Public Sex and Hidden Knives: The Nightmares of Managing a Massive Club Halloween Party
Webster Hall manager Gerard McNamee talks about how he deals with the hordes of Halloween revelers.
As the clock turns midnight on Halloween this Saturday, Webster Hall will once again sacrifice a virgin. Demons with flaming horns and ghouls with bleeding wounds will select a virgin from the crowd; she'll be stripped of her clothing, strapped upside-down to a massive pentagram suspended 40 feet in the air, then have her throat slashed, spurting her blood over the crowd.
It's a complicated, messy theatrical production to set up in the middle of a club, but it's also just one piece of a massive party that's a nightmare for staff and security at the Manhattan venue. Halloween emboldens costumed partiers to embrace false constructs for a night, discarding their identities as well as their inhibitions. They consume more and care less, making them extremely volatile headaches for employees at bars and nightclubs throwing Halloween parties.
"We're fucking drug dealers," manager Gerard McNamee says of how the environment of "Webster Hell," as the club is known on Halloween, encourages patrons to act out.
"There's this incredible permission slip, if you will," bartender John Mato says. "Completely let your freak flag fly."
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On a typical non-Halloween night, Webster Hall juggles as much or more as any nightclub in New York: Around 1,500 people fill 40,000 square feet spread out over the four floors and seven event rooms in the 129-year-old building on East 11th Street. But hosting the official after-party for the legendary Village Halloween Parade makes for added stress. The staff doubles to include 60 security guards, 30 bartenders, 15 door girls, 12 busboys, ten cashiers, and six barbacks. There are also the usual eight bathroom attendants who are mainly there to prevent public sex.
Webster Hall admits entrants as young as 19, but deciphering ages is harder given the holiday's attire and makeup. The event attracts intricate costumes, with a $5,000 prize awarded for the best one. Three years ago, a man won for his homemade costume of the yellow Bumblebee Autobot from Transformers. It was ten feet tall, weighed more than 100 pounds, and required multiple staffers' help to assemble. If you expected him to warn the staff in advance about the exoskeleton, that just shows you aren't used to working the Webster Hell door.
"The search on Halloween is fucking ridiculous," McNamee says of the thorough frisking at entrances. "People have shit they shouldn't have. We don't let in baseball bats if someone comes in as Derek Jeter. And then people have spiky things that we'd have to take, chokers and leather things. People have sabers and Darth Vader wands and swords. We have to decipher what's going to be able to hurt something if this person has a drunken or drug episode—or is pushed where they have to use their sword on someone."
Six guards will conduct the extensive door search, with female guards checking under the bras and padding down the skimpy outfits of women visitors.
"I had one female, I think she was trying to be a nurse," guard Marilyn Henry says. "But it wasn't a nurse costume. It was fishnet stockings with a thong. [I told her,] 'Miss, you can't come in like this.'"
Security has seen everything when it comes to attempts to smuggle in contraband: heels that conceal hidden compartments, vials of alcohol stuffed in bras, canes that turn into swords, and hairbrushes that unscrew to reveal a six-inch metal barb.
"Recently, young girls—and we caught on real quick—were bringing tampons, but these tampons were so big that we started to question them," McNamee says. It turned out teens were sneaking booze in through the plastic tampon tubes. "Dude, it wasn't a very small vial. It was like a cigar holder. It had three or four ounces of alcohol in it, maybe four or five ounces. We'd never seen a tampon that big before."
A staple at Webster Hall for 15 years and an East Village character known for his chic grunge-Francophile style shaped by St. Mark's Place thrift stores in the 1980s, McNamee is more of a guardian angel to debauchery than a guard. "I got good at monitoring the underbelly of New York City," he says.
Unlike the borough's glitzier, snobbier clubs like 1 Oak or Marquee, Webster Hall invites people of all kinds—"freaks," as McNamee puts it. The first event he worked was a 1993 drag-centric party called Queen. "I learned a lot," McNamee says. "The guys, I'd see them eventually duct-taping their dick into their ass so that their shit was hidden."
McNamee has kept a watchful eye over the fringe culture there ever since. Public urination around the club is a frequent hassle. "One of my lines are when people are pissing where they shouldn't be pissing: 'Are you going to take a shit too?'" he explains with a laugh.
McNamee says hundreds of neighbors have his cell phone number for when the party spills outside the boundaries of the club . Recently he was called to break up a couple allegedly having sex in a neighbor's flower garden. "They weren't fornicating when I got there. They were in a position where they could have been. They seemed clothed to me. The girl didn't have a skirt on or nothing, where they could've been, ya know..." he says, trailing off. "But, of course, they had fucked up the flowers."
Webster Hall pretty much lets anything go on inside short of noticeable sex, harassment, violence, and drug overdoses.
"If anyone's in the prone position, that's not good," McNamee tells his staff. "Their safety costs the company millions of dollars. The reason we're still open is because ownership gives management the resources to run a tight and secure business."
Despite all the hysteria of the gig, McNamee says, "I still love every minute of it. I throw parties for a living. I give people an escape from the brutal reality that is life these days. I provide them with entertainment that makes them smile and dance and gives them freedom from the rigors of life... I receive gratification and fulfillment from being able to produce such chaos within the world of drugs and alcohol. Everyone comes out of it safe and sound and wakes up and goes to work on Monday morning."