N.Y. Nightlife Impresario Marc Berkley Dead at 56

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday April 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).