You really had to be there — to appreciate fully the new documentary film about fallen nightclub magnate Peter Gatien titled “Limelight, the Rise and Fall of New York’s Greatest Nightclub Empire,” as well as the marketing tale that is part of it.
It helps to have lived through what was unquestionably one of the high-water marks in the — truth be told — less-than-glittery history of Chicago nightclubs.
The film will play a very limited engagement at the Music Box Theater in Chicago on Oct. 14th and 20th.
Directed by Billy Corben, “Limelight” is a straightforward, informative documentary that charts the rise and ugly collapse of Gatien, a Canadian native who was at the center of it all when nightclubs were an integral part of the entertainment scene in New York City.
Indeed, at their height in the 1980s and 1990s, New York nightclubs were, as one observer in the film put it, genuine “incubators of culture” in the Big Apple.
At the pinnacle of his career, Gatien ran no fewer than four major nightclubs in New York — Limelight, the Tunnel, Club USA and the Palladium. But it was Limelight, which opened in the early 1980s in a deconsecrated church on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, that was considered the crown jewel in Gatien’s empire.
Limelight Chicago was the hottest thing going
It was that particular jewel that Gatien sought to export to Chicago in 1985, in an imposing, castle-like structure at 632 N. Dearborn. That locale now houses the Excalibur nightclub — a much longer-lasting, but nonetheless faint, infinitely more Midwestern shadow of the club that preceded it.
Though it was by far the hottest thing going in Chicago for most of the mere three-and-a-half years that it lasted, Limelight wasn’t nearly so remarkable as the marketing and publicity hubbub Gatien and his minions orchestrated in the months leading up to the club’s local opening.
To those of us who were admittedly young, impressionable and quite gullible participants in this marketing frenzy at the time, it was obvious Gatien knew exactly what he was doing in Chicago.
And it was equally clear Gatien was acutely aware he was working in a provincial market that was eager for even the tiniest taste of all that seemed to sparkle in the far more exotic, faraway New York nightlife scene.
Chicago’s Limelight could not be sustained
Gatien, to be sure, was no stranger to working the provinces. Before setting up shop in New York City, he operated a Limelight in Atlanta.
But even then he knew he would be nothing if he did not conquer New York. And conquer it he did, though not without the help of a odd, tawdry mix of hangers-on, several of whom who are there in “Limelight” to comment on the saga that unspools in the film.
By the time Limelight the club finally opened in Chicago, it was clear the reality of what it was here could never match the hype that preceded its debut. Though Gatien’s Limelight/Chicago operators tried desperately to prove otherwise, the city simply did not have the diverse and exotic nightlife crowd that could sustain Limelight as a place where one absolutely had to go to see and be seen.
So within just over three years, Limelight/Chicago was snuffed out — a peripheral detail to filmmaker Corben, who focuses most of the final half of the one hour, 45 minute film on Gatien’s downfall, which began with federal charges brought against him for racketeering and conspiring to distribute drugs in his New York nightclubs.
“Limelight” the sad story of a talented man
Gatien was eventually acquitted of those charges, but he wasn’t so fortunate when he was next accused of evading taxes. Ultimately forced to sell off his nightclub holdings and suffer a brief, but humiliating stint in jail, Gatien was finally deported to Canada, where he now lives a quiet life with his wife and children in Toronto.
In the end, “Limelight” tells the sad story of a talented man who made a a real impact in the biggest entertainment market in the world — only to watch it all disintegrate and disappear, leaving Gatien essentially penniless.
But what can’t be ignored —or denied — in all of this is that Gatien was a master marketer who knew how to build brands — which in this instance just happened to be nightclubs.
If there is one line in the movie that more than any other explains what made Gatien — for a time — the successful brand builder that he was, it is this: “He was an impresario. Everything he did was larger than life.” Of such stuff are marketing legends made.
And sometimes destroyed.
Contact Lewis Lazare at LewisL3@aol.com.