Life of the Party

Brent Bolthouse has never owned a nightclub, but he can fill one up. Now L.A.’s most successful club promoter has signed on with a single company, possibly the best—or or worst—decision he’s ever made

One evening last spring Sam Nazarian walked into the Las Vegas nightclub Body English, which sits on the ground floor of the Hard Rock Hotel. Although he was a stranger to the club—Nazarian was visiting from L.A.—he was in his element. Nazarian owns SBE, one of the fastest-growing hospitality companies in the country. In the last three years SBE has amassed more than a dozen properties, including the West Hollywood clubs Prey and Privilege, hotels like La Cienega Boulevard’s Le Meridien and Miami’s Ritz Plaza, and restaurants like Robertson Boulevard’s the Abbey; which Nazarian plans to duplicate in Palm Springs and Houston. The 30-year-old Beverly Hills native is creating his own hotel line, and he has hired French designer Philippe Starck to imagine dreamy interiors for his clubs and restaurants. When he burst on the scene four years ago, it looked like virtually nothing could slow Nazarian’s progress.

What Nazarian lacked the night he entered Body English, however, was a talented club promoter to keep Privilege and Prey packed with A-list celebrities and attractive women—the two fundamentals of nightclub longevity. “The art of creating the beautiful moment with the beautiful people,” says Elizabeth Peterson, a nightclub veteran who has worked with Nazarian, “there are not many venue owners who can handle that day to day”

Armed with phone lists and e-mail databases, club promoters work to fill nightclubs—often for just one high-profile night of the week—generating profits and press for the owners. A promoter at the top of his career can command as much as $10,000 night. To help justify their fees L.A. promoters toss around gee-whiz buzz phrases—”I will brand your venue with media tastemakers!”—but there is nothing new about the job. “Prostitution, alcohol, and clubs are the oldest businesses in the world,” says Peterson. “If you look at these trades, there are references to socializing with alcohol in entertainment venues back to before Christ.” In New York’s bustling club scene of the 1930s, such men—who had first made their bones in the speakeasies of the ’20s—were called tummlers, a Yiddish word that refers to someone who stirs up a commotion, making a dollar in the meantime.

A good tummler who can draw attention is indispensable to any Hollywood club owner. “You can no longer run a quality night that is not promoter driven,” says David Judaken, who opened the Garden of Eden on Hollywood Boulevard a decade ago and last year debuted his second club, Mood, on the same street. “I was not presumptuous enough,” Judaken said, “to think that I could have success in today’s market by doing the promotion myself.” Mood’s door is run by different promoters five nights a week.

Still, Nazarian’s opinion was that SBE could handle its own promotion and celebrity wrangling. “The last thing I want to do,” he told me last February, “is to hire Brent Bolthouse to run the doors of my clubs.” Bolthouse is a 36-year-old promoter who has enjoyed the longest run of success in L.A.’s club scene. Over the past 17 years he has built up an envied collection of unlisted phone numbers, which he’s leveraged to create an event business that stages parties for companies like Dolce & Gabbana, T-Mobile, and William Morris. His list, along with his operating abilities, gets his company first shot at clubs of the moment like Concorde and LAX.

Nazarian had never met Bolthouse, but on his visit to Body English he finally ran into something that could slow his progress. Bolthouse, who is a partner at the club, spoke with SBE’s owner at the door. Nazarian wanted a table to accommodate his party. None was available. “He wouldn’t give me a table,” Nazarian said recently, shrugging off the incident.

“That’s right—we didn’t have a table for him,” Bolthouse says. Because all clubs set aside a few tables for the unplanned arrival of, say, the Simpson sisters, both men knew this could be a showdown. Instead, Bolthouse graciously folded, and Nazarian was invited to spend the evening at the promoter’s table with the man he had vowed to keep off his own properties.

on a cold saturday night in january, Bolthouse stood alone on the ramped walkway that leads to Privilege’s door, looking out across a hundred or so clubgoers who stood shivering in the venue’s Sunset Strip parking lot, waiting to get past the velvet rope. He was dressed in his typical winter outfit: tennis shoes, loose-fitting pants, and a casual dress jacket worn over a striped cashmere sweater. His prominent nose was tinged pink by the night air, and his dark hair—which can appear both slicked down and mussed up at the same time—was cut in a manner reminiscent of’60s pop idols. From his perch Bolthouse charted the paths of the more famous as they effortlessly crossed the rope: Justin Murdock, Wilmer Valderrama, and Eddie Murphy, who shot through the crush like a wanted man.

A year after his Las Vegas standoff with Nazarian, Bolthouse works for SBE. In November Nazarian merged Bolthouse’s promotion business into SBE and bought into half of his event-production company. SBE is building six nightclubs in L.A., betting that Brent Bolthouse Productions will help keep them flail and profitable. “We are now partners in everything,” Nazarian says. When his Wednesday-night run at Hollywood’s LAX club ends, Bolthouse recently told me, he would work at only Nazarian’s properties. His remark was slightly disingenuous; Nazarian, according to sources, was already purchasing LAX.

Brent Bolthouse Productions—which consists basically of a database and ten promoters and assistants—has moved into an SBE building on Beverly Boulevard. “We still maintain our identity and our name,” Bolthouse says. He likens the deal to the News Corporation’s purchase of Fox. “The Brent Bolthouse brand is bigger than SBE,” he says. Even if SBE were to buy out Bolthouse entirely, it would do neither partner any good to drop the moniker. But the easy days of moving on to whatever club suited Bolthouse best—the freedom he built his name on—are over for now. “Going into a hot new club is a layup,” says John Lyons, who cocreated the House of Blues and runs Avalon Hollywood. “Sustaining it for five years and building an institution—that’s work.”

Nazarian knows there’s another analogy for his acquisition: “A lot of people say that by bringing in Brent I’m trying to be the Yankees,” he says, “buying up all the talent out there. But I hired him as a strategic partner—he brings a better crowd, and he knows how to sustain longer club runs.” The two men now speak warmly, if cautiously, of each other and talk of a long relationship to come, yet the fact remains that Nazarian’s properties were not coming online as quickly as he had hoped. SBE had been losing its heat in the marketplace, threatening Nazarian’s dreams of limitless expansion. “The deal was an interim play as much as it was a long-term play,” he admits.

Outside Privilege’s doorway, Paris Hilton—towing her sister, Nicky, by the arm—stopped to kiss Bolthouse on the cheek. “How you doing, baby?” she purred. Bolthouse looked caught off guard by the embrace. “Brent is the most antisocial social person I have ever met,” says his fiancee, Emma Heming, a fashion model. “People really take to him, but I think he keeps wanting to prove to himself that they really like him.” He maintains his privacy and keeps a small circle of friends that includes guitarist Dave Navarro and actor Danny Masterson. “Brent is just not good with conflict,” says Heming. “Jenifer is good with conflict.”

Jenifer Rosero, a 46-year-old ex-fashion buyer, is Bolthouse’s longtime business partner. While he usually remains in the office, working the phones, Rosero runs the velvet ropes—granting clubgoers passage or turning them away, shielding Bolthouse from nightly crises. “Promoters can hurt venues,” says Peterson, “overbooking the club’s capacity, overpouring the alcohol, and staging long sidewalk queues for their own visual hype. But Jenifer understands the needs of a venue, and she is one of the reasons that the company has operated responsibly and that Brent has done so well for so long.” Rosero is known for refusing all bribes—once an offer of $5,000 to pass the velvet rope. She and Bolthouse can fight like brother and sister, but the two are extremely close. “I think the joke,” says Heming, “is that Brent basically has two fiancees, and both of us are crazy.”

At Privilege Rosero stood between Bolthouse and the crowd. Dressed in a black skirt and a ruffled shirt Prince might jam in, she marshaled a staff of five while scanning for faces that matched the names on her reservations list. “Come on, you guys,” she shouted, “stay on top of it.”

Alongside Rosero’s crew roamed Nazarian’s own promotion staff, which had yet to be fully integrated into Brent Bolthouse Productions’ field operations. “Brent is teaching us to tighten down our doors,” says Nazarian, “making sure his crowd feels comfortable. Where before we were doing $80,000 a night for a seven-month run, now we’ll settle for $50,000 a night for a three-year run.” Watching the loose ensemble—who were not communicating with one another as well as they might have—Bolthouse appeared to grow agitated. The club was filling up too fast, too early Every staffer he spied looked like a potential hole in the rope.

“I’m putting a hold on the door,” he called down to Rosero. “We’re full!”

Rosero turned and stared at her partner. “Who says we’re full?” she asked. “You’re not counting people that are already exiting the club, and besides, I already have a soft hold on the door.” Facing the crowd again, Rosero stiffened her back and said, “This is why he’s such a nightmare at the door. He gets too anxious.”

Bolthouse shot a hapless look down at Rosero, gazed out at the stream of clubgoers slipping through the velvet rope, and then pantomimed a series of stabbing motions toward his jugular.

A BRIEF HISTORY of Hollywood’s nightlife, at least as it pertains to people who experienced their twenties in the last quarter century, would run something like this: In 1980, only Westwood had the draw that Hollywood has today. It was a time, however, when ordering cocktails in a bar was still unfashionable for anyone born after the Truman administration. (A six-pack of Lowenbrau and the James Gang on the den’s Motorola was considered “having drinks.”) Arriving at UCLA’s retail-grid annex, kids mostly cruised the sidewalk and checked out the Spencer’s Gifts.

By the mid-’80s, an underground scene began to flourish downtown, where floating clubs such as Power Tools and Plastic Passion jumped week to week from dilapidated warehouse to fleabag hotel. In 1989, two friends who had worked together at Power Tools-Jon Sidel and Sean MacPherson—opened the first Hollywood bar created for their generation. Small’s K.O.—on Melrose Avenue, where Forty Deuce now sits—was quickly joined by bars nearby, like the Burgundy Room and Three Clubs. Not until the late ’90s, however, did sizable numbers of clubgoers begin appearing in the Cahuenga corridor. Today 25,000 are estimated to crowd the neighborhood for its nightlife each week. Emboldened by these numbers, perhaps, Paris Hilton is said to be shopping around an idea for a club named after herself—Hollywood’s own Dollywood, the surest sign that ordering cocktails in a bar will soon again become unfashionable.

About the time Westwood’s popularity was peaking, Bolthouse was embarking on a half-decade hiatus from life. Born in Sierra Madre, he had been given up at birth for adoption. He moved with his adoptive parents from Riverside to Big Bear to Barstow, finally landing in Joshua Tree, where his father worked for a restaurant supply company Bolthouse, who describes himself as dyslexic and an ADD sufferer, found himself overwhelmed in the classroom. “I basically checked out of school in the fifth grade,” he says, “and started doing drugs.”

His drug of choice was crystal meth. In the high desert, dotted with cacti and homegrown meth labs, access to the drug was easy, and Bolthouse would disappear for days on end. At 16, after a weeklong binge, he officially dropped out of school and entered a drug rehab center. There, he says, he experienced a profound spiritual awakening, one that included manifestations of the cross on his body Bolthouse claims his life was forever altered; today he closes his e-mails with “God Bless.” When I asked him to explain his spirituality to me, however, his reply was opaque: “I love the esoteric nature of the Bible and the spiritual aspects of it as well,” he said. “I just like the mysterious, I think.”

In 1987, a 17-year-old Bolthouse left home, moving to North Hollywood, where he lived in a sober house and took a job pumping gas. As a working stiff, a high school dropout, and an ex-drug addict from a small town, Bolthouse was about as far out of the loop as one can get in L.A. He began showing up at downtown’s warehouse clubs, making friends, and at the age of i8 managed to throw his own one-off at the Stock Exchange club. By the spring of i989, Bolthouse was co-running a weekly club called Papa Willy in the Hollywood Athletic Club. “Our entire marketing plan,” he says, “was that we’d charge just a dollar to get in. All the other clubs were charging $10.”

It worked. Bolthouse handed out flyers outside nightclubs and hair salons, began collecting addresses, and in 1991 parlayed his success into a Thursday-night club at the Sunset Strip’s Roxbury, where Robert Downey Jr. caroused with Mickey Rourke. Rosero, who had met Bolthouse earlier at a Rock the Vote fund-raiser, began working with him at the Roxbury. “I think where his skills were strong, mine weren’t,” says Rosero. “He is extremely good at putting people together, but he’s also shy.”

Long runs at Dublin’s, Joseph’s, Concorde, and Spider Club would follow over the next decade and a half, making the partners the equivalent of celebrities in Hollywood’s club scene. Whenever attendance at a club began to sag, Bolthouse managed a deft exit, moving on to the next club and the next night. Often this could leave a venue owner feeling abandoned. A popular night can generate between $50,000 and $100,000 for a club, mostly off alcohol sales, and owners must scramble to pay the next month’s mortgage when a promoter gives notice he is leaving for a shiny new space. “I’ve worked off and on with Brent for 15 years,” says Avalon’s John Lyons, “and he’s good at what he does. But if you follow him over that period of time, he’s burnt a lot of places. What’s good for Brent is not necessarily good for the buildings he leaves.”

“I think for years I had issues trusting that others would like me,” Bolthouse told me, “because the first woman I ever knew rejected me. Adoption leaves you feeling like you always long to be accepted.” As the promoter who put up the velvet rope, Bolthouse found a role to assuage his empty feelings and the loneliness of a stoned childhood spent at the edge of the Mojave. He became the person strangers pleaded with when they felt the need to belong—to whatever group stood on the other side of the rope. “I think of Brent as the outcast growing up,” says Heming, “and now as the cool kid, where ‘cool’ means being wanted.”

Unlike Sean MacPherson, however, who built a string of venues that includes El Carmen, Jones, and Good Luck Bar, Bolthouse did not turn out to be a successful owner-operator. His attempts—the West Hollywood restaurants Babylon and Coffee House—were failures. Instead, Bolthouse’s skill lay in tinkering with an environment: choosing the right DJ, jiggering the lighting and sound systems, smoothing out the cocktail service, bringing in the right mix of people. Nowhere is that talent more evident than in the home he and Heming share—a John Lautner—designed structure in the Hollywood Hills, which Bolthouse purchased in 2004. Mistreated for decades, the property was a wreck when the couple came upon it.

“It smelled of mold,” says Heming. “There were leaks everywhere, shoddy walls put up, and Brent said, ‘I love it!’ I told him, ‘I don’t want to live in a house that feels cold.'” Lautner favored concrete, steel, and glass in his designs, and the interior of Bolthouse’s 1,400-square-foot home—which looks down on Universal CityWalk—is emblematic of the architect’s style: rough brick walls, polished concrete floors, and expansive windowpanes. Yet the home, which Bolthouse remodeled using the original blueprints and filled with modernist furniture, feels warm and inviting, as cozy as a Craftsman bungalow.

In the last half decade Hollywood has become a boomtown, and a few promoters have grown if not wealthy then comfortable—though not necessarily in one another’s presence. “It used to be,” says Michael Sutton, a promoter who has nights at Mood and LAX, “that we were all pleased making a little money and happy with each other. Then it became business, with all the animosity and resentment that comes with it.” Once, club promoters respected each other’s venues by not going head-to-head. If Bolthouse staged a Monday-night club at Dublin’s, then another promoter, like the single-named Hartwell—who belongs to the Alliance promotion group—staged his event at Guy’s on Tuesdays.

Wednesdays in Hollywood now see Bolthouse at LAX, Hartwell and the Alliance at Mood, and Amanda Scheer Demme at Teddy’s in the Roosevelt Hotel—all drawing from the same demographic. “Basically, there is 75 percent crossover of phone numbers in everyone’s databases,” says Sutton. Competition has turned the night air noxious. Over dinner one evening, I mentioned that both Scheer Demme and Hartwell had earlier that day refused to be featured in the magazine alongside Bolthouse.

“That’s just ego,” Heming said, lifting her wineglass.

Bolthouse, who was always circumspect in our conversations, remained silent, measuring out a reply as he studied his water glass. “That’s … interesting,” he said. “I mean, that’s sad. Or funny—I guess. I’d assume they’re more competitive than I am.”

What I didn’t mention was how poisonous the replies had been. “We just think that Bolthouse is so over,” said a business associate of Scheer Demme’s, “now that he’s sold out to the Jew.” It was a reference to Nazarian.

THE NEW OFFICES of Brent Bolthouse Productions mostly consist of a room about the size of a small airplane hangar, where a half-dozen women sit at desks positioned around the perimeter, fielding calls for promoters and event planners. On the day I visited, an eight-person TV crew was busy filming an MTV reality series whose subject was the life of an assistant named Heidi. “We’re grooming her to be an associate,” Bolthouse said while two cameramen and four sound technicians crept closer to catch his utterance. I scribbled down Bolthouse’s sentence, and a cameraman filmed my writing pad, and I wrote a note concerning the camera, which in turn was recorded. Taking in the entire scene, Bolthouse looked uncomfortable. “Uh,” he said searchingly, “would you like a cookie?”

Bolthouse’s job, once SBE’s six new clubs open, will be to keep them profitable and filled—with the right people. The task of drawing large numbers of guests to several venues nightly runs counter to the methodology of L.A.’s hottest promoters and to Bolthouse’s own history. Scheer Demme and Hartwell base their success on exclusivity and exclusion. David Judaken, Mood’s owner, says, “Hartwell may alienate the creme de la creme on some nights—turning away guests that any owner would love to have in his club. But the room he creates is consistent with what I want to align myself with—catering to a certain group of clubgoers.”

“There are obviously people,” Bolthouse said, sitting down on a couch near his office, “that Amanda Scheer Demme doesn’t want in Teddy’s. Promoters like her have a very specific box they live in—like an ultracool little boutique on Robertson Boulevard. I don’t want to become too mainstream, but we can’t be like a cool boutique because of our growing size. We can be like Target, which has done an amazing job rebranding itself, and which kids still think is cool.” Bolthouse reflected on the Target concept. “But you don’t want to be like Kmart,” he finally said. “Kmart’s not cool.”

Weekend nights, Hollywood is like Kmart, its streets as crowded as the aisles of a discount store. “The city saturated the area with so many operating licenses for club and bar owners,” says Chris Breed, who runs White Lotus and the Cabana Club. “Now all of us are competing against each other for smaller and smaller pieces of pie.”

“To regenerate Hollywood,” says Elizabeth Peterson, who has run several clubs, “you have to realize that nightlife was the only thing that would come in back then.” Promoters accelerated the evolution of the area. “What they did,” says Peterson, “was bring in people sooner and in larger numbers than would have come if club owners had just opened their doors. Unfortunately, what’s best for club owners in the long run, consistent growth, is not what’s best for promoters, who are looking for instant buzz and fast cash.”

More promoters have arrived with the crowds. “My guess is there are hundreds of promoters out there now,” says Breed. “A-list, B-list, C-list promoters, promoters offering you a hundred people from the Valley, a hundred people from Riverside, a hundred people from the O.C.” There are promoters proposing African American nights, Korean nights, Jewish nights.

“They have their crowd,” says Avalon’s John Lyons, “which they like, and the rest of the world are pretty much pieces of shit. Once a promoter’s crowd is large enough, he can use it as leverage against club owners—eventually finding some guy who says, ‘Okay, I’ll give you my whole door.’ It’s a science of greed that in New” York has effectively killed nightlife.”

It is in this environment that Nazarian is creating his nightclubs, relying on a core promoter and his crew to keep them profitable for years to come. As a business model, it’s wholly new and unproved. “Brent Bolthouse is the most successful nightclub promoter in L.A. history,” says Judaken. “But I don’t see Sam Nazarian giving an exclusive deal to one promoter as making financial sense for his venues.” With hundreds of promoters out there, the impact of a single promoter has become negligible.

“I guess I would be more skeptical about it,” Bolthouse said, “if I had started with Sam three years ago. But I sit in the meetings, I see we have the spaces, Starck will make beautiful rooms, and I think a good rule of thumb is that a nightclub only needs to operate three days a week at a good pace to survive. Nightclub runs are getting shorter and shorter, and harder and harder, but we have yet to see the attention span for a club maintained in the proper way.” Bolthouse leaned back, adding, ‘A place like the Roosevelt and Teddy’s could be around for ten years.”

Teddy’s success, however, relies on selectiveness. The clique valued above the masses keeps people coming back. Holding the multitude at bay has been Bolthouse’s own formula. It has made his clubs as unique as the Lautner house he lives in. Now he is somewhere new, somewhere in between and groundless. “What we’re planning on doing,” he says, “well—it hasn’t happened yet. It’s moving into another dimension.”

Every night before bed, Bolthouse walks through his house, turning out the lights one by one. In the dark the last thing he sees before lying down is the pink and blue and green generic glow of CityWalk that draws tens of thousands. The insubstantial distance that floats between his home and the open-air mall, between the distinctive and the commercial, is what Bolthouse must bridge.

Photograph by Michael Kovac