When Webster Hall reopens under new ownership after a nearly 18-month renovation, the iconic venue plans to do away with its weekly club nights and branch deeper into the concert realm instead, VP of concerts Heath Miller said.
There was an “overwhelming response of sadness” after the temporary closure was announced last month, according to director of operations Gerard McNamee. His July Facebook post revealing that Thursday would be the club’s last night before its extended hiatus was shared more than 3,700 times within a half hour.
Known as one of the few clubs open to 19-year-olds, the landmarked East Village nightclub built in 1886 became a staple for coming-of-age teens after opening under the ownership of brothers Steve and Lon Ballinger on Oct. 2, 1992.
“I kind of grew up there. I think a lot of people in my generation have grown up with Webster Hall in their story,” said Kayvon Zand, a 31-year-old Midtown East resident who's been a patron of the club for 13 years. He also worked as a party planner for several DJ events there, he said.
For years, ladies filled the club floor on Thursdays for the weekly Girls Night Out party, Fridays drew an alternative crowd for Trash events and Saturday night Gotham parties brought out the techno-lovers. That all might change when the club reopens.
The staff was told there would be forthcoming changes to the venue when the Ballingers announced plans to sell the club to Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment and AEG Presents nearly one year ago, but it wasn't what they were expecting, Miller, 36, said.
“When I was first told about the sale, it was supposed to be a short closure for minor renovations and I was told the buyers had plans to retain the venue staff, but now the closure period has grown to 18-plus months and that plan has switched from a short-term closure to a long-term closure,” he said.
The revamp include plans to transform the existing Marlin concert room, one of five party spaces in the venue, into a waiting room, according to documents filed by Manhattan Community Board 3 in April.
“She’s an old gal. She needed a face-lift.”
With alterations brewing, McNamee and Miller said they’re hopeful the updates won’t take away from the historic charm that New Yorkers have come to know.
“[The new owners] will embrace the history and character and they’re going to improve on it. She’s an old gal. She needed a face-lift,” McNamee said. “We might lose a bit of our street cred, but I think it’s going to be a beautiful thing.”
But Webster Hall is no stranger to reinvention. The building was used as a labor and political rally site in 1910, a speak-easy in the 1920s, RCA Records’ East Coast recording studio in 1953 and was The Ritz nightclub in 1980.
“When will you play Webster?”
After finding out the renovations would be more extensive than expected, the staff has been working around the clock to put together a worthy farewell celebration. Queens rapper Action Bronson will close out the venue Thursday night with a special performance, followed by a final Girls Night Out club event with longtime DJ DLo. The evening will also include a rare public appearance by owner Lon, who’s kept a behind-the-scenes profile over the years.
“I was really trying to find a New Yorker,” Miller, who lives in the East Village, said about why he chose Action to close out the venue. “I’d run into him and say, ‘when will you play Webster?’ and he’d say, ‘I know, I know!’ He’s played the studio a lot. I never had him play the main room, so this might be his last chance to play.” Action’s rep said he wouldn’t be available to comment on his history with Webster.
Aside from Action, artists like Frank Ocean and A$AP Rocky — who stopped by as special guests during the final weekend — also jumped on the opportunity to be a part of Webster’s send-off after hearing that the venue was closing.
“A lot of the artists that wanted to try to play here in the final weeks weren’t available and other artists took it as we’re closing for a little, but not forever. There’s been a mixed response,” he said.
Skrillex, a patron of the venue himself, returned to play the final club night Saturday. Michelle Branch, who brought everyone back to the early 2000s in the Grand Ballroom Tuesday night, took the Webster crew out for drinks after her set.
“We threw big wild parties and we did it very well.”
But the close-knit connection between the venue and its patrons and artists is nothing new.
“People who worked there, we were all a family,” Webster’s resident photographer Carlos Alayo, 32, said. “It was a very intimate venue. Compared to MSG or Barclays, you felt it was very private. You were closer with the artist and the other fans.”
Between the venue’s multiple party rooms, worn-out marble staircases and storied bars, Webster’s long history can be sensed by any clubgoer and performer alike.
“When you walk into Webster Hall there is a feeling of energy … You are part of something bigger,” Mike Montali, 32, said. An Astoria resident, Montali plays the guitar and sings lead vocals for the rock band Hollis Brown, which has performed at the venue six times.
As a venue that legally allowed underage teens entry, club night at Webster became a right of passage for young adults in the tri-state area, McNamee said.
“We threw big wild parties and we did it very well. We let people have a good time, and at the same time we looked after them and cared for them,” he explained, adding that the staff was often on the phone with parents, helping the teens find lost items or a way home if need be.
It was that Ballinger family-style management that helped the Webster crew maintain relationships with talent and patrons alike.
“Ballinger left his DNA in the business and made it his in a special way,” Miller said. For instance, allowing the staff to dress however they wanted helped the venue gain its own identity, he added. Bartenders in spiked bras and boots became “important to the culture of Webster.”
Between Madonna’s 1995 pajama party to celebrate the premiere of her “Bedtime Story” music video and the 1996 Clinton campaign rally that drew the likes of James Earl Jones and Kathleen Turner, Webster Hall has thrown countless memorable parties under its current ownership, and patrons remain optimistic that the tradition will continue into the future.
“For my generation, it is a closing, but I’m sure for the next generation they will build their own memories there,” Zand said.