Empire Ballroom, like Studio 54 of New York City and Pacha of Ibiza, had achieved nightclub magic. After partying through Saturday night afterhours at Late Night Empire, you stumbled home, ripe with pheromones and sweat, the smear of a stamp and someone’s number on the back of your hand. You fell into bed just as the sun was nearing its zenith.
“Empire was a magnet,” says Jeff Ermilio, Director of Operations for Vegas Alliance, the company that owned Empire. “It was like a modern Utopia.” (That legendary Vegas nightclub enjoyed huge popularity from 1996 until 2001, when it was destroyed by a fire. After a complete redesign, it reopened in 2005 as Empire Ballroom).
Exactly one year ago, Empire was gearing up for its Memorial Day weekend party. The night before, Trent Cantrell spun for the kickoff, and headliners Scooter and Lavelle were slated for Friday night. A few hours before their set, however, Gino LoPinto, Empire’s owner and President of Vegas Alliance, found the club’s doors locked. The Empire crew had been evicted for failure to pay over $400,000 in rent.
“It was crazy how it went down,” Ermilio recalls. “It was like, oh my God, Memorial weekend, of all times!”
Everyone else who was there remembers the incident as an epic catastrophe.
A text blast was sent out informing clubbers that the party had been last-minute moved to club Asia. In the ensuing months, LoPinto attempted to reconstruct the afterhours scene as Late Nights Studio 54, but in January 2009 it was time for a change.
Vegas Alliance partnered with Penthouse and reinvigorated Obsession Afterhours. Before LoPinto’s management led the staff and regulars that used to comprise Empire to migrate to Penthouse it was sparsely attended. Now, it has trumped Seamless Afterhours as the hottest late night party.
Penthouse, which as of this week has officially been rechristened The Playground, is throwing a Memorial Day weekend party entitled “Empire Strikes Back.” DJ talent includes Starkillers and Austin Leeds, Faarsheed, Jordan Stevens, Joey Mazzola and Brian Hart. Faarsheed is planning a marathon set that may extend until noon on Saturday.
“It’s like an Empire Reunion,” explains Ermilio. “It’s like, even though we’re gone, we’re still here.”
Ermilio tells me that he had been with Empire “since day one; I started off as a busser and worked my way up.” He is one of many former Empire employees who have remained loyal to LoPinto—and to what they all shared as dedicated nightlifers.
In addition to LoPinto, who is now owner of Penthouse, and Jamie Vizconte, the former general manager of Empire who has taken on the same role at Penthouse, a slew of Empire alums have made them move. As Ermilio recounts, “Mike the bartender, Genevieve the cocktail server … Reagan was a busser at Empire now he’s a DJ at Penthouse. Brian Hart used to host at Empire … now he’s with us as a resident DJ.
“When you look at a lot of people in the nightlife industry, they were back at Empire,” he continues. “Even the DJs we’re bringing back this week – Faarsheed used to play on Fridays; Joey Lavelle was our main Saturday resident. Nick Terranova and Austin Leeds, they had a lot of big tracks during the Empire days that were big Empire anthems.”
Ermilio makes it a point to clear his boss’s name in regard to the ignominious eviction.
“When [LoPinto] took it on [the location] was already two million dollars in debt. You can never dig out of that two million dollar hole—you have late fees on top of it and it just became this disaster.”
Ermilio claims that Empire Ballroom lease holder Daniel Makosky misinformed the Empire staff that everything was under control, despite repeated notices from landowner Metroflag Cable, LLC. After Metroflag ordered the eviction, LoPinto tried to cut a deal, but by then it was too late.
Regardless of who is to blame, the untimely death of a venue and a forced eviction on one of the biggest party weekends of the year seems an unpleasant and odd event to commemorate, but Ermilio sees Empire Strikes Back as a celebration of an era and a chance to reminisce about shared wild nights.
“Whenever people talk about Empire, it’s like, ‘Damn, Empire!’ Some of the things that went down at Empire, out on the patio…it was crazy!”
But the weekend extravaganza is not just for Empire alumni. Penthouse wants all locals to come party—without having to pay.
“Our doors are way more inviting than at other clubs, where it’s like, ‘How much money can we get from these guys?’” says Ermilio. “Drai’s charges a ton. Even Perfecto is like 50 bucks this weekend. Everyone is trying to gouge as much as possible and we’re the opposite. If you’re on the guest list you get in for free, or it’s like $10.” (Go to Vegasalliance.com for more info on prices).
This old-school, unpretentious attitude is what made Empire a favorite. There were no exorbitant cover charges or having to know the right person.
“It was like home,” recalls Ermilio. “There were lots of familiar faces.”
Those familiar faces now haunt the dim halls and red-tinted rooms of Penthouse, throwing back drinks, pulling all-nighters. Even more will be joining them in the months to come, if all goes according to plan.
Large-scale marketing campaigns—billboards, full-page magazine ads—and heavy promotions with famous DJs and bands, bikini contests, poker tournaments are scheduled for the near future. Just today, Penthouse’s old sign was spray-painted over; the new sign is expected to be up by next week.
“When Empire closed, I was kind of excited, because I realized that when one door closes, another one opens,” Ermilio remarks.
It’s a cliché, of course, but also an apt observation of the nightlife world, where the closing and opening of clubs is a consistent and inevitable fact of life and work. This weekend Penthouse will look back on door closed too early, as they prepare to step through another one, blinking and rubbing their eyes in the post-afterhours early morning sun.