From the gallery of Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom at 3am, you get the perfect view of the epicentre of New York nightlife. The gallery, an open hallway 5m above the clubbing throng, vibrates when the DJ turns up the bass.
Below, 1,500 people of every ethnicity dance to electronic beats in a ballroom that dates back to 1886. This is the beating heart of Manhattan. In the 1920s, New York’s Bohemian set came here to drink, defying Prohibition laws that forbade the sale of alcohol.
A 20-year-old Bob Dylan made his first recording in the Grand Ballroom in 1962 when the club was being used as a studio. Then, in 2010, a skinny guy named Skrillex dazzled the venue with his dubstep tracks – and his basslines ended up bursting the water pipes behind the bar. Two years later, he won three Grammys.
Webster Hall has remained a hub of the New York club scene for almost 130 years thanks to successive owners’ ability to recognise and promote new trends. The venue’s resident expert is its current owner, 65-year-old Lon Ballinger, a nightlife guru with a gentle voice.
THE RED BULLETIN: We’re going to start this interview with a thought experiment. Are you ready?
LON BALLINGER: Fire away…
If you had a time machine, which Webster Hall party from the past 130 years would you visit?
Jesus, there are far too many. (Thinks.) If I had to choose a single night, I’d want to look in on a burlesque show from 1910. Some of the oldest photographs of Webster Hall date from that period. The pictures show young people dancing in the Grand Ballroom in white costumes. The kids wanted to express their creativity, and our club granted them their wish.
We had expected you to say 1923, so that you could meet one of your predecessors as club boss, the notorious Al Capone…
Al Capone controlled the liquor supply in New York during Prohibition, but I don’t know if he actually ever did own Webster Hall. What we do know is that the club became a hotspot for illegal parties – a speakeasy where people drank cocktails in secret. Even Franklin D Roosevelt, who went on to become President, partied at our venue. Politicians turned a blind eye to what was going on here.
Because nightlife fulfils an important social function: people need a place to go wild. Working all the time just makes people unhappy.
In 1980, Webster Hall became home to The Ritz, which established itself as New York’s quintessential rock club. People went mad when Guns N’ Roses played a concert here…
Rock stars love the club to this day because we embody the spirit of New York. Everyone is welcome, regardless of the colour of their skin. People respect each other. When I saw David Bowie in the club not long back…
David Bowie parties at your club?
He comes here to watch new bands play. Bowie discovered Arcade Fire at their concert here [in 2005]. Years later, he sang on their album.
It’s not only indie bands such as Arcade Fire who perform at the club – death metal acts and electronic music DJs come here, too. Sometimes on the same day. Do you think that’s an unusual mix?
No, because we’re creating a line-up for the Spotify generation. The kids respect different music genres, and the mix we have keeps us relevant. Last year, there were 143,000 tweets sent from events at Webster Hall – that’s more than from any other concert venue in the US.
But you have to find new artists to assert your place in the market, and all that in a musical metropolis like New York. How do you go about recognising a new trend?
By not trying to be a trendsetter.
Yes. Successful people are always two steps behind the trendsetters, because not every new idea is a good one.
The bookers at Webster Hall are obviously expert at recognising a good idea when they see one. Your weekly Girls & Boys club night, which has been running since 2008, has been the launch pad for a whole string of current superstar DJs: Skrillex, Deadmau5…
The guy with the huge mouse mask on his head! I still remember that very well. We paid him $700 for the gig.
By the latest estimate, Deadmau5 now earns $15 million a year…
That’s our job: helping young acts. Sometimes the gamble pays off and they come back as stars. We had The Black Keys playing here, and Kings of Leon. When they performed at the club the first time, neither band had as many fans as they do now. But we thought they were an interesting bunch of guys, so we gave them a chance.
OK, so let’s get back into the time machine again and look to the future. What do you think nightlife will be like 20 years from now?
Maybe there will be interactive video screens hanging up in clubs by then, or we’ll be using new social media apps. But actually I don’t think all this technology is that important.
Because really clubs are about something else. Men and women want to meet, have fun and see what happens. That’s the core of nightlife. And that is never ever going to change.