The Nalbone family of Trenton and Lawrence, New Jersey, owned the building several years before it became the legendary rock club known as City Gardens. The "City Gardens" moniker was first used strictly as a blues club in early 1979. Before its life as a blues club, it was an after-hours club called Chocolate City. The dates for Chocolate City are probably 1976 to 1978, and the club name stems from a 1975 song by Parliament-Funkadelic of the same name. (Coincidentally, that same band would perform at City Gardens with P-Funk leader George Clinton nearly two decades later.) Kurtis Blow had performed at Chocolate City before his release "The Breaks", which is recognized as the first rap song to be certified as a gold record. The building has also been written up in local newspaper accounts as a Bible warehouse, and also known for many years in the 60's as a car dealership called US 1 Motors. As of 2011, the Nalbones still own the building and the building and property has been listed as for sale in local newspapers and on Craigslist for a number of years. There was a large neon sign on top of the building that read US 1 MOTORS. The sign had to be dismantled due to decay and pieces of the structure falling on patrons as they entered through the original door of City Gardens, which was the back door of the small room.
Thursday Night Ninety Cent Dance Night
Thursday Night Dance Night, which started with DJ Randy Now (Randy Ellis) in 1980, but was taken over by DJ Carlos (Carlos Santos) in early 1983. DJ Carlos was the main Thursday night and house DJ until late 1994, playing a combination of new wave, alternative, industrial rock and cutting-edge dance music for the time period. At the height of its popularity, in the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, the 90-cent dance party regularly had over 600 to 700 people and often broke over 1000 on the door count. Frank Nalbone has stated to this author that Thursday night dance night, with DJ Carlos, made it possible for the club to keep its doors open and feature many of the live acts, which often were not economically successful or just broke even.
The Beastie Boys, on an off night from their Madonna tour as her opening band along with Murphy's Law, performed at City Gardens in what would be the shortest set of any headlining band. With Rick Rubin as their stage DJ and armed with turntables that skipped due to the three other Beasties jumping across the stage like wild maniacs, the show lasted twenty minutes, also due to the fact they were out drinking at some other bar nearby and had decided to show up and go on around 1:30 am. Normal headliner start times were 12 midnight, and final live music always ended around 1:45 am back then.
Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's The Daily Show and also MTV fame was a bartender for several years at City Gardens before his stand up comedy career and later television career took off. Jon never performed at City Gardens, and there is only one known photo that exists of Jon Stewart inside the club.
Ween calls City Gardens their home base. Their first "club" show was opening for the Butthole Surfers as young teenagers. They had two cassette-only releases before the City Gardens live LP release The Live Brain Wedgie which sells on EBay generally for $200 or more and was recorded live at City Gardens in one of their first live shows.
R.E.M.'s Peter Buck was quoted in the book "Remarks" by Tony Fletcher that sitting in the band's van outside of City Gardens watching children play football was part of the feeling that inspired their song "Perfect Circle".
The Members, from England, entire City Gardens performance was televised nationally on the old USA network.
The Bad Brains played regularly.
Comedian Henny Youngman performed.
Radio personality and WPST program director Tom Cunningham, in conjunction with WPST, had Bon Jovi convinced to perform a free concert at City Gardens to feature their then soon-to-be-released LP New Jersey. The idea was turned down due to Bon Jovi asking for a Thursday night, and both the club owner Frank Nalbone and club promoter Randy Now rejected the performance for two distinctly different reasons. Nalbone was afraid it would break the consistency of the legendary Thursday Night 90 Cent Dance Party and had offered any other day of the week except for any Thursday to hold the free pre-LP release event, and promoter Now said no because he felt that Bon Jovi's music, even with a free show and probably one of the top bands in the entire world by that point, did not fit the mold and the style of the City Gardens live music format.
A few years later, Tom Cunningham, credited with signing Green Day to their mega-million dollar Reprise Records contract, saw Green Day perform at City Gardens. Oddly, Green Day had performed at City Gardens nearly one year earlier by Randy Now. In live recordings from Green Day's first show ever at City Gardens, Billie Joe Armstrong can be heard exclaiming, "This is the biggest crowd that we have ever played in front of" and "We've never had monitors before," and after the first Green Day concert at City Gardens, drummer Tre Cool kisses promoter Randy Now on the cheek due to them making literally quadruple their original guarantee and their total merchandise sales at that one venue topping four figures for the first time in their career. They left City Gardens by trashing the dressing room as a "right of rock and roll passage" or a "badge-of-honor and victory", thinking they were The Who. Another interesting trivia fact with Green Day and City Gardens is after Green Day's first appearance at the club, and having traveled cross country from California, punk rock agent Andy Somers got wind of this career-changing concert performance in Jersey from this band out of California, and phoned from his Hollywood agency office City Gardens promoter Randy Now, asking him, "Hey, Randy. Andy here. What's this Green Day band all about?" and gave Somers the phone contact information which he used to pursue Green Day to become one of his clients, which they did. This started a relationship that would lead Green Day to be one of the headlining acts at the twenty-fifth anniversary of Woodstock entitled "Woodstock '94" (or Mudstock due to Green Day starting a mud fight with the audience that spiraled out of control).
- Riot on the Dance Floor: The Story of Randy Now and City Gardens, a film
- What the World Abuses Trenton Uses, blog.wfmu.org, 12 April 2006