Own the Night: Anatomy of the Club Scene

AuraStuart Salomon has been in the nightlife business for over twenty years, serving as owner of such clubs as: Fallout, Coliseum, Atlantis, XO, The Beaumont, Karma, Zen, Grand Emporium, and most recently, Aura. He also has a seventeen-year background in law enforcement, now serving as a part-time deputy sheriff.

Own the Night chronicles the events of May 10th, 2013.

10:30 p.m. – I arrive at Aura and hang out front with the door guys while smoking a cigarette. There’s a poster-sized digital sign on either side of the entryway explaining that—yes—the paint does wash off, and that you only need to worry about being sprayed if you’re on the dance floor. Everywhere else is a safe zone.  Enter at your own risk, it says. Then I spot Stu parked curbside and rounding the back corner his SUV; he’s wearing a white button-up and jeans, black shoes. He pops the trunk, which is more or less a mobile version of his home office and just as messy. It’s crammed with bags, security supplies, and stuff for the club.

I approach and he tells me, “This whole thing has been an absolute clusterfuck. I was figuring this shit out until 9:00 or so.”

Stu’s holding a paint party at the club tonight. The problem is that the idea was conceived before the method. Last time I saw him (on May 8th), he was trying to modify a handheld paint gun for recreational needs. That meant getting the paint at a consistency to actually be able to course through the mechanism. Also, the PSI of the gun had to be enough to squirt it across the room, but not so much that it would sting or cut someone’s skin. Unfortunately, the guys at Home Depot were of very little help in this arena.

“We don’t know much about painting people,” they said.

After nearly a full week of promotion and gogo dancers saying things on Facebook like, “Come get messy with us this weekend,” it’s Friday, and Stu is telling me he had to scrap the paint gun idea completely. It wasn’t working, which basically means the $250 he dropped at Home Depot on his Mark I design was a waste. He assures me that he solved the problem, but it was a pain in the ass and far too time-consuming.

supplies

Stu retrieves his supplies out of the back of his SUV and we approach the front where the door guys are stationed. He whips out his phone and briefs one of them on the list to get into the club: updates on who’s got a table and who simply gets in for free. Roughly five pages of names are already held snug against a wooden clipboard, people that’ll be avoiding the $10 cover because they texted one of the promoters, a server, or someone else on the staff. The door guys are given their instructions and we enter the club to the tune of throbbing house music.

Inside it’s cold. Not freezing, but cold enough so that when the occupancy rate spikes the place won’t be a furnace from all the body heat. It’s a counteractive measure. In the nightlife industry, you have to predict the problem before it’s a problem. There’s a sound check run on the DJ equipment to ensure the levels are functional. Security is hired just in case a fight breaks out and needs to be stopped. This is why the paint issue was so frustrating for Stu, I realize. It’s the first time in a while that he wasn’t three steps ahead of something.

10:45 p.m. – Stu accesses the small front office and retrieves a radio and earpiece for himself, clipping the receiver on the back of his jeans. The walkie is housed in one of his back pockets. I follow him through the club, passing the main bar where a girl in a crop top and short shorts sways her hips while adjusting her tiara. Her and her friends look at Stu, then me, leaning mouth-to-ear while pointing at one of the supply bags. They can tell he’s an orchestrator of the show—not a participant. There’s roughly thirty people meandering about, getting settled in, nodding their heads to the music but not quite dancing. The main floor in front of the DJ booth is completely vacant at the moment, covered in newly-laid carpet. Foggy sheets of plastic protect the walls, giving off a muted glow under the blacklight. These too are counteractive measures: to keep people from slipping and breaking their necks, to safeguard the electronics and facilitate the end of the night cleanup.

Stu“They did a good job on this,” Stu mentions.

Now that the owner is in the building, everyone is trying to get their two words in: either a general “hello” or something business-related. He’s short on time though, so intent on getting to the back of the building that he doesn’t fully stop when one of his bartenders comes in for a hug.

“I gotta get everything ready downstairs,” he tells her, trying to be polite.

Stu leads me down a dark hallway, removing his keys. We cross into a staff only area of the building, and I follow him down a set of creaky wooden stairs into the basement of the club. Underneath the polished surface: it’s grimy. A graveyard of blown subwoofers and damaged light fixtures. Empty bottles of bleach and cleaners. Dust, dirt, and cobwebs skin the entire area with the exception of a few places designated for clean towels. Stu sets his bag and supplies on the floor next to the paint buckets an assembly of air pressure machines. There’s a guy already there, squatting down and tinkering with them.

“This is D.J.” Stu says, introducing me.

We shake, and then I observe the two of them talk shop, going over the game plan as to how they’re going to set everything up: hoses will be snaked from the basement through the ceiling, emerging just underneath the dance cages. They talk about the logistics, the consistency of the paint and how they’ll communicate by radio.

“You and I will have our own channel,” Stu tells him.

Meanwhile, I smoke another cigarette and listen to the ceiling shiver from all the bass pumping through the club. Stu’s radio keeps going off but he’s ignoring it for the time being, opting to focus on the task at hand. It’s a paint party; the paint is priority number one. The night’s fucked if he can’t make it work. Everything else will have to wait.

11:00 p.m. –  It takes a couple circuits, but eventually Stu and D.J. get everything hooked up and “party ready.” Stu has already briefed his door guys and his second-in-command, Bill Pile. Now he needs to brief his dancers on how to use the equipment.

“Okay, so here’s the deal,” Stu says, and a couple of the girls start giggling because—apparently—this is something of a catchphrase.

We’re in the basement and I’m watching Stu give his spiel to four young girls (two brunette, two platinum blonde) who are in full gogo regalia. Glowing neon wristbands and silver body glitter. Club lingerie: white bloomers, white fishnet stockings, white push-up bras and cropped tanks. Some of them are customized, with the letters “A” and “U” steamed onto one cup, and the letters “R” and “A” fashioned on the other. The costume is equal parts function and fashion. Sexy enough to be alluring while at the same time able to withstand four hours of aerobic movement, sweat, and paint.

gogoStu tells them, “There’s no drinking tonight. I’m not going to have you handling this shit drunk,” and all four of them give a little nod of acknowledgment. He says, “Don’t hit the lights and don’t hit anyone in the face. Aim about right here.” He drags a hand across his chest. “No customers in the cages tonight, and no empty posts. We can’t have anyone messing with this stuff but us.” Again, they give a little nod. “When it’s time to spray, I’ll give you a signal.”

 

He waits for that information to soak in before saying, “Okay, now go dance,” to which all four skip out of the basement, smiling now that the serious part is over.

set up

11:10 p.m. – Back upstairs again, the queue at the main bar is a bit heavier and ready to spill over into other areas. Stu makes the final cosmetic touches on the cages with the help of Cortez, one of his promoters. They peel back the beaded curtains and bundle them to the metal support frame with plastic zip fastenings, one by the DJ booth, the other by the VIP platform which remains unoccupied for the time being. Hoses emerging from the floor are also secured against the cage, and then Stu radios down to ask D.J. if the system is ready to test. He gets the word back that it is. One of the gogo dancers, Steph, is dancing in the cage next to the DJ booth completely oblivious to what’s about to happen. Stu takes aim at her, squeezing down on the release valve and firing off a stream of neon pink at her back. She squeals, cringing.

“That’s fucking cold!” she shouts.

Stu smiles. Relief washes over him.

11:30 p.m. – Stu is one of those owners that is constantly on the move, either socializing with a customer or making a final adjustment to the PA system or tending to his staff. He’s never in one place for more than a few minutes at a time, so it stands to logic that he would completely disappear if I took my eye off him for too long…which is exactly what happens.

I’m stone-cold-fucking sober, feeling entirely too rigid for the setting. No booze, pills, or party favors coursing through my system. I do a lap around the main floor, noticing those same people that were simply nodding their heads to the music an hour ago are a bit looser now, a little more uninhibited. Girls key off the gogo dancers, letting their hips tilt side-to-side, moving with the beat. Guys watch from a distance while drinking, mustering up that liquid courage.

I run into Rob Marrs, the other half of the Aura promoting duo, and we get a drink at the back bar. He’s not wearing an earpiece, which means his presence is more casual than work-related. We chat a little about bullshit; I tell him about the article I’m working on. The Beta Shades guy is handing out product and Rob scores me a pair (neon green frames, clear lenses). Then a couple leggy brunettes walk up to Rob. He introduces me but I don’t stick around long enough to be social. I head up to the DJ booth for an elevated view of the club, keeping an eye out for Stu while DJ Pure spins the opening set.

11:45 p.m. – I find Stu in one of the of the small staff-only rooms towards that back, glazed in sweat and eating a slice of pizza off a paper plate. He tells me this is the first opportunity he’s had to eat, that he’s fucking sick of pizza but he’s got to have something in his stomach.

“We’re gonna go in about fifteen minutes,” he tells me, checking the time on his phone.

The room is littered with boxes, cleaning supplies, and personal items left in here from the gogo dancers. There’s a white Samsung phone on a nearby table, an open gym bag filled with civilian clothes and lacy non-dance party underwear. Bill Pile steps into the already cramped room wearing a yellow rain slick and party shades, earpiece plugged in and wired for sound. He’s tailed by another employee who’s relatively new to the club.

“We can’t have the same thing happen in the DJ booth that happened last weekend,” Stu says, referring to the upstairs VIP section, which consists of four booths. “The tables looked like shit and I think you were working, right?” he asks the new guy.

“Yeah, I was,” he says rather meekly.

“I think you were a little too busy working the women, if you know what I mean,” Stu says, smirking. “Just make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Then Bill Pile tells Stu that they lost one of their tables.

“Those promoter guys,” he says. “They backed out.”

In the club world—or any business, for that matter—this is known at ‘taking a hit.’ A bottle of middle tier vodka such as Skyy or Smirnoff runs about $20 retail. At Aura, they sell it for $200 (a 1000% mark-up), a comparable price-point for most clubs operating in Kansas City. The goal, essentially, is to have every table booked by the weekend as those yield the highest profit margin. When a table backs out, however, that puts a considerable dent in the business model.

bottle service

“How much does that set you back?” I ask.

“About $300,” Stu says, giving a little shrug like fuck it, whatever. “It’s time to paint,” he tells me.

12:05 a.m. – I follow Stu back onto the main room. It’s packed. The music is throbbing and all those people that were queued up at the bar have finally migrated over onto the dance floor, stuffed in shoulder-to-shoulder, raging, drinks spilling, waiting to get hosed down. Stu slides between people to get to the nearby cage. He gets Abby’s attention and she stops dancing, squats down and listens to his instructions. Then I follow Stu to the opposite cage. He clicks his flashlight at Steph and gives her the go-ahead.

paint

It starts: The girls squeeze down on the release valves and begin dousing the crowd in neon pink and green. Everyone screams and the lights go hot white, strobe-flashing. Flickering violently. Streaks of paint pierce the air, soaking into fabric, adhering to skin and glowing sticky and cold. The crowd loves it. Some people are even going up to the cages, pointing at themselves so they can get sprayed again by the dancers. Then I notice Stu doing something I haven’t seen him do all night: watching. He looks on as a spectator, not an owner. After all the planning and various roadblocks, for just one brief moment, Stu allows himself to admire his own work.

“I’m in the business of selling experience,” he told me once.

Out on the floor there is no past, no future. Nobody is thinking about their job or the economy or current events. There’s no worry. No sense of time. There’s only the moment, the feeling of release, and although he’s seen it thousands of times over the past twenty years—sometimes Stu still gets caught up in it.

“That’s the high I’m looking for,” he said.

12:15 a.m. – Stu escorts me to the front office. He’s already radioed down to D.J. in the basement to get another round of paint ready. The gogos have since holstered the hoses to the side of the cages, dancing again. They’re now glazed in a multi-coat of paint and sweat, as is the crowd.

“Earpiece,” Stu says, handing me a curled piece of rubber with a nub on the end. I wedge it in and the volume cuts down to about 50% in my left ear. “And clip this onto your jeans.” He hands me a receiver from the safe which I stick into a vacant back pocket. Into his wrist he says, “Test, test,” and I hear his voice crackling through the earpiece. I give him a thumbs-up. We move back into the club, only this time Stu has a camera.

authorWe tour, making frequent stops to snap photos. Stu walks a few feet, notices a couple girls hanging by the bar and raises the lens of the camera. They smile, pose, doing that thing where their outer arm bends at a ninety-degree angle, hands on hips. Then a flash. Stu shows them the digital screen of the camera and they nod approvingly. We move a few more feet and the process repeats.  

Yet again, this is another example of being three steps ahead. All the posts made about the party on Facebook by the promoters were the primary wave of marketing. The documentation of the event is the secondary wave; it’s how you lure people out who weren’t at last weekend’s party. In club culture, you can’t just say something is going to be good…you have to show it: with photos, video, and word of mouth (typically, the “liking” and sharing of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram content). It’s Friday night, but Stu’s mindset is already on Tuesday when he’ll be editing and uploading pictures in his office. If I’ve learned anything by now, it’s that when you run a club it’s a constant cycle of planning, promoting, and executing. The challenge of the owner is to constantly be aware of that cycle as chaos ensues around them. You can’t get caught up in your own party.

1:10 a.m. – Every corner of the club has been documented: main bar, dance floor, DJ booth, all the VIP areas. Stu even climbed up into the gogo cages during the second round of paint spraying to get better shots of the crowd. Very few people are wearing clean clothes now, and that includes the staff. It’s all been captured on digital film: a big, hot, neon mess.

documentation“We’re going to do okay money-wise tonight,” Stu says. “We didn’t kill it, but we did something different. People are going to remember this one.”

What he means is that while every other club was phoning it in with their standard push of ‘we have this DJ tonight’ or ‘such-and-such is hosting,’ Aura went that extra mile to do something that would make them stand out on this particular night. There’s three or four competing clubs that specialize in this particular niche of nightlife—all of them are trying to one-up the next guy, whether that’s stealing a table booking or procuring a high-profile guest to host. See also: white party, black party, Playboy party, sunglasses at night party, etc. It’s an ongoing war of who had the best weekend that’s measured in pictures and profit and a constantly changing reputation.

 

 

“This one’s gonna get people talking,” Stu says, scanning the crowd. They radiate under the blacklight, dancing, waiting for that next round of chilled neon to cut the air. The bar is packed; men that were once tentative are now openly flirting with girls, buying drinks, buying rounds of shots. That tension that mounts over the course of a five-day workweek has officially dissipated, shifting over to a more carefree disposition. I’ve come to know this block of time as ‘the peak,’ the moment in which everything is good and the effects of booze haven’t soured or manifested in drama. It’s the window in which nothing can go wrong and everybody’s happy. It won’t last forever. There’s over two hundred people in the club. Eventually, someone will exceed their personal threshold and the worst of them will come out.

“The nightlife scene can be the greatest thing in the world,” Stu told me once. “Then, just as quickly, it can turn into a nightmare.”

2:00 a.m. – It’s perfect for a stretch, so much so Stu allows himself to be social with the clientele and I’m not having to make so many notes in my phone on how this place functions. Much like everyone else, I allow myself to fall into the moment and lose track of time. We drink, we chat with various groups hanging out at their tables. Of course, this too is part of the job: making the rounds and seeing how people are doing. Some owners are a non-presence when it comes to their club; Stu isn’t. After observing him throughout the evening, I can tell he very much operates under the “if you want something done right you gotta do it yourself” mentality. He can’t do everything himself, though. That would be unrealistic. He has to settle for trying to be everywhere at once and keeping a strict eye on things, hence the radio contact and constant movement throughout the space. When he sees a staff member doing things in a way that are outside his preference, he’s quick to correct them.

“I’m a benevolent dictator,” he told me once. “If I tell somebody to do something a certain way, it’s only because I want everyone to do well.”

For instance: at one point Stu and I are hanging out in the DJ booth. He’s taking photos of a 230-pound hulk with his shirt off whipping around some chick that has her legs wrapped around his waist. They’re both hammered drunk, laughing, dancing, hamming it up for the camera. Then it goes wrong. The guy loses his balance, and both him and the chick fall onto the table and spill their bottle service setup: plastic glasses, mixers, ice, and booze coat the wood surface. It’s a huge fucking mess, a mess that’s cleaned up within minutes because the guy that Stu had a talk with two hours prior about keeping the DJ booth clean is all over it this time.

Anticipate the problem before it’s a problem. If a problem occurs anyway, have the solution ready. Living by these maxims is what makes the night go smoothly. That, and preparing for the worst-case scenario.

2:30 a.m. – The worst-case scenario happens. As Stu told me before, things can go sour in a moment, and you almost never know why. It just happens. All of a sudden, Stu and I both hear the word “fight” crackling through our earpieces. One minute we’re drinking and socializing at the back bar with a group of about eight people, the next minute we’re setting down our glasses and rushing to the front of the club. We wade through the crowd that’s wet and sticky with paint, arriving thirty seconds later where a Latino male is lashing out, screaming, cursing. Wounded at the mouth. Security staff converges on the source of the problem like white blood cells, restraining this guy and pulling him towards the front door. Everyone watches, chuckling like it’s some live version of Cops while they finish their drinks.

They get this guy outside and he’s saying something to the effect of, “You all’s just fucking bitch-ass niggas! Fucking bitches!”

Security gets this guy outside, and then there’s another individual (African-American male; mid-to-late twenties) that’s responding to the taunts while he leaning against a parked car. A couple uniformed officers place themselves between to the two guys, separating them like they’re two kids about to go at it on the playground. The Latino guy is bleeding at the mouth, shirt ripped. I notice he’s not wearing any shoes. An officer is questioning him just outside late-night pizza place that’s next door to the club. He’s belligerent, drunk, possibly on some party favors that took a turn for the worse. Regardless, he’s beyond reason and aching for some kind of retribution.

“We need to get this guy the fuck out of here,” Stu says.

A violent individual in a nightclub is like cancer: if you let it linger too long, it begins to spread. Other people that have nothing to do with the fight are pulled in.

maceStu pops open the back of his SUV and grabs a tank of mace—not a little tube of it college girls have attached to their car keys. This is the shit police use during riot control, roughly the size of a soda bottle. Stu grabs that and supervises his security staff escorting the Latino dude away from the club, away from the crowd. We make it about fifty feet and then some drunk chick is getting up in Stu’s face, yelling at him about why her friend is getting ejected from the club…the friend that’s still screaming and cursing. I watch this chick push Stu once…twice…three times. On the third, he whips out his badge and makes her aware she’s assaulting an officer. That doesn’t deter her. She’s wasted. She keeps at it, all the way until we hit the street where security is escorting this guy to his car.

I take pictures. I take video.

Just like Stu, I have my own documentation process. It comes in handy when we’re heading back to the club and the drunk chick is yelling in Stu’s ear that she’s going to press charges. She’s saying that Stu assaulted her and that she’s going to sue his ass in court. They go back and forth on this for a brief period: her acting fucking crazy and Stu reminding her how he’s a deputy sheriff and she instigated contact with him. Dealing with people who lose control is just another part of owning the night, another part of the cycle.

3:00 a.m. – The house lights come on and the fantasy ends. For some, it’s a sobering call to reality: lots of talk about getting a cab and who’s not drunk enough to drive. I hear the word “shower” at least five or six times. For others, the club experience is over but the after-party has just begun. Drugs like Molly and Adderall are often taken either before or during the outing. They’re fun…I can personally attest to that, but they make it fucking impossible to sleep. You can sit at home and wait for it to run its course or keep partying until you’re out of gas. Usually the latter option sounds more appealing. Regardless, the lingering clientele is swept out of the club by security and the bouncers. Tabs are closed up. The few that have a personal relationship with someone on the staff are allowed to hang out while the end-of-night duties are done.

All the paint on the ground is rolled up with the carpet. The plastic sheets are plucked from the walls and stuffed in the trash. Gogo dancers change into clean shorts and T-shirts, lounging on the couches of the VIP with their phones, checking texts and Instagram feeds.

“This shit better wash out,” one of them says, examining a few once-platinum tresses that are now stained pink and green.

Bartenders cap the booze and begin counting their tills and tips. Now that the crowd is gone and the energy has all but died off, exhaustion starts to slip in, eliciting yawns and sleepy conversations. Everyone is waiting for Stu to finish his reports in the office so they can get paid, so they can go home and wash the neon night away with a nice, hot shower. Nightlife is a cycle; they’ll have to do this all over in about nineteen hours. Paint won’t be an issue this time, but the experience with all its pomp and circumstance will need to be created again from scratch. Same goes for the next weekend, and the weekend after that. Over and over again until it reaches the closing point.

“When I first got into this business,” Stu said, “I told myself that I don’t care if it lasts three days, three months, or three years. I had to give it a real shot, though. I had to try.”

That was twenty years ago.

As of now, the end isn’t in sight. Stu’s immediate future is that he’ll continue the cycle of promoting, planning, and executing. “The experience,” as he puts it, will remain a viable commodity ready for purchase. He’ll continue to lure in crowds looking for an escape, for a momentary distraction—all the while playing that role of the man behind the curtain. The owner forfeits his own social life so that the masses may exploit their youth in the warm, blissful dark where possibilities seem endless. The trick, as it were, is that the endeavor of creating such an illusion is a complicated affair involving many people; I’ve seen that now. All the lights and sounds and stimuli of nightlife are well-contemplated and heavily labored. Devising fun is a lot of hard work.

“It takes a certain personality to make it in this business,” Stu told me once. “Most owners are in it just to get pussy and be the life of the party. They get caught up in this shit. That’s why a lot of them don’t last.”

Basically, the owner fails when they let themselves become a customer.

As the saying goes: ‘Don’t get high on your own supply.’

team

“I’ll quit one day…get married, have kids. Not yet, but one day,” Stu says. “I own the building now, so eventually I’ll rent it out to some new kid wanting to do this and let them have a try. Not yet, though.”

Stu leads me out of the club to the sidewalk that has since emptied. We shake and say our farewells, then he goes back inside to finish his end-of-the-night duties, settling up with his staff and getting everyone paid. He’ll go home, sleep in. The owner needs to rest up.

Tomorrow night, the cycle starts all over again.

**this article was originally published by Manarchy Magazine on May 25th, 2013