Peter Gatien Steps Back Into the Limelight
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Peter Gatien Steps Back Into the Limelight

Peter Gatien, who created controversy with giant club Circa, is profiled in the new documentary Limelight.

A still from Limelight, which is about former club king Peter Gatien.

The new documentary Limelight provides a look inside the legendary nightclubs of New York City “club king” Peter Gatien (in addition to Limelight, Gatien owned the Tunnel, Palladium, and Club USA) and the nasty legal battles that killed the clubs and resulted in Gatien’s deportation to his native Canada. The film marks a bid by Gatien to return to the American public eye: Circa, the giant club Gatien managed for a while in downtown Toronto, isn’t even mentioned in Limelight. Perhaps it is for the best: Circa regularly attracted bad press and wasn’t missed when it finally closed in April 2010. (The club had felt dead long before.)

At a private screening of Limelight last week at the Thompson Hotel, Gatien opened up about his experience at Circa. He noted that the first 12 to 18 months were “great,” and that he felt the idea for the four-storey club wouldn’t have worked anywhere else in Canada, but that disagreements with the investors led to his departure from the club. Gatien framed the conflict as one over aesthetic issues, noting that he spent $10,000 on art installations, hoping it would draw clubgoers, while investors wanted a Hooters clientele. Bringing in people with black American Express cards wanting bottle service was never his priority, in Toronto nor New York, he said. Instead, he wanted to support the arts, telling the audience of 50 that he “tried to hire a creative staff.”

Limelight supports Gatien’s perception that his clubs acted as cultural incubators, mashing together the famous and the common, the straight and the queer, the outsider and the mainstream. The documentary is particularly critical of the Giuliani administration, noting that after it succeeded in getting Gatien deported after a conviction on tax evasion charges, the New York club scene changed, losing its artistic function.

Circa, circa 2009. Photo by Karim Kanji.

When Gatien arrived in Toronto, much was made of the racketeering charges against him—for which he was found not guilty in court—giving him a shadowy reputation. Limelight meticulously picks apart the government’s case against Gatien and its claims that he indirectly profited from the sales of drugs at the clubs. The film and his promotion of it act as a way to redeem his image here and abroad. At the Thompson screening, he mentioned that he never got drunk or high while working (“I’m not very clever when I’m half in the bag”) contrasting himself with how another infamous club owner, Studio 54’s Steve Rubell, acted. Still, there’s only so much sympathy our society has for a club owner—when pundits defend the rich as “job creators,” you know they won’t be choosing Gatien as a prime example.

“The perception of me swings between genius and criminal, and I’m neither,” Gatien said last week. A shift in perception of Gatien may prove difficult, as he’s currently seen as neither genius nor criminal, but as a non-threat. Case in point: a recent New York Times profile includes phrases like “broken man” (from his daughter, Jen, who also produced Limelight) and “bitter.” Gatien is ready to move on with plans for a boutique hotel, which he thinks is trendy in Toronto, and to create a television series that revolves around a club owner in the ‘90s and the politics of the time.

Whether he can bring an audience to these projects as he did in his club heyday remains to be seen.