Rudolf Piper is alive and well and living in Brazil by Steve Lewis
When I was king of the forest, and a young bright person would come to me with aspirations of a career in nightlife, I would make them listen to a little ditty: “I will hire you, but you must understand that nightlife is like a roller coaster. You spend a little money to get on the ride and the first thing it does is it takes you up a great hill from which you think you can see the whole world. It broadens your horizons, and the anticipation of what lies ahead is a huge adrenaline rush. Then you plunge headlong into it—fast and fun, steep curves, and drops and spills, and you have barely enough time to catch your breath or see much else. Suddenly it’s over, and you basically went around in a circle and didn’t get anywhere, and the only person to really make any money is the guy who owns the thing.” For the great majority of aspiring Steve Rubells or Noah Tepperbergs, that’s all she wrote. Some are satisfied with the gal above their pay grade or the recognition at the club du jour’s door, but few make a real career from it. I was very lucky to have worked for so many brilliant men who did, and Rudolf Piper was as good as they get.
He understood the money end and never let it get in the way. He knew without the bucks there would be no Buck Rogers, but he was an artist first. The clubs were a canvas that sometimes sold for lots of loot and sometimes a little less. The value of art is not necessarily in its price tag. I think Andy Warhol would have disagreed. I think Andy felt its value was in its ability to generate cash, but although Andy did something in almost every creative field, he never ran a joint. Nowadays, few operate places for little more than the money, and maybe the gals. There is nothing wrong with that, but it has led to the migration of the creative types to other boroughs—or even hemispheres. Rudolf Piper now resides in playful, hedonistic Brazil. He is making money there for club operators from NY, Miami, and elsewhere. He takes familiar brands visited by South Americans during the warm weather when they migrate north, and recreates them near their home. Yesterday I gave Rudolf 15 minutes of fame, and today I’ll give him another 15. Andy wouldn’t have minded. Rudolf is a man for all seasons, a bon vivant. He found himself in a paradise and furnished it to his tastes.
When operators look for a name of some garage or warehouse that will be “the place to be” for a few years, they no longer think small. They envision their brand in Vegas, or Miami, or Atlantic City – or with Rudolf’s help – Brazil. A name must transcend the boundaries of Manhattan’s rivers. It must be able to travel and be relevant elsewhere, wherever the party people live and play. Sometimes it’s merely a pop-up at Sundance or Cannes, but often it is a full blown joint in a faraway land. I learned much from my mentor, Mr. Rudolf Piper, and I apparently have a great deal more to learn. He invited me to visit him way down there, but I had to decline. I’m just getting used to Brooklyn, which feels like a foreign (but absolutely wonderful) country to me. Besides, from what my old boss has been telling me, I’m not sure i would ever come back. I often say you can only live one life. My old pal once again proves me wrong. Like an old cat, he survives continually and recreates himself and the world around him. I asked him a few questions via modern technology.
So, how does it feel doing club business in Brazil?
First and foremost, it’s fun, sexy and lucrative. Meaning, it’s better than in many other places in the world. The economic crisis never arrived, or has been extraordinarily late in coming, so the economy is booming. Here, everybody that has money is really nouveau-riche, and therefore prone to spend a lot on lifestyle. It’s no secret that Brazilian girls are ultra-sexy, so that takes care of that. One generally overlooked factor is that the local population is of a joyous nature: they are happy, easygoing, and welcoming, and that’s a major differential. What other countries in the world could be labeled as “happy”? If you think about it, I’d say that there is almost none. So, it’s much better to live in a place where people are party-oriented, than in places where they are weird or depressed.
You have specialized in licensing foreign club brands in Brazil. How did that happen?
It all started because Jeffrey Jah was trying to install a Lotus club in São Paulo in 2005. He was having difficulties, because a lot of the investors did not speak English down there. Then, at my birthday dinner at the Bowery Bar in 2005, where you and Jah apparently made up, I was sitting right next to Jeffrey and he got a call from Brazil, and he passed the phone to me. My Portuguese is impeccable, don’t ask me why because the story is too long. In any case, suddenly I was thrown into the middle of this project, and loved every minute of it. Then, that same night, some bizarre queen came out of nowhere and trashed our entire table setup, remember? Well, that incident gave me a good feeling about this whole plan, and I’ve been south of the border ever since then.
There were many branches of Lotus down there. What other places did you license?
Yes, Lotus had clubs in São Paulo, Guarujá, Salvador, Campo Grande, Campinas and Campos do Jordão. A nightmare to control. Then, I licensed Buddha Bar from Paris, owing to my friendship with Raymond Visan, who just passed away a few days ago. Later, I was briefly part of Pink Elephant-Brazil, and then, was instrumental in bringing the Mokai brand from Miami. Recently, I was involved in the development of Kiss & Fly, which is now going to Punta del Este too. Currently, I’m working to open another club from Miami, name withheld, for next year, and I have some more things up my sleeve.
Talk about the strategy behind bringing these brands to Brazil.
It definitively makes money and sense. Brazil is still a class-divided society, and the upper echelon is well-informed, has money to burn, and does not like to hear samba in their clubs. They travel a lot, and once back home, they want that same house music and DJs they listened to abroad. In a nutshell, they really want that NY club they liked so much in their own backyard. So, I took it upon myself to bring those venues over.
How do you hook up with a foreign brand and how do you select which club you want to approach?
First of all, I do research amongst the target clientele, to see which U.S. clubs seem to excite them most. And they always want American clubs, because nobody really knows what clubs are trendy in Europe. Once I have three or four possible candidates, I fly over and start negotiations with the people from NY or Miami. Normally, some 50% of the selected venues clinch a deal. The reason why the other places don’t is because they charge too much or create obstacles. Many fail to see that a licensing deal for Brazil is like money found on the street. They get concerned about the image of their brand, forgetting that most American clubs have only a short lifespan, so what possible damage could Brazil do to them? Others start preparing complicated contracts, some gigantic legal monuments that nobody in Brazil will sign. The rule of thumb is “easy does it.”
So, once you have signed a US brand and secured a property in Brazil, what do you do next?
I start doing all those things that you do so well here in NY, like drawing up plans, getting additional investors, hiring contractors, decorating, starting initial promotion and presswork. As a matter of fact, I consider myself to be the Steve Lewis of Brazil!
Well, thank you, I guess I’m flattered! It feels good to know that I became a mentor to my old mentor somehow. Now, changing subjects radically, let me ask you a question that a lot of our friends have been wondering about. Why, after so many successful clubs in the 1980’s, did you suddenly leave NY in 1991 without notice? They didn’t run you out of town, did they?
To be honest, I think I did! No, seriously, there were a few reasons. First, I believed that the magic of NY had evaporated by then. Boy, was I right.
Second, I realized that nightlife was subject to cycles of trendiness, which ended abruptly and was substituted by new ones. Most people who seriously identify with the times just past, normally have difficulties in a new situation because they were considered passé. The best example of this was when disco ended from day-to-nite in 1979, for no specific reason. The morning after, nobody would be caught dead in a disco outfit! Something happened to me when New Wave gave way to hip-hop. I was too close with those skinny black jeans! Plus, when I say that I ran myself out of town, there is a certain truth to that, because I opened Mars in 1990, and that was the first legally established place to really play some kick-ass hip hop—and I absolutely hated hip hop! I was not gonna put up with it! Then, because of all the shootings and stabbings in Mars, I decided to get away from the young crowd, and became a partner with Mark Fleischman at Tatou, a very successful supper club that existed in midtown for many years. When we decided to open branches in Aspen and Beverly Hills, I thought it was time to say farewell to NY.
Then you initiated some kind of a pilgrimage around the world that lasted for roughly 20 years?
Yes! I’m this German that became the Wandering Jew! Well, long story short, after a few years, California became just too lame for me and, besides, I heard voices telling me that my destiny was to go back to Germany, where I hadn’t been in 25 years. So, not wanting to argue with those voices, I sold my part in Tatou, went back to Berlin, and got a nice apartment there. Three months later, I realized that I couldn’t stand all those krauts around me, and I started to remember why exactly I had left Germany in the first place! It is an impossible place to live! I threw myself out of town again, and fled to Paris. In Paris, I was the promotions director of Les Bains Douches for a while, and did many other clubs and events for 6 years. Then, projects in Belgium and London followed suit. I spent one year in Lisbon, 4 years in Miami, and now 5 in Brazil. Yes, I call it tourism in slow motion, because in every damn place that people normally visit for a couple of days, I ended up staying there for years and years. I had fun, though.
Of all these clubs you participated in, which one do you consider the greatest, most incredible nightspot you ever were involved with?
You know, I hate being nostalgic and like so many other club people, I live for the here and now. But, as we both are true blue connoisseurs, let me just say the following: Up until recently, I would have said Danceteria, no question.That place had an un-fucking-believable magic, and, as you were part of it, I need to explain no longer. A short while ago, however, I came across an old issue of Mao Mag that had a long article about the Palladium, and I came to realize that this was really the most fabulous club of all time. And you were involved in it too! I came to think of all the aspects that made that place so great, like that fantastic old theater, Arata Isosaki the architect, Steve and Ian, the sheer luxury and size of it, those incredible parties for 5,000 people, all dressed up. It was a castle of dreams, a never ending ball at the Grand Opera. I also realized that, nowadays, the Palladium has been overlooked and even forgotten, in spite of the fact that no other place like that existed in the whole world—ever! There was an aura there, some atmosphere that cannot be repeated, and that will never come back. But then, again, Marx said that “History does repeat itself, but the second time around, only as a farce.”