History is oft dictated by a few great men—great not always in character, but in their capacity to shape the world around them. As epicenter of the nightlife universe, NYC’s shadowy godfathers of the night are of particular interest. As the minds behind the most successful, exclusive, and profitable clubs of their respective eras, these pioneers have almost single-handedly revolutionized the game.
Spanning the debaucherous, gilded '20s of the Jazz Age, to the current EDM-fueled bacchanals, the men behind the curtain have conceptualized nightlife into the brand it currently is. By marketing exclusivity, affluence, popular music, and atmosphere, these 5 men elevated revelry into an art form—of which they are the maestros.
Claim to Fame: Owner of the Cotton Club
Madden, an English export, was notorious in his heyday for his nefarious underworld dealings. Madden’s illustrious resume, one including the likes of: bootlegging, assorted gang-related criminality, a nine-year stint in the granddaddy of penitentiaries “Sing Sing," and lastly, owner of Harlem’s infamous Cotton Club. While dubious at best, Madden’s impact was most felt in the Cotton Club’s prolific run as nightlife king. Host to a bevy of musical greats—Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Billie Holiday (to name but a few)—the infamy of the Cotton Club has immortalized Madden’s spotty, albeit profound effect on NYC nightlife.
Claim to Fame: Owner of The Stork Club
Operating within a similar era as the aforementioned Madden—and likely cut from a similar cloth—Billingsley’s rise to nightlife notoriety began through the humble beginnings of boot-leggery. Learning the ropes of enterprise through the illicit ring of hooch smuggling, Billingsley eventually funneled his talents into the creation of The Stork Club. Within the walls of the Stork—and more specifically its hyper-exclusive “Cub Room”—the legacy of Billingsley was truly born. Catering to the upper echelon of the celebrity world, Billingsley built upon Madden’s foundation and created an establishment capable of generating a million dollar gross in 1936— an impressive feat, even by current standards!
Claim to Fame: Co-owner of Studio 54
Rubell, along with life-long pal and business partner, Ira Schrager, were the founders of the world-renowned emporium of ecstasy, Studio 54. Perhaps the pinnacle of all nocturnal establishments, Studio 54’s short, yet prolific reign atop the nightlife throne remains the stuff of legend. With every conceivable celebrity of the era gracing its halls, Studio 54 flourished under Rubell’s eccentric admittance policies, ever-changing décor, and ultimately, his cultivation of a finely crafted vehicle for debauchery. While his boasts of a “7 million dollar profit" in the club's inaugural year remain questionable, Rubell’s impact upon NYC nightlife is undeniable.
Claim to Fame: Owner of Tunnel, the Palladium, Club USA, Limelight
The self proclaimed “King of Clubs," Gaiten’s impressive run at the helm of NYC’s nightlife during the '80s and early '90s continues to reverberate in the collective consciousness of its formerly hedonistic inhabitants. At the height of his glory, Gaiten’s nocturnal armada consisted of—Tunnel, the Palladium, Club USA, and Limelight—all venues of considerable notoriety and success. Reports of Gaiten making “half a million a week” are further testament to his achievement within the realm of NYC nightlife. For however brief a period (prior to his decline due to tax evasion), Peter Gaiten truly owned the night—a feat few can claim.
Claim to Fame: promoter, musical director of Pacha NYC
A grizzled veteran of the NYC club circuit, Rob Fernandez is best known for helming the music direction over at Pacha NYC, as well as his promotions company (Rob Promotions). Having worked his way up by promoting around the scene, Fernandez is now an integral part of NYC’s trendiest nocturnal destination. Involved throughout the current nightlife universe, Fernandez is the latest incarnation of the “man behind the curtain," fine-tuning and cultivating a nightlife culture for the fickly voracious tastes of the NY night lifer.