"Utopia." For those who were there, just the mention is enough to bring on smiles and reminiscenses. Opening its doors on February 3, 1996, Club Utopia was ground zero for Las Vegas' dance-club scene. But when it first opened, it wasn't called Club Utopia. First called Metz, its name then changed to Epicenter. The Utopia moniker came from its Saturday night event. And that's according to Pauly Freedman, Gino LoPinto and Michael Fuller, who, along with co-founder Aaron Britt, helped change the face of Vegas nightlife.
At the time, Vegas' nightlife options were limited. There was the Shark Club, Club Rio, the Beach and a place called the Drink. "It was the very first electronic movement on the Strip," says Fuller. "It introduced modern clubbing to Las Vegas."
"It bridged the underground music scene with the mainstream music scene," LoPinto agrees.
Utopia happened at an opportune time. The techno and house music scenes were maturing across the country, as was the acid house scene in England. Raves were starting to move from the underground into more legal events. Vegas was a bit behind compared to cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles, but that likely primed the local pump. "There was some resistance," LoPinto says, "until the hot girls started going."
Once the club took off, the effect on the local scene was huge, with LoPinto comparing it to New York's Studio 54 in the late '70s. "People would wait all week to buy an outfit for that night," he recalls. Doors opened at 8:30 p.m. and people wouldn't leave until well after dawn.
Speaking to its impact, several of the Utopia staff continue to play roles in Las Vegas nightlife. Freedman is director of nightclub operations for Harrah's, which now owns the Rio, Bally's and Paris. LoPinto is the new managing partner for Empire Ballroom. Fuller is a respected DJ in town and runs MovingSun Studios, a marketing company with strong club ties. Mike White, who used to pay cabbies $2 a head to bring customers to Utopia, is now a DJ at Green Valley Ranch. DJ Javier Alba used to work the club's front doors. Nicole Shaul, Foundation Room VIP hostess, was a bartender, along with Kevin Kelly, now sales manager for Streamline Towers. DJs Frank Richards and Robert Oleysyck used to hand out flowers at the door (hey, it was the rave scene, okay?). After the 2000 fire that gutted the club, Steve Davidovici, co-owner of Pure Management Group, was hired as a consultant and Ryan Doherty, now 944 magazine's Las Vegas publisher, was the manager.
Britt died in a car accident March 30, 1997, while attending Miami's Winter Music Conference.
Freedman, Fuller and LoPinto, along with a small army of other Utopia veterans, hope to recapture that bygone vibe with a series of events running February 16-18 at the Voodoo Lounge and Ice and culminating in a nearly 12-hour-long party at the Empire Ballroom, the site of the old Club Utopia. Called Welcome Home, it's all in celebration of what would've been Utopia's 10-year anniversary, and features DJs such as Paul Oakenfold, Doc Martin, Keoki, Oleysyck, Richards, Shoe, Fuller, Sneak and Keith Evan, and groups like Electric Skychurch and performance art group Rabbit In the Moon.
"How many times do people get the chance to relive their memories from 10 years ago," asks LoPinto.
While in the past, LoPinto says they had to fight for every single customer, today, fancy e-mail blasts are going out and full-color, high-gloss ads are running, including in this publication. And while Fuller remembers hammering nails at 7 a.m. to get props ready for parties such as the seven-week-long Rite of Ascension event he organized, this will reportedly be a $100,000 party.
A team of 25 will be assembling props made from foam core and wood, some with engines, according to Fuller. There will be butterflies wafting and spinning through the air and rotating cubes projecting video images. But some things will still harken back, such as psychics and tarot-card readers, and no bottle service. There was no word on whether Lance Burton would make an appearance, as he used to, wandering the club and doing magic.
In the old days, says Freedman, "there was enough sexual energy in the room, we didn't need videos, go-go dancers and sexy flyers. Our sexiest flyer was one with a butterfly on a girl's face." LoPinto and Fuller break into smiles as they, too, remember that flyer. And as the trio remember the good ol' days, they have the vantage of history to look at today's club world.
"Everything comes full circle," LoPinto says. "I see a progression with house music coming back. There was a time when the clubs were saturated with hip-hop. Now, house and dance are coming back, with bottle service. It's upscale, a more elegant atmosphere. And not as many drugs."