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 1978. 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 1979 featured music not only from the late 70's UK & USA Punk scene but Randy Now incorporating the newest emerging "new wave" music scene along with Ska, Reggae music; inter-speared with an occasional 60's garage rock classic. (Kind of on the order of Little Steven's Underground Garage format, over twenty years before The Underground Garage). 90 Cent Dance Nights went to 95 cents in 1983 and 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, which started in 1979 and until the mid to late1990s, the "90 Cent Dance Night" party regularly 700-1000 people weekly and often broke over 1,000 customers on the door count during the holiday seasons. By 1992, the admission price was raised 4% and renamed "99 Cent Dance Night". Randy Now tells the story where he remembers Greg Hetson (Bad Religion / The Circle Jerks) visiting him in NJ and Randy bringing Greg to a Thursday Night Dance Party. Randy was the DJ that evening. Greg at first didn't believe 1000 people would come out to hear and dance to a DJ. At the end of the evening, Hetson is quoted as saying "Brilliant idea of having a 90 cent dance night cover charge; someone in Los Angeles like Gary Tovar should get on board"
Randy Now was let go from City Gardens in 1996 and the club closed in 2001. DJ Rich O'Brien was the last regular club DJ employed by City Gardens.
As of 2014, Lawrence Campbell owned the building and hoped to turn the site into a community center, as well as a hall for private functions.
There was a large neon sign on top of the building that read US 1 MOTORS. Calhoun Street was at one time US Rt. 1 The sign had to be dismantled during the time period when the club was gaining momentum (around 1980) The US 1 MOTORS sign was in horrible condition due to decay and years of neglect. Pieces of the sign structure were beginning to fall on patrons as they entered through the original door of City Gardens, which was the back side 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".
Over 4000 bands performed at City Gardens, with Randy "Now" Ellis booking probably 98% of the artists who performed at the club.
Book and film
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. That same year, director Steve Tozzi released his documentary, Riot on the Dance Floor, based on Randy Now and City Gardens.
First and second edition plus hard cover book copies of the 464 page book fetch upwards of $150 on Ebay. The 2-DVD film is out of print (1200 copies originally pressed).
On December 15, 2017, a limited run of 100 Blu-Ray copies of "Riot On The Dance Floor" were released by film director Steve Tozzi which featured new footage and interviews not released in the original 2-DVD box set.
- 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