News

N.Y. Nightlife Impresario Marc Berkley Dead at 56

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Apr 24, 2010

There was a time when, if you were a gay man and you went out to a nightclub to dance, you were probably at a Marc Berkley event. A shy, insecure guy from Queens had so successfully reinvented himself that, for a bright, shining, moment (closer to the better part of a decade), he reigned as the king of the gay dance parties - as the New York media dubbed him.

When Berkley arrived on the scene, the city had already emerged successfully from the 1970s bankruptcy into the '80s "Masters of the Universe" glitz of clubs like Area, the Palladium and even a renovated Studio 54. Above all was the Saint, the gay-only megaclub that had the best sound and light systems, a specially hydraulic dance floor and just about everything else that made the it finest dance space in the world.

Berkley became friends with Bruce Mailman and learned the basics of Nightclub 101 at the foot of the master impresario. Although his stint at the Saint was brief, he was able to take those lessons and apply them to other clubs. In the process, he would bring his own ideas, which flew off in every direction but often-enough landed to make a splash with clubgoers and the media.

Before the Saint, however, he had made his first contact with a man who would have a deep influence on Berkley's career, Peter Gatien. The mysterious, one-eyed Canadian club owner hired Berkley to work as a publicist.

It was a heady rise for a kid self-described as fat, unattractive and deeply insecure. Berkley was born in the Bronx but spent most of his youth in Queens, N.Y.. He attended Central Michigan University, where he majored in social work. According to a 2001 profile in New York Magazine, he had planned on teaching emotionally disturbed children.

"Now," he said, in typically wisecracking Marc Berkley style, "I just throw them parties." In fact, after the Saint closed in 1988, he worked briefly as a child welfare investigator for the City of New York.

Before working for Mailman, he had a round of after-college jobs that included retail at Bloomingdale's and managing the Fresh Meadows Movie Theater in Queens. But, like two other outsiders from the outer boroughs - Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, the owners of Studio 54 - Berkley had set his sights on conquering Manhattan. And like them, he did.

He took the back area of the Limelight, which wasn't being used, and transformed it into the Chapel. With a separate, gay-only entrance around the corner from the fantastically popular main nightclub, the Chapel became a labyrinth of dancing, hanging out and back rooms. It was like a tacky gay Disneyland, and it became hugely popular. The Chapel became a template for the Marc Berkley experience: hot but real-guy go-go dancers; plenty of dark corners; a masculine but campy vibe; and a "don't ask don't tell," laissez faire attitude about "party favors."

Gatien handed off more and more of his main floors to Berkley to promote as gay nights. Club USA in Times Square had Bump, a Sunday night party that was typified by a three-story slide dubbed the "K Hole." For those in the know, that referred to Special K, a drug derived from ketamine, an animal tranquilizer. Special K was the drug of choce at the time. It was cheap, it was quasi legal, it was easy to get, and its woozy, out-of-body feeling set the tone for much of gay nightlife in the mid'-90s.

Berkley and Gatien developed a strong personal relation, and the suspicious club owner was confident enough to give Berkley the jewel in his crown, Saturday nights at Tunnel. The far-west Chelsea club, built in an abandoned railroad tunnel, was the most avant-garde club in Gatien's stable. Berkley's parties were a hit with gay and straight revelers, and was the first big club night after Studio 54 where the two groups mingled freely.

But merely running club nights wasn't enough to satisfy the ambitious Ms. B, as he had become known. In 1991, he and Matthew Bank, a businessman, began a black-and-white foldout sheet called Homo Xtra. Although there had been several gay entertainment magazines, such as Michael's Thing and After Dark, Homo Xtra, billed as "The Biased Politically Incortrect Party Paper," was entirely dedicated to gay men going to bars, clubs and sexual venues.

The magazine expanded to features on restaurants, entertainment reviews and other facets of the urban experience. It went to a glossy weekly format and relied on advertisers to subsidize its free distribution. It had the market to itself until the advent of Next, a direct competitor, in 1993 - only one of the many "bar rags" that would come into existence around the country using HX as a template.

In the incestuous world of gay New York, Next had a connection to Berkley through one of its founders, John Blair. Blair had established himself as the hugely successful promoter of gay Saturday nights at the Roxy, the enormous skating rink-cum-disco. The two men worked together on and off for several years.

On the Facebook page memorializing Berkley, Blair wrote, "My 35 years knowing Marc had its ups and downs but no one can take away the fact that he was one of the most important and one of the biggest forces in New York Nightlife. I will miss him more than he would ever expect."

When Blair fired Berkley just before the New York Magazine profile hit the streets, it threw Berkley off course. There would be other setbacks. Gatien was being hounded by a fire-breathing federal prosecutor name Rudolph Giuliani, who tried to finger Gatien for allowing rampant drug use and drug sales in his clubs, as well as tax evasion. Although the case lingered for years and eventually ended in acquittal, the legal bills ruined Gatien, who was also hurt by the sensational "club kid" murder by Michael Alig - one of the promoters at Gatien's Limelight - of a drug dealer.

The Alig murder signaled the end of the hedonistic excess that had overtaken New York's club culture. There was a scaling back. Straight clubs went to exclusive bottle service. Gay clubs were struggling to survive, with the Roxy the only large dance space left, other than occasional parties.

The onetime king of nightlife found himself with out a kingdom. Working in nightlife is a crazy business - late, long hours; surrounded by drugs of every stripe (legal and not-so-legal); sexy men, not averse to offering favors for money, better jobs or more pay; sleazy club owners and promoters; under-the-table deals.

Over the past several years, Berkley has been forthcoming about his struggles with substance abuse. Berkley struggled with many demons. For someone who felt self-conscious about his appearance and always had to fight the "battle of the bulge," being surrounded by some of the hottest men on the planet wearing next to nothing brought up, as they say, issues.

In an article I wrote for HX a few years ago, titled "The Bitch Is Back," he told me of his manic-depression and how he had attempted to self-medicate with this street drug and that. At that time, he had come out of one of his stints in rehab.

Berkley tried to do parties at various venues, in Chelsea, on the Lower East Side, in Hell's Kitchen. He event ventured as far afield as Brooklyn. But nothing really stuck. The club scene had changed. A new generation had grown up that knew nothing about the Saint or Paradise Garage or Studio 54. The Internet was eating into direct social interaction. Crystal meth and GHB were cutting a wide swathe of destruction across the gay dance venues.

Berkley sold his stake in HX a few years ago. The magazine has since folded. In recent years, he worked off and on for the Saint-at-Large, the successor organization to the Saint. He recently traveled to North Carolina to live with one of his brothers and his family, but he returned to the city and was living in Upper Manhattan in a one-room apartment.

Friends describe him as being in good spirits recently, with some plans for future projects. He had traveled out to Fire Island Pines for the birthday of one of his oldest and closest friends, Gil Neary, the real estate broker and owner of D.G. Neary Real Estate. Neary, along with John Scolaro, were Berkley's oldest friends in the city and were among a remnant that remained steadfast when many others had given up on him.

Berkley suffered from extremely high blood pressure and was diabetic. His family had a history of heart trouble. The night before he died. he complained of gastric distress. On the morning of April 24, he was found dead, having died peacefully in his sleep. The cause of death has not yet been determined.

His friends have expressed shock at his passing. "Being his friend and business partner for over 20 years, this is a shock and terrible shame," Matthew Bank told EDGE.

Bank emphasized what nearly anyone who knew Berkley always mentioned, his creativity and ready wit. "The Chelsea Boy Coloring Book" was a good example of that. A send-up of the stereotype of the muscled, shallow Circuit boy who lives in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, it is also an affectinoate tribute to Berkley's audience.

"He was incredibly good hearted and creative and one of the most entertaining people to be around," Bank added. "Every relationship with Marc had its moments. Certainly, it's sad, not just for me and the people who knew him. But for the gay community and the people of New York."

Marc would never forgive me if I hadn't let him have the last word. In 1993, he said. "A few years ago, there were maybe 500 fabulous people in New York. Now, everyone thinks they're fabulous."

If that's true, it's in no small part due to the way Berkley's party made everyone feel fabulous. Marc took the velvet rope and put everyone on the right side of it. His parties had none of the snob appeal of Studio 54 or even the Saint; if you were gay (or gay friendly) and were willing to have fun, the rope parted for you.

Marc Berkley is survived by two brothers, Greg and Stewart and who live in North Carolina and Monticello, N.Y.; and several nieces and nephews.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


Comments

  • , 2010-04-24 20:20:55

    Very sad. A great story - good background I never knew.


  • , 2010-04-24 21:09:50

    Great reporting and a great tribute to someone who never got any recognition in his lifetime.


  • , 2010-04-24 21:31:27

    Marc had a creative and sassy peronality, he was also a very sweet guy!


  • , 2010-04-25 02:34:30

    I knew him, and worked for him. Weird, I was thinking of him today. He was a brutal terror, a whirlwind, but he hired me (for slave wages) when I needed a job, and years later we collaborated on a successful event. He was so matter-of-fact about making big decisions. That struck me as the way to go. Oh, he’s also the only person to ever fire me. Sad that drugs, and the more toxic aspects of gay life seemed to eat him alive.


  • , 2010-04-25 10:29:55

    Great article Steve. I knew of Marc znd met him, but never knew all the history.


  • , 2010-04-25 12:26:46

    Very sad, was at all those parties in their hayday!! Will never forget them! RIP Mark!


  • , 2010-04-25 13:05:15

    saw him when I went back east in March for Black Party...damn he will be missed; when he was low he would just hole up with his cat in the apartment; when she was ON she was ON!! xoxo Nurse


  • , 2010-04-25 13:06:40

    He was an amazing person with all his faults. Great reporting!


  • , 2010-04-26 09:18:35

    Very nice story as I now revel in my memories of The Saint.


  • DJ Randy B, 2010-04-27 15:42:26

    As one of the people who helped me break into the club scene as a DJ and was always supportive of my career I will miss him as a friend not only to me but to everyone who loved clubland...he was a character and one of a kind - thank your for acknowledging his contribution to the industry and to the arts. DJRB


  • , 2010-04-28 12:36:10

    This was a wonderful tribute to Marc and I know he would have been very flattered and touched by all you have said. Marc and I were friends for 35 years and were roommates at CMU and remained friends from that day forward. I have so many memories of Marc and know he touched many lives. He had a lot of ups and downs, but he always found a way to land on his feet again. I miss him more than words can say and cannot imagine coming to NYC and not spending time with my longtime friend. My condolences to all his friends and family.


  • , 2010-04-28 20:42:54

    Marc is missed already. I loved him, loved being around him and know he’s getting ready to throw a party in Heaven. We can all learn from Marc’s life. This tribute was wonderfully thought out. There are so many stories, so many great chapters to tell though. I’m looking forward to pay homage at a future tribute. God Bless You Marc!- Rick Harper


  • , 2010-04-29 09:32:38

    Sad news, Great Guy!! Thanks for the article that puts his life and achievements together. Yes, he made us all feel ’fabulous’. I was part of the Saint crowd and the nightlife that developed from it. Thanks Marc for an time of exceptional celebration for gay new york. Dan


  • dfonyc, 2010-04-29 11:19:17

    Steve thanks for writing this great tribute to Marc. Its interesting, personal and very well done.


  • , 2010-04-29 13:38:23

    Marc was an extraordinary person. His insecurities got in the way of many of his personal and professional relationships. Once you got past that stuff he treated you with the same amount respect you gave him. I wondered where he had been for years but like many of us who worked in clubs for too many years I seldom went out and almost never to big gay events where I might have seen him and others I worked with like him. I was excited to see him reappear on Facebook and see some evidence that he was going to be producing some fun events this summer. I’m glad he was with people he loved that loved him back when he passed away. Devastatingly unfortunate for Gil on his birthday and the others that were present. I will miss his sharp slightly sinister wit. He was a really sweet guy beneath the armor he felt he needed to protect him from jerks. He was very charitable as well. I imagine him being absolutely delighted by all of this love and understanding being expressed. A lesson for us all to appreciate each other in life cos you just never know. RIP Marc. Big hug to you all (okay, most of you. Certainly NOT all.) Great job Steve.


  • , 2010-04-29 15:30:11

    Mark was the reason for my go-go success. Fuck, he really annoyed me sometimes, but I really loved him. RIP.


  • , 2010-04-29 15:49:42

    RIP, Mark. You made NYC life more worth living, for so many of us! Peace and Love to you and your family. xo


  • , 2010-04-29 16:10:25

    Steve Weinstein here. I want to thank everyone who commented here and who has contacted me personally to compliment me and thank me for the above obituary. Like everyone else, I found Marc infuriating, obnoxoius and whiny - but also inventive, creative and protean. How many nights did I spend in the Chapel, at USA, the Tunnel, the Roxy thanks to Marc? How many people did I meet? How many cocktails and [redacted] did I consume? I can’t count. But I thank him for the good times - what I can remember of them. Seriously, thank you all for your kind words.


  • , 2010-04-30 13:08:45

    Marc gave me my NYC debut at the Palladium for one of his Bump! parties. That will always be in my memory as "one night in Heaven". It was an honor to play for him there and at the Tunnel. I will always be grateful to him for giving me a chance. DJ Michele Miruski


  • , 2010-07-15 04:02:14

    damn, i met Marc before HX and then worked for him both at the Limelight and at he HX offices, he was one of a kind, im still in shock having just found out, i can’t believe no one told me, but then again, who’s left for the telling...(well, matthew, gill, fernando,...hmmm)


  • , 2012-06-19 01:17:22

    i worked with marc at the saint with bruce mailman as the telephone receptionist while in college during the day..i house sat his apartment for a short weekiend just below 14th st on the west side..i felt so important he let me do this. I was young 22 and knew nothing about the scene...i liked how he would be a bitch but then be really nice to me knowing i didnt understand many of his jokes and comments which i do now..i feel privileged to have worked with him in the limited way i did. Half of me regrets not being more of the scene and half of me is glad I wasnt. God bless him and those that still live on to deal with the peaks and valleys of life. The Saint rocked!! I never stayed late for the naughtiness...but later saw him at the Limelight and without flinching green lighted me right in and pressed 2 drink tickets in my had..i felt like I was a superstar even tho i didnt have the muscled body or good looks I thought was needed to be comped somewhere....he made regular people feel important in many ways that way.


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