Not many clubs last longer than a few years in New York City, but roller-disco-turned-nightspot the Roxy had stayed afloat since 1979—until last weekend, when John Blair, promoter of the long-running Saturday night gay dance party there, held his last such event with resident DJ
Peter Rauhofer. Bought by the owners of the Frank Gehry–designed condos down the block, the Roxy’s building at 515 West 18th Street is slated to be razed in the next few months. While it may open for one-offs and roller-skating parties until then, this is essentially the Roxy’s last hurrah.
When it opened, it was the roller-skating rink for the famous and fabulous, says current owner Gene DiNino. “It was the Studio 54 of roller-skating. You had to look a certain way, be a celebrity to get in.” After disco and skating became passé, DiNino, who’d been running clubs in Syracuse since 1970, bought the club in 1985. “I begged, borrowed, stole” to get it open, he says. Renamed 10.18 at first, the club specialized in Latin hip-hop, better known as freestyle. Now-legendary DJs Little Louie Vega and David Morales spun there, and groups like Sweet Sensation, Trilogy, and the Latin Rascals performed.
After experiencing problems with the crowds, DiNino regrouped in 1990 and changed the name back to the Roxy. The initial shock of the AIDS era having faded, the gay community was coming out to party again. “The ’80s was a decade of everyone staying low,” Blair says. “The Roxy was the second club that opened up that people finally started going to. [He cites Splash as the first.] Having lived through this, everyone went inside themselves. By the early ’90s, people had a grip on AIDS, and didn’t think we had a deathbed. We opened up and that was that. It was a revitalization of gay nightlife at the time.”
Since then, the Roxy’s been steady overall, but Blair’s Saturday night residency has absolutely boomed, attracting 1,800 to 2,200 people a week, a very neat trick in today’s fickle nightlife environment. Blair’s secret, he says, was going after only those on his mailing list who’d signed up in the last eight months, and constantly searching for new faces—people who’d just moved to the city, or tourists—to keep the crowd fresh. “The faces have changed; the situation has not,” says Blair, who is moving his night to Avalon (better known as the former Limelight on West 20th Street) at the end of the month. (The real estate deal that had threatened to turn Avalon into a mall fell through because of the building’s landmarked status.)
Blair’s approach worked. The Roxy has been the site of many memorable performances; when DiNino first revitalized it in the ’90s, Susanne Bartsch was at the height of her reign and Larry Tee was king of the world. (Some would say he still is.) Blair’s roster of DJs since has included Tee, Victor Calderone, James Anderson, Manny Lehman, and
Offer Nissim. He opened Saturday night with none other than Frankie Knuckles—talk about an auspicious start.
When politicians complain about how awful nightlife is and how it’s done nothing for society, they forget that clubs are often the breeding ground for new trends, where you can watch pop culture unfold right before your eyes. Disco gave way to early hip-hop; DiNino says he first saw breakdancing in Manhattan on the Roxy’s perfectly waxed floors. The influential movie Beat Street, a 1984 document of hip-hop’s beginnings, was filmed at the Roxy. Trends come and go, and sometimes they come back again—DiNino says roller-skating is now seeing a resurgence.
As one of the most famous and long-lasting clubs in the city (and maybe even the country), the Roxy has seen its share of star power. DiNino’s encountered everyone from Muhammad Ali to Michael Jackson to Mick Jagger; David Bowie, Sylvester Stallone, Liza Minnelli, and David Lee Roth have also either performed there or simply hung out. “I’ve met them all,” DiNino says.
Of course, Blair’s Saturday night has long been a draw for divas and the men who love them, inspiring performances by Bette Midler, Beyoncé, Cher, and Madonna
(twice). Madge came first on Valentine’s Day 1998 to promote Ray of Light, and again in November 2005 to launch Confessions on a Dance Floor, boosting her career and bonding with her boys in one fell swoop.
Madonna might have been the Roxy’s most famous visitor. But Peter Rauhofer, who has DJ’d Saturday night’s event since 1999, most fondly remembers Yoko Ono‘s appearance December 8, 2002—the 22nd anniversary of John Lennon‘s death. “She came to the DJ booth and wanted to do some moaning to my music,” he says, laughing. “To say, ‘I’m going to go to a gay club at four in the morning and do some moaning’—she got so into it, we were really all cracking up. This is one of the most legendary moments, and that happened out of nowhere. She is a 70-year-old woman, you know?”
“I know everyone says Madonna,” Blair says. “But for me, I would say my favorite memory when I look back is watching people grow up. There were two dancers here who were working their way through med school, and now they are doctors. People who are 21 years old, I see them over the course of 10 years. I can see how their lives have changed. They grow up and they go away. In 16 years, you see a lot of that. I know you wanna hear about Madonna, and it was fun to have those kinds of people, but I come from a more sentimental place.”
All good things must come to an end, but for the people involved, it seems almost like a dream. “I’m surprised that it’s lasted this long,” says Rauhofer. “It’s sad to see another club go—this club with such a history. You know how it is in New York. Things come and go. Roxy, for what it was, lasted way longer than any other place. Once it’s gone, people are going to value it way more.”
“I’ve survived,” says DiNino. “Most of the people I started with are in jail, deported, or out of business. I don’t want to name names. I’m very sad. A club like the Roxy, it’s so well-known, so legendary, it becomes a part of you. It’s part of who you are. It’s a sense of loss, a loss of self. It’s almost like a death you grieve.”