Arthur Weinstein, Starter of Nightclubs, Dies at 60
July 16, 2008
In the glittery, manic, often ostentatiously naughty 1970s and ’80s, Arthur Weinstein was king of the night. His kingdom was a new breed of nightclubs that transcended disco balls, tired formulas and strobe lights to become ultrahip destinations for those deemed worthy of entering.
He died last Wednesday in Manhattan at the age of 60. His wife, Colleen, said the cause was head and neck cancer. A friend, Steve Lewis, posted a message on the Web saying Mr. Weinstein had died of “beauty.”
“He was trapped by the drug called clubs, its kaleidoscope-like enchantment, its vision, its pitfalls,” wrote Mr. Lewis, who worked in clubs with Mr. Weinstein.
Months before the celebrated Studio 54 opened, in April 1977, people with first names like Calvin and Bianca were frequenting Hurrah, a club at Broadway and 62nd Street that Mr. Weinstein and his partners owned. There was no velvet rope to separate the beautiful and desired; instead, the club had a private list of the preferred.
Mr. Weinstein later opened illegal after-hours clubs downtown that mixed the fashionable and the young and artistic. The kids had radically odd colors of hair, and the coat-checker was a transvestite.
Mr. Weinstein’s position as an after-hours outlaw led to his paying bribes to police officers, and then, under threat of federal prosecution, to wearing a hidden microphone to catch rogue officers. He was proud of the illegal clubs — the Jefferson on East 14th Street and the Continental on West 25th.
“It was the first time anyone decided to open an after-hours club for nice people,” he told The Observer, the London newspaper, in 2004. “Not scum.”
Mr. Weinstein had another success with the World, a Lower East Side club — this one legal — distinguished by chandeliers, rotting rococo sofas, cherry syrup lights and a V.I.P. room where Stolichnaya — and perhaps other substances — flowed limitlessly. A former fashion photographer, he designed dazzling lighting systems for many other clubs, including the Limelight and the Tunnel.
In an interview, Ian Schrager, who operated Studio 54 with Steven Rubell, placed Mr. Weinstein and his clubs on a continuum of New York night life that extends back through the Stork Club and the Cotton Club.
“Arthur is part of that,” said Mr. Schrager, who now develops hotels and other properties. “He would be one of the important people around that world that you would have to talk about.”
Mr. Schrager praised Hurrah as the first ’70s nightclub with style, meaning that it wasn’t “merely painted black.” He continued, “It was the first one that upped the stakes a bit.”
Scott Taylor, a bartender at Studio 54 who teamed with Mr. Weinstein in most of his clubs, said Mr. Weinstein was driven by a desire to be happy.
“We were like circus people,” he said in an interview. “We never did it for money. We did it because this is what you did.”
Arthur Alan Weinstein was born in Manhattan on Dec. 15, 1947, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Seton Hall. He briefly taught in high school, then got a job with a silk-screening firm, learning a skill he used until he died. He next worked as a fashion photographer, mixing with models and other celebrities.
Mr. Weinstein later got a job as a waiter at Le Jardin, a club on West 43rd Street, where he skimmed money by keeping the cash he collected from customers and submitting free drink tickets to bartenders instead, according to Anthony Haden-Guest in his book “The Last Party.”
With partners, Mr. Weinstein opened Hurrah in November 1976. With a homey atmosphere and eclectic fashion shows (one was for footwear only), it soared. Then Studio 54 opened. Hurrah skidded and closed.
“Steve built a better mousetrap,” Mr. Weinstein said.
Mr. Weinstein struggled unsuccessfully to turn the defunct Bond clothing store in Times Square into a club. (Someone else later did.) He then found the Jefferson, a defunct theater on East 14th, but was unable to cement the deal to turn it into a club. But he moved his family into a loft above the theater. When he started to build a bar there, his wife realized that he planned to turn their home into a club.
“You mean you don’t want a nightclub in your apartment?” Mr. Weinstein said, according to Mr. Haden-Guest’s book.
Actually, she did, because the family needed money. She decorated the place with vintage furniture and funky wallpaper: little pink elephants drank champagne over the bar. The first customer, on New Year’s Eve 1980, was Christie Brinkley. But the Jefferson closed five months later.
From 1981 to 1983, Mr. Weinstein ran the Continental, which his wife also dressed up in a jaunty retro style. His final success as a club owner was with the World, which he ran in the mid-’80s. After it, too, closed, he designed lighting for other clubs and pursued silk-screening and other artistic interests.
In addition to his wife, the former Colleen Mudery, Mr. Weinstein is survived by his daughter, Dahlia Weinstein, of Manhattan; his brother, Robert, of San Mateo, Calif.; and his mother, Renee Weinstein, of West Caldwell, N.J.
Dean Johnson, described in Mr. Haden-Guest’s book as a “drag queen rock and roller,” posted a reminiscence on the Internet about the time he was working the door of the Save the Robots club on the Lower East Side. A man he was reluctant to admit declared he was Mr. Weinstein’s brother.
A few minutes later, Mr. Weinstein showed up and asked if Mr. Johnson had indeed turned away his brother. “Yes,” he answered.
Mr. Weinstein was impressed by Mr. Johnson’s spunk. “Would you like to come work for me?” Mr. Weinstein asked. A week later, Mr. Johnson was doorman at the World.