Is the Gay Big-Room Club Dead?
Nation. Universe. The Probe. Salvation.
All were gay big-room clubs - in Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami Beach, respectively. All are closed, leaving behind nothing but happy, hazy memories of a time when thousands-strong crowds of shirtless party people packed the dance floor. At this point, only a few spots like them - you know, cavernous venues with capacity numbers that require a comma - remain in America. And none are specifically gay, cater to a gay clientele or even have a weekend night dedicated to a gay dance crowd. Which prompts the question: Is the gay big-room club scene dead?
In a word, it seems, yes. But don't mourn it too long. New options are being born to replace it.
"What happened to the rotary telephone? It's gone," said New York promoter Mark Nelson, who produces parties that range from "The F Word" at Splash to taking over the mammoth amusement park Six Flags/Great Adventure in rural New Jersey. His analogy is a good one: While we all still talk to one another on the phone, rotary dials eventually gave way to key pads, then cordless phones and finally mobiles and smart phones. The apparatus is basically the same, but with radical changes. Just as the telephone has evolved into a small jazzy do-everything digital wonder, similarly, so gay men still dance and party - but where and how has changed as drastically as that ancient telephone, with venues adapting to serve a new generation with different demands and desires.
It looks like the big-room dance club scene might be giving way to multifaceted gay entertainment complexes, gigaplexes - without the film screens - packing a number of hospitality options under one roof. Think of them as the multifunctional smart phones of nightlife.
NYC, Vegas & Seattle Lead the Way
Take XL Nightclub in New York. Owned and managed by super-promoter John Blair, who made his name running New York’s legendary Roxy, the club is just one component of The OUT NYC, a gay-oriented "urban resort" boasting a hotel, restaurant, spa and courtyard hangouts. Certainly, the much smaller XL is no match for the Roxy, which on a typical Saturday night during its heyday hosted over 2,500 gay men and their friends (or the ones who could get past the velvet rope).
But there may be hope for the big room yet - and where else but in Las Vegas, where everything is oversized? In July, Krave Entertainment announced plans to transform an 80,000-square-foot space into Krave Massive, the world’s largest gay nightclub. It will join another Krave-owned business in the same building, "Drink and Drag" (a drag queen-themed bar and bowling alley), and a third venue, a 20,000-square-foot pool and cabana space, is also on the drawing board. If it follows the ambitious plan, the combined result would become America’s gay entertainment Mecca.
What makes it a minitrend, however, are just-announced plans for a massive gay nightclub being planned in Seattle. Q will be housed in a former garage, with the space divided into two sections: a southern hall and the central dance space and bars on the north end. The principals are Andy Rampi and Scott Smith. Smith was a partner in Blair’s original XL, a large bar in Manhattan.
The Big-Room Appeal
Why are such subdivided spaces replacing traditional big gay-room clubs? Two reasons: cultural shifts and commercial shifts.
The appeal of the big-room club was always the sense of escapism it provides. Back in his early club days, "I was just a little blond boy," Nelson said. "You’d step into a club and do a hit of ecstasy, and you thought you were in Alice in Wonderland."
For gay men who came of age in the 1970s wanted to be among their own kind to battle what was still a hostile environment. Gay dance clubs represented "safe spaces" where they could be as free, outgoing and sexual as they wanted. The big rooms allowed for interpersonal connection within the community yet also granted liberating anonymity in the torso-baring crowds.
In the 1980s, the nightclub that most people - both gay and straight - embraced was the gay big room. The Saint was built in former rock palace the Fillmore East in Manhattan’s East Village. It was a members-only club, although members could bring approved guests. Even now, it’s mammoth, carefully designed sound system is considered state-of-the- art. The dance floor was mounted on a hydraulic system that "moved" along with the sway of the dancers. And it was open just one night a week, Saturday, when it would go for up to 18 hours. It’s hard to imagine nearly 3,000 men having a weekly marathon dance "journey."
A Change in Dance Culture
Younger gay men today face coming-out issues today, but in a more affirming environment. They’re growing up with gay marriage. They see positive representation in film and television. Their sexuality is increasingly a nonissue to their friends and parents. They’re coming out earlier and are more comfortable in mixed company. There’s less of a demand to party with a couple of thousand of men who look like them.
Twenty - and thirtysomething gay men aren’t going to clubs to "establish their identity as gay men," said Stephen Pevner, head of Saint At Large and producer of New York’s annual "Black Party". "They’re out by 13. They’re not looking to the Saint or Roxy to affirm tribal heritage."
"Gay clubs were once a safe haven," but today’s twentysomethings "don’t give a shit if a place is ’gay’ or not," Nelson said. "Is it a cool place? And yeah, they want the girls in there, too." Besides, he said, you can’t miss what you didn’t have. The 750-capacity XL is a far cry from, say, 3,000-plus partiers who packed the Saint in the 1980s, but to those born in the ’80s, 750 people seems like a big-room experience.
At the same time, electronic dance music, a genre for which the gay club scene has shown constant, unifying affection, has finally permeated mainstream America.
"It used to be that the only place to hear that kind of music was gay dance parties," said Jeffrey Sanker, the successful mastermind behind countless parties, like his annual White Party Palm Springs. "But it’s crossed over, and people will go to hear quarter-million dollar DJs that we don’t get, because our scene is smaller than that."
From Circuit Parties & Raves...
For the younger set, Circuit parties, the periodic special events that bring in people regionally or from all over the country or even world, have essentially replaced the ongoing big-room nights. And then there are straight but definitely gay-friendly raves. Even previously rock-focused concerts like "Coachella" are increasingly incorporating electronica. The massive Circuit parties are facing competition from EDM-specific festivals like "Electric Daisy Carnival" and "Electric Zoo", which garner huge gay attendance. Today, the mix goes both ways: Sanker and Pevner are integrating mainstream DJs into their parties.
Big-room venues need new blood to survive. Those crowds don’t go out as often. When they do, they call it an early night, enjoying a few drinks rather than popping pills that inspire all-nighters. People are worried about being fresh when they face their officemates at 9 a.m. Monday (if they even have a job in this scary economy).
...To the Online Revolution.
Veteran gay DJ and producer Tony Moran doesn’t think the big-room scene is dead but sees it surviving in cities overseas. He does acknowledge that - in the U.S., anyway - things are changing. Fewer people go out; by now, it’s widely acknowledged that the Internet - especially hookup sites and mobile apps like Grindr - make it temptingly easy to accomplish the kind of pickups that used to be done in person online. Plus, it’s cheaper. In a tough economy, younger party people can do the majority of their flirting online, then sort through the massive special events and choose one or two over the course of a year on which to drop big bucks. They’re less willing to pay large sums on the nightclub scene every week.
In big centers like New York and Miami’s South Beach, meanwhile, real estate has become so costly that the economics of a massive nightclub are problematic when office space or luxury condos could bring in far more income with less hassle. The ones still around are charging higher prices. Between $15 drinks and $25 taxi rides, a night out gets expensive for a struggling young person, Pevner pointed out. Club owners are having trouble constructing a sustainable business model for investors. The few big rooms left in space-starved Manhattan come with huge price tags. Capitale, a former bank in Chinatown, charges promoters upward of $50,000 just to turn the key, let alone bring in sound and lights. It’s becoming more difficult to pass those costs on to attendees.
It’s worth considering, however, that the niche-oriented Internet, where you can filter friends by type (bears, twinks and even more specific demographics) are further compartmentalizing our community. Hence, complexes like the forthcoming Krave Massive, with plans for five themed dance rooms, three bars, VIP lounge, comedy club, live performance space and a movie theater, could actually be all things to all people - or close to it.
That approach just might work, according to Moran. "Maybe on a Wednesday night, if someone wants to just do a Latin night, they don’t need to use a whole room," he said. "That’s intelligent, when promoters can’t support a party in a whole cavernous space."
We will likely see more venues move in this direction, said Sanker, adding that otherwise, the big-room experience will be relegated mainly to off-nights in mainstream clubs.
Though big rooms may be dying, that’s not necessarily inherently bad. After all, club culture by its nature, is in a continual state of change. "In the ’50s and ’60s, people went to the Copacabana in tuxedos and limos," chuckles Moran. "It came and it went. It was a great time, for it’s time. But things change."