‘Limelight’: the collapse of a New York nightlife empire

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Billy Corben’s 2011 documentary, “Limelight,” is available on DVD via Magnolia Home Entertainment, and it proves to be as gripping as any fictional film.

Corben traces the history of Canadian nightclub operator Peter Gatien who came to New York City in the 1980s and quickly became one of the most important figures in the post-Studio 54 scene.

Gatien ran the Tunnel, the Paladium, Club USA and one of the dominant clubs of the era, The Limelight, which was in a deconsecrated church on Sixth Avenue.

The entrepreneur lost an eye when he was young and for many years sported an eyepatch that gave him either a stylish or sinister appearance, depending on your attitude toward nightclub owners.

During his rise, Gatien’s looks were probably an asset — he seemed to represent the slight danger people have always looked for in New York after dark. But when the club operator became the target of city and federal drug investigations in his places of business, the eyepatch made the man’s alleged connections to the drug underworld seem likely to the readers of the tabloid newspapers that covered the endless investigations and trials.

To Billy Corben’s credit, “Limelight” isn’t just Gatien’s story. The movie is about the changing pop culture scene of the last 30 years — particularly, the shift in club music from disco to electronica to hip hop — and the drug culture that went along with the transitions.

Cocaine was the dominant drug of the disco era, with the cost of the drug limiting its use to glitzier people with money to burn.

Ecstacy became much more widespread in clubs in the 1980s because it was a legal psychiatric drug (at first) and much cheaper and easier to use than cocaine. As one of the interview subjects says in the film, when you pop Ecstacy in your mouth, no one knows if you’re taking an aspirin or about to suck on a Tic Tac.

The use of the drug became so widespread and the side effects so serious that, like LSD, it was eventually added to the list of illegal drugs like coke and pot.

Ambitious, publicity-seeking DAs in New York City knew that they could get much more press by going after a celebrity nightclub owner than the low level dealers who operated in his clubs. As more than one person notes in “Limelight,” Gatien was making so much money on entrance fees and booze at his clubs that he had no need to mess with illegal pills.

Things got worse for Gatien and his peers with the rise of Rudy Giuliani and the crusading-DA-turned-mayor’s crackdown on “vice” of all sorts in New York City.

When Gatien was found not guilty on drug charges, the angry feds moved on to the tax evasion charges that are always easy to level against restauranteurs and club owners who work and live in a world filled with lots of cash that might or might not be accurately reported to the IRS. Gatien eventually was forced out of business not by criminal charges but by the huge legal fees he spent defending himself year after year — he ran out of cash and was then deported back to Canada.

Joe Meyers

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