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Nightclubs having a whale of a time

On a recent Thursday night in Hollywood, NBA player James Harden was holding court, but there wasn’t a basketball in sight.

The second-string guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder was partying at Roxbury, celebrating his 22nd birthday with several hundred of his closest friends.

Jammed into a circular corner booth with roughly 40 others, Harden took swigs from a bottle of Patron as hip-hop music blasted and leggy ladies in short dresses filled the dance floor. The $13,000 moment came when a parade of runway-ready “bottle servers” sashayed toward his table carrying his order of 22 bottles of Moet & Chandon.

The economy may be troubled, but decadence is still in style.

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Big spenders like Harden spring for bottle service -- the VIP way to party. A cryptic and lucrative micro-economy within the L.A. club scene, bottle service has propped up L.A.'s night spots during the hard times. Club goers routinely pay $500, $3,000, up to $10,000 to avoid waiting in line and to get a private server, a choice of liquor and a premier table.

But it’s the gold-plated packages paid for by the soccer stars, socialites, sheiks, scions and heirs to the world’s fortunes that is one reason club life has been vibrant during the downturn.

Known in the industry (as they are in Vegas casinos) as “whales,” this elite class of partyers pays from $20,000 to $100,000 a night to satisfy their every whim. That might mean bodyguards, protection from unwanted media attention or a steady stream of beautiful people ushered to their table. One client enjoyed a white-gold encrusted jeroboam of Dom Perignon, according to one club manager.

“We have athletes that are supposed to be sick and at home and they want to go out and party without anyone knowing,” said Princeton Afeez, founder of eVita Parties, a night life concierge that caters to out-of-towners. “They go in the back entrance, have fun and no one finds out they were there.”

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Promoters and club owners are highly protective of the identities of these high rollers. But certain names come up repeatedly in interviews with people on the scene and in the know, chief among them Dana White, president of Ultimate Fighting Championship, who is said to be a fan of Beacher’s Madhouse at the Roosevelt Hotel. Petra Ecclestone, the model and heiress to the F-1 racing fortune who recently bought the Spelling mansion in Holmby Hills for $85 million, was also named, along with her husband, James Hunt.

“There’s probably 10 whales ... in L.A.” says Supperclub co-owner Abdi Manavi. “All the clubs are vying for [their business]. One of these guys could go nuts and spend 20K. And that makes a huge difference for the club.”

Yet the bread and butter for clubs are the regulars who splurge for special occasions, to entertain business guests, or who team to split the bottle service tab.

An Pham Jr., a 31-year-old banker, recently laid down about $7,000 at the Beverly Nightclub for a roomy booth by the DJ, Champagne and a lot of Grey Goose. The industrial-chic club, with its exposed pipes and hanging Fellini-esque light bulbs, was characteristically full that night. And loud.

“I don’t wait in line here!” Pham screamed over the music. He was entertaining a dozen or so friends and business clients, including the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Dutch mixed martial arts fighter Alistair Overeem. Overeem, a.k.a. “Demolition Man,” sat two booths away as a pretty blond woman refilled his drink. Pham, a New Jersey native who now lives in Marina Del Rey, depends on the Beverly for this kind of A-list service, especially when he has clients in town.

“Any time I party, I don’t pay for drinks -- I pay for real estate at the club,” Pham said. “It takes half an hour to buy drinks at the bar.”

Real estate and access is what bottle service is all about, and prices vary depending on how close the table is to a star DJ or the dance floor and the amount of alcohol consumed.

“DJ Deadmau5 performs, and the wealthier clientele follow him,” says Bo Burroughs, marketing and promotions manager at the Vegas-style Drai’s in the W Hotel in Hollywood. He said the minimum for a table by the dance floor is $5,000 to $10,000. “They want the real estate to be near the talent,” he said. “To sit next to Paris Hilton, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

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Burroughs, who has worked in clubs around the country for more than 20 years, says bottle service originated in the South of France and popped up in the U.S. first in Miami’s South Beach, then New York, in the early ‘90s.

Hip-hop artists, and Diddy in particular, helped spread the trend in L.A. in the late ‘90s, through songs about popping bottles, buying tables and being a “baller,” which refers to pro basketball players with an affinity for bottle service.

Blatant waste, such as spraying outrageously expensive bottles of Champagne onto the dance floor, is almost a badge of honor on the bottle service scene. For a while, so was “making it rain,” where patrons tossed bags of loose cash into the air over the dance floor.

Supperclub in Hollywood is reputed to have the most elaborate “bottle staging” in L.A. On a recent Friday night, as several hundred people raged beneath a web of neon laser lights on the dance floor, bikini-clad aerialists descended from a hole in the ceiling, 40 feet high, to deliver expensive Champagne to one special customer.

At Beacher’s Madhouse, an intimate, Alice in Wonderland-like Vaudevillian theater and club, cocktails and Champagne are delivered to high rollers by what are billed as “flying midgets” hooked to aerial cables.

Club promoters may comp models, celebrities and whomever else can help create a vibe for the night -- and improve the male-female ratio, says Chris Paul, promoter for the Sayers Club and Voyeur Paul. A promoter “could know 10 cute 21-year-olds from the OC who don’t know where else to go; he’ll put them at a table with a spender,” he says, adding “That guy gets cute girls around him all night.”

Were bottle service to fizzle out, Drai’s Burroughs says, the whole club landscape would move down market.

“Take a product, mark it up 1,200%. That’s a lot of revenue,” he says. “If bottle service were to disappear, a lot of things would change -- the venues, the talent -- because you can only charge so much for a ticket.”

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deborah.vankin@latimes.com

matt.donnelly@latimes.com


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