Live and Learn: Peter Gatien

The dance-club pioneer on why a mirror ball just doesn't cut it anymore.

I grew up in Cornwall with four brothers. My oldest is a lawyer, the one above me is a doctor, my younger ones were teachers, and we're all a year-and-a-half apart. So I think there was a certain amount of sibling rivalry.

I've got to say, I enjoyed my childhood. There's something to be said about a Tom Sawyerish upbringing.

When I graduated high school, they didn't allow blue jeans. Not long after, they did. All of a sudden there was a vacuum for blue jeans. We had retailers that had been around for 50 years in Cornwall who didn't know the difference between a bell bottom and an elephant pant, so I started with that.

After I opened the jeans store, I bought a dilapidated country and western tavern in Cornwall, transformed it into a rock club over a weekend, and my opening act was Rush, who back then got a thousand bucks a week.

I think my best quality as a youngster was I was just beyond naive. I had the second largest club in America in '76, and going into the project I never once for a second thought, “What happens if this doesn't work?”

It takes a lot more to stimulate people now than it did 30 years ago. There was a period in the '70s where you put up a mirror ball, painted the walls black and you were in business. These days, we have to be much more clever, and much more inclusive.

The '70s were the easiest in that those days were pre-AIDS, pre-herpes, sort of like pre-drug addiction, also.

For me, there are two criteria for doing a club. It has to be in a city that has a large talent pool, where there's art, fashion, music, TV — and there's a lot of culture going on in Toronto right now. The second criterion is having a space that is extremely flexible.

I like creating culture, and I think clubs are an incubator at a grassroots level that sometimes goes unnoticed. I think we're usually ahead of the curve.

As I've progressed in years, I recognize that I need to be surrounded by people that really have an insight into the trends of today. I think I'm pretty good at it, but I also recognize my limitations, given my age.

I think as mayor, Giuliani single-handedly destroyed New York nightlife. His approach was very aggressive. In the '90s, when he went on his campaign to clean up New York City, if there was one face that represented nightlife in the city, it was mine. I think if he was going to make a statement, he had to take me down.

It's really a defining moment in your life when you stand up before a jury and your whole life can be over like that.

I was acquitted after two and a half hours of deliberation from the jury, which was something like the fastest deliberation in 10 years in the federal system. Having said that, it was still a very uncomfortable moment.

I think for the most part that Canadians, at least where I grew up, are much more trusting. Coming out of that whole episode, I saw a vicious side of people that I'd never seen or experienced before — I'm talking about the U.S. government, prosecutors and politicians. It was a rude awakening.

Quite frankly, I'm happy to be out of the States, and I'm happy to be out of New York. I really like Americans, I just think at the political level it's getting progressively worse under this whole George Bush, born-again-Christian-type influence.

I get a lot of gratification from just watching a dance floor and seeing 2,000 smiles, or people throwing their arms up in the air.

People have been dancing for thousands of years, and if you create an environment that's conducive to fun, you can be around for a long time.


Limelight Atlanta was the one that I had sharks swimming under the glass dance floor. One of the panels broke one day, but that's another story …

Andy Warhol hosted our club openings in New York, Chicago and London. He was a really nice man. A little spacey, so to speak, but likable, modest, quiet; he was very much an intellectual. Everywhere he went he always had a camera, and photographed people at will. I'm not talking necessarily celebrities, he just liked photographing people.

In the '80s, the art community were your trendsetters, much more so than the modelling industry and even the actors. The art community was really vibrant and ahead of the curve.

We produced Bronx Tale first as a play. Chazz [Palminteri] had worked for me as an assistant manager. We were friends. He wanted to pursue his acting career and went off to Hollywood. He was still close to a lot of our employees, and I'd heard that he was really struggling out there, so I get a call from Chazz one day saying, “Peter, I've got this wonderful one-man play, can you produce it for me?” I said, “Okay, what's it going to cost?” He had Dan Lauria partnering up, so you know $6,000. In my mind it was sort of like my red-feathered charity for the year, so I sent him $6,000. Two weeks later, I get another call from Chazz — “The play is great. I need another $6,000 to continue it.” So I sent him another $6,000. I got four of those $6,000 calls within a six-week period, which I just sent to him. When it got to the $25,000 mark, I was thinking I've really got to figure out where this is going. So I flew out to L.A., and it was really, really good. From there, I produced it in New York, and that's where De Niro saw it, and he really liked it, and then we made a deal for the movie.

After I beat the feds, I made a deal with the state where I could retain my liquor licences — there was a full court press through the [State Liquor Authority] by the feds to revoke my licence. They finally prevailed. In order to preserve our assets we filed bankruptcy, so that stays everything. It was not a financial decision, it was strictly to preserve the liquor licence scenario. I never filed personal bankruptcy.

For a country that believes supposedly very much in strong family values to deport somebody who has three American kids, an American wife, to split up a family, it's not exactly consistent with what appears to be policy.

I don't think there's anything not to like about the club business.

Peter Gatien
Born Aug. 8, 1952, in Cornwall, Ont.
Club king and movie producer

Loses left eye in hockey accident, and receives a $13,000 insurance payment. Opens up a jeans shop with the money.

Opens a rock club, the Aardvark, in Cornwall, Ont. Follows this with his first Limelight, in Hollywood, Fla., and one in Atlanta.

Creates Limelight New York, the first of four clubs in that city, and then later, spots in Chicago and London.

Arrested on federal drug charges; later acquitted. Pleads guilty to state tax evasion and is deported to Canada in 2003.

Partners with Hingson Entertainment as a club visionary. Their latest club, Circa, opens June 2006 in Toronto.