Meet Nightlife's Mr. Fix-It

Is there any hope of restoring the South Beach luster? Rudolf says yes.

Rudolf has a novel idea for returning that elusive "cool" factor to the Beach's nightlife. "We need more homeless people here," he insists in his clipped German accent. Strolling down Ocean Drive with Kulchur, he casts a mischievous eye at a few lost souls crashed out in Lummus Park. "The homeless will save South Beach from bloating into one big, slick VIP room," Rudolf says, explaining that a dash of grit is an essential ingredient of any happening scene.

There's a twinkle in Rudolf's eyes and a faint curl of a smile on his face that lets Kulchur know he isn't seriously planning to set up a soup kitchen on the front steps of Billboardlive, where he works as club director.

Then again it would hardly be the most outlandish exploit in his career. His passport may innocuously read Rudolf Pieper, 55-year-old German citizen. And with a Ph.D. in economics from Berlin University, fluency in five languages, and a family lineage steeped in that nation's diplomatic corps, his life might seem perfectly suited to the corner office of an international bank.

Ageless: Rudolf Pieper as the Pied Piper of South Beach
Jennie Zeiner
Ageless: Rudolf Pieper as the Pied Piper of South Beach

To clubland's veterans, however, he is simply Rudolf -- as singularly iconic (and eerily age-defying) as Cher. Work your way back through the history of nightclubbing and there's Rudolf, his signature shock of white hair, commanding Teutonic cheekbones, and black-on-black fashion sense taking center stage.

When Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager emerged from prison in 1981 after serving time for tax evasion, it was Rudolf (and his then-partner Jim Fouratt) the ex-cons hired to resuscitate their Studio 54. Rudolf had already captured the imagination of New York's hipoisie with fabled clubs such as Pravda, Danceteria, and the Peppermint Lounge -- spots hailed as modern-day salons where artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf mingled with musicians like Philip Glass, a nascent Sonic Youth, and a record-contract-seeking Madonna.

Rudolf's résumé continued to grow through the Eighties with the Palladium, the Tunnel, and Mars (where Kulchur himself spent a few evenings when he should have been studying for his SATs), coming to an abrupt end in 1990, when he left for Los Angeles and eventually consulting work in Paris. "The reasons I wanted to live in New York have ceased to exist," he announced at the time. "That cutting edge of insanity and creativity has lost its steam."

A decade later Rudolf was lured back stateside by Billboardlive's CEO Mitchell Chait, who hired him to run the venue's nightclub component and -- with any luck -- do for South Beach's flagging aura what he once did for downtown Manhattan. Six months after Billboardlive's September 8 opening, however, Rudolf's Midas touch appears a bit tenuous.

Settling into a sidewalk table at the Front Porch Café, with Billboardlive's 30,000-square-foot hulk just two blocks north on Ocean Drive, Rudolf admits he's had a rough start. "Okay, we screwed up a little bit," he says, "but it won't happen again." The club has recovered from the one-two economic punch of the departure of the Latin Grammys and its scheduled parties, and then September 11's evaporation of out-of-town tourists and touring performers alike. Now, Rudolf emphasizes, he has retooled his plans, even hiring away from Club Space the four-man promotional team that essentially built the downtown room's thriving success. He's particularly jazzed about the remodeled interior that will be complete as of March 1.

"There is room for improvement, and we willimprove it," he says confidently. That's a tactful way of describing what has become a boondoggle by anyone's standards. After two years of construction delays, cost overruns, and financing difficulties, Billboardlive opened its doors promising to be everything to everybody: a television-production facility, a source of streamed Internet content, a world-class nightspot, and a new home for all the midsize touring acts that regularly bypass Miami. "We're going to change the face of music here," boasted Billboardlive's then-senior executive vice president Peter Cohen to the Herald.

As of February live music of any significance is rare at the club (though the few shows that have been staged, such as the Strokes and Jay-Z, have been this season's highlights). Large-scale TV production and online activity remains mostly theoretical. And Peter Cohen has ceased making grand pronouncements. Instead he's suing both Billboardlive and Mitchell Chait for fraud and breach of contract, alleging the joint has been grossly mismanaged and may be near bankruptcy. Five construction contractors also have filed suit, claiming a collective debt of $1.4 million.

Several Billboardlive employees Kulchur spoke to concurred with Cohen's assessment of Chait, whose background as a produce wholesaler would seem ill suited to overseeing a $20 million entertainment venue. But Rudolf declines to criticize his boss on those grounds: "He is the man with the vision, the capital, and the balls to do it."

Not that Rudolf doesn't have his own issues. After a year of complaining, he's finally getting a retractable soundproof curtain that will allow him to divide Billboardlive into smaller rooms, enabling, say, a strait-laced corporate gathering and a more offbeat event to blithely coexist.

"You have to open, prove them wrong for a few months, and then they let you do it," he quips sourly. "Even in the old days of Studio 54 the curtains weren't there until far into the game." It took endless arguments with Ian Schrager before the co-owner finally relented.

But still there are questions about what Rudolf will actually put into these more intimate spaces. Only Jeffrey Sanker's Sunday-afternoon gay tea dances have consistently drawn a crowd to Billboardlive. Beyond that, Rudolf has aped the same tried-and-true formulas employed by the bulk of his competition: Local promoters have come and gone; the usual trance and breaks DJs have shuttled through. And while the addition of Club Space's brain trust (as it were) may augur well for Billboardlive's bottom line, poaching the glow-stick masses from the Miami club wouldn't exactly qualify as an exciting aesthetic development.

"One thing is my personal taste," Rudolf concedes. "The other is what the public wants." Unfortunately for both Rudolf and Beachgoers seeking some fresh culture, balancing that equation may be untenable. Case in point: Thursday night's Fuacata party, with the Spam Allstars' innovative fusion of funk grooves and hard-edged salsa regularly drawing an invigoratingly diverse throng to Little Havana's Hoy Como Ayer. Seeking to extend across the bay what is easily the city's best night out, Fuacata's hosts chose Wednesday nights to throw an identical shindig at Washington Avenue's Bash. Their Beach venture lasted all of two weeks. Citing friction with Bash's owner and a lackluster turnout, they and the Allstars hightailed it back to Calle Ocho.

So is it hopeless? Is there no middle ground on the Beach between the lowest-common-denominator dance floor and the VIP room? Nonsense, argues Rudolf. There are still plenty of folks looking for an alternative to both. He nods in admiration of Monday night's Back Door Bamby at crobar as well as the Friday turnout for Rain's house DJs. But he adds that anyone expecting him to rerun Danceteria's glory days doesn't understand the changing times.

"The notion of hipness is not underground anymore," he says. "When I was operating in Greenwich Village, the notion of hip was ignoring the media, ignoring the rich, being cool on a budget. That notion has changed. There is no more proletarian chic." He chuckles to himself and continues: "Ideologically, maybe I've been in Paris too long, but the end of the story of the revolution has not been told yet. We live in a lull like Metternich, like Europe in the 50 years after Napoleon. There are people who speak of capitalism's triumph as the end of history, but" -- he practically spits out the words -- "that is a bourgeois point of view."

Hold on a minute. Proletarian chic? Metternich? We're still talking about nightclubs, right? The business of entertaining people on South Beach?

Rudolf leans back and that now-familiar twinkle returns. "I always make the comparison to Hollywood, because there is a filmmaker in all of us," he explains. "Would I like to do French intellectual movies à la Jean-Luc Godard with a budget of $100,000 and worldwide revenues of only $1 million, or would I like to make the next Titanic? One should do both." He cites Bruce Willis, an actor who flips from mainstream blockbusters to more provocative fare such as Pulp Fiction.

Kulchur points over his shoulder to the looming presence of Billboardlive. So -- glug, glug, glug -- that's yourTitanic?

Rudolf throws up his hands with a laugh: "Maybe this is not the best comparison."

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