Around midnight, Mark Benecke paces an area roughly 12 feet by 12 feet while 200 pairs of eyes anxiously watch him at a downtown nightclub called Vertigo.
Benecke is the head doorman, and Friday and Saturday nights from 9 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. he is a god, in a manner of speaking. It is up to him to decide who gets beyond the ropes into the club, and who doesn't. If the world is divided into the haves and the have-nots, here it is divided into the ins and the not-ins.
First of Kind in L.A.
Vertigo is the first "New York-style" club in Los Angeles, a euphemism meaning not everyone is allowed to go in, although it's not a private club. At popular New York nightspots like Area and Palladium, patrons take it for granted that doormen will pick or not pick them according to how they look or who they are.
Up until now, all that L.A. clubs demanded was a cover charge. At Vertigo they want more. "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone" is the motto, and selection of the trendiest is left up to Benecke and one other doorman who survey the crowd at Olympic and Grand with steely stares and let down the ropes for the people they want in. Being on the guest list or having a "priority card" helps but doesn't guarantee anything. After that, looks, clothes, the right attitude--and the right shoes--are essential.
Generally, they pick the people wearing the latest fashions first, such as girls in sleeveless turtlenecks and tight skirts, or something way out, such as punk haircuts or thrift shop clothes worn with style. People in black tie seem to get in automatically.
Benecke has the distinction of having been the maitre d' and the doorman off and on for several years at New York's Studio 54, the club that started the whole trend in selective admittance, where in the late '70s Calvin and Brooke and Bianca partied the night away. After 54's original owner, Steve Rubell, was jailed for income-tax evasion, Benecke headed to L.A. to work at La Cage Aux Folles, then went back to 54. In the world of doormen, he's a pro.
"Without trying to sound haughty, I see myself like an artist," he says. "It's kind of like casting a play. Or mixing a salad, in layman's terms. You need the mix of all different types."
On this particular Saturday night when the crowd inside the club is getting up to the 1,100 capacity, Benecke is being choosy. He knows the fire marshals are on their way to check out the crowd and he's got to make sure no riffraff slip by. (The space it occupies two nights a week is actually Myron's Ballroom; ballroom dancing takes place there on Sundays.)
Always Open for the Famous
In another setting the 29-year-old Benecke might look like he's on his way to a Yale class reunion, dressed in a navy blazer, toothpaste white shirt, striped tie, baggy white pants and navy slip-on shoes with no socks. Neatly cropped blond hair and chiseled features add to the look, and his jaw tenses as he scans.
"We've been getting a good number of famous and important people," he says. "George Michael, Boy George, Harry Dean Stanton. . . . I personally admire him greatly."
Other than celebrity superstardom, what does Benecke look for when mixing his salad? "The most important thing for me is personality, how a person comes across. Then you have what I call unusual--people who are interesting, exciting, who don't dress the norm, don't conform to society. Basically, I look for people who are visually interesting, people who have high energy, not people who are just going to hang around upstairs and gawk at everybody."
What if a couple is split--one good-looking, one hopelessly out of fashion? "Yeah," he says, laughing, "that happens. Normally the personality becomes the overriding factor. If they're a nice person they'll get in."
One man Benecke let in earlier didn't seem to fit the mold in his tattered jeans and ratty brown sweater. "Oh, he owns a gallery down the street," he explains.
As it is with night life in Los Angeles, when a club is hot, neither fire marshals, cover charges (here it's $10) nor doormen will keep people away. Ads about Vertigo in the trend-watching Interview magazine and other publications have helped fuel the fire. And though it's been open since Jan. 1, it is now hitting its stride.
"People here are not yet used to this kind of club," Benecke says as a few young men manically snap their fingers and lean over the ropes, vying for his attention. "A lot of trends start here and go to the East Coast, but this is one trend that started out there and came here. I think there was a definite need for a club like this. Most clubs are private, and charge an astronomical amount of money to join. Or you have what I call the hotel-chain discotheque. You know the kind of place I'm talking about?"