The Last Dance
The socially acceptable hour of midnight had passed at the farewell party for Club Nu, the exalted mega-disco on Miami Beach, and the marvelous ones had come to pay their respects and be part of nightlife history. Andrew Delaplaine, former owner of Scratch and current publisher of Wire, parked himself against the bar - directly opposite a plush booth where he once had a memorable evening of high jinks and cocaine - and delivered a pronouncement: "This is the tattered debris of Miami Beach society. Every ex- and current club owner in town has come out tonight to pay their respects to the Turchin brothers. There's my crowd from Scratch, Jeffrey Cohen from the old China Club, a gang from Woody's. You've got Tom Bellucci from the Island Club. Mario Alayon from Garage South Beach - he's just the promoter, of course, the Turchins are the money men. Everybody's here."
Delaplaine sipped his drink, smiled ruefully at the memory of the cocaine era ("We've all gotten smarter since then"), and continued, "This place got the Beach off to a jump-start four years ago. It was really the only place to go, but it's interesting that it never became part of the future, the mainstream of South Beach clubs. The future is Warsaw and places like Hombre. And Garage South Beach is going to go head to head with them until the big boys from New York come down. But this place, all that high-style stuff and pseudo-posing, is like Mae West in her 80s - a pale shadow of her former self, still thinking she's hot stuff when it's been over for 60 years. But I'll tell you one thing, a lot of talent came through this room."
Everyone, even those on a goof jaunt, had to concede that the room had seen a lot of action over the past four and a half years, and had set a new mark for in-your-face sensory overload: It was too big, too much, all the time. The flyer announcing the final, end-of-the-era party provided some reminders, listing an expansive roster of "gone but not forgotten" names: event coordinator Norma-Jean Abraham, veteran publicist Woody Graber, arts promoter Howard Davis, photographer David Vance, hair stylist Rocky Lyons, and "...Zoli, Irene Marie, Danny G., Joe Z., Rodolfo, Tattoo Lou, Damian, Luke, Glowear, Lou Rawls Jr. and anyone who has outstanding tabs, our city fathers and police department, all drug dealers and undercover agents."
A separate press release issued for the final bash was even more eclectic, and the roll call of people who had performed at Club Nu, or just passed through, was pretty impressive: the Escape Club, Concrete Blonde, Indigo Girls, David Bowie, George Michael, Thomas Dolby, Psychedelic Furs, and the quintessential Club Nu personality, Mr. Let-the-Good-Times-Roll himself, Rod Stewart. With Nu's typical who-gives-a-shit candor, the release also recited a wide array of low points: dancing bears, dancing dogs, Tiny Tim, Zippy the Chimp.
There may have been plenty of low points, but the Club Nu boys did have great timing and instincts. And family pedigrees. The three Turchin brothers - Tom, John (the club's front men), and Robert Jr. - are the sons of Robert L. Turchin, Sr., one of the Beach's old-line developers, responsible for projects such as the Doral Hotel and the South Bay Club building. Rick Carino, son of the late Anthony Carino of Carino's restaurant on upper Biscayne Boulevard, was brought in as a partner and director of food and beverage. It all had a neat symmetry.
In the retelling of the saga, the brothers began as visionaries and civic benefactors, living out another Gold Coast saga, hometown kids made good, the disco version of A Star Is Born. As Tommy Turchin, director of operations, puts it: "This area was so depressed, people thought we were stark-raving mad. But we came from a development background and we knew that property like this, right next to the ocean, was undervalued. We believed that Club Nu would help to bring the Beach back to the way it was. We wanted to assemble a world-class place, using our ideas and dreams, from show business and Broadway. We scoured the landscape for concepts. We were thinking very big."
Literally. Right off the bat they leased a landmark with enormous square footage and maximum publicity value - the old Embers restaurant on 22nd Street, which had been vacant for about six months. Built in 1948, the Embers was a show place, one of three classic high-Beach stomping grounds, the others being the Forge and Joe's Stone Crab. Several investors were lined up (John Turchin puts the figure at "less than a handful"), and things got rolling in the summer of 1986. At one point Phillipe Juneau, ex-husband of Princess Caroline of Monaco, was supposed to be brought in as a partner, but apparently there was some misunderstanding about his role. According to John, "He wanted us to pay him $200,000 to use his name. We had to explain that we needed money, not names."
Eventually somewhere around two million dollars was raised, and work began on the nearly block-long structure. The Turchins' idea was to infuse the cutting-edge chic of the downtown New York club scene with Miami Beach production values, kind of a new-era Palladium. Architect Les Beilinson was brought in to supervise a renovation that would include a rather lush, glassed-in dining area on the ground floor, a multitiered dining and drinking area, and a second-floor "celebrity" room overlooking the central bar, dance floor, and stage.
Visiting celebrities would be able to fly in via a helipad on an adjacent parking lot. Lord Toussaint of Infinite Audio Systems would put in a big-deal sound system, utilizing the "world's first full-range application of Electro-Voice manifold technology." Atlanta's Perfection Lighting & Sound would install a 40,000-watt, computer-controlled lighting system. Pricey corporate and VIP memberships would be available, adding just the right touch of snobbery ("The entire second level of Nu is exclusively set aside for VIP members only"). The space would be loaned to charities for fund raisers, and a variety of independent promoters would pass through, producing special one-night events. And in a nod to the renowned New York club Area, which featured different decorative makeovers every six weeks, Club Nu would also have an interior flexible enough to accommodate elaborate "environmental installations." Built around themes such as "Back to the Future," the "Palace of Versailles," and "Woman," and accomplished by props, murals, and live performances, the installations were supposed to create an entirely new club every six months.
At the time, the renaissance of South Beach had just begun, and the district was all dressed up with nowhere to go. Club Z on Washington Avenue had changed ownership and become the decidedly nonfabulous 1235; George Tamsitt had left Club Ovo on Espanola Way, and a similar downturn had begun there. Besides Cats in the Grove and fairly lame discos at the Cricket Club and Turnberry Isle, there wasn't much else. All of the smaller, more casual clubs that would eventually chip away at Club Nu's market share had yet to open their doors. "There was nothing in town then," recalls Louis Canales, nightlife maven and former Nu marketing director who began working with the Turchins in the fall of 1986. "The club scene was like Hialeah-by-the-sea. We had to create a prototype. This was the first time in Miami that the visuals were integrated, like a circus, with something happening all the time. It was just a fusion of the right team, the right entertainment, and luck."
Even by Miami Beach standards, the opening festivities, commencing on Saturday, April 18, 1987, were stupendous. The limos and city commissioners went on for miles. Two dozen downtown New York personalities were flown in to lend an aura of Manhattan hipness to the club and to South Beach in general. The waitresses were all decked out in specially imported black-vinyl sex kitten ensembles, an innovation apparently introduced to this country by Club Nu. That weekend's gala is still considered to be one of the legendary premieres in Beach history. "It was a mob scene," recalls Tom Turchin with a showman's gift for embellishment. "There must have been 10,000 people, 5000 inside and probably 5000 waiting outside. Traffic was backed up all the way down to Fifth Street and up to 41st. A mob scene. We had, like, 100 press people - we didn't bring them in, they just came - hanging out in the kitchen, 'cause that was the only space we had available."
Louis Canales, who has witnessed his share of spectacles, was also duly impressed. "The opening was amazing," he remembers. "Three nights of parties, something like 12,000 people. We flew in everybody from New York - Stephen Saban from Details, Walter Thomas from Scene, Viva, John Sex and his Bodacious Ta Ta's, Fred Schneider from the B-52s. It was the first time a lot of them had been down and it was a great showcase for South Beach. We told everybody the club had cost three million. I think it was really like one-and-a-half to two million dollars. Part of the business is hype."
The hype paid off, at least initially. "For a while, two years or so, it was hot, it was happening, really an evolution in breaking barriers," Canales says. "People mixed more than they did in other places. In one night we might have two or three promotional parties, a concert, a fashion show, and the usual private parties. But the size of the place worked against it. It could hold like 1800 people; with 500 people, the place looked empty. In New York, you might have 10,000 very right, very on-target people - but of course they don't go out every night. Down here, in '87, it was like 500 or 600 right people."
The right people, everyone agrees, got to hear some great music, far more sophisticated than that played in most discos of the time. According to John Turchin, the brothers spent "a lot of time and energy following the Billboard charts, and we'd let the DJs know the style of music we wanted played. We didn't want them to get stuck in one groove." Norman Bedford, Nu's former creative director, who booked live acts to supplement the DJs, put in his own share of time and energy. "Some of the English progressive industrial bands we had, like the Swans and the Mighty Lemon Drops, had never played Florida," he recalls. "We had to get them four or five other venues in the state to have them come down. It was a monumental effort. Towards the end, though, it was like the club didn't have the promotional balls they had in the past. Everybody was always second-guessing themselves. And I don't know why. The shows had a good track record of making money."
The music gave the club a unique feeling, and helped establish it as the place to be for the fashionable set. It was the height of Miami Vice fever, and the city was caught up in a high-roller mood, the kind of big-room glamour that had marked the glory days at places like the Embers. You could almost feel the money in the air.
And the drugs. In the same way Prohibition-era drinking and illicit gambling lent an element of intrigue to the fabled Miami hot spots of an earlier age - places like the One O'Clock Club and Brook's - drugs shaped the big dance clubs of the mid- to late Eighties. You could pay your admission, walk into a room, and witness scenes straight out of Vice, people living out a cliche that had been arrived at only the week before: dramatic entrances by ponytailed drug dealers surrounded by entourages of henchmen and two or three peroxide blondes, all flashing thighs, cash, and doped decadence. Drugs made the clubs overwhelming, sinister, and vaguely threatening, in a fun sort of way.
George Tamsitt, the creative force behind Club Ovo and Paris Moderne and now general manager of Downtown, speaks of those recent years with the authority of an expert. "I don't know if Club Nu set new standards of opulence, but I think they may have set new standards of decadence. There wasn't any back room for cocaine; it was just everywhere. In the corridors outside the bathrooms. On the tables in the dining room. It was just there. This was late '87, '88, '89. Now it just couldn't happen. There was a big crackdown on all that, everywhere, particularly on Miami Beach. And I also think the times have changed. People are drinking less, doing less drugs, and they have less income to spend."
Tom Turchin points out that, unfortunately, "from here to Timbuktu, drugs are part of the nightclub scene." But drug users and dealers, he and his brothers insist, were either promptly expelled or prosecuted "to the full letter of the law." (A warning sign to this effect was posted in Club Nu.)
Warning signs, of course, are made to be ignored. And in April of last year, after a six-month undercover investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco raided the club and made several arrests for drug sales. According to Jorge Herrera of the state agency, "These clubs are visited periodically and inspected. In upscale discos, a high-income kind of crowd, it's not uncommon to have drug sales, quite frequently, without the knowledge of the owners."
With or without drugs, Club Nu in its heyday always had a different kind of ambiance. It was all tarted up like other big discos, but there was another level of weirdness. As with the Vegas Big Room mentality, when Wayne Newton tries to give the impression that he's barely holding himself back from really blowing the roof off, Nu aimed for a pervasive sense of chaos only tenuously under control, as if the place could break loose at any moment. But Miami Beach is definitely not Las Vegas, and the shaky edge at Club Nu - musically, visually, culturally - was often truly close at hand.
The lure of wildness was a valuable commodity, something to be nurtured and manipulated by careful planning. The mystique of the dangerous avant-garde at play was exploited in the great American tradition, the way Wild Bill Hickock sold out the Old West with his traveling revues. On any given night at Nu - one never knew - anything might happen. Mondo New York cult figure Joey Arias might end up singing with flutist Nestor Torres. Kinky tableaus like the North Beach Leather fashion show might be punctuated by real bikers roaring through the club on Harleys, bearing models. Bizarre publicity stunts and semi-psychotic performers swirled amid a thick atmosphere of booze and noise. And sex. Sex was everywhere, in every form, an operating aesthetic that has now been further refined by the gay disco Warsaw. But Club Nu, according to Tom Turchin, was there again, ahead of its time. "We were the first to do that whole sex thing," he says offhandedly, "with male dancers and all that. The Bone Boyz [a local team of salacious dancers], you know how popular they are now, they started with us."
No one seems to think there is anything strange about a statement like that. But then, club work is not for the unduly sensitive (seeing people at their worst, night after night, would take the heart out of anybody), and it breeds a Beckett-like numbness, an almost preternatural tolerance of all that is human. The Bone Boyz seem to be, in the end, no more or less valid than, say, Liza Minnelli.
Hype, spurts of enthusiasm, revealing moments of jadedness - today the Club Nu partners project an odd combination of all three, in a manner reminiscent of rock stars. As young South Beach developer Craig Robins pointed out at the farewell party, Carino and the Turchins grew into the role: "They're old Beach boys, like my brother and me, but they look like rock stars. They actually believe it."
From the evidence at the Club Nu offices on Purdy Avenue, contained within the Robert L. Turchin, Inc. building, they've had a good long run as stars. The place is crammed with publicity stills of the boys alongside the various luminaries who have dropped by the club. Rock star memorabilia - a stone signed by Mick Jagger, George Michael's boots - is prominently on display. They remain diligent fans. "We took care of celebs," says Tom proudly, "treated them nice, made sure they didn't wind up in the tabloids. And they reciprocated, let us use their names and faces on invitations."
At the same time, the toll taken by four blurred years of parties and fun is also evident on the walls. You can see the boys transformed from seething-with-ambition, bright-eyed youngsters in their very early 30s to club veterans in their mid-30s, all leanness, major Rod Stewart hair, and tapped-out expressions. If they were a band, and able to be broken down into cliches understood by teen-age girls, each would have his own distinct following. Rick Carino, a great decadent look and a mass of pre-Raphaelite-style hair: the wild man. Tom Turchin, sensitive, sweet-natured hippie visionary, hair long and luxurious: the nice guy. John Turchin, modest hair, sensible: the one to take home to the folks.
Flipping through a box of photographs, John offers helpful commentary. Pointing to a picture of Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud looking especially dopey, he smirks and says, "This guy here has always been very helpful." Next is a photo of gross-out performance stripper Lady Hennessy Brown. In the matter-of-fact tone that would be used to elucidate the inner workings of a carburetor, he describes one of her routines: "She has people pull this ribbon with bells on it, straight out of her lower end, and it just went on and on. Guys at the bar, 50 feet away, were playing with it."
No one blinks at the pictures, and they hardly look up when an associate walks in to announce that a court summons has just arrived. John nonchalantly explains that it's from a doctor who was hit over the head with a beer bottle by another patron during a recent dispute over a girl: "It's a private matter, but they always wind up coming after us. It's just part of doing business."
The ephemeral nature of the nightclub industry rather precisely mirrors the trajectory of a big-time rock career: the first beautiful unveiling of a new talent; the blossoming of genius; the gradual decline and scramble for commercial attention; the artistically compromised album, obscurity, comeback attempts. It would be wonderful if clubs could, like certain rare flowers and conceptual-art pieces, appear in all their radiance for one glorious night and then die forever. But real life dictates that they go on past their moment, that the room be filled as much and as often as possible.
Inevitably the appeal of the place began to wane. Louis Canales, for one, has been around long enough to have, like Boethius, the consolation of philosophy. "The whole process of clubs breaks down into a kind of ethnic/socio-economic grid," he says. "The avant-garde, the trendsetters, make it hip, but they won't mix with the trendy yuppies from Brickell and Turnberry they eventually attract. And then others moved in, and it became their club. A Sweetwater, blue-collar Cuban thing, very particular sense of style. But the breakdown goes across the board: upper-class Cubans hear a blue-collar Spanish accent, they head for the door.
"And by the winter of 1988, the Beach was like a kaleidoscope of clubs - the Avenue A things I did with Gary James, which were, in essence, totally illegal outlaw parties, Paris Moderne, Scratch, Beirut, Friday nights at Joseph's. The right people had moved on. But clubs aren't supposed to last forever; there's like a built-in obsolescence. Clubs are about fashion, they're just things of the moment."
But a four-and-a-half-year run is extraordinary for a club. In the business, it is generally agreed that you need to make your money within two years. The Palladium in New York, even with $13 million and the team of Ian Schrager and the late Steve Rubell, closed within two years. And in the time that Nu was open, a lot of local people came and went. The very slick Paris Moderne, reportedly undercapitalized from the beginning, opened and closed in a few scant months. Scratch lasted a year and a half. Club Ovo became the China Club, then the Rhythm Club, then Warsaw. Woody's shut down after eighteen months and the space was recently rechristened as Egoiste. 1235 became Deco's, then Passion, then an empty space. Fire and Ice: dead. Who's in the Grove: dead. Barracuda: dead.
Most places, according to George Tamsitt, do not close for lack of business: "It's usually because of greed and internal politics among the partners. The Turchins remained a phenomenon so long because they were brothers." However, some of their success clearly has come from being very tough, very smart businessmen, despite a failed attempt last year to export their nightclub expertise to Dallas. And they've maintained flexibility. As chichi rooms yielded in popularity to less polished places, the brothers leaped into the fray with The Institute, the ultimate rough-looking club. Formerly the old Beach Theatre located just off Lincoln Road, the huge gutted room had been used by Club Nu as a storage space and workshop for installation pieces.
In late 1989, the brothers allowed Rodolfo Tejara, the artist responsible for Club Nu's extravagant interior designs, to use the Lincoln Road space as an "art gallery," and The Institute was born. A perfectly legal admission price of ten dollars was charged, but the beer inside was free. State inspectors eventually decided the gallery was really a dance hall without the proper licensing, and shut it down. In November of last year, the Turchins opened the place again, without Tejara but with all due licenses. The Institute features concrete floors, an array of huge, gaudy props, and not much more in the way of creature comforts. There is no air conditioning. It is an absolutely brilliant space.
The Institute's apparent success hasn't come without mishaps. Responding to complaints about minors frequenting the club, state agents and Miami Beach police conducted a raid last Thursday night. One underage drinker was arrested, three people were hauled off on drug charges, and another was charged with possession of pot and obstructing an arrest, among other things.
Dealing with crowds and cops hasn't completely distracted the brothers from considering the future of the Club Nu property on 22nd Street. Tom Turchin is all optimism...and hyperbole. "People are simpler right now," he says. "They're not looking for extravagance. They don't want to get dressed up, and they're looking for smaller places to drink and dance in. We're going to reopen in the fall, probably around November. This is going to be a club for the Nineties and into the year 2000." His brother John, however, takes a more studied approach. The leasehold on the property is not prohibitively expensive, and the rare 24-hour liquor license they own is extremely valuable. He says he intends to "leave the place alone, see what comes up and wait for the right offer."
In the meantime, two of the "handful" of original investors - air-conditioning contractor Drew Chanin of Chanin Air (located in the Turchin building) and plumbing contractor Chuck Ermer of Right Way Plumbing - would not talk about the specifics of their investment in Club Nu. Both, according to John Turchin, put in a mixture of services and cash. "Once the club is sold," he says, "all proper distributions will be made to those who made capital investments."
Fast-food sex may have become AIDS, cocaine may have turned ugly as crack, and life may have generally tightened up since Club Nu's shining hour, but at the end-of-an-era party, it was like old times again. The night was a medley, a reprise of all the popular bits everybody had come to associate with the club. Around midnight a convoy of Harleys roared in through the front door, throttled up, and then parked in formation around the dance floor. A very accomplished transsexual in a black cut-away leotard danced on the bar, fondling herself. An inspired, overly exuberant guest jumped up on a nearby table and gyrated expertly, smiling like Al Jolson.
But toward 3:00 a.m., everything began to unravel, replaced by a cardboard facsimile of luxury. The place looked trashed, beat up, and dirty, the same state of deranged, inevitable decay that takes over small Caribbean nations. Banquettes were collapsing, the formerly slick restaurant became a worn-out lounge, and nothing, indeed, felt real.
Just as in the old days, there were the usual squabbles: "Listen man, you have no reason to be talking to my wife." A nasty fight eventually broke out, and the security guys waved off people with, "No big thing. It's just a little fight...a girl fight."
An attractive young couple, the man in black and the woman in a standard-issue Spandex miniskirt, walked up behind the second-floor disc jockey booth and began to screw, leaning against the wall and giggling. After a few moments, they scampered down to a stairwell near the dance floor and started up again with the abandon of stray dogs in heat. Everyone at the bar looked on benevolently, as if they were at Woodstock.
By 3:30 the evening had gotten to the point where it would be necessary to either throw up, die, or actually go home. The upstairs celebrity room, where the partners were hosting a private party, was a better alternative. The favored haunt of Mick and Rod and Julio, the site of all kinds of rumored late-night cavorting, was packed and fun, but hardly decadent. Lighting designer Joe Zamore manned the bar while Stephany Turchin, wife of Robert Turchin, Jr., chatted about the demands of family life. Very few people even smoked, let alone partook of more demanding vices. From there the view was definitely better, and looking out over the dance floor, a thousand nights blended into one long, glittering feast. And then suddenly, into nothing.
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