The John Blair Project
The king of gay nightlife is also a player among the city’s power brokers
by Matt Kalkhoff

He’s the newly crowned king of gay New York nightlife - the owner of xl bar, a partner of Estate (formerly 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, honest reputation.

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 there.”

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 him.

“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 or wrong.”

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 Act”).

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, Village Voice.

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 Sunday parties.

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 megaclub.

“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.

© 2003 Matt Kalkhoff

These articles appeared in NY Blade on May 23, 2003