Atlanta’s Limelight – The South’s Studio 54

The Limelight Discotheque in Atlanta, Georgia was the hot spot I had always heard about just as I was coming of age in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Legal drinking age was eighteen in both states in 1982 when I was nineteen. So, after hearing stories such as “sharks underneath the lucite dance floor,” and “tigers in cages” and “Rod Stewart was there Saturday night!,” I could not wait to check out the Limelight for myself.

So two of my friends and I packed our best disco clothes headed out for Atlanta one weekend to see this famous club. Supposedly, the Humane Society had already put a stop to the animal attractions, but that did not matter because this place was so different from anything we had ever seen and there was much to see.

After standing in line and getting into the door, there was a grand staircase going down to the lower level. There were flawless, gorgeous girls in designer fashions standing on a “shelf” painted like piano keys along the left side of the wall above the staircase. They would not move for what seemed like hours, just posed there like mannequins.

Girls dressed Las Vegas style in sequins and feathers were dropped from the ceiling on chains. Skits were performed on the stage adjacent to the dance floor. Extraordinary dressed people were dancing on huge speakers and platforms as well as the dance floor.

A private VIP area with sheik-style tents was where the celebrities got to party. Several rooms, each decorated differently were smaller bars along the fringes of the club. My favorite had a floor to ceiling fish tank which had neon lights running through the center and brightly colored paintings of punk rockers. One night I met a guy with a mohawk and rattail in there, I told him I had always wanted to dance on the speakers but never had. He said, “Well, come on! Let’s go.” So, we went and danced on the speakers.

There are many, much more interesting tales I could tale, but I think I will keep those too myself. 😉

I took my camera to the Limelight on two occasions, one of which was the 5th anniversary. I wish I had taken more photos but I was too busy dancing and people watching! I managed to get a few photos though.

By the way, this is one more similarity I have with Andy Warhol – we both hung out at the Limelight in the early 80’s. Too bad I did not get to meet him. I wonder if we were ever there at the same time.

Taken from Creative Loafing – Atlanta:

THE LIMELIGHT

Backstory

After his Miami Limelight disco burned to the ground in the late ’70s, enigmatic club king Peter Gatien set his sights on Atlanta. Located in the “disco Kroger” complex on Piedmont Road in Buckhead, the Atlanta Limelight opened its doors in February 1980 in the former home of the Harlequin Dinner Theatre.

The Limelight lived up to its billing as the Studio 54 of the South. A large staircase in the lobby led downstairs to the infamous glass dance floor. Beneath the dance floor was a massive fish tank, which was home to two sand sharks. The club featured a 100,000-watt sound system blasting Euro disco, and thousands of mobile lights on the ceiling flipped and turned throughout the night. Confetti and snow would periodically fall from the ceiling. If this wasn’t enough to get the crowd going, Gatien hired “exciters,” scantily clad beauties who’d shake their groove things, urging patrons to do the same. A caged dancer would be lowered from the ceiling and land at the foot of the stage. This is how diva Pia Zadora made her entrance for a live appearance.

The V.I.P. room on the back wall provided privacy for visiting celebrities, and the curtained booths were notorious spots for cocaine use and sex. There was also a restaurant, a jumbo Jacuzzi with changing rooms and a small movie theater filled with pillows in place of seats.

The Crowd

On weekends, lines sometimes stretched down Piedmont Road. The wait could be as long as four hours. Dress and attitude codes were enforced, and some wannabe guests were denied entry to the club altogether, sometimes just for the sake of sensationalism. The crowd was a mixed bag of straights and gays decked out in the tight, shiny disco style of the era.

Celebrity Sightings

The club’s wild reputation lured in visiting celebrities. Rod Stewart, Andy Warhol, Farrah Fawcett, Burt Reynolds, Tina Turner, Isaac Hayes, Neil Simon and Grace Jones were among the familiar faces spotted. According to house photographer and publicist Guy D’Alema, it was a chore to get the elusive Gatien to pose with celebrity guests for photo ops. Gatien usually sequestered himself in the executive offices with a novel and a glass of wine. “He was very conservative,” D’Alema recalls. “Sometimes he’d bring some of the bigger celebrities back to his house to party, but he’d end up excusing himself and going to bed while the party kept going.”

Memorable Night

In June of 1981, orange juice pitchman and former beauty queen Anita Bryant, known for her vocal anti-gay stance, stopped in. She spent the evening dancing with the unlikeliest partner, gay evangelist Russ McGraw, and D’Alema photographed them on the dance floor. The notorious photo made it on the cover of the Atlanta Journal, in the pages of Time, Newsweek, Playboy and more than 200 American newspapers. Bryant was furious, but Gatien relished the publicity.

The Demise

In ’83, Gatien moved to New York to open a Limelight club there and his brother Maurice was given the reins of the Atlanta club. This marked the beginning of the end. “Peter was the brains behind the operation,” says D’Alema. “Maurice … didn’t want to spend a dime and didn’t have a creative bone in his body.”

Soon Women’s Auxiliary groups were renting the club for afternoon teas, and the gay community turned its back on the club. The club closed in 1985. Gatien went on to open Limelight clubs in London and Chicago, then returned to Atlanta to open Petrus in Midtown in 1989, which closed a few years later and now is the site of eleven50. Gatien later received notoriety for his 1996 arrest and acquittal on racketeering and drug charges involving his NYC club, the Tunnel, and his conviction for tax evasion, which got him a stint at Riker’s Island in 1999.

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