For many, the sale of the legendary Webster Hall to Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment and AEG Presents is a shift in party culture, but for the 200-plus people on payroll at the venue, it is the end of a home away from home. Grown over decades, a community fondly referred to as the “WebsterFam” has become an indispensable part of many of the lives of the staff who work there.
Many grew up within the walls of Webster Hall, attending club nights and concerts before they worked there. The guards and dancers have stories of sneaking in before they were 21, “Something I would never let pass now” grinned one guard as he showed off a collection of fake IDs. There were IDs from all over the world. Fanning them out like playing cards, he pulled one off the top. “This is by far the worst I got tonight. It’s legit just a piece of paper.”
LaToya McKee, a long time security guard at Webster, grew up coming to concerts and club nights at Webster Hall. “It’s not a revolving door here.” she says, “Once you’re in, you’re in. I’ve always said I’m going to die here in these walls.”
In the fast turnover era of the service industry in NYC, having a staff that has stuck around for so long is truly an accomplishment. One that is due in large part to the leadership of Gerard McNamee and Jon Santiago.
“I like to hire the misfits; the freaks, the people who need a job but can’t really seem to fit themselves in anywhere else.” said McNamee on Saturday night. “It’s a privilege this position has given me.” Sitting in the basement office which has been his home for almost 20 years, he’s surrounded by gifts that are simultaneously wishing him a happy birthday and thanking him for his influence. When asked how he’s processing he says it’s overwhelming: “There’s a guy here who came up and said, ‘Gerard, you hired me with two black eyes and fourteen stitches. Thank you’”
Loyalty runs deep here. Santiago, the longtime general manager of the venue, said he doesn’t think the impact of the change has hit him yet. “It probably will next weekend, when I don’t know what to do with myself," he says. “Did you know that I only took off two full weekends in six years?” The longest-serving bartender, Rawb Lane, has worked at Webster for nine years. Andres Buitragos, head of security, for almost 15 years, and James “JP” Wickham, one of the bar backs, has worked at Webster for 22 years.
“It’s a place where you can learn and earn your stripes,” says Lane. “Even though I was a trained bartender, I busted my ass as a bar back working my way up.” Every night was a headache and an adventure. The staff could fill up encyclopedias with their stories. Chasing customers who tried to steal beers over the bar; explaining to drunk tourists that, “No, they cannot pay for their drinks in rupees,” sending home people who are not dressed to be on the VIP list, and when they return giving them a full night of free drinks and a standing applause. These are the sorts of memories that hold the “WebsterFam” together.
“It’s strange that people don’t come with the brand.” said one staff member. “That we can pour our blood sweat and tears into a place for years and then just like that it’s over. I think the Ballinger’s made the right choice in selling, but you’d think that after decades the new management might consider the role you’ve had in helping to build the brand.”
“I’ll never forget walking into the staff meeting that night.” said Santiago. “They said, ‘Jon, you’re going to love this one. Everyone is getting a termination letter attached to their check.’”
Staff meetings are usually a place of camaraderie—an opportunity to go over all of the possible crises that might happen over the course of the night—but the news of the closure wasn't a total shock. “People knew about it before,” said Tristan Tolga, a bartender who worked at Webster for seven years. “As the time neared closer, you could tell the vibe was getting more somber, progressively.”
But there was plenty of laughter, too. As people exited the building at 6am Sunday morning after Skrillex played the last ever club night at the venue, a security guard stood stamping everyone, telling them, “Keep this stamp. After August 11, you get VIP for life.”