Max's Kansas City was a nightclub (upstairs) and restaurant (downstairs) at 213 Park Avenue South, between 17th and 18th Streets, in New York City. Opened by Mickey Ruskin in December 1965, Max's became a landmark gathering spot for musicians, poets, artists and politicians in the 1960s and 1970s.
Max's was a hangout for artists and sculptors of the New York School, sculptor John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers, whose presence attracted hip celebrities and the jet set, and also a favorite spot of Andy Warhol's entourage. The Velvet Underground played their last shows with Lou Reed at Max's in the summer of 1970. Yvonne Sewall-Ruskin, ex-wife of the infamous bar’s owner Mickey Ruskin, summed it up perfectly:
"Max's Kansas City" does not have any relation to the actual city of Kansas City. The name was inspired at the suggestion by Joel Oppenheimer to commemorate a poetic place envisioned by Max Finstein. Oppenheimer also suggested the marquee read "Steak, Lobster and Chick Peas," three of the restaurant's menu items.
After Max's Kansas City had become established, Ruskin opened two restaurants: Les Levin's across the street, and Max's Terre Haute on the Upper East Side. However, neither matched the success of the original.
[Mickey] provided a libertine atmosphere in which the unconventional could flourish. Drugs and sex were definitely a major part of the mix at Max's. In the years before the Stonewall Rebellion, Max’s was one of the few places of its kind where drag queens were accepted, and, notwithstanding some good-natured ribbing from the macho artists at the bar, gay and straight reveled in each other’s company. Blurred sexual identity and sexual preferences contributed to the charged atmosphere. Beautiful young people exhibiting their flesh in black leather and miniskirts fueled the fire. Speed, LSD, pot, downs, heroin, and of course alcohol, all in plentiful supply, removed inhibitions. Frequent patron and model Bebe Buell’s comments paint a darker picture of the place as the freewheeling sixties turned into the crazier seventies:
The drugs of choice when I first came to New York were more of the downer school: Tranquilizers, reds, Quaaludes, amyl nitrate, drugs that made the brain go to a dead place were big. That was frightening. People would drink and drink and start hitting these horrible substances, ingesting them or snorting them, I never saw much of the needle thing. In 1972 and 1973, there was a lot of vomiting. I got really tired of seeing everyone I admired throwing up. It got to be commonplace. Photographer Lee Childers recalls not everyone being on downers, but everyone being on speed: You see everyone was on speed, which lent itself to great dramas and outbursts of emotion. The scenes were always extremely dramatic and publicly dramatic – lots of slappings, drinks in the face, and bottles over the head in the back room of Max’s.
By the time that Max’s Kansas City had become less of a sixties scene and more tied to Glitter in the early seventies, one thing for certain is that drugs were plentiful in addition to the glamorous patrons, Writer Jim Lalumia said of the time:
It had gone from the Grateful Dead, Woodstocky, ‘we are all one’ type of mind-set, to suddenly all these critters were appearing on the horizon saying, ‘We are not all one, in fact I’m not anything at all like you, and it’s going to cost you twenty-five dollars to find that out.’ And to me that seemed very Warhol, and very fascinating.
Although Warhol’s legacy still lingered in Max’s, the man himself had gone there less and less after succumbing to more and more paranoia about his personal safety after being shot by groupie Valerie Solanis in 1968. By 1969 Max’s had turned the upstairs room from a disco into a place for Rock bands to perform as Mickey Ruskin hired a music promoter. Soon after this, in 1972, the Factory scene was dying and was being replaced by Glitter Rock. That fall, when David Bowie was performing his Ziggy Stardust tour of the United States, he found out just how much of a Glitter Rock haven Max’s had become:
The bodyguards were restless. Then they discovered Max’s Kansas City. The bar/restaurant seemed to be crawling with groupies who wanted to sleep with David. As the gay MainMan Staffers used David’s myth to corral young boys, the straight bodyguards utilized the same ruse to satisfy their sexual urges. The groupies believed that the bodyguards were the king’s tasters. The bodyguards would have sex with them and check them out for venereal disease. If they passed the test, they would be submitted to the prince.
One time Warhol superstar, Holly Woodlawn, talks about why she stopped going to Max’s at this time: Max’s had gone heavy metal. Gone was the mad glamour I had relished. The Superstars had left the scene, the round table had disbanded, and the place was overrun with rock and roll groupies. I had no time for blasting guitars and screaming synthesizers, and had left the scene entirely. Many of the original Max’s regulars resented the opening of upstairs, thinking it was bad enough that they had to put up with the restaurant at the front of “their” club. It didn’t help that the average age of the Glitter Rock crowd was barely legal as compared to the aging Factory/60’s Art World people. Scott Cohen talks about this change at Max’s: In the final days, from late 1973 until it closed (temporarily in 1974), Max’s was still the in-spot, based mostly on the reputation of what it had once been-glitter and platform shoes replaced the sophisticated and cool ambience of the back room; art was replace by glam rock; and Mickey seemed terminally bored. Max’s only connection to the past were a few regulars. In 1973 the New York Dolls began playing a series of performances upstairs, furthering Max’s reputation as the new haven for Glitter Rock. Lead singer David Johansen recalls of their fans at this time:
You’ll see younger kids at the Dolls’ gigs in New York than at any other. Of course they’re sophisticated, hip, little New York kids, not the kids who come in from Long Island to see the Osmonds [but] the kind who try and sneak out at night to hang out in Max’s backroom, wear what their parents feel is obscene clothing, and have nasty thoughts.
By 1974 the restaurant/bar/nightclub was sinking in a pool of debts, fires, thefts, unpaid tabs, and Mickey’s discovery of cocaine. By the end of that year Max’s was closed and sitting vacant, having fallen victim to trying to bridge two separate worlds: The 1960’s avant garde art scene with the 1970’s rock scene. The former wanted nothing to do with the latter and Max’s could no longer serve them both. In 1975 Max’s reopened with a new owner, Tommy Dean. Photographer Leee Black Childers remembers
Tommy wanted the back room with the superstars and the red lights and that whole number. But no one – no one went into the back room after Tommy Dean bought Max’s Kansas City. And both Max’s had rock ‘n’ roll scenes, but both were distinctly different. The first one was very cool – Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, and people who created the idea of rock ‘n’ roll in a restaurant club…The second Max’s rock scene came in 1976, when Peter Crowley started booking acts for the upstairs room. With the hiring of Crowley, Max’s became one of the premier showcases for a new up and coming lifestyle called Punk, which was ripping the satin of Glitter to shreds all over New York City. It was only natural that the next new wave of music-as-lifestyle should be born on the heels of Glitter Rock at Max’s, as many of the young Punk Rockers grew up reading all about Max’s in the early seventies in magazines like Rock Scene. Howie Pyro of seventies Punk Group the Blessed remembers, “I remember reading about Max’s in Rock Scene when I was a kid, looking at pictures of it, thinking what a totally dark, weird scene it must be--deranged people hanging out in this strange place and Why Can’t I Live There?” As the sixties avant-garde had to make way for Glitter in the first half of the seventies, by 1976 Punk Rock was taking over Max’s. Alice Cooper talks about the demise of the original Max’s:
Max’s Kansas City is gone now. It’s good and it’s a shame. After Mickey bailed out and Tommy Dean took over in its second reincarnation, it turned into a depressing glitter-groupie hangout filled with everybody who had carfare from Brooklyn. But years ago, in the late sixties and early seventies, it was a haven of decadence of the unreal, Theater of the Absurd becoming Life of the Absurd at the time the infamous back room of Max’s was restricted: ‘Freaks Only’. There was no other single place that you could be accepted-even lauded- for being different. The first Max's closed in December 1974
Ed Koch was to have a campaign office in the building.
The club reopened in 1975 under new ownership of Tommy Dean Mills who started with a formula of offering disco. Peter Crowley, who had been booking bands at Mothers, a gay bar on 23rd Street (Manhattan) was hired to start booking bands there in a venue that was an alternative to CBGB's.
Max's Kansas City became one of the birthplaces of punk rock, featuring bands like Cherry Vanilla, The New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Blondie, The Ramones, Mink DeVille, Steel Tips, The Misfits, The Dictators (who were falsely rumored to have been banned from playing there), Wayne County, Cheap Perfume,The Blessed, The Fast, The Fleshtones, Elliott Murphy and Patti Smith, as well as out-of-town bands in the same vein such as The Runaways and The Damned. After the breakup of the Sex Pistols, Sid Vicious played many of his solo gigs there.
Max's closed its doors in November 1981. The building survives and now houses a deli.
Mills reopened the club again on January 27, 1998, at a new location -- 240 West 52d Street -- site of the former Lone Star Roadhouse. However it closed shortly after opening.
The opening had been delayed by litigation by Yvonne Sewall-Ruskin who said she owned the trademark to Max's Kansas City and got a temporary restraining order to prevent use of the name.
In 2000, Acidwork Productions, Inc., a production company founded by Neil Holstein (second cousin of Mickey Ruskin) began working in conjunction with Victoria Ruskin (Mickey Ruskin's daughter) on a feature length documentary about Mickey and his many establishments, including Max's Kansas City.
In 2001, Yvonne Sewall-Ruskin established the Max's Kansas City Project in memory of the late Mickey Ruskin who fathered two of her children. To honor the spirit inherent in Ruskin's philosophy of helping artists in need, the project, a 501(c)(3) non-profit provides emergency funding and resources for individuals in the arts in crisis and empowers teens through the arts.