The Nalbone family of Trenton and Lawrence, New Jersey, owned the building several years before it became a legendary rock club . 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 afterhours club called Chocolate City (after the 1975 Parliament-Funkadelic song of the same name) circa 1976-1978. (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 had also been written up in local newspaper accounts as a Bible warehouse, and also known for many years in the 1960s as a car dealership called US 1 Motors.
90 Cent Dance Night
The popular 90 Cent Dance Night, on Thursdays, began 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 Night party regularly drew more than 600-700 people and often broke over 1,000 on the door count.
City Gardens closed in the early 1990s. As of 2011, the Nalbones still owned the building, and the building and property had 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.
Notable bookings and staff
A Flock of Seagulls, Thompson Twins and Sinéad O'Connor all made their American debuts at City Gardens. Danzig performed their first show ever at the venue. The venue also hosted a performance by comedian Henny Youngman and speaking engagements by counter-culture personalities Timothy Leary.
Jon Stewart, famed for his work with MTV and Comedy Central's The Daily Show, was a bartender at City Gardens from 1984-1987, before his stand-up comedy career and later television career took off. Stewart never performed at City Gardens, and there is only one known photo that exists of him inside the club.
Ween called City Gardens their home base. Their first "club" show was opening for the Butthole Surfers as young teenagers, and one of their early live shows at City Gardens was released on the live album The Live Brain Wedgie/WAD.
R.E.M.'s Peter Buck was quoted, in the Tony Fletcher book Remarks, as saying 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".
In 2014, authors Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico published a book on the City Gardens scene, No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of New Jersey's Legendary City Gardens.
- No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of New Jersey's Legendary City Gardens by Amy Yates Wuelfing, Steven DiLodovico
- City Gardens Facebook group
- Riot on the Dance Floor: The Story of Randy Now and City Gardens film
- No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of New Jersey's Legendary City Gardens book
- WFMU City Gardens blog