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."