid was very gratifying. But I got to tell you, the most gratifying thing to me was standing obscurely on the balcony watching 1500, 2000 people ear to ear smiles, arms going up in the air, you know, having the time of their life…I get gratification from people exchanging phone numbers at the end of the night and sort of snickering at yourself, you know, God, how many people am I responsible for getting laid tonight?…Shirley MacLaine’s 50th birthday party to William Burroughs party. So the 80s sort of had their thing and the 90s had their spectacular nights, but I got more gratification in the simplistic things than the hobnobbing with celebrities and that kind of stuff.”
Reviewing his successes, I pointed out to Peter that I believe his ability to bring a diverse group of people together – from all ethnic backgrounds, tastes and lifestyles – was the key to his success. By the end of the night as he confides to me, art gallery guys, rock n’ roll people, brokerage community individuals and gay people would be talking to each other and having a good night. Gatien didn’t limit the diversity of patrons who could end up in his clubs:
“Absolutely! In the end, your club can be gilded in gold, but it’s really the crowd that you draw that makes you an institution. Every detail was like really addressed from the font on the invite to the music to the art department…I didn’t have a staff of bleach blonde girls with 42 inch boobs or whatever. All of our staff came as much as possible from the creative community…We always had like two or three or four different dance floors in the same place…The crowd ended up entertaining each other…Today, I think the clubs are so focused on bottle service and the profile of a customer they go after is a Paris Hilton lookalike or a Kardashian lookalike where in our day and I sound like a grandfather here, but in our day you had a lot better chance of getting in the club as a person in sequins or a longhaired musician.”
Looking at the club scene today, with some establishments paying thousands of dollars in appearance fees to the likes of Snooki, Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton, Peter explains the thinking behind that and agrees with my thoughts that it’s bad business and as he says, “crazy:”
“It’s actually crazy. It’s sort of immediate gratification and it’s, like listen, I use to tell my staff intrusively, we’re here for one reason only and that is to create culture ok?…With music, we were always well ahead of the curve as far as music. What fun is there in going to a place where you gotta pop for $600 or you’re a nobody, everybody looks the same. There’s really not a music driven night unless you’re hiring a $50,000 DJ. It’s disappointing or depressing however you want to say it.”
As far as what Peter Gatien wants people to take away from his story, the famous New York club owner from the 80s and 90s shares these thoughts:
“I’d like people to really understand how you know, how special era that was in New York City and how actually New York was probably the prime destination for incredibly fun nightlife in the 90s and the culture that we created in music, art, fashion, everything else that is so important to society. I think some of that is longed again or should happen again in America. “
The documentary Limelight comes to theaters September 23rd. You can find more information about the movie here.
You can email Chris Yandek at ChrisYandek@CYInterview.com