Hello there! It’s that time of week again and we’re ready to celebrate, reminisce and wax poetic about queer nightlife history. Can you believe its Friday already? Me neither. Here, have some drink tickets! You’ll need them at the Tunnel for this week’s Party Out Of Bounds.
This week seems like the perfect time to reflect on the Tunnel since that notorious “Party Monster” club kid Michael Alig was released from prison after 17 years. Poor baby–the New York City of 2014 is so different from 1997. People drink out of mason jars, Times Square sleaze is gone and the Tunnel? Well, the Tunnel now hosts art fairs. I mean, seriously ART FAIRS! Quelle horreur!!
Before the Tunnel became a site for the art world’s money pit (not a honey pit like Tunnel owner Peter Gatien was accused of constructing), the Tunnel nightclub opened in December 1986 in a cavernous former railroad freight terminal located all the way in the then desolate and slightly scary area of West Chelsea on Twelfth Avenue between 27th and 28th Street. Known for its impossibly long and narrow main dance floor, the Tunnel also featured several themed rooms such as my personal favorite–the thoroughly queer, Jetsons-inspired Kenny Scharf Lava Lounge.
Let’s get the depressing sob story out of the way now: the Tunnel closed in late 2001 after nonpayment of rent, as well as pressure from that party-pooper and enemy of filth Rudy Giuliani’s quality of life campaign.
Ok, back to our regularly scheduled gushing…
The Tunnel’s audience varied widely depending on the night, the DJ and even, room. In her study of the queer world-making possibilities of nightclubs Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making, Fiona Buckland reveals that clubs such as the Tunnel would become gayer as the night got later. As she states, “All-night clubs such as Tunnel, Arena, Limelight or Twilo (approximately 11pm to anywhere between 8am and midday or later) tended to have a mix of people until later, when it was overwhelmingly male and gay” (57).
Part of Buckland’s study for Impossible Dance required her to attend these fantastically late (or early) queer clubs all in the name of knowledge. If we could all be so lucky! Due to her intrepid research, Buckland gives a vivid description of entering into the destabilizing and disorienting environment of the Tunnel:
“To enter the place or state of queer lifeworld often seemed to enact a coming out. But even when I entered the Tunnel at the gayer hour of 5:30am, the experience felt too disorienting to be an affirmation of any orientation: as Mark, a long-time clubgoer commented,’I can no longer tell the difference between drag queens and girls from Jersey.’ There was no architectural, scopophilic, sexual or aural center to the club. The main room extended almost the length of the space. I walked through a lounge area to an emptier space in the middle of which a large bar rose like an island complete with go-go boy and muscular male bar staff. The sound of hard-house music was so omnipresent that it offered few clues as to the direction of the dance floor. I found it at one end of the long main room, not surrounded by any higher levels from which observation could take place. The dance floor was long and narrow and its boundaries were ill-defined. As a result, I found it difficult to get a sense of the mass of movement from the outside, because on the outer margins of the area, dancers were more diffuse in critical mass, density and energy” (58-9).
While the Tunnel attracted largely queer audiences, much of the recent writing revisiting the Tunnel focuses on their heavily influential Sunday hip-hop party Mecca, which began in 1993. Featuring Funkmaster Flex, Mecca attracted major and emerging figures in the rap and hip-hop community from DMX to Juvenile. In addition, Mecca also attracted a police presence with police setting up roadblocks on 11th avenue.
Even though the hip-hop history of the Tunnel is certainly significant as has been well-documented elsewhere, my interest in the Tunnel lies in the late 1980s with the emergence of those colorful club kids who took over the basement VIP lounge.
My favorite party from this era has to be Larry Tee’s Celebrity Club. Hosted by DJ, club promoter, music producer and most importantly, writer of RuPaul’s “Supermodel” Larry Tee, Celebrity Club was the New York version of Tee’s Celebrity Club in Atlanta featuring a couple of future drag queen superstars from RuPaul to Lady Bunny and Lahoma Van Zandt. Moving to New York together, Larry Tee’s Celebrity Club was reborn in the basement of the Tunnel featuring a mixed crowd ranging from voguing teens to the club kids.
“I first came to town with RuPaul, Lady Bunny and Lahoma Van Zandt, a whole gaggle of fantastic drag queens at a time when New York was suffering. A lot of the local talent had been eaten up by the AIDS crisis. We showed up dressed colorfully, like clowns, at a time when Charivari Black was the ruler. It was literally like the entire town was in mourning. As soon as I got here, Michael Alig put me to work. We did this party at the Pyramid Club, and no one came but a couple of our friends. We did these great drag shows with Ru and Bunny. Michael hired us all, and took us to the Tunnel to do the celebrity club. So I definitely owe Michael a thank you for that. He was very good at spotting new talent, for sure.”
Thankfully this star-studded and short-lived party is captured in the videos of Downtown nightlife documentarian Nelson Sullivan, a Southern queen about town who recorded some of the most fabulous, filthy and fantastic nightlife of the mid to late 1980s.
Here’s some more drink tickets, kweens, so fill up and see how many of your favorite drag queens, club kids, and other nightlife luminaries you can find in these videos!