Pavilion :: Anatomy of a Nightclub

by Steve Weinstein
Thursday Jul 18, 2013

What may very well be the most famous gay nightclub in the world is being readied for its rebirth.

Make that re-rebirth. The original Pavilion arose on the site of its predecessor in Fire Island’s Pines Harbor. In 2007, a sleek, modern version replaced the decaying older structure, which in turn was destroyed by a devastating fire that consumed much of the island resort’s commercial area in 2011. As if that weren’t trauma enough, last year’s Hurricane Sandy flooded the work site of Pavilion 3.0, preventing the nightclub’s scheduled opening over the 2013 Memorial Day weekend.

Over the past 23 years, the Pavilion’s reputation has continued to grow to legendary (one of the few times I’ve felt free to use this word without feeling like a huckster). A night at the Pavilion could make the reputation of a budding DJ, or break the reputation of an established one. At its best, a sweating multitude of hot men was taken on a spiritual musical "journey" from late Saturday evening well into Sunday morning. It has been a "safe space," where boldface names from entertainment, media, fashion, Wall Street and even politics can freely mingle with some of the hottest gay men in the world.

Before the Pavilion, there was the Sandpiper, a typically raffish 1960s restaurant of rattan furniture, animal prints and other groovy, exotic touches. Fire Island Pines was itself barely a decade old when the Sandpiper opened in 1965.

Since its founding, the Pines has been unique among the 17 communities that dot Fire Island in that it is the only planned community. A little over an hour by train from Midtown Manhattan, Fire Island itself is a thin barrier reef off the southern coast of Long Island that stretches 32 miles. All of its uninhabited parts are under the jurisdiction of the Fire Island National Seashore, itself under the aegis of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In the popular imagination, "Fire Island" is synonymous with "gay," but only two of its 17 communities are primarily gay: Fire Island Pines and the much older and smaller Cherry Grove. The only way to get to either community is by passenger ferry from Sayville, an exurb on Long Island’s "mainland."

The 20-minute boat ride to the Pines represents a clear break from the rest of the United States. It’s a truly seasonal town: During the worst of the "R" months, only a handful of year-round residents risk being isolated by the ice that brings to a halt the already sparse winter ferry schedule. There are no cars, deer roam freely, and the only protection anyone needs is a plus-15 sunscreen.

With but 600 homes and 120 co-op apartments, the Pines has had an outsized influence on gay history, the collective gay culture and the wider world. More than anyplace else in these United States, gay men here have long reveled in their splendid isolation. A sarong, sunglasses and sandals are considered overdressed when a Speedo and trucker hat will do. Men transport such essentials as flower bouquets, cases of booze and designer beach towels along the elevated wooden boardwalks in wheelbarrow carts or children’s red wagons.

The original developer of the Pines intended it as a weekend getaway for families of the World War II veterans streaming into hastily built Long Island suburbs like iconic Levittown. However, gay men from Cherry Grove, which since the 1920s has been known as a gay resort, started infiltrating the Pines almost as soon as the first boardwalks were hammered together. By 1965, enough of New York’s gay A-list streamed into the Pines that it was able support a gay nightclub, even if local law still mandated that a woman had to be dancing between two men, and police rounded up in midnight sweeps gay men cruising the nearby wooded area.

The Sandpiper became the eastern outpost of the first generation of New York City nightclubs catering specifically to gay men, with those like the Sanctuary becoming prototypes for discos like Studio 54. Tom Moulton developed the concept of the EP at the Sandpiper, helping to pioneer dual turntables and mixing records and eliminating the need for DJs to jump from one record to another in imitation of a jukebox. DJs like Robbie Leslie cut their teeth playing for the crowds that arrived when the restaurant tables were cleared away. But on Saturday nights, the Ice Palace, a dedicated disco in Cherry Grove, remained the place to be. During the 1970s, troupes of sweaty, exhausted, ever-horny men would trudge back home to the Pines through the "Meat Rack": the forested quarter-mile stretch between the Pines and Grove whose name is forever synonymous with recreational sex in the great outdoors.

Pavilion 1.0: Birth of a Legend

All that changed in 1980, when a consortium of gay men tore down the Sandpiper and erected a glamorous new mega (at least for Fire Island) club. It was essentially a big room with speakers planted in all four corners. A balcony afforded a good view of the writhing, sweaty bodies below, while the outside second-floor deck gave dancers a chance to cool down and enjoy the moonlight dancing off the waves that gently rocked the private boats moored in Pines Harbor.

When John Whyte - a former model who already owned a decent chunk of the Pines’ tiny commercial area - bought the Pavilion, he installed mirrors along the walls and crystal chandeliers bought at an estate auction (of a man who was the "house mother" of this writer’s first share on Fire Island, it so happens). Whyte was an inveterate snob, a starfucker of the highest order who name-dropped everyone from screen goddess Hedy Lamarr to ABC weatherman Sam Champion. But Whyte was an astute businessman who knew his clientele.

Whyte would have been the first to admit that his knowledge of popular music ended with Cole Porter. He wisely left that part of his affairs to astute managers who ferreted out the best of New York City’s new crop of DJs. Dancers (and flaggers!) who packed the Pavilion on weekends became a real force in dance music: They could break open a new dance song or sink it. Among the Pavilion’s clientele were America’s tastemakers, but everyone felt free to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to songs and DJs.

The club gave many up-and-coming DJs a place where they could bump up from "promising" to "arrived." A successful gig at the Pavilion guaranteed "white party" bookings from Miami to Palm Springs, as well as every color of party in between. Among the DJs who made giant career leaps at the Pavilion are Susan Morabito and Victor Calderone.

Whyte had amassed nearly all of the commercial property fronting Pines Harbor. The Pavilion abutted a few ramshackle converted railcars housing mom-and-pop (or pop-and-pop) businesses: liquor, cut flowers and real estate - the three major engines of commerce in the Pines. Behind them and protected from looky-loos was the outdoor gym, the Pines’ version of a public square. Its largest swimming pool was also back there, part of the Botel, the town’s only hotel. Whyte’s pride and joy was the Blue Whale, a restaurant that hosted afternoon teas that became town meetings. Beside the restaurant is the town’s grocery store, famous for its superbly "edited" selection of food and sky-high prices.

Actually, everything on Fire Island is expensive, even by New York City standards. Commodities, as well as those who sell and service them, must be boated in from the mainland. Any profits come from the brief "season" that lasts only a few months. Summer weekends washed out by rain are a misfortune; the very occasional hurricane can be catastrophic.

Whyte made hay while the sun shone, as they say. He helped keep his overhead low by plowing little money back into capital improvements. By the early part of this century, the Pavilion had become nearly as well-known for the Black Hole of Calcutta-level heat on busy Saturday nights that resulted in sweat beads that completely covered the wall-length mirrors, and a broken urinal left lying on the floor like a Marcel Duchamp exhibit on acid. The wooden pilings that, as with every other building on the island, supported the entire structure became weak, tilting the dance floor enough to make dancers appear less like Calvin Klein at Studio 54 - and more like Shelley Winters grabbing a chandelier in "The Poseidon Adventure."

Pavilion 2.0: Tastes in Transition

The inevitable wrecking ball finally came in 2004, when Eric Von Kuersteiner purchased Whyte’s commercial properties (Whyte died not long after). If Whyte had increasingly represented the Pines’ early pioneering years, Von Kuersteiner was very much a part of its present. Rough-hewn handsome, buff and aggressive, Von Kuersteiner replaced the broken-down but beloved wreck with a starkly modern box. The spirit of the Pavilion changed as well: from the fluffy, upbeat überdisco known as the "Fire Island Sound" to the harder contemporary beats of deep house and electronica.

In response to criticisms about sound echoes and crowd flow, Von Kuersteiner fine-tuned the structure just before a consortium of men persuaded him to sell his commercial properties in 2010. The team comprised Seth Weissman, a young real estate and hotel-industry player; former TV reporter and biographer (of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and mega-Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff) Andrew Kirtzman, who ran the Pines’ most luxurious bed-and-breakfast; and Matthew Blesso, a highly successful real estate entrepreneur in New York City and points beyond. They were undertaking a series of innovations in the fall of 2011, when the worst fire in the Pines’ history destroyed the Pavilion.

Within a few months, the owners had already begun announcing ambitious plans for a major rethinking of the whole concept of a dance club. The challenge was how to cater to the next generation of partygoers. Millennials drink more and drug less than their elders (which is very good for business) but are less inclined to dedicate every Saturday to revelry that guarantees missing a lot of every Sunday (which is not so good).

The Pines had changed from funky to fancy. Gated estates replaced beach shacks. The "woof!" that greeted the sculpted physique of a grown man gave way to the "whee!" of children.

Pavilion 3.0: Ready, Set, Go?

The owners were determined to make sure of one thing: this would not be your uncle’s Pavilion. They enlisted the talents of Matthias Hollwich, one of two principals in HWKN, a New York architectural firm in the vanguard of a new style that emphasizes airiness, openness and green energy. HWNK had made its name on projects ranging from a giant spiked ball atop the Museum of Modern Art’s avant-garde PS1 outpost in Queens to BOOM, a pedestrian-oriented mega-development in Palm Springs.

Hollwich, who describes his design philosophy as "anti-egoism architecture," has made it clear that when completed, the new Pavilion will represent a stark departure from its predecessor. Open terraces and an inviting open-front design will replace a formidable windowless wall. No more one single giant dance floor, instead there will be multiple dance platforms and bars. Of course, the complex will include a gym. (If defined muscles aren’t quite as vital to survival in the Pines, they still carry a lot of weight.) A retractable roof will allow the space to open up to one of the Pines’ best features: a crystal-clear, starlit summer sky.

Giant criss-cross support girders will lend a feeling of asymmetry in stark opposition to the boxiness of the older building. The firm will also maximize ventilation courtesy of Mother Nature, a nice green feature to take advantage of the crisp air only a slit of land flanked by large bodies of water can provide.

Matthew Blesso, CEO of Blesso Properties, which has taken over management of the Pavilion, says it’s "over-the-top bold, very modern and yet feels summery and beachy." He has brought over Tony Fornabaio, one of New York gay nightlife’s Young Turks, to rethink the Pavilion’s inner aesthetic. Fornabaio intends to create a sound that will move beyond the electronica now dominating dance floors and the dance-diva anthems that have lately taken over Fire Island’s club scene.

While it’s hard not to love a hook as infectious as Katy Perry’s "California girls / We’re unforgettable / Daisy Dukes / Bikinis on top," by the second (or third, or fourth) time you’ve heard it within the span of a few hours, you feel less like you’re in a gay paradise of sand, sun and sex than in a Here! TV Twilight Zone remake of a man forever pacing an elevator in a Midwestern boutique hotel.

"We’re looking to recapture the unique sound the island used to have," Fornabaio says. "Musically, the island has moved away from what it used to be. It’s become reliant on pop music. While there is nothing wrong with pop, it is our intention to bring back that memorable, soulful sound that Fire Island is known for."

The gala opening weekend was going to feature DJ legends closely associated with the Pavilion, including Robbie Leslie and Michael Fierman, along with circuit superstars like Tony Moran. Completing a building of this size and complexity would be hard enough anywhere, but try to do it on an isolated barrier reef completely dependent on weather, where industrial machinery is transported and stored on flatbed barges and the entire work crew is at the mercy of the ferry schedule - spotty at best after September and infrequent by late November.

Dishy gossip is to the Pines what cars are to Detroit or politics to Washington. So while it was hardly surprising that the Memorial Day opening was postponed by construction and paperwork with the notoriously inept Long Island town overseeing the Pines, the delay became a hot topic in pools and hot tubs up and down the boardwalks.

The big day - or, rather, night - finally arrived on June 22. To the song "I Take My Problems to the Dance Floor," DJ Twisted Dee officially inaugurated the Pavilion. The reviews on social media have been uniform raves. From the bleachers to the LED lights, Pines denizens and club aficionados alike are praising the care that went into the new structure’s design. And so on the Fourth of July, hundreds and hundreds of hunky men, cute boy-men, real-girl girlfriends and visitors from other Fire Island communities will be packing the decks to cheer the annual invasion. Each year since 1976, dozens of drag queens clad in glorious, politically incorrect outfits, with names like Anita Greencard, have boarded a specially commissioned ferry in Cherry Grove. After a landing ceremony at which each queen is presented to the cheers of thousands of spectators, they take over and maraud through the Pines’ bars and clubs. The day progressively goes from merely drunken to downright debauched - this side of Southern Decadence. I have a fond memory of a young, fully clothed stud plowing his girlfriend in a darkened corner. Ah, the joys of youth!

In other words, this is one of those golden moments, when Fire Island shows the world that being gay is more than serving honorably in the military, making a legal commitment to another and being a responsible, upright citizen. It’s also knowing how to let your hair down, be it real or Dynell, and getting down and dirty every once in a while. May it forever be so, and may the Pavilion long reign over this Atlantic Ocean gay hideaway.

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).


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