“You should be embarrassed that you haven’t been here yet,” Gina Milano says.
She’s kidding — slightly. The proprietor of Halcyon, 11th Street’s newest electronic-music venue, Milano is a quick-talking, high-energy nightlife veteran who’s owned and operated Le Club, Bambuddha Lounge — the predecessor to the Chambers Eat + Drink, inside the Phoenix Hotel — and worked at several others on 11th Street. Returning to SoMa was a homecoming.
Beatbox, the prior club in the space, closed in July, after Pride. Milano’s team took possession in early August and opened on Oct. 28, reconstructing the stage and turning the upstairs office into a lounge for the dancers. Turnover was quick, and Halcyon is not quite finished with its build-out just yet — there’s a lot of electric saws buzzing this afternoon — because construction has to take place in spurts, when the venue is closed.
Milano’s ambition was to build an immersive space with a European vibe. Having a rare license that enables the club to stay open for 24-hour parties helps, as it’s hard to match Berlin’s level of decadence when the lights come on around 1:50 a.m. And after working next door at Audio for two years, then taking a year off to travel the world, Milano came up with ideas for what to do with Beatbox, which she’d already known the owners were quietly looking to unload.
“Every time you walked in here, the room felt good,” she says. “It had good energy and good vibes. The guys were interested in selling it, but I was like, ‘I don’t want just another brick box in San Francisco with the usual lighting and stuff.’ ”
A visit to a club in Miami with “cool lights on the ceiling, dancers and performers and mascots, crazy fun drag queens, and a robot” coincided with a call from the Beatbox team. They’d received an unsolicited offer and wanted Milano to have right of first refusal. So she cut short her travels and returned to California, building an immersive space with lots of pixel tape, which allows you to run different images and designs on surfaces throughout the room.
“It’s next-level LED,” she says. “I also knew I wanted to do projection mapping, which is really difficult because you need someone to create content. I had a guy who worked for Audio come in, and he was like, ‘Look, when you do your club, I want to run your lights for you.’ So I had a boy genius in my corner.”
There are nine laser projectors, plus walls rigged with screens. The lights on the DJ booth communicate with the lights on the wall. And the Pioneer soundsystem is designed for a club of a much bigger size.
“It’s a Ferrari,” Milano says of everything. “We’re all learning how to drive it.”
Although the building itself is a fairly simple brick structure that’s been a nightclub for decades, Milano did discover a few hidden spaces along the way.
“There is a secret hideaway that we didn’t know about,” she says. “You see that brick thing right there? That used to be a doorway that went to Paradise.”
(She’s referring to the club next door, but the unintended wordplay spurs Milano’s sound guy to shout, “You’ve been stuck in hell and paradise is just in there!” from across the room.)
The skylights and air-conditioning aren’t the only additions; the entire roof is new. This was done to placate neighbors in several of the upscale residential buildings sprinkled among the precinct’s clubs, and the Halcyon team members have gone in people’s homes late at night to measure sound levels. But if the very thought of cantankerous condo dwellers threatening to make trouble for clubs that pre-date them makes you clench your jaw with worry, fear not.
Eleventh Street is “a designated entertainment district,” Milano says. “They’ve now put the kibosh on any future development for housing, and this building can’t be developed at all. The highest and best use of this building is a nightclub. So we’re here to stay.”
Cocktails on tap — a margarita, a rum punch, a Bourbon Buck, and a Moscow Mule — are great to have, and make things easier on a bartender who’s in the weeds. But they aren’t what really gets people shaking their booties on the floor. Milano credits her booking agent, a longtime associate who divides her time between New York, London, and Ibiza, for securing acts.
Because of the 24-hour license, Halcyon can throw parties that go long, but can also create unique, double-billed events with multiple headliners — a live act and a DJ, say, or label parties with acts on the same record company’s roster. Or, as Halcyon did on Nov. 18, booking the house and techno DJ Dubfire with Italian electronic DJ Joseph Capriati.
“You can’t pick anyone else’s talent buyer off,” Milano says. “You have to do it your own way. And everyone who comes is like, ‘I’m not in America anymore. We’ve had people say there’s not a bad spot in the room”
(Richie, again shouting from afar, says, “This is the biggest little club in America!”)
Daybreaker, the sober, diurnal dance party, will make an appearance later this month. And because Halcyon can easily be set up with cabaret tables, Milano wants to create a noirish cabaret on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights. (She booked well-known S.F. drag queen Donna Sachet for a holiday-themed affair with a baby grand piano, but envisions something a little freakier on a permanent basis.) And there might even be line-dancing and other participatory events with an all-night happy hour.
And she’s still learning. This past Sunday, from 5 a.m. until noon, Halcyon hosted Raunch, an after-party associated with HustlaBall, a fetish-themed gay event with erotic parties all over the world. The promoter called to make sure that coat-check would have bags, and Milano didn’t understand why he would ask that.
“I said, ‘What do you mean, “bags”?’ He said, ‘For the guys to put their clothes in!’ I’m like, ‘Wait, they take their clothes off?’ I said I’d have to check with my coat-check girl.”
Halcyon, 314 11th St., halcyon-sf.com