Everyone’s life story includes their nightlife stories. Nights out are stuck in our memories, and excerpts are released to friends over dinner, or anecdotes are told to people we’ve just met to find common ground. If you didn’t witness the excessive spectacles of New York City’s “golden era” of nightlife in the early 1990s, or if you never had a chance encounter with Jack Nicholson at Los Angeles’s Spider Club or danced while Tiësto D.J.’d at the Avalon Hollywood, you’ll probably listen to these stories with amazement, like Charlie Bucket touring Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
In those stories, I played Willy Wonka. In the 1990s, at age 30, I was the director of New York City’s five largest nightclubs: the Roxy, Tunnel, Limelight, Palladium, and Club USA. Within another 10 years, I’d opened six venues in Boston. In the early 2000s, during the heyday of Los Angeles nightlife, I owned two of Hollywood’s most popular clubs, the Avalon and Spider Club.
My nightlife story began far earlier. It started in childhood, watching I Love Lucy. With each episode, I couldn’t wait for the action to move to Lucy’s husband, Ricky Ricardo, who worked at the Tropicana club.The joint’s singer and guitarist, and later manager, Ricky became my idol. When adults asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “Ricky Ricardo.”
Let’s be clear, creating a world of pure imagination for savvy, often jaded nightlifers is not a task for the faint of heart. There are a lot of Veruca Salts out there. Running a nightclub involves constant negotiations, bizarre encounters, and interactions with people who are drunk, sexually frustrated, narcissistic, depressed, euphoric, and just about every other human condition you can think of. As such, things don’t always go as planned.
I’ve been removed from my own club by both Bob Dylan, and a week later by Alanis Morisette, for “wandering eyes,” which drew the ire of Snoop Dogg when he discovered what had transpired. At Limelight in 1992, I abandoned my 86-year-old nana on the dance floor, then frantically returned to find her hanging out with Michael Alig, a club kid who was later convicted of murder, and his minions.
Depending on whom you talk to, you’ll hear that I was either a nightlife rookie (maybe from some Hollywood insider who remembers that I mistakenly snubbed producer Brian Grazer when he coveted a V.I.P. membership to Spider Club) or a nightlife boss (from those who saw me accept, without hesitation, a karaoke challenge from Korea’s notorious Minh brothers, mafia-style boys who set a Miss Singapore Contest in a brothel.
The world of the night, where I have now lived for more than three decades, is unlike any other world. It’s a nocturnal laboratory, a transcendent gathering place where people can become whoever they want to be. In nightclubs, we are free from the restrictions and limits of daytime responsibilities, not bound by our incomes, sexualities, race, or political beliefs. It’s the ultimate escape, like a golden ticket to forget about our worries, fears, and problems for a few short hours.
All stories have a takeaway. Mine is this: No one looks back on their life and remembers the nights they got too much sleep.
Steve Adelman’s Nocturnal Admissions: Behind the Scenes at Tunnel, Limelight, Avalon, and Other Legendary Nightclubs is out now from Santa Monica Press