This article originally appeared in the November 1999 issue of OUT.
The most important downtown nightclub of the '90s wants to stay just that. Jackie 60, the Tuesday night event at the New York club called Mother, is closing its doors on December 28, after nine years of frenzied fun. Jackie—named for any number of reasons its major domos would rather leave a myster—created a stir well beyond its smoke-filled, ramshackle walls. By providing a celebration of left-of-center art aimed at a crowd of diverse clubbies, the esoteric, two-floor event prided itself on refusing to pander to mainstream tastes. Its makeshift shows spoofed everything from Broadway schlockmeisters to punk-rock dinosaurs to club-kid murdered, but always with a nod to the knowing, a top of the hat to those who got the references. If you didn’t get it, you could just get out!
The Jackie experience gave downtown personalities from performance artist John Kelly to drag king Mo B. Dick an intimate venue in which to experiment and surprise. While the larger clubs generally went for pure dance, Jackie fancied itself an entertainment complex for those who don’t get—or don’t have—TV. An extension of the drag performance scene honed at '80s East Village clubs, Jackie served up evening so outrageous that drugs simply weren’t necessary.
Jackie 60, replete with House of Domination in-house entertainers, became the modern equivalent of Warhol's Factory, a collaborative group of bohemian folks who became “superstars” by nature of their creative energy. They lived to entertain, but with a dark edge, a daring chutzpah. Inviting crowds to dress for each week’s theme, they also whipped together reliable regular happenings like Jackie’s Playhouse stage shows (their answer to Masterpiece Theatre, with topics ranging from Jackie Susann to JonBenet Ramsey), the Night of a Thousand Stevies (a marathon tribute to the ever-twirling Ms. Nicks, with dozens of shawled Stevie impersonators rasping and lip-synching), and a Very Jackie Christmas (a bittersweet iconoclastic look at holiday mayhem, done in revue form). Those events will still periodically turn up at Mother, but the weekly regularity of Jackie—one of the few constants in an ever-constricting club scene—is a goner, the creators wanting to pull the plug before it eventually self-destructs.
Here’s a look back—and forward—courtesy of the people who made Jackie dazzle:
Cofounder Chi Chi Valenti (“The Empress”): There was never a marketing plan or a target audience. Jackie happened intuitively and in this very grassroots way. We envisioned this part we wanted to go to, and we just created it. We started in November 1990, at Nell’s [A Victorian-style hangout]. Every week 30 friends sat at a long table, passing a microphone around. It grew enough for us to know we were onto something, though we had no clue as to what it was. One night, one of our regulars, totally bombed, said, “The thing this party needs is an element of danger.” The incredible wisdom of the alike! Soon after, Johnny [Dynell, Valenti’s husband] and I got into a taxi with Downtown Julie Brown and pulled up to the Clit Club [a Friday night lesbian dance party] and said, “This is the spot!” even before we went in. In March of '91 we moved Jackie there, and in late '96 we bought the place, called it Mother, and started doing five or six nights a week.
Paper Magazine co-editor and publisher David Hershkovits: Jackie was so important because it carried on the tradition of the origins of what passed for New York nightlife today. The idea of modern nightlife was invented by the Mudd Club and Club 57 (late ‘70s – early ‘80s hangouts), and that sense of creativity and putting something forward each week, using the performance artists and the downtown talent with a “put on a show” feeling, was a unique thing for Jackie because all the other clubs just became formulas. At Jackie they were trying to do something, and people came from all over the world to see it. The Hackie creators’ friends were also creators, so it’s not like they were looking to hire someone based on a resume. This was an actual community—the last vestiges of what I think of as modern, post-Studio 54 nightlife.
Monologist and hairdresser Bobby Miller: Jackie gave a chance to a lot of alternative artists who probably wouldn’t have been featured anywhere else. It also preserved the classical idea of people getting up and doing a show in a bar or a tavern. Chi Chi and Johnny, who are very international people, were able to go all over the world and come back and create something indigenous to New York. It’s why we all came to this city—to find a Jackie 60.
Ex-producer Richard Move (“Pookie”): I never even perceived Jackie as a nightclub but as some strange performance and theater venue. In the fall of ‘91, the format started to emerge—every week a great theme with great production values. Suddenly I was emcee-ing all night, and the Paulie [Alexander] came along.
Emcee Paul Alexander: I’d started talking over the music at Nell’s. I guess it was alcohol-induced really. I went to Parsons and was going to be a fashion designer extraordinaire, but Marc Jacobs took over, so I felt that as his best friend I’d always be in his shadow. That disillusioned me. I thought if Madonna can do the music thing, maybe I should try it. Johnny Dynell put me on stage and gave me a chance.
Move: At first our emcee-ing was intelligible to the audience, and then we got fearless. It became more conceptual and stream-of-consciousness. After a while we didn’t care if people understood the references. To paraphrase Martha Graham, we weren’t ahead of the time, we were the time, and it was the audience’s responsibility to catch up. You don’t have to be in a K-hole or have a glow stick in your hand to appreciate Johnny Dynell’s music. The reason it works so well is he’s not that concerned with, “Where do I fit in in terms of other DJs?” It’s about providing a good, upbeat backdrop for the evening.
Cofounder and DJ Johnny Dynell (“Daddy”): I play mostly new stuff, but two weeks ago I went into this whole disco jack, and it felt nuts. Classic, queeny disco. It really worked. But the next week it wouldn’t have. Once, Public Enemy wanted to hear hip-hop, but I wasn’t into playing it at the time. They sent their bodyguards into the booth and tried to physically intimidate me. Another time [the Artist Formerly Known As] Prince wanted to hear his record all night, and I was like, “No!”
Move: My favorite highlight was the Gay Pride show we did with Dancenoise in ‘97. They did a performance based on the “Dance of the Feathered Flock,” taken from an Emma Goldman speech—some anarchist take on liberation. At the peak they unleashed all these down pillow feathers. The room was suffocated and suddenly covered with feathers. We couldn’t serve drinks because every ice cube had feathers on it. People were choking, but no one left! That we were able to go that far proved how special and sophisticated the whole thing was.
Valenti: Downstairs that same night, [performance artist] Ron Athey was sewing five people together into a human beach ball!
Bartender-turned-co producer Hattie Hathaway: The performances offstage equaled the ones onstage. There’s a bacchanalia that doesn’t go on anywhere else—fit’s like being trannie-chased by a member of a major-league baseball team while wearing a poodle skirt. On a more serious note, clubgoers could have incredible short attention spans. Sometimes we’re all dressed as Klingon women and people turn and say, “What’s the theme tonight? Secretaries?” It makes you wonder—but then five minutes later, someone will say, “That show has changed my life!”
Doorperson and co producer Kitty Boots: There are no fur coats allowed. No suits and ties, no rugby shirts or sportswear, no droopy drag. And bad attitude is a no-no. People tell me I’m intimidating, but I don’t think I am. I give back what I get. People say, “I was always scared of you.” Then they get to know what a pussycat I am! My job is to make people pay. Sometimes these people think they’re so fabulous they don’t have to pay.
Miller: The Jackie Christmas show is so wonderful. It proves that even the freaks of Jackie—and we’re all freaks, in the greatest ‘60s sense of that word—have something sensitive and beautiful to offer. And having a legend like Debbie Harry be part of it is a complete confirmation. It’s as if she’s say, “Yes! Keep doing this! This is what it’s about. It isn’t about having a thousand hit records and making millions. It’s about going back into the community that appreciates you and giving something to them.” I’ve seen her work behind the bar at Jackie, I’ve seen her go-go dance! And what a great opportunity for her to be with real people rather than people who are just interested in her because of her notoriety. There are people at Jackie who really love her.
Deborah Harry: Jackie seems nonjudgmental to me. The people there come on to me in a normal way—they don’t put me in an isolated position. And the creative and theatrical things they put on there are entertaining and smart and diversified. It’s an all-out onslaught against the arts! [Laughs]
Deborah Harry biographer Cathay Che: Debbie and Chris Stein—who met his new wife, Barbara, at Jackie—are so comfortable there, they refer to it as “the club.” Once, when the line for the bathroom was too long, Debbie squatted in the hallway and relieved herself on a “Night of a Thousand Stevies” flyer. She won a Jackie Award for Best X-rated Performance and gave a memorable acceptance speech: “This means more to me than a good bowel movement!”
Alexis Arquette: I won a Jackie Award for Best Live Sexual Performance for a blow job as performance art in the john [recorded by the bathroom-cam]. Receiving the award was the low point of my moral life and the high point of my social life. Maybe it was appropriate that it was in the Meatpacking District!
Alexander: Most recently, Kate Moss was at Jackie. She was out of rehab. Of course I got her drinks.
Valenti: Some people can be so legendary at Jackie and not into the celebrity circle at all. They’re famous for very obtuse things, like they once had a pee stain on their pants as they grinded their jaw, standing there telling me they’re leaving me their whole estate. The guy becomes known as “Pee Stain” and could be a legend at Jackie but known to anyone on the outside—except auteurs.
Alexander: I think it’s great they want to end it. Who else should call the shots but the Empress and Daddy? It’s better this way than ending with some weird, tragic accident or because no one comes anymore.
Boots: It’s time. It’s not like we’re fed up with it, but it does belong to the '90s and I don’t want to get to the point where we do it because we have to.
Move: When we first brought Jackie there, everything made sense. There was nothing else on the block except the whores and the bagel shop. The neighborhood now represents the worst the city has to offer: second-rate galleries and silly restaurants.
Valenti: A lot of people, when they hear anything’s closing, assume it’s because of Mayor Giuliani [who’s aggressively cracked down on club]. That has an effect on everyone’s psyche and makes us question whether we should do this work in New York. We got so demoralized, we though, “Why are we bothering?” You can’t stop progress, but all the people spending $32 on an entree at the restaurant across the street make us have to fight harder to keep things interesting. We came for an element of danger that’s almost disappeared. When crackdowns were happening on the trannies in the meat market, you feel that by paying taxes, you’re adding to the bureaucracy funding your friends being tortured. But we’re really ending Jackie beauce it takes three or four days a week of work and we want to try out other ideas. I don’t think we can do better than we’ve done already. We started in 1990 and the century’s closing, and it’s better to close it than leave it there.