Limelight exposes the ’90s club scene through a journey of New York’s sex, drugs and rock-and-roll lifestyle. Peter Gatien was one of its curators.

Nowadays when we think of glamorous nightclubs we tend to associate high-end goods and service with tanned skin and dolled up socialites. Unfortunately, the taste of the candy has strayed from its roots and in turn a bevy of under sophisticated scenesters participate in a volatile courtship that is arguably anything but celebratory. Although flocks of crowds continue to flood stadium venues and intimate lounge-esque bars, the overall lure of attractive, upscale club-meets -party-life is fading, perhaps nearly extinct. Now, this observation is of course being measured in relation to the past, particularly those must-hit clubs that thrived the scene 15 years ago.

Enter Peter Gatien – the young maverick from Cornwall, Ontario who eventually ended up being the biggest commodity, or shall we say, running some of the biggest commodities New York City had ever seen. You may be aware of the famed Studio 54 (if not Ryan Phillippe will surely guide you through that rendezvous), but chances are you associate notoriety to the club as one of the most well known venues to ever grace Manhattan streets. Key to note is the longevity of Studio 54 was short lived. Peter Gatien on the other hand ran Limelight – the alternative to Studio 54 – for 17 years. 17 years. Limelight may have been Gatien’s biggest tagged venue, but The Palladium, Tunnel and Club USA were also part of the champ’s supremacy in New York’s late night scene.

Palladium Balcony

Club USA

“That is unprecedented in any city in the world, the lifespan of a night club was generally only 2 to 3 years. Not to mention Peter had four clubs in New York with the smallest venue housing 2500 people,” states Billy Corben (Cocaine Cowboys), the director behind the new film Limelight. The documentary shows the rise and demise of the iconic club and a peek into the life of the well-known club entrepreneur himself, Peter Gatien. “There are a lot of different perspectives in the film. You see memories afflicted by the passage of time, drugs, ego, their own interpretation of other media etc. You’ll notice that the Staten Island kids, the club kids, the hip-hop kids all make their way into the film,” Corben explains.

Also covered in the film is Gatien’s controversial extradition from the United States by then Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Oh, and don’t forget about the murder conviction of Limelight’s party promoter, Michael Alig. “If you were to tour Manhattan in the nineties you visited key places, landmarks like the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and Limelight – that was the standard tour of Manhattan in that time period,” Corben furthers.

The film explores Limelight’s backstory; the beginnings, shortcomings and unfortunate turn of events that led to the closing of its doors in the mid-nineties.

What’s better than a film that shows partiers of today what was ‘cool’ and oozed status while also representing those people orchestrating that famed scene? It’s about time that’s for darn sure.

While talking with Peter I couldn’t help but connect with his visions, particularly how he saw art as one of the most instrumental components in creating an atmosphere within a club.

“We are here to produce culture, music, fashion, art and that’s what it’s all about. I can remember (Jean Paul) Gaultier coming to the clubs to get inspired by the kids; to see how the kids put their clothes together. You’d see those same styles in next season’s line. Nowadays it’s about who can come to a place and buy five bottles and get trashed, those kinds of people would be lucky to get into the clubs in the nineties. It wasn’t about that in the nineties,” says Gatien.

So what prompted Gatien to get into the industry in the first place and how did a small town boy succeed in clubland? Did he have some swanky degree or elite connections? Was he a diehard music fan who felt the need to invest?

“I looked at it as more of a vehicle if I didn’t have a college degree, I could still succeed you know. Growing up in Cornwall you became a lawyer,  a doctor or an accountant or you dug ditches, those were your occupations. Not that I was bad in school or anything, but I wasn’t my brothers (one being a doctor and the other a lawyer). I think a lot of it was to compete with them.”

At the age of 19 Gatien bought the local watering hole, the Lafayette House. “I remember walking in on the first day and seeing six or seven customers passed out, I was scared shitless because I’m 19 right? But with the help of some friends we managed to get people out. I remember my first big act was Rush. At that time they were up-and-coming and cost $1000. For the first year and a half it was a rock-and-roll club and then disco started making noise – then it was about DJs.”

But like any 19-year-old would, Gatien became a bit overwhelmed after realizing his cheques were starting to bounce. “I learned at a very young age that you can’t be part of the party, your staff has to be inspired by you, they have to respect you, you can’t be half in the bag dictating. You are in the service industry and that’s what you are there to do so I never and I use that word NEVER drank or partied in any of my clubs from then on.” Soon Gatien was ready to move up and out of Cornwall and after picking up a copy of the New York Times, Gatien noticed an opening he couldn’t overlook.

“I saw an ad for a venue that had a $600,000 light system, $400,000 sound system, capacity of 2000 people – any smart person would look at this and be on it. And with that I was on the next plane to make a deal.”

Gatien came back to Canada and hooked up with a guy from Montreal and was able to get some government help to push the venture and the rest is history. Some of the biggest names in music got their start at Limelight. Acts like Billy Idol, Pearl Jam and Moby are among the list of top grade talent that helped make Limelight the epitome of club culture.

Moby even appears in the film, explaining how Gatien was the man who broke him into the music industry. Gatien became synonymous with nightlife in New York, photographed and swooned over, but if he had it his way he would’ve been sitting in an office having no exposure. “If you went out in the ’90s and wanted to dance you were coming to one of my places, I was the face of clubs,” he states. Being the ‘face of clubs’ and all that goes with them (drugs, violence etc.) is a double edge sword because if officials are looking to blame someone chances are it’s going to be that guy who has “drugs being sold” in the club. Whatever the case may be, Gatien was pegged and soon faced criminal charges, ultimately sending him back to Canada and Limelight was shut down.

“30 years of my career and life were in New York.“

When Gatien arrived back to Canada he was depressed as hell, but then there was Circa, which became a staple in Toronto’s go-to club market.

“I was really proud of it, of its design and the kid robot for example, the display cases in the entrance and all the art touches, it was a smartly designed club and it was successful when I was running it. Then there were too many side shows and they looked at the art department as a waste of money and time. I mean just because you have comfortable chairs doesn’t make your place exciting – you have to bring it to the next level and to be honest I just got tired of fighting.”

Circa filed for bankruptcy and officially closed its doors in 2010.

After speaking with Gatien and sincerely bonding with the man (especially because we have some significant past ties), I couldn’t help but try and convince him to get back into the scene and make Toronto better; to bring back meticulous refinement and weed out the gutter garbage and low class promoters who care more about how many times they can say “I’m so high” as opposed to providing a service.

Although my ambitious eyes may not have convinced him to do the club scene he did explain that getting into hotels interested him. Gatien also dropped a hint that he is working on a TV series that will feature a big time “entertainer.” Oh Gatien you tickle my heart. One thing is certain, Peter Gatien continues to hold that strong and fascinating personality that is lacking in many of the minds of those running the show today.

“There’s a great gratification to stand on the balcony and watch people smiling. People would come up to me and say I met my wife here, the respect I received from the industry and from peers. There was a lot of consolation from all that.”

Limelight was a hit at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival and was acquired by VSC Magnolia Pictures at its Tribeca Film Festival debut.

Limelight opens in Canada and the U.S. on September 23rd, 2011. -KK
*photos courtesy of GAT PR