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Régine, who built a discotheque empire, dies at 92

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Managing a small Parisian nightclub in 1953, the indomitable, crimson-haired woman known as Régine installed a linoleum dance floor and colored lights, standing on a chair and waving her hand at times to create a strobe-light effect for her clientele. To eliminate the awkward gap between songs — a silence that was filled by the sound of couples making out in the corner — she replaced the jukebox with two turntables and started spinning records herself.

“I was barmaid, doorman, bathroom attendant, hostess — and I also put on the records. It was the first ever discothèque,” she claimed decades later, “and I was the first ever club disc jockey.”

While nightclubs had existed for at least a century, Régine helped create a hip new template for dancing after dark, paving the way for the disco era and her own empire of champagne-fueled excess. Within four years, she had opened a Latin Quarter club called Chez Régine, where she served spaghetti at 3 a.m., did the tango with Charlie Chaplin and taught the twist to the Duke of Windsor.

“If you can’t dance,” she proclaimed, “you can’t make love.”

Régine, who opened nearly two-dozen dance clubs around the world, catering to actors, aristocrats and other privileged clients while acquiring a reputation as the “Queen of the Night,” died May 1 at 92. Her granddaughter Daphne Rotcajg confirmed her death to the Agence France-Presse news agency but did not share additional details.

The Belgian-born daughter of Polish Jews, Régine grew up in France, hiding in a convent during the Nazi occupation, before launching her nightclub career as a hatcheck girl at the Whisky à Gogo in Paris. It was there, she later wrote in a memoir, that she realized she wanted “to make the night sparkle and to become, as far as I could, a sort of high priestess of the here and now.”

At Chez Régine, she served bottles of liquor instead of just cocktails, and played a then-exotic mix of rumbas, tangos, merengues and rock songs. Her clients included Françoise Sagan, Yves Saint Laurent, Brigitte Bardot, Rudolf Nureyev, Georges Pompidou and a host of visiting Americans, including actors who had arrived in France to film the 1962 war movie “The Longest Day.”

“John Wayne looked at me with a smile and said, ‘So, you’re Régine,’ ” she recalled in an interview with BBC News. “He knew I’d had a thing with Robert Mitchum and a couple of other stars.” That group grew to include actor Gene Kelly, with whom she danced through the night and accompanied for two weeks. “Yes,” she confirmed to Elle magazine, “we had private relations.”

To Spanish actor and nobleman José Luis de Vilallonga, Chez Régine was “a leper colony for the overprivileged.” To tabloid journalist Robin Leach, the club was a godsend: “Working as a journalist covering the jet set in Paris at that time was extremely easy,” he told New York magazine in 1999. “You’d just go to Régine’s every night and wait for the princesses to file in.”

Even as she opened nightclubs in France and overseas, Régine launched parallel careers as an actress and singer, performing at the Olympia in Paris and Carnegie Hall in New York. She recorded a French version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and appeared in nearly a dozen TV shows and movies, including “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” (1976), a Sherlock Holmes mystery starring Nicol Williamson and Robert Duvall.

Leveraging the success of her discothèques, she also started cafes, apparel and perfume lines, dancercise classes and a magazine. For a time, her clubs reportedly grossed nearly $500 million a year. Some 20,000 people carried gold membership cards inside Cartier cases, enabling them to access all of her venues, whether in Kuala Lumpur, London, Cairo or New York, where in 1976 she opened the Manhattan restaurant and dance club Régine’s at the Delmonico Hotel.

As New York magazine later reported, her expansion into New York was not exactly smooth. After she was cited for plumbing violations in her first week, she filled three limousines with the club’s dirty dishes and drove a few blocks to the French restaurant Le Cirque. “Suddenly, there she was, this little lady at the door with all these dishes,” said the restaurant’s owner, Sirio Maccioni. “Of course, we opened the kitchen. For Régine, you did anything.”

Serving caviar-topped egg dishes by the acclaimed chef Michel Guérard and charging yearly membership dues of $600, Régine’s was considered one of Manhattan’s priciest nightlife destinations. “Order a drink and be prepared to close out your bank account,” a 1982 guidebook declared. But it remained a glitzy haven for celebrities including Andy Warhol, Jack Nicholson and Diana Vreeland. A strict dress code was maintained — dark suits and ties for men, “evening elegance” for women — although exceptions were made for regulars including Mick Jagger.

By the early 1980s, some of her longtime clients had started drifting away, drawn by more adventurous clubs such as Studio 54, which became known as an adult amusement park for public sex and drug use. Her Park Avenue club closed in 1991, and over the next decade she shuttered many of her other venues, including a Chilean nightclub in Santiago that was reportedly damaged by a bomb that one of her business partners detonated in an insurance scam.

Still, Régine kept dancing, singing and hustling, opening another Manhattan restaurant and club called Rage (she was dismayed when guests stole some of the club’s glittering, art-deco toilet seats) and perpetually looking for the next business venture. “People at my age are ready to die,” she told New York magazine at 69, “but I am like a night flower. I bloom only after midnight.”

By most accounts, she was born Regina Zylberberg just outside Brussels on Dec. 26, 1929. As she told it, her mother moved to Argentina when Régine was an infant, and her father was a sometimes-violent alcoholic who ran a cafe in the Paris neighborhood of Belleville.

“That was where my ambition began,” she told the BBC. “It was a working-class Jewish cafe with all sorts of people passing through. I said to myself: I want a place where I get to choose who comes in. I wanted counts and dukes — people with titles.”

After joining the Whisky à Gogo in the early 1950s, she befriended guests including Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon and members of the Rothschild family, who helped finance her first club.

She later became more famous than many of her patrons, making headlines in 1996 when she and her son were arrested, reportedly after he started smoking on an airplane and she began cursing out the captain. “You can’t tell me what to do,” she said, according to an FBI affidavit. “The last time someone told me what to do was when the Nazis invaded Paris.”

A brief early marriage ended in divorce. Her second marriage, to businessman Roger Choukroun, lasted more than three decades before they divorced in 2004. “My work is my passion above all,” she told New York magazine a few years after they married. “I never loved a man that way.”

Her son from her first marriage, Lionel Rotcage, died in 2006. Information on survivors was not immediately available.

In 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy awarded her the Legion of Honor. Three years later, at 81, she played the flirtatious Solange La Fitte in a Kennedy Center production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.” By then she was increasingly nostalgic for the more private, exclusive club scene that she had helped foster, although she said she still liked to go out and dance.

“Nowadays society demands vast halls for thousands of people,” she told the BBC. “But I don’t like anonymity. The perfect nightclub takes 400 people — no more.”

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