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Taking Back the Night

A club industry convention debuts with sober discussions, wild partying and calls for a new dawn for Gotham's after-dark culture

October 02, 2002|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Old New York's professional night crawlers threw a gargantuan retro-decadent party in the East Village on Monday night to toast the city's mythic nocturnal life and introduce ClubNation, the first national convention of the nightclub industry.

The glory days of New York City nightclubbing were re-created at Webster Hall, a cavernous, 5,000-capacity space that was the scene of some of the wildest alternative parties 100 years ago--and that this week has served as the site for ClubNation's "four-day-and-night bender" of panel discussions, exhibits, talent showcases and parties.

Kicked off on Sunday afternoon and attracting an estimated 5,000 clubland professionals from around the nation, the convention has lived up to its "unconventional" billing. While Rob Bookman, an attorney for the New York Nightlife Assn., and Tim Santamour, a prominent nightlife activist, seriously discussed their frustrations with city leaders during a panel on "Nightclubs and the Law," vendors showed off their goods in an exhibit hall that also featured a DJ and go-go dancers. Some companies set up typical booths, such as the Wedge, from Boston, which sells lemon slicers for bars, but others had more fun. Alize offered free body-painting and served up its flavored-cognac drinks from a Hawaiian-style bar. Although no Los Angeles nightclubs were represented on the panels, other West Coast venues, such as DNA Lounge in San Francisco and Ra in Las Vegas, showcased their dancers and DJs. The convention ends tonight with another big bash that includes the Golden Turntable DJ awards, which organizers are calling "The Academy Awards of Dance Music."

Monday night's Bartenders Ball, the highlight of the convention's nightly events, was rife with revelers and denizens dressed in the elaborate costumes of nightlife heydays. Mixed in with a small but noticeable vanilla Wall Street crowd and other straight-up club industry types were saloon prostitutes and lounge lizards; club gangsters and club kids; drag queens in bridal wear or Cher wear; and fetish-inspired men, women and all genders in between.

"Since [former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's] regime, it's been very hard for the nightclubs and entertainers to survive, but this crowd is really doing a lot to keep nightlife alive in this city, and they're making it OK for alternative people, creative people and freaky people to come out and have fun again," said a graphic artist and belly dancer who goes by "Miss Webb" and was dressed like a corseted Bowery hooker. "I really applaud them for fighting to keep a safe haven where people can express themselves."

Organizers of ClubNation are hoping it becomes an annual forum. Monday night's bash, they declared, reinforced their position that valuable social trends are started in nightclubs, and that city leaders should view their establishments as big business.

"It's a critical time for New York," said Chi Chi Valenti, a 20-year veteran of the scene and the ball's co-producer and mistress of ceremonies. "This is an ultraconservative time. The gentrification of the entire city is the biggest single thing. I think we have more important things to do in America this year than to keep going after the nightclubs, and I think ClubNation is going to make a really good point of that. It's a bad time for clubs, but if you look around you, there are still plenty of people wanting to go out and express themselves."

People like the stunning and statuesque Rose Wood, who restores antiques by day and is a burlesque and strip-tease dancer by night. Dressed in a rhinestone-encrusted, semi-sheer Middle Eastern harlot costume, Wood said the efforts of leaders to turn the city into another Disney World undermines the creative spark it is renowned for.

"New York has represented one of the pinnacles of nightlife for the world, and the attempts by the former mayor to suppress this source of cultural rejuvenation is altogether wrong," she said. "I love this party. I know a lot of the people. I love how everybody is dressed. It's a place where you can express yourself freely."

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Nightlife Dynasties

The Bartender's Ball was produced by three of the city's old-school dynasties: Jackie 60, named after a club where Valenti manned the door; fashion designer Patricia Field, who has been dressing clubgoers for two decades but is best known today for costuming "Sex and the City"; and Susanne Bartsch, of early 1990s Copacabana nightclub fame.

While hip-hop, reggae, and dance music thumped in two of Webster Hall's smaller lounges, the two-story main ballroom, with a VIP area hosted by Heineken, was the venue for the historic annual ball, which invites bartenders from all over the city to come out from behind their bars and be served for a change.

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