Richie Romero embodies over 30 years of New York City nightlife history. The longstanding clubland guru is a born host and a fierce hustler—in the best possible way. A fixture on the city's dancefloors from his early teenage years, Romero's fingerprints are on nearly every venue and party from 1992 on. From pounding the pavement distributing flyers to using his charms to get names on clubs' guest lists, Romero lives and breathes nightlife.
From his beginnings at New York institutions like the Limelight and Tunnel to forays into restaurants and food service, Romero stays rooted in his hometown. The latest in his New York City club ventures is Nebula in Times Square. It promises to bring underground sounds to a state-of-the-art space. Freshly renovated, it stands on an iconic piece of New York real estate. And while it’s held many names over the years, the latest is the closest to Romero’s heart. Nebula’s programming for the first half of 2022 is a stellar representation of underground house and techno including Lee Foss, Luciano, Rony Seikaly, AMÉMÉ, Eric Prydz, and Jamie Jones.
Romero walked us down memory lane to trace the colorful path that brought him to Nebula.
What was your first formal venture in nightlife?
The first space I did was either Tilt which was on 179 Varick Street, or it was Wonder Bar which was right next door to Limelight. Right from there, I worked with Steve Adelman and Pete Gatien, and Steve Lewis. I would jump around between them in "Gatien World."
How did you get in with these kingpins of New York nightlife?
My middle sister, who's four years older than me, would bring me out. She was my nightlife expediter. I was raised by all women, so I knew how to dance. And you had to dance. You had to talk. Today you don't have to mingle anymore. Back then, it was about mingling. There weren't tables. You had to make your way on the dancefloor. You had to go to the bar and know how to talk to people, or you had to meet girls by the bathroom and know how to talk to them. My sister was working for Artie Arboleda, who was a pretty big promoter. He had other partners, and I started meeting people out from there.
Back then, a lot of people got into nightlife at a young age because New York didn't really card at the time. Was that your experience?
Yes. I've never had a fake ID. That was what was great about New York and Nevada. You didn't need to. Even if they did card, there was always a bouncer to take care of, someone to head off. But then they put bottle service in place. Before, you had to be cool to get in, but with bottle service, you have to pay to get in.
What was your job at the time?
I was a sub-promoter. When I first was doing it, I would focus on bringing in girls. You used to have to bring flyers out and put your initials on the flyers. I wanted to expand to being a promoter, but there was no tally system. We had to hand in a list, even though it was the same people on the list all the time. It would be 600 or 700 people long. Let's say I invited you down [and] you wanted to be on the list. We just added you to that same master list every week.
Me and a really good friend of 30 years invented the tally system. We were bringing so many people to the Supper Club in '93, '94 and everyone kept bringing the same guest list. We said, "Why don't people just say our name, and you just mark it?" If it's a comp, we'll hand in a comp list and tally the rest. There was no tally system at Limelight, Palladium, Tunnel. We started at Supper Club and brought it over to the other venues.
You made your way through every notable club in the city, didn't you?
I was working with Peter Gatien venues going from director to director. I was learning the business. My big thing was, you had to get a lot of girls' numbers. You needed a girl list. I used to go to every single Soho store, go to all the clothing stores, I would drop off my business cards and flyers to the girls there. They were pretty much working for me. I would meet people on the street.
My life became my lifestyle. Everywhere I went, my job was to get people to that club, whatever club I was doing. That was my main focus, and it was about getting girls. I was not even 17. By the time I was 18, I probably had two, three thousand girls' numbers, and I made the phone calls. I actually had my mom, under an alias, help me make phone calls too, which was pretty entertaining.
When did you parlay all this into doing your own parties?
Even when I was working for Peter and still learning, I started doing random restaurants. I got a little crew together. I had a partner, Anthony Michael. We became involved in this nightclub with Howard Stein, a legend in New York. He used to own Zion, System, Aubar. We were assistant directors at System, and we worked at Aubar too, first as promoters, then as partners. It was an Upper East Side crowd. It was different.
We were still doing Limelight, Tunnel, all that. The crowds were a little more mixed there, like a school cafeteria. We did parties in random places: The Intrepid, World Yacht. I opened Exit with David Marvisi. I was his promo director. Anthony and I also did this place, Ohm.
How did Clique Entertainment form?
I took a bunch of kids that were working with me, and we formed a promotion, production, and event company. We really knew how to do parties, and it grew really fast. Everyone had a certain night they did, and then they would go out to other people's parties on other nights. When we were Clique, we changed the algorithm. We did seven nights: Mondays at Lot 61, Tuesdays at Suite 16, Wednesdays at Pangea, Thursdays at Cheetah. Fridays, we did different places.
Clique ventured out to Las Vegas as well, didn't it?
We went out to Vegas in '99. We started doing parties, first with Chris Reid, then by ourselves. My partner at the time, Alex Cordova, was part of Hakkasan Group, and he was a managing partner in Wynn Entertainment. We took over Risque at the Paris Hotel. This is Vegas before Vegas was Vegas.
How would you describe the difference between the promoter game back then and now?
The big difference between then and now is before the people had to know you. Now, you have to know the people. We had beepers at the time. Later on, we started getting cell phones. People didn't have access. They had to know you. I used to pay the coat check girls $50 to put my business cards in everyone's coat at Limelight and Palladium. It's how people reached me. They would beep me. I had an answering machine at my house. I used FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) dorms as my phone call girls. That was like my second office. Being a promoter was an art form. As a promoter, I could bring a couple hundred people. Now you need 100 event producers just to fill a room.
New York was the nucleus of nightlife in North America at the time as well.
New York was king. It was the mecca of nightlife. It didn't matter if any big DJs were coming in because the stage was always bigger than the DJ. They wanted to play at Limelight. They wanted to play at Twilo. It wasn't about the DJ as much, it was the stage they played on. Now, the DJs are bigger than the stages.
Even so, wasn't it the case that there was a very small circle of promoters that were allowed to do anything in the city itself?
It was pretty much like a member's club without being a member's club. There was a glass ceiling. At Limelight, these promoters, Alex and Leo, used to throw 50 to 100 people on my list. I gave them their own list, and they shined. Everyone was like, who are these guys? I broke the glass ceiling for a lot of guys because I gave them opportunity because it was limited.
It felt like if you weren't part of Peter Gatien's extended team, you couldn't do anything in the city. Was that the case?
Peter really was the club king. The other thing is we had the cabaret laws. I did parties where I had to move in the same day because the cabaret police would shut us down. Peter was such a genius. Let's say someone did Thursdays and Saturdays, and they would do a Friday somewhere else. He literally would hire myself and other people to not work, go out, hang out with your girlfriend, so we would not do that party. He was a monopoly.
Why did everything move to Brooklyn?
The biggest reason why Brooklyn became Brooklyn is because when 9/11 hit, people got scared of being in Manhattan. On the news, they would have yellow and red warnings that everyone was going to be bombed. People cultivated in their neighborhoods. "Why go to Manhattan? I'll build Williamsburg." That's literally what built Brooklyn, people staying in their communities and making a scene happen there because they were scared of coming to Manhattan.
How did nightlife change in Manhattan?
Restaurants became the nightclubs. Fine dining became the thing. When I first started, when we would go out, we'd eat beforehand. Let's say at an Italian restaurant with pictures of Frank Sinatra on the wall and red-and-white checked tablecloths. The place was done by 10 o'clock, and you go to the club right after.
When Mark Packer opened TAO on 58th Street, places like that, they became the new clubs. Even the designs made these places look like a club. You didn't have to leave. You would just go to the restaurant bar after dinner. There'd be a scene to one, two o'clock. You pick someone up. It doesn't have to change location, go home, and get laid.
That all started to change and get more health-conscious. You could go home, you get laid by two o'clock, and you go to Bowery's Boot Camp by 6 AM. You could still have your social life. Look at things like SoulCycle. It's a club. They put you in the dark. They play music. You have alternatives to go into a nightclub. And now we have alternatives to the alternative with metauniverses.
Jarret Birnbaum, Of The Art
What brought you to Nebula?
I didn't really want to do another nightclub again. But, the main owner, Yang [Gao], is the first reason I did it because I'm about good energy, culture, and good people. Yang had this passion and vision. And I have a lot of history at that venue. It used to be Saci, Show, Arena, Circle. That's one of the biggest reasons why I was excited to do Nebula.
You have stayed in Manhattan even after everything has left the city. How do you feel what you are doing with Nebula will bring the crowds back?
Everything in the city became open format, hip hop or EDM. You can go from one club to the next, and the same songs are being played in every venue. [For] people in Manhattan that don't want to travel to Brooklyn, we want to give them something.
If people want to stay in Brooklyn and they want that underground thing, that's cool. But, we want to get people not to have to take a $160 Uber ride back and forth to hear the deep house talent.
My other partner is Rob Toma. He owns Teksupport, pretty much the best deep house promoter/event producer in the country. We have some crazy talent coming up. Names that don't play usually in Manhattan.
How is the space set up at Nebula?
There are very few venues in my life that gave me chills. Palladium gave me chills the first time I walked in there. It was something I had never seen. The next time I had, it was Omnia. The chandelier did for me. And this venue does it for me: the special effects, the moving ceilings. There are times I just stare at the screens moving up and down. We have the dancefloor, and we still have the table service and everything too. It's a hybrid between a nightclub and a lounge.
We have a whole downstairs with three private clubrooms. They have their own sound systems, their own light systems. You could attach to the sound system of the DJ upstairs or play your own thing. They have their own private bathrooms, heated toilet seats. We want to create an experience, not just have the music and the tables. Nebula is something I'm proud of and excited about because it's different than everything else out there.
Your perseverance in Manhattan nightlife for three decades and counting is amazing. What's your motivation?
The main reason I do it is because I [want to] have an imprint on people's lives. I do an array of stuff, from pizza places to nightclubs and restaurants. I don't care if you're five years old or 70 years old; I want to have an impact. I want to do your 5th birthday. I want to do your 25th anniversary. I want to do your 30th birthday. We affect people's lives. That's magical. I love seeing people have a good time. It's a great feeling.