Tuesday, October 27, 2020. Yesterday was a chilly autumn Monday in New York, in the upper 50s and grey with some rain but mainly heavy misting. The traffic was very heavy with double parked cars and trucks seemingly everywhere. And in certain parts of Manhattan where Voting has begun, there were lines literally all around the blocks, of people waiting to cast their vote.
A New York Story. Nightlife in New York got started a century ago at the dawn of the 1920s and with Prohibition — a constitutional ban of the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages. There had never been a “nightlife” comparable in the city before that time. It had been a long time coming (maybe another century before). The prosperity and the new technologies — electricity, telephone, the radio — brought the changes in social life.
The result back then was what they called the “speakeasy.” Its name was in reference to how you got into an unmarked nightclub/bar that served booze. You had to identify yourself to an inquirer at the door. “Harry sent me…” (speak easy; get it?). Booze was the allure but there were shows, chorus girls, comics, singers, and the stuff. East 52nd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues had a “speak” behind every door of every brownstone building. Not a few of them also had a business on the second floor: girls. Incidentally, the Vanderbilts lived on both of the Fifth Avenue corners, so it wasn’t exactly a rundown neighborhood; marketing in place.
That lasted until 1933 when the Prohibition laws were revoked. But by that time, the speakeasy had become the night club. Many famous American performers got their start in the better clubs which had better everything (including the girls upstairs in some). By that time these clubs were famous across America and even some of their proprietors became famous including Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan, a little girl from Waco, Texas who moved to New York when she was old enough, with stars in her eyes. She became famous in a nightclub owned by a man named Owney Madden, a/k/a among pals as “The Killer.” She was known as “Texas Guinan” and she played the hostess who called out to her clientele: “Hello Sucker! Leave your wallet on the bar!” And they loved her for it. Nightlife had changed.
Nightlife had changed New York in the eyes of the world. After Prohibition was withdrawn, many of the nightclubs opened their doors as legit businesses and the era of Show Business took over. Owney Madden, incidentally, retired after Prohibition and moved to Arkansas where he settled for the rest of his life. Among the friends he made in Arkansas was a local lady whose son later became the President of the United States, and for a few minutes there she became as famous as Owney Madden. For different reasons.
The nightclub era in New York continued from the mid-1930s into the mid-1960s and the rise of the discotheques. Everyone was dancing. In 1977 Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager opened the ultimate club disco in an old Broadway theater on West 54th Street. It was the hottest. Then it was shut down three years later. Drugs. Typical; everyone was doing them (and drinking). It was revived after the departure of the founders, but it was never the same. Nor was the nightlife what it had been.
Then in the 1980s, a young man from a small town in Canada, Peter Gatien came to New York with the intention of getting into the club business. He opened a club called The Limelight in an old Episcopal church on 20th Street and 6th Avenue. The area at that time was a former hub of commerce and business before it moved uptown. The Limelight was a huge success because it was also theatre. Its promotions invited its clientele to play the part in a visceral experience. The clientele becomes the player.“
A week ago, we ran an item about a “virtual” book launch of In the Limelight; The Visual Ecstasy of NYC Nightlife in the 90s. It is not only an entertainment and reverie but also a brilliant document of a time — in this country — that has noticeably passed. It is a photographic record made by Steve Eichner who was there, with his camera, a young guy from Long Beach, New York, looking to become a photographer, and had an idea.
This is his story about New York at the end of the 20th century, wrapping up a time we call nightlife, and it’s all fabulous photographs; captivating and compelling — even if you’re not interested. You will be because Eichner had the youth, the drive and the eye to show you exactly what it was, what was going on and how it all came to be. It’s a masterpiece of photography and also a curious look at the inside of people’s lives.
“Tunnel, the Limelight, Club USA, the Roxy; New York City nightlife in the early 1990s was a hot and visceral experience. Behind the scenes Steve Eichner was documenting it all.”
Here’s a sneak peek. It’s a treasure and a time capsule. Buy the book.