The day disco died
Palace to shut its doors, auction off
pieces of glittery era
SAUGUS -- Need a disco
ball for your living room? A mechanical
bull? (It still works.) How about a
These really are the
last days of disco -- in Saugus, anyway
-- as The Palace, a massive shrine to
overpriced cocktails, gaudy light shows,
and glittery gimmicks, is being
auctioned off piece by piece.
The nightclub, which
is scheduled to close its doors for the
last time tonight, will be bulldozed to
make way for a Lowe's home improvement
A quarter-century of
nightclub culture, including the
$350,000 space ship that once carried
comedian Phyllis Diller high above a
Palace dance floor, will go on the
auction block Tuesday.
While it may make for
one of the more eclectic auctions ever
held in New England, the passing of The
Palace has left thousands of former
patrons grieving for the storied era
that is dying with it.
''I might as well hang
up my dancing shoes and call it a day,"
lamented Heidi Strasnick, 31, a Chelsea
advertising executive and Palace regular
for more than a decade. Strasnick hung
out in the underage section of the club
as a teenager, later entered Palace
bikini contests, and her best friend
married someone she met at The Palace.
''When I'm 60, I'm
still going to be talking about stories
from The Palace," she said. ''It's going
to be really missed in
In its heyday, The
Palace was the epicenter of cool. On
weekend nights, flashy Camaros and
rented white limousines lined the front
entrance. Inside, swaggering men in
leather jackets with turned-up collars
danced to Donna Summer with women in
spiked heels and designer jeans. The
decor was Vegas, the mood, see and be
''Even to the end, it
was the height of fashion," said Alan
Eisner, executive director of the
Massachusetts Hospitality Association,
which represents more than 200
Boston-area bars and restaurants. ''The
Palace blazed a new frontier with a
style and pizzazz rarely seen in a
Opened in 1982, the
66,000-square-foot club was touted as
one of the largest in the world, with
320 employees and six rooms catering to
different crowds, numbering up to 4,000
people. There was an upscale lounge with
tuxedo-clad waiters and a 1970s room,
where employees sported bell-bottoms.
Peaches and Herb, known for hits such as
''Reunited," played at The Palace, as
did comedy duo Cheech and Chong.
Promotions over the
years ranged from innovative to
outlandish, from amateur acting
competitions and ''Foxy Knockouts"
female boxing to $10,000 hot-leg and
Cher look-alike contests. In 1984, at
the opening of a new theme room, ''Star
Maximus," Diller was dropped from
the ceiling to the dance floor in the
custom-built space ship.
''We always tried to
stay hot," said owner Russell Robbat,
who sold the club in 1985 but bought it
back two years later. ''We always wanted
The Palace to be new and fresh."
And the big names kept showing up, from
DeBarge and Wilson Pickett in 1987 to
Li'l Kim, Usher, and Sean ''P. Diddy"
Combs in 2004. Even Britney Spears and
Justin Timberlake partied at The Palace
But The Palace was
hurt in recent years by a drop in
attendance, driven in part by an
economic slowdown and smoking bans.
Violence also left the club mired in
lawsuits and bureaucratic wranglings
with the town. In the early morning
hours of Jan. 1, 2001, a 24-year-old
computer engineer was stabbed to death
on a Palace dance floor, and in 2002, a
19-year-old patron was paralyzed in a
car crash after drinking at the club.
Both the 19-year-old and the computer
engineer's family filed suits against
the club. In 2004, police were
called to The Palace at least eight
times for brawls, stabbings, and
shootings, prompting a 21-day suspension
of the club's liquor license last year
and a rollback of its closing time from
2 a.m. to 12 a.m.
Robbat said the
violence and economic troubles led him
to decide to sell the 22-acre site to
Lowe's Home Centers. The sale, for more
than $12.02 million, was recorded Feb.
6, according to the Essex County
Registry of Deeds in Salem. The Palace
and the adjacent Spin
sold by Robbat, will be torn down to
make way for the home improvement
Robbat estimated he
invested millions of dollars over the
years on new technology and glitzy
equipment, such as plexiglass catwalks
and a ''Foam Frenzy" machine that soaked
dancers in suds.
The 653 auction items
-- including chandeliers, dance cages,
DJ booths, 30 bars, six pool tables, and
$3 million worth of sound and light
equipment -- make up one of the most
unusual collections to hit the block in
recent years, according to the auction
The mechanical bull
was the centerpiece of ''Cowboys," a
country western-themed room inspired by
the John Travolta flick ''Urban Cowboy."
Robbat paid $7,500 to buy the bucking
bronco from Gilley's in Houston. Actor
Kris Kristofferson appeared at the
bull's Palace debut in 1990.
''When you consider
the size of The Palace and how many
years it was there, it gave them a rare
chance to accumulate items that you
don't find in your average one-room
nightclub," said Michael Saperstein,
vice president of Paul E. Saperstein Co.
A preview of the items
is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday at The
Palace, and the auction will take place
at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Robbat, who also owns
nightclubs in Florida, said he hasn't
given up on the nightclub business and
is eyeing sites in Boston. ''It's
time to move on," he said.
As for Strasnick, she
isn't so eager to hang up those dancing
''It's a chapter of
history closing in the
Boston," she said. ''It's making me feel
"The king of clubs"
Longtime owner of the Palace
may be getting out of the nightclub game
SAUGUS -- A girl in a French maid outfit
cavorts inside a cage while statuesque models wearing only
Afro wigs, bikini bottoms, and silver spray paint do a
sultry strut atop the crowded bar. An earsplitting
soundtrack rattles the walls and floor.
Grinning widely as he watches this
sensational if slightly unsettling spectacle is its
mastermind, Russell Robbat. For 22 years, the owner of the
sprawling Palace nightclub has been peddling fun and sexual
fantasy to a North Shore audience eager for both, and
tonight's madcap party is more of the same.
But Russell Robbat, whose pioneering career began
in high school, may be about to call it quits. Business is
down, and Saugus officials are fed up with the violence that
frequently erupts at the Palace. In the latest episode, two
weeks ago, one patron was shot and another was stabbed in a
melee that began inside the 66,000-square-foot complex and
ended, chaotically, in the parking lot.
For months, Russell Robbat has been considering a
multimillion dollar offer from the home-improvement retailer
Lowe's Companies Inc., which covets his prime 22-acre
property between routes 99 and 1. If, as expected, Robbat
finally signs on the dotted line, it'll be the end of a
"Russell's been at this for a very long
time, and that in and of itself is testimony to his
Patrick Lyons, owner of more than a dozen clubs and
Axis. "Russell is a survivor. He knows that if
high-button shoes aren't in fashion, you're not going to do
well suggesting people wear them."
High-button shoes may be the only angle
Russell Robbat hasn't played over the past 35 years. Beginning in
the '60s with Help, a Beatles-themed bar in Somerville, he's
made a living chasing the latest trends. Sometimes his
innovations have worked -- the mechanical bull and beach
motif were big moneymakers -- and sometimes they haven't
(who can forget those female impersonators "Boyrageous"?).
But in seeking buzz, Russell Robbat certainly has created it.
Robbat, 57, agreed to be interviewed for
this story but insisted that his publicist from Regan
Communications also be present. The nightclub owner is smart
and well spoken but said he disdains media attention,
preferring instead to remain, as he puts it, "behind the
That's only partially true. While Robbat
wouldn't allow a reporter inside his luxury CambridgeSide
condo and wouldn't detail his wealth and real estate
holdings, he does not discourage the perception that he's
been wildly successful. Handsome with dark hair and a deep
tan, Robbat likes to drop the names of famous friends,
including Ted Turner and the late George Harrison, whom he
met years ago while meditating with the Maharishi. And
Robbat loves to talk about his trips to after-hour
epicenters such as Bangkok, the Spanish island of Ibiza, and
"Sometimes research can be a blast," he
said, smiling at the memory of his risque adventures. "One
night in Bangkok, I saw things that'd make a grown man cry."
Just as children of police officers often
become cops themselves, George Robbat's four boys got into
the bar and restaurant business. Since their father owned a
club in Teele Square, Somerville -- the Jumbo Lounge --
George Jr., Russell, Alan, and Steven all developed an
appetite for nightlife. When Russell was still in high
school, his father let him run the Jumbo on Wednesdays, the
slowest night of the week. Rather than book a second-rate
dance band, Russell had the idea to put on a rock 'n' roll
act, and in no time the joint was jumping.
"It was a lot of fun," he recalls. "People
were showing up in mink coats. I thought, `I can do this.' "
At Tufts, where he majored in engineering,
Russell Robbat was a mediocre student but an exemplary
entrepreneur; he started several small businesses, including
a laundry service and tuxedo rentals. Money was a motivator
after college as well, when he opened Help in the basement
of his father's club; worked for UNIVAC, selling early-model
mainframe computers; and embarked on a brief but profitable
career as a card player.
"My father had taken us on a couple of
trips to Las Vegas," says Robbat's brother George. "Of
course, Russell, being a Type A personality, had to figure
out how to win at blackjack. So he learned to count cards
and did very well -- that is, until the casinos figured out
what he was doing and asked him to leave."
With some of the cash he won at blackjack
tables in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Nev., and Puerto Rico,
Robbat bought the former Terrace Gables Hotel in Falmouth in
1971 and, with his three brothers, opened the Brothers 4, a
hotel-nightclub that became a Cape hot spot. The Robbat boys
later opened two more Brothers 4, in Nashua, N.H., and
By the early '80s, Russell Robbat and his wife, M.
G. Owens, were living in a large house on 40 acres in
Wilton, N.H., and raising their three daughters, Nicole,
Chrisiana, and Morgan.
Robbat likes to tell people that General
Israel Putnam, one of the principal commanders at the battle
of Bunker Hill, was buried in the front yard of the historic
six-bedroom, six-fireplace home, but it's actually Captain
Philip Putnam, the famous general's fourth cousin.
Looking for a new challenge, Russell Robbat bought
the behemoth Chateau de Ville banquet facility in Saugus in
1982. He envisioned a smorgasbord of clubs under one roof,
something for every demographic -- an upscale lounge, a
disco, a comedy room, and a dining-concert hall. "I'd never
seen anything so big," he says. "But I like complicated
things, and this was complicated."
In its first few years, the Palace hosted
Peaches & Herb and Cheech & Chong, among other national
acts, and beckoned clubgoers with a variety of themed
events. To create a "beach club," Robbat set up a giant
wading pool and tanning beds and dumped more than 100 tons
of sand on the floor. It worked. Many weekend nights, the
Palace approached its 4,200-person capacity and the 15-acre
parking lot was full.
"The Palace became the hottest place in
the city, the hottest place in Massachusetts," says
a friend and former employee of Robbat's who now owns
several restaurants and bars, including Il Panino. "The
guy's a master at what he does because he's willing to make
Just three years after he opened the
Palace, Robbat sold it -- for $8.9 million -- and, briefly,
retired to Palm Beach, Fla. But in 1987, with the business
on the brink of bankruptcy, Robbat and a partner bought the
Palace back for $500,000 and once again ratcheted up the
hype. New attractions included the Far East-flavored China
Room; "Foxy Knockouts" female boxing; and an appearance by
actor Kris Kristofferson at a club called Cowboys.
"We're not on
with thousands of people spilling out of Fenway Park,"
Robbat said. "So we've had to continually give people a
reason to come in. . . . Hey, we once had people partying in
a foam tank."
But for all this fin de siecle frivolity,
the Palace has had its share of problems, namely violence.
Although there are metal detectors at the door and 60-plus
private security personnel patrolling the warren of rooms
inside, there have been scores of violent episodes in and
around the club. The worst occurred in the early hours of
Jan. 1, 2001, when Leroy Foster Jr., a 24-year-old computer
engineer who lived in Jamaica Plain, was stabbed to death
while dancing with a woman at the Palace, a crime for which
no one has ever been arrested. Robbat, who was inside
the club at the time of Foster's death, immediately offered
a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. But
the victim's anguished father contends the owner is crying
crocodile tears. Leroy Foster Sr., who lives in Elmont,
N.Y., has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Palace.
"This guy Robbat has basically managed to
avoid ruin through skillful lawyering and public
politicking," says Foster's attorney, Michael Appel,
referring to the club owner's long history of giving to
civic causes in Saugus.
Seated at a conference table in his Palace
office, Robbat shrugs when asked about his next move. It's
clearly not for the money that he continues to operate the
club. With his brother George, he co-owns a nightspot in
Orlando, Fla., and although mum about his finances now,
documents filed during his divorce from Owens show Robbat
was worth millions in 1991. Nor is he the night owl he once
was. Robbat remarried in 2001 -- Laura McPhee is a senior
advertising rep at
-- and friends say he plays tennis harder than he parties
Whatever Robbat does, there's no doubt
it'll be over the top.
"If I do something else, it has to involve
I've told my people, `Bring me a deal that includes a
" Russell Robbat says, his eyes suddenly widening with a new idea.
"I want to be out on the ocean some
morning and open a $2,000 bottle of wine.
Morning is when your palate's the
It may be the last dance for Saugus's Palace
By Thomas Grillo, Globe Correspondent,
-- The Palace nightclub, an often notorious presence for the
past 22 years, where disco queens and rap masters grooved
under the same roof, may soon be attracting a more sedate
An Everett developer has an agreement to purchase the
Palace, the adjacent Spin Nightclub, two dozen homes, and a
church behind the entertainment complex so it will have room
to build a Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, according to
The deal is contingent on approval by Lowe's Companies Inc.,
the world's second-largest home improvement retailer, and
the securing of permits for a 175,000-square-foot store.
About two dozen homes and First Baptist Church would be
razed to clear the 10-acre site. Saugus officials said the
deal could be concluded quickly.
"Lowe's will not face any opposition," said Fred Varone, the
town building inspector. "Residents are very unhappy with
the Palace, and we're fed up with nightclubs."
When Russell Robbat opened the Palace in 1982, it was a New
York-style, DJ-driven discotheque, boasting six clubs at one
location. It presented such musical acts as the Stylistics
and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Back then, the
cavernous club had 320 employees dressed in tuxedos and 10
rooms that catered to different crowds. It billed itself as
one of the world's biggest nightclubs.
The Caribbean Beach Party room had sand on the floor and
attracted dancers in sneakers and shorts year-round, while a
1970s room featured waiters in bell-bottoms. One of the
rooms featured a mechanical bull inspired by the John
Travolta-Debra Winger film "Urban Cowboy." Last year, the
Palace launched Rio, a theme room featuring hip-hop music
and martial arts-style dancers.
But the sprawling, 66,000-square-foot entertainment complex,
which has the capacity for 4,200 patrons, has often been the
scene of violence, including the murder of a 24-year-old
Fidelity Investments employee on New Year's Day 2001.
Just last weekend, a man was stabbed, another shot, and a
third hit over the head with a blunt object during an
altercation that allegedly began inside the nightclub and
spilled into the parking lot.
A Lowe's spokeswoman, Jennifer Smith, declined to comment on
the pending purchase, saying the Wilkesboro, N.C., company
does not discuss prospective store locations.
But Andrew Bisignani, the town manager in Saugus, said
negotiations began last spring to acquire the nightclubs on
Route 99, homes on Robins Road, Oriole Avenue, Swan Road,
and Osprey Road, and First Baptist Church.
The New Palace Inc. and Palace owner Robbat are listed as
the owners of seven homes, two parcels of land, and a
parking lot, according to real estate records.
Robbat declined to be interviewed, saying through a
spokesman that the club has not been sold.
Kennedy Development Group Inc., of Everett, has been quietly
buying up properties on the four streets behind the Palace,
located on the Melrose border, Bisignani said. Kennedy
Development did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
Maureen Dever, a Saugus selectwoman who has seen the Lowe's
plan, said she is delighted by the proposal. She was not
surprised to learn that Robbat wants to sell.
"The new Board of Selectmen is looking for a harmony of
commercial and residential, and that harmony has not existed
with the Palace," Dever said. "Last year, the board cut back
on the club's hours, so I guess that got them to think about
Last fall, voters concerned about the violence associated
with the club, including a drive-by shooting of a palace
security guard after he had ejected several patrons,
overwhelmingly approved a bylaw making it illegal for
businesses to be open between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. without
permission from the Board of Selectmen.
Christie Ciampa, a Saugus selectman, said Robbat called him
on Monday about last weekend's violence, but was mum about
the Lowe's plan.
"He refused to give me any details about the sale, but my
understanding is they are close to wrapping up this deal
with Lowe's," Ciampa said. "We're thrilled. The Palace is
not the kind of business we want in Saugus anymore. We're
all holding our breath until they break ground for a
Not everyone is celebrating what appears to be the
inevitable destruction of the cottages and bungalows behind
the Palace. Beatrice Horton, who was raised on Robins Road
and brought up her children in the same gray-shingled house,
said she would miss the neighborhood.
"I didn't want to give up my home, but they're buying up
everything. And this area has changed quite a bit since I
was a kid," she said. "It's not as private as it once was
and there's lots of bad stuff going on because of the
Horton declined to say what the developer agreed to pay for
her home. But she said it was "considerably more" than the
$140,500 assessed value of the house.
Nearby, the trustees of First Baptist Church agreed to sell
the 75-year-old church, said its pastor, the Rev. Johnell
Penns, and are searching for a new house of worship.
"Everyone is heartbroken that we're moving," Penns said. "We
have many members who have been here so long, including a
95-year-old member who has lived in this neighborhood since
she was 8. But the developer has bought up everything, and
it didn't seem like we could stay here anymore."
Saugus Business Partnership Holds 2004 Annual
Russell Robbat, Gino
Cappalletti, James McIver, John
Smolinsky, and Donald Wong
Gino Cappalletti, second from
left, former New England Patriot Wide Receiver,
was the guest speaker at the recent Annual
Meeting of the Saugus Business Partnership (SBP).
During his talk to
members, Cappalletti spoke about his experiences
with the world-champion New England Patriots
beginning with the Boston Patriots in 1960.
his presentation, Cappalletti signed a jersey
that will be used in a later fundraiser.
Accepting the jersey from
Cappalletti were (from left)
Vice President Russell Robbat, Clerk James
McIver, Treasurer John Smolinsky and President
Created in 2003, The
works to improve and enhance the quality of life
in Saugus for residents and the business
Looking back a year in Saugus 2006...
...would not be complete without mention of one of the many generous donations by the Saugus business community.
One of the most memorable and unique donation moments can be credited to Palace Nightclub owner Russell Robbat.
Russell Robbat organized the ‘Dancing with the Seniors’ competition where two dozen performers and hundreds of spectators gathered at the Senior Center for a night of food, fun and dancing.
The event followed a series of community donations
Russell Robbat sponsored as a farewell gift after the close his nightclub the Palace. The Palace was torn down earlier this year to be replaced by Lowe’s Home Improvement.
The Daily Item of
Lynn: Palace sold to
2/9/2006 Last Visited:
New Palace Limited Partnership,
transferred ownership of the
land and buildings at 1500
Broadway on Monday to
Centers, Inc., for
$12,023,500, according to
Deeds John L. O'Brien.
has been dismantling the club in
recent weeks, and donated some
of the club's contents to Saugus
organizations. In December
donated computers, a widescreen
television and $4,000 to the
Saugus Youth and Recreation
By that time,
was well into negotiations with
on the sale of the property,
which encompasses 10 parcels of
land on Broadway, Swan and
Robin's Roads, Oriole Avenue and
Thresher and Wren Streets.