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Remembering the Biggest Party of Y2k

In Steve Adelman’s nightlife memoir Nocturnal Admissions, we get an inside look into the generation of dance culture on the rise at the dawn of the millennium, just before 9/11 would alter the course of our culture’s history. Embedded in these stories are anecdotes about how attitudes around queerness, dance music, and celebrity have intertwined for a generation. In its pages, we see vintage photos of today’s icons entranced in the bohemia of yesteryear, during a time before the internet, smartphones, and TikTok. In the pictures, as well as in the chapter on the biggest party of all, New Year’s Eve 2000, excerpted below, a sense of the sensual appeal of the dancefloor shines through.

Fear Factor

“Drink and dance and laugh and lie / Love, the reeling midnight through, / For tomorrow we shall die! (But, alas, we never do.)”
—Dorothy Parker

This was the elevated mood in nightlife around the world as the new century approached. New Year’s Eve was always the biggest night of the year, traditionally making two months’ profit in one shot. But this was a once-in-a-lifetime historic event and a chance to cash in on the biggest celebration the world had ever seen.

With the Lansdowne clubs able to hold a maximum of five thousand people, I’d been working on alternative locations to house the expected twenty thousand revelers. This included renting and tenting the nearby Fenway Park, which would feature live, pre-midnight countdown performances by Aerosmith and New Kids on the Block. Negotiations for Fenway had been dragging for some time, due mainly to the intricate logistics needed to pull off such an event. Not helping matters was band management, who, also seeing the opportunity to make hay, were asking double their acts’ going rates. After months of meetings, proposals, and counterproposals, the Fenway plan fell through, due mainly to a growing sense that a major crisis was looming of apocalyptic proportions.

The “Y2K Problem” evolved from the computer-programming practice of representing years with only two digits: 97, 98, 99. Many believed that when the year 2000 arrived, denoted as 00, computer systems would break down as their numbering systems became invalid. This could disrupt anything from FAA flight-tracking systems to municipal traffic lights or any number of electrical grids, leaving society in chaos.

“The Y2K Problem is the electronic equivalent of El Niño, and there will be nasty surprises around the globe,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre said.

Quickly pivoting, we drew up plans to use Lansdowne Street as an outdoor party location, creating a mini Times Square. However, without time to get the necessary permits, we quickly found ourselves back at square one.

Laxiom #7

The deal you don’t do won’t hurt you.

Financial deals are like dating. They have a rhythm to them, and if the other side isn’t responding positively, you should move on, no matter how great the disappointment. Better to have made no deal than a bad one—words that could also be applied to lessen the divorce rate.

To complicate matters, a new promoter had come to town to exploit the same fiscal opportunity with all but unlimited funds for promotion and a group of devoted regulars numbering in the millions: the Moral Majority.

A growing number of Christian leaders had taken up Y2K as a pronounced prophecy, led by Reverend Jerry Falwell, who proclaimed it “God’s instrument to shake and humble this nation.” His belief—and I use that word dubiously—was that the impending Y2K crisis would incite a worldwide revival of the church.

Jerry had taken up the cause after his latest call to arms, an attack on the purple Teletubby Tinky Winky, had fallen flat. After he claimed that Tinky Winky was intended as a gay role model that was damaging the moral lives of children, a spokesman for Itsy Bitsy Entertainment, who aired the show in the United States, gave a one-line response: “We find this absurd and offensive, as the show is aimed at preschool children.”

Unrepentant, Falwell continued to beleaguer his non-point by insisting that “he’s purple, the gay pride color, and his antenna is shaped like a triangle, the gay-pride symbol.”

Not surprisingly, Falwell’s scare-mongering tactics were followed with ministry sales of Y2K preparation kits, ordained generators, and memorabilia items marking the end of days. Many of these were emblazoned with catchy pop-culture references like “Apocalypse Now” (a theme, by the way, we’d used a month earlier at Avaland, with recreated helicopter wind blowing off our dancers’ tops and drinks from the tables).

In a moment of “crossing the aisle” in respect, I broke down and ordered what can only be described as a flair-inspired Club Kid t-shirt with a world map surrounded by bowling balls and the message “You Don’t Fuck with the Jesus” (in reference to the John Turturro character in The Big Lebowski). I mean, good is good. The group selling the item was actually Dudes for Disarray, whose retail outlet consisted of a table outside a 7-Eleven and who, unlike Falwell’s PTL Club, accepted cash only.

Falwell’s group, which I aptly dubbed the “False Profits,” were the Yankees of manipulation and hyperbole, the true masters of their own national “outlaw party.” Compared to them, the Avalon promoters were nothing but a version of the Bambino-less Red Sox. Fearmongering writ- ers sold over forty-five million books citing Y2K-disaster scenarios, from civil war and planes dropping out of the sky to the total collapse of the banking system, advocating food hoarding and a bunker mentality.

I’d faced nefarious tactics from competitors before—such as calling the fire department to falsely claim overcrowding, resulting in a visit from two screaming fire trucks and the fire chief, who proceeded to stop the music and actually count the number of guests. On numerous occasions, underage girls were paid by rivals to enter Limelight or the Palladium with well-doctored fake IDs. After they were served, a call would be made to the police impersonating the mother of the minor, complaining that her daughter had been given alcohol. Squad cars pulled up and cops checked guest IDs, which had the intended negative impact on our customers.

These cutthroat opponents of ours lacked moral clarity and were willing to do anything to survive, but none had the False Profits’ ability to inflict financial damage. They lacked the one great equalizer to turn the tide: God and his only perceived son.

I’m sure Evangelists would have said my uneasiness and potential loss of revenue from their scheme was my just reward for spending all that time at Limelight, desecrating a church for profit. To them, I’d point out that at least I never had to resort to prophesizing the “end of days,” or use fearmongering to drum up business.

The original New Year’s revenue was projected to be over $3.5 million, but now that the False Profits were gaining momentum and we were confined to the capacity of the Lansdowne clubs, this number had dropped to under $1.5 million. With December approaching, cable news couldn’t resist the drama, broadcasting segments that gave credence to outlandish theories. One revealed a political agenda in which the downfall of the government was needed to usher in the reign of Jesus. Ironically mirroring nightlife’s relationship with pop culture, the False Profits had brought Y2K from the fringe to mainstream.

Nightclub admission ticketing had yet to move to the live-concert model of advance online purchasing, leaving tickets to be purchased sole- ly at the box office. With presales falling far below expectations, two days before New Year’s Eve we were forced to cut our pricing to help generate sales.

On that same day, Patrick Lyons called me asking if I might help him get a group from one of his restaurants, Sonsie, to Avalon (eight blocks away) and ensure that they got in without waiting. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon had rented out the entire restaurant for their private family New Year’s celebration, Moral Majority be damned.

At around 8:00 pm, an hour before doors opened, I made my way to Lansdowne Street. The design crew had outdone themselves with more glitter and mylar than one thought possible. A giant countdown clock hung above the Avalon dance floor with a camera system linking all six clubs, including a live feed of Times Square. Thousands of party hats, poppers, and noisemakers lay on large tables in the entryway, anticipating guest arrivals in the thousands.

Most never came.

The Moral Majority’s message had landed with its desired impact (though it was eventually pushed back on by government officials who portrayed comments from the likes of the secretary of defense as being a “proactive precaution,” along with scholars and computer-industry experts worldwide). Fear had claimed a temporary victory over facts.

No planes fell from the sky. No banks failed. No civil wars materialized.

In the United States, the most severe incident pertaining to Y2K took place in Delaware, where 150 lottery machines stopped working.

As 11:00 pm came and went, the Lansdowne clubs were at less than fifty percent capacity. I stepped outside onto the street, which was as desolate as the day I’d arrived at John’s office. With no taxi in sight and a dark, ominous, empty Fenway Park looming over me, I made my way to Sonsie as promised, on foot as snow fell heavier by the minute. Fortunately, now that I was Steve from New York in Boston, I knew exactly where I was going.

I arrived to a half-empty celebration at Sonsie and searched for the hosts, who had yet to arrive, unable to find transportation. The majority of taxis and car services had taken the night off to avoid anarchy in the streets.

Ma Damon-Affleck (I can’t recall whose mother it was, but a composite seems appropriate given that Matt and Ben seemed inseparable at that time) watched the action on the restaurant’s makeshift dance floor. I was surprised as she rose and motioned to me to join her. Though I’d been surrounded for the past decade by thousands of people dancing on a weekly basis, this was the first time I’d actually danced myself, too busy to partake while working and purposely avoiding clubs in my free time. As I dusted off moves dating back to junior high, I envisioned all the righteous followers at home in their shelters, each with enough stored canned meat to feed a congregation. Breaking out the robot under the illuminated disco ball for what would be the last time in public, I couldn’t help but think that, even though tonight might end up being the biggest financial letdown I’d experienced, no one could take this away from me. Contrary to the teachings of the False Profits, there’s always tomorrow.

On September 11 the next year, it felt like the False Profits had been right after all. Like everyone across the world, I stared at the television in disbelief and horror as two planes kamikazed into the World Trade Center. Both flights had taken off earlier that morning from Boston’s Logan Airport, just a few miles from my apartment.

After three days of total numbness, I made my way into the office to meet with John and the now eight managers on Lansdowne. Being the largest self-contained nightclub on the East Coast put us in a “code-red” category with respect to potential future attacks, according to a private police briefing earlier that day. I had only one plan in mind: close everything until we get a clearer understanding of the situation. Not by choice, mind you, but at the urging of others looking out for my best interest. I would, however, break with that well-meaning advice one more time at a private event.

No one knew quite how to begin the meeting in such an unprecedented situation. I spoke first.

“I know you’re all still in shock, as am I,” I began, “but I thought it best to meet to discuss how to move forward. There are a lot of people involved on the street, and I’m sure they’ll be looking for answers regarding work soon enough. With that being said, I think we can all agree that we need to close for the foreseeable future.”

Silence.

“I don’t see it that way,” said John, breaking the awkward quiet. “If we close, the terrorists win.” He had an air of defiance. “Rolling up in a ball with fear is exactly what they want.”

This was met by nods all around. It was something I hadn’t considered.

“How would we keep people safe? I’m not even sure people feel secure leaving the house, let alone being in any sort of mood to go to a club.” “It doesn’t matter,” said Scott, Nick’s able replacement. “It’s the idea that counts. We need to show that we won’t be intimidated. I’ll work for

free until you can pay me.” This elicited more nods.

“I’ve got this,” added James. “We’ll have the buildings secured during the day—no ins or outs unless preauthorized. At night, we’ll search everyone. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

“It looks like the room says yay, so let’s open tonight,” instructed John. I feared the worst.

That night, guests did indeed trickle in, and the mood, though somber, was composed. The DJs kept the music sedate as Avalon turned into a large support group. The look of fear on hundreds of faces was unmistakable, but so was the look of comfort and feeling of support from sharing the experience with others. One thing was for sure: it might have taken another form, but nightlife continued on.

As the country began to grasp what had occurred, backlash was swift against those from the Middle East residing in America. Out of safety concerns, by November the majority of parents from countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey had summoned their sons back home.

In one last hurrah, Embassy regulars gathered together in the club one more time to watch the “Top Spender All-Stars” battle to determine who would end up as the GOAT.

With the night coming to an end (designated by the Gipsy Kings’ anthem “Bamboleo”), Hussain, son of an Egyptian cabinet minister, was hoisted onto the shoulders of his competitors and proclaimed victorious. He had spent four months of his tuition in one night—over $15,000— and would later say that the money was already earmarked to be spent, so he might as well do it in the most enjoyable way possible.

In the months after 9/11, nightlife took on a new importance in people’s lives. With a tornado of uncertainty and fear swirling, no matter what happened, gathering and meeting friends for drinks and dancing was always something they could count on, now more than ever. No matter what, nightlife would always be there.

This would hold true for the next eighteen years, until, for the first time in over a century, nightlife would be stopped dead in its tracks.

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