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David Barton on His New Gym, Ex, and Sexuality

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As the man credited with pioneering the idea of the gym as nightclub, David Barton is responsible for me even going to a gym for a few weeks, way back in the ‘90s. Partly thanks to great trainers and equipment—not to mention mirrors, house music, and a lively steam room—his first gym in Chelsea in 1991 was a hit, followed by a total of six gyms (including ones in Miami and Chicago) and a NYC move to the YMCA on West 23rd Street. In 2011, the company went bankrupt, supposedly after extravagant expenditure, not to mention the bursting of the gym bubble, but now Barton has risen again, like a flexing muscle. With new partners, he’s opening TMPL, described as his “most cutting edge gym”—in Hell’s Kitchen, naturally—and the gala first night on March 22 will be hosted by Susanne Bartsch, his Swiss-born party promoter ex-wife of 15 years. Here’s our workout—I mean conversation:

Hello, David. How is this gym different from your past ones?

It’s a model I‘ve been working on for years, where I’m leveraging some technology that’s not been used before. That’s for the sake of cool technology being cool, but also to create a more efficient way for people to get in shape and change their body and get leaner, stronger, more beautiful—whatever they want to achieve in a gym. Metabolic science has gotten to a place where you can isolate the issues that people have with their metabolism that prevent or slow down their getting in shape. Most of us do have these issues via genetic, environmental, or age related reasons, and also we’re stressed out. The situation is much easier to isolate due to the accuracy and precision of the science and the efficiency of computer technology. Because of this, every person can be treated as individuals, not as one big group of members. And this gym is bigger and more equipped. There’s a giant room for doing just lower body, for people who don’t want to wait for a place to do squats. And there’s a spin room. It’s like an Imax theater—surrounded by a screen—so it’s like virtual reality. It’s like a ride at Universal Studios. You can cycle and you’re surrounded by this visual experience, which makes it that much more exciting.

Does TMPL continue your gym as nightclub idea?

I never thought of them as nightclubs.  This is a place for a cool hang, or for people to see their friends, a place for community. Some of the past gyms more than others have given people the sense of underground nightclubs. This a little less so.

Are you still the CEO of David Barton Gyms?

No. I left in 2013 to do this [though the company still carries his name]. I want to make this one perfect.

But you’re still straight? People seem to want you to be gay, lol.

Somebody said to me, “They say you’re gay.” I said, “Who?” They said, “The gays.” I said, “It’s nice that they want me.” But Michael, you know me for a long time.

I know. And I’ve been trying to get you for years. Kidding!

I have all the gay genes except the one where you like sleeping with men.

So you’ve never even tried it?

Not yet.

Well, you’re not gay, but are you a gay icon?

(Laughs) No, but I like to think that somebody considers me a gay icon. That’s nice to hear.

What was the recipe for you and  Susanne Bartsch when you clicked as a couple? Opposites attract?

I don’t know. Actually, we have a lot in common. We get along great. She’s beautiful. Why she was attracted to me, you’d have to ask her.

Well. You’re both savvy businesspeople.

Thank you. I always found her to be beautiful, sexy, and an exciting person.

What does David Barton do for pure enjoyment, other than work and relationships?

Right now, it’s all work and no play. But I play drums in the band Liquid Blonde. I love music. I like hearing bands too.

If the music took off, would you drop everything and pursue that?

I do have this fantasy of going cross country in a tour bus, but I don’t know if I’d drop everything. I do love that part of my life. I actually thought I was going to be a career musician. I fell into the gym thing, which I guess became my calling.

So, growing up, you weren’t into fitness?

Not really. I played some sports. But when I first walked into a gym, I was sold. I thought this was the coolest thing. I walked into this basement gym, and it smelled like muscles ripped apart and sweat and there was no air conditioning. It was really cool.

Yuck. That sounds horrible.

No, it was cool.

I guess we’ll have to agree to like different things. So you weren’t a jock before that?

I wasn’t a team sport guy. My parents would push me into sports, but I wasn’t a team player. But I’d go into a gym and there’d be guys lifting weights and local cops working out next to local gangsters. Everyone was cool in the gym. It was a slightly dangerous environment, and these guys took me under their wing because I was a kid—I was 12—and they taught me bodybuilding. I was born in Queens and went to a gym in Brooklyn. We were living in the Jersey Shore and I’d hitchhike to a gym in a guy’s basement.

Before that, were you bullied?

No. I was small, and there were a lot of big Irish kids, and I was a little Jewish kid. It toughened me out, but I wasn’t bullied. By the way, you have to come to the new gym and work out!

Talk about bullying! Oh, OK. I’ll come back—we have several decades of catching up to do with my body. Thanks, David. Break a lateral muscle!

RIVER’S EDGE

More of a mental and emotional workout, Take Me To The River is Matt Sobel’s tensely atmospheric film about a gay teen who goes with his parents to a Nebraska family reunion in red shorts and shades while trying to hold back revelations about his sexuality, even though they would clear him in accusations that spring up about his behavior with a young female cousin. After a MoMA screening, Out’s R. Kurt Osenlund moderated a discussion, during which Nebraska-born Sobel revealed, “The idea for this film came to me in a nightmare. I had a nightmare that I was at a family reunion and being falsely accused of something inappropriate.” Former Disney star Logan Miller, who’s terrific in the lead role, seemed to think his character’s trajectory is less than nightmarish. He said, “I play the California gay teen that’s totally separated from this world, but he tends to realize that everyone has their own things they’re going through and everyone’s trying to work their way through the craziness of family dynamics and life.” He added that his character is mainly motivated by “fear of what people think of him, fear of what his uncle Keith is going to do.” Robin Weigert, who plays his mother, chimed in that fear has motivated a lot of the choices in her career. “Fear is often the signal that I should do something, not turn away from it,” Weigert said. “My first break was Deadwood. I remember having so much fear that first season. I’d only done theater before that. Calamity Jane [her character] was unbelievably butch in a way that isn’t even appetizing. I thought I’d be not just rejected, but reviled on a deep level by many people.” The 2013 lesbian awakening film Concussion, she said, also terrified her, and so did this film, which required “a huge leap of faith” because it was a first-time director whose imprint was little known. Well, I obviously need to be way more scared of things I write since that kind of emotion usually leads to good work.

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YOU’VE GOT FEMALE

A charming jewel of a show, She Loves Me is the 1963 musical based on the source material for the film The Shop Around The Corner, which later became the Judy Garland flick In The Good Old Summertime and decades later turned into the technology-age You‘ve Got Mail. The Budapest-set musical—about bickering parfumerie coworkers who don’t realize they’re actually loving pen pals—has had many lives, including a 1993 Scott Ellis-directed revival that soared with the material. Well, Ellis has done well with it again, starting from scratch and coming up with another enjoyable Roundabout revival. Laura Benanti is winning, and sings like a nightingale, as the verbal sparring partner of Georg (an amiable Zachary Levi). Her exuberant “Vanilla Ice Cream”—as she unexpectedly falls for Georg--is one of the evening’s true highlights. Jane Krakowki is adorable as Ilona, the coworker who’s tired of being guys’ plaything and who’s now fallen for an optometrist she met, atypically enough, at a library. Reliable Michael McGrath makes every moment count as a crafty and funny employee, Byron Jennings is flustered yet warm as the shop’s owner, and Peter Bartlett is a scream as a high-strung headwaiter insisting on “A Romantic Atmopshere” at the café where Benanti waits for her man. The characters are all flawed but lovable—and even the bad guy, Steven Kodaly, isn’t that horrible. (Gavin Creel is noticeably cast against type in the role, but manages to pull off his two songs.) With a book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock, She Loves Me is a sweet, old fashioned whiff of fine perfume. (There’s even nostalgia within the nostalgia, as Jennings sings an ode to his glory time, “Days Gone By.”) Nothing groundbreaking here, but the aroma is certainly more pleasing than the inevitable remake about bickering coworkers who meet on Tinder. 

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JOI TO THE WORLD

At 21, aspiring actress Alexis Hunter came to Hollywood from Kansas and landed a part in a low budget monster movie starring blond sexpot Joi Lansing (a pinup girl in the Jayne Mansfield/Mamie Van Doren mold, one who popped up in classics like Touch of Evil, as well as camp nuggets like Queen of Outer Space). Unexpectedly but excitingly, the two became friends, then deeply involved lovers, while keeping their relationship from the world by pretending that Alex was actually Joi’s little sister. Hunter recounts it all in her new book, Joi Lansing: A Body To Die For, telling the reader, “I wrote it to show the love that can exist between two human beings, regardless of sexual orientation. Joi had loved men the majority of her life. She was ‘straight’. When we met, we connected as soul mates with a love that evolved into an all-encompassing, committed relationship. This is not just a lesbian story. It is a love story.” Check out this interesting peek behind the glare of Hollywood tinsel. It’s quite a workout.

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