Interview: Norman Gosney

Franco Milazzo
By Franco Milazzo Last edited 78 months ago
Interview: Norman Gosney

British cabaret impresario Norman Gosney left the UK in the 1970s to make his fortune in the US and, later, China. His latest venture sees him setting up shop in Brick Lane.

He set up numerous cabaret clubs in New York and Florida and made his way to the top quite literally - he lived for a while in a Chelsea Hotel penthouse - before moving to Shanghai to produce a new burlesque club there. His attention has now switched to the Pavilion room within the Vibe Bar. He has already run a few burlesque and cabaret events there, not least the intriguing When Worlds Collide which has been described as a “cultural fight night” between conflicting topics.

Why Brick Lane of all places?

When we landed in England two years ago, we weren’t sure what to expect. I had lived in New York, then in Shanghai, for 30 odd years (and they were odd!), with only short visits to the UK, and the rise of the East End was all news to me.

Shoreditch was the new hip centre-of-gravity, and while it’s not exactly cutting-edge any more, Brick Lane is its main boulevard, and the Truman Brewery the geographic centre. Vibe Bar was started in the mid-90s, making it a grand-old-man of the scene, and commands one the best locations, replete with courtyard, period interiors and a multi-use set-up.

Having built performance spaces/clubs in other historic throughfares (The Bowery and Broadway in NY, Ocean Drive in Miami, The Bund in Shanghai etc), where we referenced the history and ambience as part of our image, we were excited by an area that produced not only Jack the Ripoff, but also Charlie Chaplin, Music Hall, Bob Hope, Lydia Thompson and her London Blondes and a reputation as a wild, ‘anything goes’, Victorian era playground.

While the street is evolving from a hipster’s secret, through alcohol-theme-park, to essentially a new kind of tourist attraction, it still maintains its cachet as London’s place for the new and avant-garde, and its proximity to Silicon Roundabout ensures a steady flow of creative thinkers, their backers, and the following media.

I do think it’s an asset to be in a location that has been helping Londoners get-jiggy-with-it for over 300 years; there’s been a licensed establishment on this exact spot since the 1660s.

So what's new about Pavilion?

The room has been renovated and renamed to include new and different styled promotions, in addition to its well established music and nightlife events. The stage has been upgraded to encourage full theatrical productions, and can be conformed into many sizes, formats and locations. The reworked lights and sound package is now one of the best of its kind in a small venue, and the décor reflects both the history of the space, and its flexibility of use. Seating capabilities for 130 have been added, opening up a whole new range of possibilities for usage.

After the room is officially re-launched (soon!), theatrical productions of all sizes and nature are planned to enjoy the new facilities. Comedy shows, spoken word, niche music and ‘oddball’ events will be courted. In addition fashion shows, private parties, corporate usage are now appropriate, and of course, the live music and turntable nights that have built the room’s loyal following.

Veteran NY performer Penny Arcade has recently bemoaned how gentrification has led to many venues in New York closing and that London faces a similar fate. Do you agree?

Having enjoyed New York during one of its creative peaks, and resided atop the Chelsea hotel for 25 years, I can only agree wholeheartedly with Penny. There is a direct relationship between the price of rental real-estate in a city, and its avant-garde, artistic and general level of creativity.

London is very much experiencing the same thing: artists and hipsters pioneer previously grotty neighbourhoods. It starts with bars and clubs and then it's coffee shops. People with money pay so much to be in these newly desirable areas that the original inhabitants can no longer afford it and move off to colonise new, currently off the map environs. In London that’s way past Dalston, I believe, and in New York, it's fucking Queens!

As a mover, and perhaps groover, since the 1960s, I have experienced this all over the world. The well-off discover a new, cool place, fix it up, enjoy it for a short time, then get kicked out by the new gemächlich invaders syndrome.

In NY, people who had been among the most avid partiers and club denizens, would get partnered up, start breeding, and then try to get you closed down because you were lowering the tone of the newly posh 'hood. We used to encourage them to move to Long Island (for London, read Kensal Rise) to reproduce in comfort and quiet, and leave us to turn crack and gang zones into marginally usable playgrounds and art spaces.

I have no solution to this advancing trend, but note that in the US, dilapidated Detroit is becoming the artists' city of choice (free real estate!), and in Europe, Berlin is currently the hot spot, mostly due to cheap rents in the old Eastern section.

What do you think of the local Brick Lane cuisine?

I love, and missed, Brit style Indo-Pak cuisine, and I'm super happy to be in the midst of it. When I left Britain in the late 1970s, food was still pretty awful outside the capital, but it seems to have morphed into a nation of foodies, with Jamie Oliver on every block and bookcase, and it’s now right up there with the best in the world. Has Wimpy gone out of business?

Have you permanently moved to the UK or do you see this as a short-term project?

After Shanghai, London looks kinda beautiful, and I am a Brit. Having said that, I'm keeping one eye on Montevideo in Uruguay: it’s a bit like Barcelona before it got "discovered" in the Eighties but for the foreseeable future, yes, ich bin ein Londoner. We live in a charming Georgian house in a dodgy hood, Bow, but after New York and central Shanghai, we find the city huge, sprawled like LA, and very expensive to get around in. Taxis here are unreal!

Get back to me this time next year, I’ll either be entrenched or packing.

Last Updated 07 February 2013