He’s the newly crowned king of
gay New York nightlife - the owner of xl bar, a partner of
Limelight) and the longtime promoter of Saturday nights at
Roxy, probably the most successful run of any gay club event
in New York’s history.
What isn’t as well known about John Blair is that he
is also one of the best-connected out gay men in the city’s
intricate web of political insiders and power brokers. With
Mayor Bloomberg, the police and the courts showing no sign
of easing up on the crackdown begun by Giuliani, today’s
nightclub impresario may need all the help he can get.
But Blair, a youthful-looking 54-year-old, survives and thrives
in a cutthroat business. At least as important - and no less
extraordinary - he has also managed to sustain an upfront,
Blair’s career began by accident in the mid-1970s.
To promote gyms he owned in Los Angeles and San Francisco,
he threw parties for his mostly gay clientele. When he tried
to discontinue the events, the owners offered to pay him to
continue - a novel concept at the time.
By the time Blair opened the Body Center, the first truly
gay-oriented gym in New York back in 1978, he had perfected
a unique marketing formula. “I used to go to Studio
54 and give these free passes to every cute boy around,”
he reveals. “So after a while, our gym had every Studio
54 gay boy there. Steve Rubell and his crew used to come to
our parties all the time. Then he recruited us to start working
High-profile stints at nearly every major club in the city,
from Underground to Limelight, Twilo and Palladium, followed.
For six months, he even had a restaurant on Ninth Avenue and
22nd Street. Roxy, however, remains his longest-running gig,
and it was there that Blair introduced the city to its first
gay roller skating night back in the early 1980s. He later
took over promoting Saturday nights and has continued ever
since, excepting a year at Twilo and Palladium.
Blair also helped introduce superstar DJs Victor Calderone
and Peter Rauhofer to gay New Yorkers. Lately, he imported
Tracy Young, Thunderpuss and Manny Lehman. Performances by
Madonna, Bette Midler and Cher solidifed Roxy’s reputation
as the undisputed place to be on Saturday nights.
Political & community involvement
In 2001, Blair and his partner of 13 years (both in business
and life), Beto Sutter, unveiled xl bar along with business
partner Jay Janis. The ultramodern design and high-tech lighting,
which reportedly cost around $2.5 million, raised the bar
several notches higher for urban watering holes.
Blair has used xl to host a variety of fund-raisers and political
functions. A major supporter of the Hetrick-Martin Institute
and Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Blair was a staunch advocate
of Mark Green’s 2002 mayoral bid. Green called his old
friend “a community leader who fights for the gay community
with as much smarts and passion as any advocate for any cause
in the city.” He also cited Blair’s “loyalty,
energy and honesty.”
Blair has also lent his support to other politicians, including
New York State Senator Tom Duane, Chelsea Councilwoman Christine
Quinn, and State Assembly Member Deborah Glick. He may not
always agree with every position or policy, but, according
to Blair, they all have one thing in common: They listen to
“You’re never going to have a politician with
whom you agree 100 percent,” Blair said. “You
have to look at the broad picture. All you can ask for from
a politician is that they listen. Will they take your phone
call? Will they listen to your side, and not be one-sided?”
Blair himself said he doesn’t have the patience to
be politician. He has, however, managed to maintain a close
connection to city politics through his appointed seat on
Community Board 4.
Blair got involved with CB4 four years ago because he said
they had no idea what New York nightlife was really about.
“It was really an eye-opening experience,” Blair
recalled. “I think it’s a very smart thing for
a club owner to do because it will cure you [of your cynicism]
when you see something from someone else’s point of
view. Nothing’s black and white; no one’s right
While it might seem like a conflict of interest for Blair
to be involved with the very influential decision of the community
board about liquor and cabaret licenses for other gay venues,
Blair maintains that he abstains from voting when a business
represents direct competition.
Instead, he says his expertise contributes to the board’s
decision making. “It’s harder for someone to pull
something over on the Board if we’re there, knowing
the business the way we do,” Blair insists. “It
really does benefit the Board to have somebody who really
knows what they’re talking about.”
City’s nightlife under siege
Blair’s political connections might end up proving to
be an invaluable asset to ensure his own survival. Ever since
federal prosecutors targeted former club king Peter Gatien
in a drug sting that proved unsuccessful but nonetheless forced
him to sell his nightclubs, the city and federal government
have been targeting bars and nightclubs with fines, court
orders (Sound Factory must now employ a drug dog to sniff
entering patrons), Prohibition-style raids, and now, the infamous
Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003 (“the RAVE
Under the broadly written law, promoters and club owners
could be liable for patrons’ activities with penalties
ranging from a $250,000 fine per charge to 20 years in prison.
The new law also allows the federal government to charge property
owners civilly, thus affording prosecutors a lower standard
of proof than is required in criminal cases. “If it
was used exactly the way it was meant to be used, it could
be beneficial,” Blair said. “But it’s too
open to abuse.”
Estate@Limelight has involved Blair in some public squabbling
with his Flatiron Group business partners, which includes
Ben Ashkenazi and his wife, Deborah, Jay Janis, Joseph Klaynberg
and embattled Exit owner David Marvisi. Marvisi was the subject
of a scathing investigative article in the March 4, 2003,
Blair claimed that Ashkenazi snuck Marvisi in sometime after
they completed their initial dealings. “I walked into
a meeting, and there’s David Marvisi,” he recalled.
“It was not a situation that I chose, or that Joseph
or Jay chose.” Marvisi apparently offered to help pay
$400,000 in back property taxes owed by the venue’s
previous owner, Peter Gatien, according to the Voice.
Marvisi then began promoting and producing several of the
club’s straight parties, but he and Blair frequently
clashed. Ironically, Estate’s most lucrative night -
and only source of revenue for three months - was Blair’s
For the record, Blair and his partners own the lease while
Blair himself is the managing partner of the liquor license
- a complicated scenario, indeed. And Blair maintained that
it was a strictly economic decision to close Estate earlier
this year. Unlike Exit and Sound Factory, the club was not
shuttered because of alleged illegal drug use.
A new partnership has now been formed with Blair the sole
original member. After buying out Marvisi, Ashkenazi and the
others, Blair must now tackle the arduous task of reconfiguring
the licenses to satisfy the promises he made to the State
Liquor Association. Blair hopes to reopen the club this summer
under yet another new name.
Despite the often-scandalous nature and shady business dealings
endemic to nightlife here, GHB may prove to be a bigger threat
than the government could ever be. GHB overdoses ended the
highly lucrative GMHC Morning Party on Fire Island, and the
staff’s mishandling of ODs at Twilo helped close that
“GHB could be the death nail in the nightclub business,”
Blair complains. “I’ve been in this business for
a couple decades, and I’ve never seen a more dangerous,
more destructive, or scarier drug than that. We’re not
the moral police, but we also have a liquor license to protect,
and we do have some responsibility for the people who are
in our venue. The future of nightlife rests more in the hands
of the patron than it does in the club owner’s.”
With a 25-year track record, Blair has proven he is a survivor.
Whatever vagaries of gay nightlife or obstacles occur, he
will probably find a way to ride them out and continue to
expand his mini-empire.