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Red & Blue... the near impossible made possible

by Vincent van der Kraan in Nightlife & Reports , 06 maart 2003

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Since five years hundreds of young gays each and every week are traveling from all over Holland to Antwerp to throw themselves into the disco mania called Red&Blue. Together with the Brussels’ La Demence, both discos have fixed Belgium for ever on the European gay map. The brains behind the Antwerp success formula is the 49 year old Ludo Smits.

Ludo, what did you do before you went into the catering business?

I had a call center and ran a store in waterbeds. Both businesses were doing well. Funny enough, some of the reactions of gays on my way of dressing landed me in the catering business. I used to go to the opera or go see a musical and afterwards went to a gay bar, still dressed in my best suit, where I was met with looks of utter disbelief, or worse, disapproval. I realized there was no establishment where you could go out in style, well dressed, and where everyone would still be comfortable. So I decided to start my own business.

I found a building at 53 Falconrui, where, to satisfy this hobby of mine, I created a stylish and trendy gay bar, called the Hessenhuis. I never meant it to make money, it was merely a fling. But at one point business started booming. I got more and more into it and realized that this is what I liked doing best. I sold my call center and waterbed store for a fair price and went completely for my Hessenhuis. I did so for five years.

One Pink Monday I met Manfred Langer from the Amsterdam iT. For some time I had been toying with the idea of a gay disco. Then and there Manfred gave me some valuable advice: "Watch out for the queens. You’re starting a gay joint. Queens bring along their girlfriends, followed in their wake by their straight boyfriends and before you know it they decide what goes on and what not in a gay joint; that’s where I myself made a big mistake and now there’s no going back”.

Did you take his advice to heart?

Not in the Hessenhuis, no, but in the R&B, yes. In the Hessenhuis I got in trouble indeed. It got so trendy that more and more heteros started coming. In the R&B we now have a very strict door policy. On Saturdays men only.

Where did you get the idea to start a gay disco?

Well, the Hessenhuis was doing better and better and one day the only gay disco in Antwerp closed down. I found a marvelous location near the harbour, an old forge for ship’s engines from the 1880s, inside with a wonderful atmosphere all its own. Some daredevils had been trying their luck getting a straight disco started there, but they’d failed. Then it was bought by a Dutch lady. I asked her if I could rent the place one night a week for a gay disco. She said no. When I asked her why not, she told me she wanted to be able to look her little daughter straight in the eyes. And she was Dutch...!! The lady went miserably bankrupt and I could buy the place.

Inside I had the walls sandblasted, which restored the factory stones to their original glory and in November 1997 I opened Red&Blue with a smash party. The name I got from the district we’re in, the former red light district near the Antwerp harbour, which, when still in full glory, had red and blue lights everywhere. Meanwhile the city has been restoring the old harbour and now the environment has turned into a top location. From the moment we opened our doors, Red&Blue has been a success.

You also built up a program. How?

In the beginning I just listened and listened to what a younger generation had to tell me. I want clients to come in and have their jaw drop. You have to fight against getting into a rut. When a party goes down well, we turn it into a regular. Like the Message Parties. When people come in, we give them a clearly visible number. On a big board they can leave a message for another customer they want to make contact with. We always do this on Valentine’s Day.

Other regular parties are: Glamour Parties, Top Secret Parties, Super Heroes, Mister Gay Benelux in cooperation with the MacGroningen and Exit Amsterdam, Tormenta Hormonal in cooperation with club Amnesia on Ibiza. Club Flesh, every first Saturday of the month, is more about muscles. You have to force yourself to stay creative, no brainless repetance. Recently we had His Royal Badness Prince, a nice guy by the way, not bad at all. We’ve had Boy George, Jimmy Sommerville, Simple Minds, Jean Paul Gaultier (two weeks ago).

Being up to date means talking with your clientele and reacting instantly, which can create problems with deadlines for lay out, printing, spreading flyers, advertising and so on. And you have to keep up with what’s going on abroad.

What did that bring you?

From America I bought the concept STUDIO 54. I now own the rights for Europe. Every first Sunday of the month we organise a Studio54 Party. Then the club is jampacked with lines cueing up in front of the door. Once a year we organise a giant Studio54 Grand Gala in the Antwerp Sports Palace. In 2003 we’ve scheduled it for September 27, for over 12 thousand visitors. Last year we’ve had Grace Jones en Boney M. for instance. We sold out completely and still there were thousands of visitors trying to come in. We broke the "stretched limousines" worldrecord.

I rented each and every stretched limo in Holland, Belgium, France and Germany and with 60 limos lined up established the "longest line of stretched limos" worldrecord. I had Grace Jones ride in in a stretched limo straight through the dancing crowd and some time later a truck drove Boney M. to the stage, also straight through the crowd. Nineteen television stations were there filming, which brought us a lot of publicity. This year we plan to go even wilder.

When looking over your Red&Blue period, what’s been the toughest for you?

Delegating! I would love to do everything myself. Towards my clients I’m a super perfectionist. For myself not at all, I love chaos, but for my clients I want everything arranged to a T. I also had to learn to accept that things might be sloppy at times. I used to get literally sick over that, but I had to learn to let go. I demand that my personnel is client friendly. From the doorman to the lavatory attendant. But a client calling a staff member names is back on the street in no time. Rule number one is that every client gets VIP treatment.

How do you explain the success of Red&Blue?

Simply being in the right place at the right time. Antwerp was ready for it and I was too. And respect for the client. When ordering a whisky you get an honest amount at our place. Prices are fair. Beer 2,50, entrance 7,50, this day fair prices for a disco. Visitors should be entertained. I had a live elephant walk in one day and another time a gigantic Chinese dragon.

Decoration is important. When you haven’t been here on a Saturday, you should feel you’ve missed out on something. When I have a client come to me to tell me: "Such a pity I haven’t been here last week," I know we’re doing well.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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