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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Burlesque owner says Downtown’s grit is it

Nightclub kingpin Ivan Kane almost has it all: an L.A. hotspot that attracts more stars than a Kabbalah convention, a Bravo reality series about the opening of his Las Vegas club, and a dancer for a wife named Champagne Suzy.

But what he really wants is one of his signature clubs in his hometown of New York City. “I felt this was a community that welcomed artists,” he said of the plan last week.

To get that club, he’s trying to appease community opponents and convince them that his plans for the neighborhood have more to do with his heritage than his bottom line — despite past statements to the contrary.

Lower Manhattan residents near the site of his planned Forty Deuce burlesque “speakeasy” on Kenmare St. between Bowery and Elizabeth St. say they don’t want Kane’s massive, risque club to send the neighborhood down the tubes, even though it’s backed by singers David Bowie and Sting, and would replace a restaurant reported to have mob connections.

Kane lost round one of the clash with his detractors last Tuesday, when they got Community Board 2’s business committee to withdraw its approval of a liquor license for Kane. His chances are slim to win round two on Thursday night, when the full board votes on Kane’s license request.

But Kane can still win the bout, because the issuer of the licenses — the State Liquor Authority in Albany — can disregard the board’s wishes.

Last Tuesday’s decision came after a highly orchestrated presentation by Kane in which he assured listeners “there’s no nudity, no topless, no G-strings” in his clubs, where a typical cover charge runs from $10 to $75 and female performers put on two 20-minute shows per evening.

“I believe a lot of the opposition to the venue is based on a lot of misconceptions about what we are,” Kane said.

Kane’s 73-year-old mother, Helayne, criticized her son’s opponents for their fervor. “I don’t understand such venom. It’s like a lynching,” she said in an interview last week. “He’s a wonderful family man.”

The vocal presence of Kane’s aging mother, family friends and other supporters did not sway the committee. Nor did his attorney’s assurance that the club had the support of Bowie and Sting.

“There’s no rumor or innuendo about it,” attorney Robert Bookman said after the hearing. “They’re both investors.” Bookman said both singers had filled out questionnaires required of all investors for a business’s liquor license application, but he declined to put a dollar amount on the entertainers’ involvement.

Kane named his clubs Forty Deuce to conjure up images from his childhood of burlesque entertainment’s heyday on 42nd St. in Times Square, according to the clubs’ Web site. “As a kid growing up in New York, I used to cut school and go down to the burlesque houses that were just waning at the time,” he told an interviewer last year.

Helayne Kane said that her son had always hoped to return to build a club in Manhattan, where he grew up. “It’s something important,” she said. “He wants to come back to his roots.”

Yet gentrification, not genealogy, may explain why Kane is so keen on 19 Kenmare as the site for Forty Deuce. In a conversation with online radio host Eric Schwartzman last year, Kane equated grittiness with cool, and he derided club owners who flocked to squeeze into gentrified locales like Chelsea’s meatpacking district.

“It became the hip spot for nightclubs and restaurants in New York, and then what happened? It becomes over-gentrified and oversaturated, more bridges and tunnels, and all of a sudden the perception shifts,” Kane said.

In order to avoid the stiff competition in such already-gentrified areas and keep your brand hot, Kane said, “you’ve got to be ahead of the curve.”

James Famularo, the broker who helped Kane buy 19 Kenmare, identified the area as one that was just barely ahead of that curve. “It’s going from a gritty Lower East Side, Little Italy borderline neighborhood into a more desirable location, with restaurants and nightspots,” said Famularo, who declined to comment directly on the Kane deal. “I get 100 phone calls a week for space in this neighborhood.”

Forty Deuce would fill the space left by Little Charlie’s Clam House, which Famularo said acquired a name over the years as an occasional mob hangout.

“There’s stories about it,” said Famularo. “I’ve eaten there maybe 20 times before I sold the building. I think the whole mob thing is pretty much a thing of the past,” he said, adding that venues like Forty Deuce helped the neighborhood transcend its checkered history.

But many area residents say they’re skeptical that Forty Deuce will improve the neighborhood, given its scale and its character.

“Burlesque is something you’d see in Atlantic City, or Vegas, not in a neighborhood where there’s so many children,” said Debra Vitale, a lifelong Little Italy resident.

Wylie Stecklow of the Nolita Neighborhood Association was less concerned about Forty Deuce’s racy theme than its impact on traffic congestion, pollution and noise.

“I have no problems with a burlesque club in theory. I have a problem with any bar or club or restaurant or lounge that’s going to be putting three service bars in this space,” Stecklow said. “It may be that we’re at a saturation point for liquor licenses.”

Stecklow added that he didn’t want the neighborhood to go the way of other, more gentrified blocks in the Lower East Side.

“They’re becoming more of a Disneyland or Vegas,” he said.

Famularo said such concerns were pointless. “Gentrification is inevitable,” he said. “There’s no way to stop it. And who would want to? It brings money into the neighborhood. It brings people into the neighborhood who wouldn’t otherwise be there.”

As for Kane’s detractors, Famularo guessed their objections had little to do with burlesque at all.

“The people that are opposing this project are opposing everything,” he said. “These people object to park benches.”

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