Christian Niedan’s History Storytellers — Part Six: The Insider

by: Christian Niedan

The sixth installment of a twelve part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of historians and history-infatuated filmmakers. The series continues with a look at the career of former-NYC nightlife king Peter Gatien (owner of Limelight) with an interview with his daughter, film producer Jen Gatien…

Some film documentaries, to reach their full potential, need more than just a producer — they need an insider. Someone whose unique access and relationships make them essential to the production. From securing crucial interviews, to acquiring documents and images that add context to those interviews, these essential souls act as the secret weapon to the film’s genesis. For filmmaker Billy Corben, and his 2011 documentary Limelight about the career of former-NYC nightlife king Peter Gatien, that indispensable insider was the film’s producer (and its subject’s daughter), Jen Gatien. At the time of Limelight’s 2011 release, I interviewed Jen Gatien for my film website Camera In The Sun about the documentary, as well as her film producing career.

Turns out, New York City played a starring role in Jen Gatien’s career. Gatien was a former resident of the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street in Manhattan, and worked with director Abel Ferrara to recount its story in 2008 documentary, Chelsea on the Rocks. Later on, she crossed the East River, into the Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods of Queens and Brooklyn, to co-produce the 2010 feature, Holy Rollers. The film is based on the real-life case of Sean Erez, who utilized Hasidic Jewish youths to smuggle ecstasy from Europe into the U.S. during the late 1990s.

That decade saw ecstasy become the preferred party drug for “club kids” who could be found dancing until the break of dawn within Peter Gatien’s four Manhattan nightclubs: Limelight, Tunnel, Palladium, and Club USA. It was the Limelight, though, that became Gatien’s signature club — housed within a former Episcopal church at the corner 20th street and 6th Avenue. There, within what became for a period of time the world’s hottest nightclub, opportunistic dealers selling ecstasy attracted the attention of law enforcement, which resulted in the elder Gatien fighting drug-related charges in federal court. Though he eventually won that case in February 1998, it came at great financial cost, which led him to finally sell off all four of his clubs. Their loss signaled the end of a wild era in NYC, and Limelight explores that history through interviews with everyone from famous DJs like Moby, to infamous club kid (and former-Limelight party promoter) Michael Alig. Two decades removed from the club’s peak influence, Gatien gave me her take on what made Limelight special:

Gatien: “It was so much an incubator of new music, because Limelight by way of its design had different rooms. And so, it appealed if you were into hip-hop, that would be there — but it’d also be alongside techno in another room, and upstairs in the VIP room would be yet another DJ. So, we’re talking on any given night (and you’ve gotta remember that nightclub was open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday), that’s a lot of music, and a lot of artists coming in and out of those places. I think breaking new genres of music was a massive component to Limelight’s success, because they were given an opportunity to sort of introduce it and see how crowds responded.”

A key element to the success of those nights was the eccentric visions of party promoters like Alig – and it is his interview in particular that serves as a crucial narrative bridge from Limelight’s recounting of glittering nightlife highs, to delving into legal low points. Viewers are introduced to Alig being interviewed by Corben in prison, while serving time for murder. In that legal vein, Corben utilizes court records and interviews with Alig and others who were recruited to testify against Peter Gatien, crafting a legal saga that fleshes out the nightlife king’s financial downfall, and eventual deportation to his native Canada in 2003. His daughter noted to me that to properly retell that saga, Limelight needed Michael Alig on the record… about everything:

Gatien: “I absolutely think that his interview was a gesture to my father to go on the record, which is not an easy thing to do, especially when you’re incarcerated. I can’t imagine that the corrections officers and government are looking favorably on Michael Alig for admitting to not just cooperating against my father, but the fact that the DEA agents let him use heroin while he was incarcerated, and turned a blind eye to murder.“

Jailhouse interviews were old hat for Corben. Indeed, a crucial element of his acclaimed 2006 documentary, Cocaine Cowboys is a prison interview with incarcerated hitman, Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, who candidly discusses multiple murders he committed during Miami, Florida’s drug wars of the 1970s and ‘80s. During Limelight’s production, Alig was in the midst of serving almost 17 years in prison for the murder and dismemberment of his drug dealer and roommate, Andre “Angel” Melendez. That event is dramatized in the 2003 film, Party Monster (based on James St. James’ 1999 memoir, Disco Bloodbath: A Fabulous but True Tale of Murder In Clubland), with Macaulay Culkin as Alig and Dylan McDermott as Peter Gatien.

Gatien: “I saw that film when it first came out. And I feel like if their intent was to do a film about club kid culture, then I think they succeeded, and I give them credit for taking on that subject matter. Where I feel Limelight differs very strongly is this is much more of a sociopolitical crime thriller set with a backstory of the Limelight. I think it’s a much bigger look at New York, and at a pre-and-post Giuliani New York, and the price we paid in some ways for Giuliani’s cleanup campaign of Manhattan.”

Though the screen stories told by Corben’s film production company, Rakontur, usually focus on his home state of Florida, Limelight is mostly set in New York City — with a brief-but-notable early stop in Hallandale (just north of Miami), where Peter Gatien opened his first U.S. club in the 1970s, which he also dubbed the Limelight. For Jen Gatien, putting trust in Corben’s storytelling instincts countered natural distaste at the inclusion of interviews with subjects like former-Limelight party promoter “Lord” Michael Caruso, who helped introduce ecstasy into Peter Gatien’s clubs, and then later aided the legal case against his employer.

Gatien: “It was very hard to watch [Michael Caruso’s] interview and other interviews, but I abide by Billy’s desire to interview who he thought was integral to his vision for our film. I knew walking in who was going to say things that could be slanderous or hurtful to my father’s reputation. I was prepared to face that, knowing that nothing could be as bad as what the New York Post had already written.”

Indeed, Peter Gatien’s portrayal by the Post was not unlike a James Bond villain — an image magnified by the patch Gatien sported from losing an eye in his youth. As Gatien’s legal troubles mounted, the tabloid gladly reported the complaints of neighborhood residents about the famous nightclub which had opened in a pre-Giuliani-era Chelsea that, by the late-1990s, had been transformed by gentrification.

Gatien: “It was incredibly frustrating, in terms of Limelight’s later years, being a target of the New York Post with the residents in the Chelsea neighborhood complaining — because Limelight was there first. There was no one that moved into that neighborhood not knowing that nightclub was there far before it was gentrified into a residential neighborhood. Chelsea was not the neighborhood it is today. When that club first opened, it was essentially a no man’s land. So it was frustrating for it to get such a bad rap from residents.

Everything in the media was negative about my father. Everything was propaganda by the government issuing press releases and sensationalizing what was going on in that building, because headlines guarantee politicians being reelected. And I think that the only way for DEA agents, mayors, politicians, police chiefs to get press is to kind of sink their teeth into someone or something that is coverable by the New York media. So when we sourced the film’s media coverage, we were able to find quite easily the negative stuff. The positive stuff, because this is a pre-cellphone camera decade, was really about me remembering who worked there, who might have something. It was like a scavenger hunt in many ways, trying to find old footage and photographs. So I think that that’s where producorialy I was meaningful to the project, in sort of knowing where to source that material. Unfortunately for my father, he did not own the photographs of the photographers that had worked at the Limelight over the 17-year, 18-year span. We were able to find house photographers who kindly let us license photographs, but it is a strange thing to need to license a picture of your father.”


Author’s Note (Update): On August 22nd, 2018, the Buckhead Heritage Society organized an event at Sanctuary Night Club in Atlanta, Georgia, revisiting Peter Gatien’s second incarnation of the Limelight, which operated from 1980-87. Among the insiders sharing memories and pictures of the club was the Atlanta Limelight’s house photographer, Guy D’Alema — whose 2012 photo book about “the Studio 54 of the South” is titled, Limelight…in a sixtieth of a second.

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