'Industrial chic'

LGBT community has new nightclub with opening of Velvet Club and Lounge

Tara Bradbury tbradbury@thetelegram.com
Published on April 28, 2012
Velvet Club and Lounge DJ Fabian Fitzpatrick (left), manager Matthew Earle (centre) and head bartender Stephen Dillon pose in the bar Thursday night. The three guys were kept busy last weekend at the grand opening of Velvet, the city's newest and only gay nightclub. - Photos by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Last weekend was the first time in a year and a half that Fabian Fitzpatrick was up past 4 a.m.

He'd better get back into the swing of things, fast.

Fitzpatrick, who'll celebrate his 25th anniversary as a DJ this December, is well-known to clubgoers in St. John's. For more than 17 years he spun records at The Zone, which was the city's only gay nightclub for quite some time, and had the time of his life.

When The Zone closed on New Year's Eve, 2010, Fitzpatrick, like the rest of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered (LGBT) community, was at a loss.

"There was nowhere to go," he explained. "There are a lot of problems finding new venues downtown, with development going on and restrictions on where you can put a bar, so it's very hard to find a place. When The Zone closed, myself and a lot of other people, we rarely went out. I just didn't feel comfortable."

Fitzpatrick and others organized monthly mobile events for LGBT party-goers, including gigs at The Majestic and the Bella Vista, always getting a good turnout.

Meanwhile, Headquarters owner Luc Viau was getting the feeling his bar, at 208 Water St., wasn't being used to its full potential.

Opened close to 20 years ago as Junctions, the bar - a popular venue for live shows - seemed to be winding down as a nightclub. Having been approached by members of the LGBT community, Viau was aware of the need for a gay nightclub in the city.

"I own a bunch of nightclubs so certainly I'm always in contact with the community and I don't know how many times I had people come up to me and say, 'You should open something.' It didn't fall on deaf ears," Viau explained.

"I was like, my God, it would be a great fit. I hemmed and I hawed, and I finally decided late last year that it was time."

The building at 208 Water St. has a history of hosting gay bars. In the 1980s, three of them - Friends, Madame's and The Upper Deck - were located in that spot.

Last weekend, Viau, with help from Fitzpatrick and a total staff of about 15, held the grand opening of the newest one: Velvet Club and Lounge.

Structurally, the club is the same as Headquarters, but otherwise it's been transformed. Viau brought in an interior decorator, and has fitted the place out with new floors, renovated washrooms, and a new light show, as well as new decor and a rearranged sound system. From black cocktail napkins and fresh flowers to pillows and purple tulle-draped mood lighting, Velvet's style is described as "industrial chic."

"It looks really good, and I must say, I'm really happy," Viau said. "The reception we had last weekend was phenomenal. I'm on my eighth or ninth club and I've never had so much excitement; you could feel it leading up to the opening.

"A lot of people had been through that building under different names, and a lot of them didn't know what to expect, but they weren't disappointed, I don't think. What a great feeling."

Velvet's grand opening drew in about 450 patrons Friday night, and 350 Saturday. The five bartenders on staff Friday night weren't enough to keep people from waiting to be served, so a sixth was brought in for the next night.

The vibe, Fitzpatrick said, was incredible, and so was the diversity of the crowd, young and old, gay and straight.

"It goes from 19 to 80, and I'm not kidding you. The clientele is very diverse, and I think that's why it's comfortable for a lot of straight people. It's good for your mother to come down," he said, laughing. "There were 65-year-old girls and guys who came in and sat down and were pumping their fists in the air to 'I Will Survive,' it was great.

"A lot of the bars downtown cater to what they call a DJ culture, and I said to Luc from the very beginning, you can't let this bar be that. It will get its hipness and coolness from being gay. That was really important, and that's why the music should be really varied."

A few minor renovations are yet to take place in the club, Viau said, including a small bar outside on the patio at the back. The rooftop might eventually turn back into an outdoor bar as well.

Unlike The Zone, which was open until sunrise, Velvet will have a regular out-by-4 a.m. policy.

"We might push it a little bit, but I don't think so," Viau explained.

Viau doesn't foresee the venue being used for live events again, saying "this is the future of this building, for a while, anyway." Velvet will, however, will be working with the city's Pride committee to host a number of special events for Pride Week when it comes up in July.

Fitzpatrick said he has great respect for the former owners of The Zone for all the years of entertainment they provided to LGBT clubgoers, and is confident patrons will get the same enjoyment from Velvet.

It's about more than just a place to dance or have a few drinks, he said.

"Gay people are everywhere, you can go out and that's the cool thing about living in St. John's; we do have a very open-minded way about us, though people may disagree with me," he said.

"But you always need to know that you have that comfortable, safe space to go where you can just be yourself and have a good time."

tbradbury@thetelegram.com Twitter: @tara_bradbury