Boo!

Halloween triggers another hellish series of misfortunes for New York nightlife

During Halloween week clubgoers got three really nasty tricks, with nary a treat in sight. On Halloween night, Avalon was abruptly shut down around 1 a.m. due to one of the spookiest laws in the city: The club's cabaret license, which allows you to allow dancing, had lapsed. The nightlife nightmare was only beginning: The next day, celebrated nightspot the Roxy was seized by the state due to nonpayment of taxes. And just when you thought it was over, Happy Valley's smile turned upside down when the East 27th Street spot was shuttered as part of a court battle with its landlord.

The latest misfortune to hit Avalon, forever known to clubbers of a certain age as the Limelight, adds to a long line of setbacks for the beleaguered institution—which rose to fame in the '80s and '90s, when Peter Gatien ruled clubland with an iron fist. Cabaret licenses citywide expired at the end of September, but the club's mid-September temporary closure for nonpayment of taxes prevented director of operations Ricky Mercado and other club employees from getting inside the venue to obtain the documents needed to apply for the cabaret-license renewal. "There was no way to renew, because we couldn't get the original forms out of the book until ten days after they shut us down," he says. "It's a long process." After he could access his books again, Mercado spent the rest of September updating other paperwork before submitting for a cabaret renewal, which was finally received by the Department of Consumer Affairs on Thursday, two days after the shutdown. (It will take up 30 days to be approved.)

Mercado, a longtime nightclub operator who used to own Speeed and Opaline, took over Avalon's operations four months ago. He says the paperwork snafu was made more complicated because the club technically has two addresses: 47 West 20th Street and 660 Sixth Avenue, both ofwhich appear on different licenses and permits. But even though the club had no cabaret license, says lawyer Robert Bookman—who represents both Avalon and the New York Nightlife Association—the police didn't legally have the right to close the club that night. The proper procedure, he says, would have been to issue a summons and hold a hearing to determine whether or not the club was in violation: "It's called due process." NYPD assistant chief and spokesman Michael Collins says that police were within rights to shut Avalon down because the club was "dangerously overcrowded." But Susanne Bartsch, who was cohosting the Halloween party with Kenny Kenny, says they had not yet clicked over 1,200 entrees—well under the club's 1,557 capacity.

All dressed up, nowhere to go
photo: Tricia Romano
All dressed up, nowhere to go

Outside Avalon that night, a line of police officers stood at the front doors while dejected revelers poured out of the venue, frantically dialing friends on cell phones to find their next destination. They may have eventually gone to Motherfucker's Halloween party at the Roxy, which the next day suffered the fate Avalon did in September—a shutdown triggered by nonpayment of taxes.

David Casey, director of the upcoming movie about Motherfucker, learned of the closure when he went to retrieve some film equipment Thursday and found the place plastered with "seized" signs. The Roxy has been fighting financial problems for the past year—filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 2005 and arranging payment plans to dig out of the hole but, according to a club insider, soon falling behind again. Numerous sources say the club has to cough up $300,000 to the state before reopening. (Owner Gene Denino and manager Jason McCarthy did not return repeated calls for comment.) Meanwhile, former employee Scott Aguiar,who'd promoted a Friday night party at the Roxy, says he and his team were "forced to move" to Webster Hall in the meantime, though he says Denino hopes to reopen by this Friday.

Though Avalon has since reopened, the Halloween incident calls into question the new partnership between city officials and clubs touted at September's nightlife summit, which had evidently succeeded particularly in opening new lines of communication between club owners and police. As Bookman pointed out, the paperwork for Avalon was as incomplete at 2 in the afternoon as it was at 2 a.m. Why arrive to settle the dispute at the height of the club's Halloween party? It's just the kind of action that club owners have continually complained about.

Bartsch was distressed about the treatment she personally endured. When she went outside to meet her husband, David Barton, who arrived to help her close out the night, the police would not let her back in. Despite her repeated attempts to explain that she was a promoter and that her personal belongings were locked inside, they refused to allow her reentry. (She eventually snuck back in a half-hour later). "He was so disgusting," says a despondent Bartsch of the officer who denied her entry. "The policeman was willing to send me into the night without a handbag, without money, without keys." She pointed out the hypocrisy of these actions, considering that the city has been in such an uproar over women wandering the streets alone in the aftermath of Jennifer Moore's murder this summer, which took place after Moore was clubbing on West 27th Street. "They say they are trying to protect people, but it symbolizes how unreasonable they are," she says. "They are just out to get the clubs."

Mercado agrees: "It's just like they are saying, 'Nightclubs—get the fuck out of New York City.'"

Bartsch—like another promoter, John Blair—got hit with a double whammy: Her party at Happy Valley is over now too. Blair, in the oddest and cruelest sequence of events, recently moved his Sunday-night gay bash from Spirit (closed under the Nuisance Abatement law) to Avalon (temporarily shuttered over a cabaret license) to Happy Valley (closed in a landlord dispute). So he now finds himself without a home. Again. In this game of musical chairs, the chairs are disappearing fast.

Happy Valley is the latest to lose the struggle between real estate interests and clubgoing interests. According to a source, the East 27th Street landlord is selling condos in the building but is having a hard time moving units because prospective buyers saw that their future lobby is currently a club. Bartsch released an e-mail statement over the weekend announcing the demise of both her party and the club itself: "The owners of the club lost the lease in a court battle with the landlord."

However, when reached by the Voice, co-owner Joe Vicarisays, "We cannot comment on, confirm, or deny any of this at this time."

The Roxy, which has been around for more than 20 years, also sits on land that's increasing in real estate value by the day. It's perfectly perched in the up-and-coming West Chelsea area, where developers are aching to put in condos and high-rises. "The community doesn't want it anymore," Aguiar says of the Roxy. "Nobody wants an eyesore of a nightclub there."

Avalon has it still tougher. As a landmarked space, it is nearly impossible to modify— while the interior can be altered, the outside of the building has to be preserved. And even then, prospective buyers are hesitant to deal with the legalities of such a landmarked space. "The place will either be abandoned and deteriorate, or it'll be a nightclub," Blair says. "That's the truth of the matter."


flylife@villagevoice.com

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