Weeknight doldrums? Not at the China Club.
Cross “The Cotton Club” with “Saturday Night Fever,” add a dash of “Star Wars” (remember the interplanetary saloon?) and you’ll have an idea of the scene that unfolds every Monday night at the China Club, the venerable dance palace and rock club at 75th Street and Broadway. Call it Monday Night Fever.
“Monday at China,” which began six years ago as a promotion for what is generally the deadest night of the week in clubland, has become an exotic nocturnal institution, attracting an enthusiastic crowd of 800 to 1,100 over the course of an evening year-round.
At midnight on a recent Monday, the head doorman, Kevin McLean, who also works security for Elton John and other stars, held the gathering crowd in check. With his take-no-prisoners eyes, he parted the way for a dapper couple who had just pulled up in a white limousine.
Downstairs, at the entrance to the medium-size arena (about 5,700 square feet) that used to be a chess-and checkers club, Chris Sileo was surveying the stream of partyers who were trickling through the turnstile. “I like to see what’s coming in,” said Mr. Sileo, 30, one of the mangers, who has worked there since it was opened, nine years ago. “I grew up here, so I like to keep things cool.”
At the circular 100-foot main bar, Billy Kelly, Jack Pashkin and T.J. — all longtime China Club regulars — were getting up to speed, while the giant fish in the giant tank above them swam to their own drummer. The Shot Bar by the dance floor and the V.I.P. Bar, in the adjoining room, had yet to open.
Near the main bar, Ralph Ade, an elegantly attired 50-ish architect, had taken up his usual station, a mahogany pillar festooned with bronze plaques bearing the names and monikers of various club stalwarts. Mr. Ade (known around the club as Ralph the Pole) said he had been attending Mondays at the club since the tradition started, in 1988 (“I may have missed two or three”). A plaque in his honor reads “Ralph’s Pole.”
On the House Deck, a promenade reserved for celebrities and special guests of the management, the greeter-cum-security man, Bill Stanton, a genial, hefty former New York City police officer, was on the lookout for the small but reliable number of bona bide stars who participate in the rites of Monday.
Donna Stefano, a fashion consultant and a Monday-night regular for six years, said: “People live for Mondays. And everyone has to call their boss on Tuesday to say that they’re late.” That’s also part of the ritual.
In fact, the Monday-night ritual did not originate at the China Club, but at Heartbreak, the SoHo dance hall that Jay McInerney wrote about in “Bright Lights, Big City.” The brainchild of Frankie Scinlaro, a club promoter, Mondays at Heartbreak became a downtown standby in the mid-1980′s, before that club’s demise.
In 1987, when the China Club’s owners, Daniel Fried, Michael Barrett and David Boyd, were looking for a way to enliven the start of the week, they asked Mr. Scinlaro to rework his Monday-night magic uptown.
And he did. He also took along Heartbreak’s disc jockey, Dina Regine, who has been working Mondays at the club ever since. She plays a mix of hard-driving ’70s and contemporary soul, rhythm-and-blues, and disco, all of it eminently danceable.
“I try to get it as funky as I can get it,” said Ms. Regine, 30, who writes and performs folk music on her own time. At the club, her most popular Monday-night numbers include “The Sign” by Ace of Base, “Give It Up” by the Goodmen, “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor and James Brown’s “Sex Machine.”
A majority of Monday-nighters, perhaps 70 percent, are fixtures, like Ralph the Pole or Bob Devine. Mr. Devine, a plastics executive in his 50s, said he went every Monday even if it meant flying into town for the evening. His section of the House Deck is designated by a plaque that reads “The Devine Area.”
While most of the regulars come to mingle and dance, others come to talk business. Models and actresses rub elbows with the visiting (mostly male) royals of the movie, music and sports worlds. In recent months, these have included Madonna, John Goodman, Charlie Sheen, Kathleen Turner and Bruce Willis, David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton and numerous members of the Yankees, the Rangers and the Knicks.
Above all, the crowd is strikingly eclectic. The mix one recent Monday included pilots, at least one flight attendant, at least one magazine editor, a concert master from Sri Lanka, several garment manufacturers, lots of lawyers, three strippers, college students and bankers, as well as people who professed not to work at all.
Propped against a mirrored wall on the House Deck, one of the owners, Mr. Fried, was playing host to the first V.I.P. guest of the night, the actor Judd Nelson, while a group of models at the next table looked on. “Danny, David and Michael know how to make me feel comfortable without catering to me,” Mr. Nelson said.
A former clothing manufacturer, Mr. Fried jestingly likens himself to Rick Blaine, the Humphrey Bogart role in “Casablanca.” He does not smoke, but turned out in a cream-colored jacket and with a thin crust of ennui, he looks the part.
Inside the club’s tiny, bomb-shelterlike office, Mr. Barrett, a former police officer and antiques dealer who plays the hail-fellow Jack Dempsey role at the club, was regaling several friends with his rendition of “Danny Boy.” Over on the dance floor several couples began to cut loose to the high volume beat of “Oye Como Va” by Santana.
In the nine years the China Club has been open — a comparatively long time for any nightclub in Manhattan — it has also gained a reputation as a good place for live rock-and-roll, including jam sessions, particularly on Wednesdays, when musicians like Jimmy Page and David Bowie have been known to take the stage.
On Mondays, unless you’re a regular, gaining admission is difficult, but not impossible. “Dress well, look well behaved, and there is a reasonable chance of your getting in,” Mr. Fried said. “And if you’re a guy, don’t come in a group. We never let in groups of guys. It makes all the women nervous.”
Virtually all of the Monday-night regulars cited the visible, yet unintimidating security arrangements as a reason for their loyalty. Unlike the security staff at many other clubs, the seven men on duty each Monday are armed with nothing heavier than large biceps and penetrating stares.
“Security is a major issue, especially for women, and it’s very well taken care of here,” said Denise Younger, a music promoter and one of the V.I.P. guests. “The bouncers are calm and cool. No heavy muscle stuff.”
(The club has one blemish on its safety record: last year a man fired a pistol into the floor in an apparent effort to impress his girlfriend. Security sprang into action, and no one was injured.)
“It really feels like a living room — Danny, David and Michael’s living room,” said Candace Olah, a merchandising representative from Paterson, N.J., who frequently stops by the club on Mondays. “There aren’t too many other places in New York where I would even think of coming alone.”
At 2 A.M., the club was reaching full boil. On the sidewalk outside, the group of well-coiffed supplicants trying to get Mr. McLean’s attention had grown to perhaps 100. Downstairs, the aisles around the main bar were jammed. The bartenders were up to fourth gear, serving three or four drinks a minute. The V.I.P. Room had opened and was packed. So was the dance floor, where about 300 people were bumping and grinding, singing and grooving to “We Are Family.”
Ralph the Pole was still at his station, sipping Cognac.