Good Night Mr. Lewis: Lesly Bernard & the Return to Adulthood
I was at a party the other night in the new basement Studio at Webster Hall. The party was for a movie called Let Them Chirp Awhile which is getting a bit of a buzz. The crowd was stunning — not the stunning used to describe the skateboarders-turned-promoters and their lovely ducklings, but stunning as in actresses and actors and successful, young, hip adults. It was a eureka moment as this crowd, above all others, has been disenfranchised by the club world. They don’t come out anymore, although they used to. I walked over to say hello to my actor friend Zach Galligan, who will never escape from the description, “You know … Zach Galligan, from Gremlins!” (Sorry Zach, that might not be how you want your career defined, but it’s great to see you in this film, and I’m looking forward to it.) The adult crowd had a blast, and that brings me to Lesly Bernard. Lesly and I have worked together in the past, and I’ve always liked hearing his point of view on things.
What I always take away from Lesly is that the adult crowds that visit his spots are better in many ways than the club crowd. Even the young people sharing cocktails last Friday night at his new restaurant, Mr. Jones, were mature. They represent a post-clubbing nightlife crowd that isn’t at all stuffy or boring … stylish people enjoying specialty drinks, listening to great music, and having conversation. Clubs, for the most part, have become mindless. They have a fury and a sexual intensity driven by loud beats and frenetic lights; this is when they are at their best. Having seats occupy most of the dance floors has precluded the need to converse, thus the nonspeaking but gorgeous model/bottle crowd has been the center of attention. A return to days of intelligent conversation may be at hand even in the clubs. The models can’t reel in the bottles as much anymore, and therefore design should shift to embrace a more cocktail-y crowd. Joints that have space may offer chill-out rooms where a smart set who don’t necessarily want to embrace the cost of dinner, but still want to get away from the boob tube, might come to strut their stuff.
Lesly Bernard is hosting us at his fantastic new restaurant, Mr. Jones. You claimed that you didn’t get the name from the song “Mr. Jones,” but I don’t believe you. First of all, do you think I listen to Counting Crows? I swear to you I didn’t come up with the name from that song.
Before restaurants you worked me with me, JellyBean Benitez, Pascal, Jacque, and Alex at Palladium on 14th Street. That was a precursor for this model-bottle crowd; you guys brought in the hippest crowd. Yeah, it was pretty hot, they had to shut down 14th Street for our party — and when I say shut down, I mean police barricades. I think 14,000 people came that night that it was Pascal, Alex, and I with you at the helm. We killed it.
We couldn’t get anyone else inside, we had to take people in the back door. I think we did 8,000 in the front and 6,000 in the back. At the time, I had never done anything in a nightclub before. I didn’t like nightclubs, so I would rent these crazy spaces — old warehouses or abandoned band shelters — to throw parties. At some point, you told me those days were over, that they were going to come shut us down — then they started shutting us down left and right. I decided we would do a nightclub if we could still make it feel cool; we had to do it our style, really make it hands-on and make it feel like it was a privilege to come there, and the thing blew up. In those days it wasn’t about bottle service; you couldn’t buy your way into these parties. The people who comprise of the nightclub scene right now — the people who are on the guestlists right now, who are buying the bottles, who are the VIP now — forget getting in, they didn’t know where the party was. By the time they found out where the party was, it was gone, it was somewhere else. I don’t think that can be done anymore.
I think it can. I think there’s nothing missing except the effort to be put in. When I go to a place like Webster Hall, and you’re in that big room and its actually pumping, there’s nothing like it. The potential of that energy still exists. Its just not enough people know how to get there because the bottle service thing has taken those people out. I think that before, there was also a real cross-section of the population. When you went to a party that we did or we were involved in, there was a mix of people — black, white, gay, straight, old, transvestite, all having a party together. But like with any other business in Manhattan, people saw we were making a killing, and decided that they wanted to get involved. So all these people who never created anything, never did anything, but had money and wanted to buy their way into business would open up a nightclub, but guess what — they couldn’t fill the club on their own, so they created these promoters who weren’t producing anything, they were just promoting. Next thing you know, there are ten nightclubs, but only four or five of them had a vision or a point of view. So people think that bottle service ruined the business, but it didn’t — the business was ruined, and then bottle service evolved out of it.
I think bottle service saved it. Yes, people would buy the nightclubs, and now there are 70 clubs with 7 nights a week to fill, and they couldn’t pack themselves, so owners started hiring promoters. So promoters say, how am I going to do this? Oh I know a lot of French people, I’ll do French Tuesdays, I know gay people, I’ll do gay nights. So in order to create these nights, they had to create seven different stories, and then it got more and more segregated. This happened because all these guys tried to get in the game who really didn’t have any business being in the game. So now that you couldn’t fill the places, you had to beg people to come, and you couldn’t beg them to come and then try to charge them. So to make money, the next privilege was to be able to sit down. But we can’t charge you to sit down, so you have to pay for the bottle. The cool people weren’t going to pay for the bottle, so now those guys that didn’t know where the party was before have to rely on the bankers to buy those bottles. So I crack up when I hear guys say, “Oh man, bottle service ruined the game.” No, no, the game was ruined, and then bottle service evolved as a result.
There was one great lesson that you taught me. We were doing an Elite Models party at the Palladium, and I was talking about blowing it up and sending out 100,000 mailers, and you said, “No, no, don’t do it, don’t tell everybody it’s going on, because everyone will walk in and see these 1,000 beautiful girls and think it’s like this every night.” It was brilliant and we followed it. It’s branding.
Tell me how that works. I do it all the time. I never want to work to enhance somebody else’s brand; I always want to enhance our brand, whatever the party is that we’re doing. My concept is, why am I going to sell Elite? That’s not going to help me next week, but if I say, “Hey, Palladium is having a great party on Fridays,” and people come and they see this place littered with beautiful girls having a good time, they think, “Wow Palladium is hot!” Then the next week, you layer it with something else, but you don’t sell that product either. So I never want to sell someone else’s brand. And for a lot of the events that we used to do, we had people basically sub-promoting the event, but we did it in such an organic way that people didn’t know. I still do it, when I do a restaurant; you’ll come to my place, and you don’t know that I might have a director having a little party here with 15 or 16 of his friends, but you have to continue that work, you have to constantly bring that, and ultimately, your brand is going to get that cachet, and it’s going to explode.
People don’t understand the amount of thought that went into this process. Yeah, I always spend 75 percent of my energy on production and 25 percent on promotion. Now people spend the exact reverse, 75 percent on promotion; just hire a lot of promoters. But what are you offering the people? We produce and the promotion will take care of itself, because the best promotion is when someone comes, has a great time, and says “I’ve gotta go back to that place.” Not someone cold-calling model apartments for clientele. One of the things that’s changed is that when we were going to do a party, my phone will start ringing, “Lesly, where’s the party?” People were calling me to find out where the party was, as opposed to now, where people are calling people to tell them where the party is … it’s completely reversed.