Irishman owner Desmond Wootton brought a bit of European club pizzazz to New York City when he opened Night Owls. The original club perches in Dublin, and its Big Apple sister establishment has settled into the center of Irish midtown Manhattan, a prime location. The building that houses Night Owls carries with it a famous past--in its previous life, the club was El Morocco, a celebrity-ridden hotspot that reigned over the nightlife scene throughout the 1940s and 50s.
"There's a room full of old pictures of everyone hanging out here. It was really something. My grandparents used to come here," lighting designer Stephen Lieberman says. He goes on to describe one photo of Elizabeth Taylor at about age 23, and another of an 18-year-old Jackie Gleason and Joe DiMaggio, each sporting a wide grin, sitting in front of a massive pile of pasta.
After several reopenings of El Morocco, the club moved on to phase two: a topless bar called The Dollhouse. In fact, the cabaret license actually stuck with the building by way of a grandfather clause. After the building laid low for about two years, Wootton purchased the vacant property to expand his club empire into the United States. New York Night Owls, his 18th establishment, opened September 19, 1997, a day that honors his lucky number. Wootton married his wife and became a father on the 19th day of the month, and has since established his own tradition of opening clubs on that particular date.
A year before the club's opening, Wootton hired Lieberman as the project's production manager. Lieberman's New York City-based company, Cybertech Designs Inc., was responsible for the lighting, sound, and video systems. Lieberman took control of the lighting himself, and brought in Barry Scott from New York Sound & Video to install the sound system. Together the two put together the video system.
Lieberman (who has yet to see the original club in Dublin) completed five lighting projects in 1997. His company was originally named Cybertech Lighting, but when he and his partner split a little over a year ago, he created Cybertech Designs, which focuses primarily on lighting design and installation. Before his company got off the ground, he worked as a light operator on the New York City club circuit; his resume includes big names like The Mirage, Webster Hall, Expo, Twilo, The Roxy, and Life.
After three years of light show stints, Lieberman has mastered the art of creating ambiance based on music and the crowd. "For hip hop, I do a lot of slow, color-mixing sweeps around the room. When it's house music, and it's hard and banging and everybody's tripping on something, I fog up the room and add strobes--what we call flash and trash, just lights going everywhere, freaking people out," Lieberman explains.
In a past project called Venue, he installed a fiber-optic curtain up on the ceiling in the downstairs Lava Lounge. The ceilings were only 10' (3m) high, so his mission was to create the illusion of more space. He added oil wheel projectors on the walls to stir up some movement, and snaked a fogger through to the middle of the floor, which is studded with strobe lights. Night Owls, however, is far from a crammed space.
The 600-capacity nightspot sprawls across two levels of the four-story building. Upon entering the club at ground level, guests are led through the mirrored foyer and hallway into the main floor's bar and lounge area, which borders the central dance floor. Moving upstairs, the champagne room and bar cater to a more exclusive crowd who wish to escape the downstairs hubbub. A grid of video screens keeps minglers posted on the dance floor's happenings.
The atmosphere of Night Owls is created, in part, by the video system, which includes four Seleco SVT-190s with Draper Luma 2 A/V Easy Screens. The projectors display mostly music videos as the DJ plays the remix. The club plays dance music, blending house and disco to attract its upscale crowd. Lieberman calls it more of a yuppie-ish kind of scene. "You'll see people from 25 to 65 years old coming to this place," he points out. Unlike some of his other New York lighting gigs, this place doesn't seem to draw the younger club kids hungry for themed nights of lunacy.
It took Lieberman about a year to complete the lighting, sound, and video design of Night Owls, which altogether cost $175,000. Hanging the truss alone required the help of six men. Without a second of hesitation, he names the fiber-optic ceiling as the number one challenge of the project, then goes on to describe the trials and tribulations of installing the 250 2x2 fiber-optic panels into the grid.
"There are four projectors that illuminate the ceiling, and each panel has its own bundle of fiber optics. So you have to put the panel in, then pull all of the fiber optics back--put another in, then pull them all back. Each panel had to go one at a time. There were some areas where the panels wouldn't slide in nicely, because there was an electrical trough or air conditioning up there, so I actually had to pull the framing down and slide the panel 20' or 30' (6-9m) in," he explains. Before the endless hours of being wheeled around on a scaffold to create this starry overhead began, the LD claims he had a full head of hair.
Apart from the fiber optics, he spent about five hours up in the ceiling crawling on his belly, running cable to install other fixtures. He also set the board with an infinite number of programs.
Operators program on the club's Jands Hog 250 console. The Jands Hog runs the same software as the Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II, but on a smaller board with fewer channels. "It's a very versatile console. Programming is as easy as two key presses: record and enter," he comments.
The console also features an option for manual on-the-fly operation of every fixture. "If you're in the middle of a program, you can speed it up and slow it down by just turning the wheel," Lieberman says. Changing programs happens with just one keystroke. The lighting operator simply flips through the 20 or 30 different pages, which each hold 12 programs, and sets up new pages however he wants. "It really comes down to operator preference. I set up the board with basics, and teach the guy how to use it." He adds that with this board, the operators build programs from others by setting up pages on-the-fly during a show, then copy that program onto another empty fader.
Lieberman, who works as a High End Systems parts dealer and technician, chose High End for all the club's moving lights. He enthusiastically endorses their products and customer support. "When I called High End and said I've got eight Cyberlights(R) that were broken, they sent a technician, fixed it, and never asked me any questions." Given his background, he can also fix some of the equipment, and he points out that High End is a US-based company, which makes the parts easy to access. For dimming, Lieberman chose an architectural dimmer rack, the ETC SR-24 with a CEM control module, which he says is one of his favorite pieces of equipment in the club.
The throbbing beat behind the flashes in Night Owls marks the first Turbosound installation in New York City. Lieberman says that Turbosound, based in England, is the hot thing in Europe. When the crew tested the system, the owner of a shop next door ran over to warn them that he was on the verge of calling the cops because the bass was pounding everything off the shelves.
Lieberman does not take credit for the original setup of this system because the owner provided him with a basic symmetrical design. But he tries to build versatile lighting systems with a long life span by making it easy to move fixtures on the original truss. And the intelligent lights add different aspects to each installation. "But any light system, even the coolest one in the world, gets tired eventually. I like to put in the most user-friendly, maintenance-free equipment possible." Then he pauses, and rethinks his statement. "I mean low-maintenance, because maintenance-free is not a term that exists in lighting."
Joy Marie Lofton is a New York City-based freelance writer.
(8) High End Systems Trackspots (4) High End Systems Trackspots modified with fiber optics (6) High End Systems Intellabeam 700HXs (4) High End Systems Dataflash AF1000 strobes (4) High End Systems Color Pros, with controller (1) High End Systems F-100 performance fog generator with timer remote (1) Clay Paky Tornado (8) American DJ Pro Blacklights (32) American DJ Crystals (16) PAR-56 cans (64) PAR-36 pinspots (5) 20" mirror balls (1) Jands Hog 250 (1) ETC SR-24 dimmer rack (4) Seleco SVT-190 video projectors with Draper Luma 2 A/V screens (250) 2x2 fiber-optic panels Optikinetics Tri-Lite triangular truss system