Woman who opened world’s first disco dies aged 92

Saturday May 07 2022
Disco pix

Regine Zylberberg, a celebrity, singer, actress and businesswoman. She died at the age of 92. PHOTO | AFP

By Business Daily Africa

The entertainment world has been paying tribute to the woman who is credited with opening the world’s first-ever discotheque and pioneering a clubbing format that influenced generations of revellers around the globe.

The Belgian-born French singer, actress, and nightclub impresario Regine Zylberberg (known simply as Regine), a trailblazer of nightclubbing, died on May 1 at the age of 92.

As a 23-year-old in 1953, the self-declared “the Queen of the Night“ revolutionised club dancing at the Whisky à Gogo, one of the first popular postwar clubs in Paris by installing a linoleum dance floor and replacing the jukebox with disc jockeys playing records on two turntables.

Instead of the silence between the songs from the jukebox, the music now played non-stop. It was an era-defining switch that gave birth to disco and would etch the name of Regine into the folklore of popular culture.

She recalled juggling the different roles of “barmaid, doorman, bathroom attendant, hostess, and the first-ever club disc jockey.”

The success of this new club format prompted her to open her first Chez Regine club in Paris in 1957, widely regarded as the world’s first discotheque, with the financial support of some of the influential contacts she had made.

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It quickly established itself as the favourite haunt for celebrities, socialites, royalty, and other privileged clients. It was a fascinating night-life experience; for the first time, revellers danced to recorded music, not live bands, and could buy bottles of liquor instead of cocktails.

The bubbly, petite crimson-haired impresario was the centre of attraction, clad in designer gowns and teaching famous guests like actor Charlie Chaplin and the Duke of Windsor, how to dance the twist, rumba, cha-cha, merengue, and the hula-hoop.

“If you can’t dance, you can’t make love,” she quipped in 2015.

Regine wrote in her memoir that 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.”

She built on this success and expanded her branded clubs to other leading cities around the world.

At the height of her influence in the 1970s, there were more than 20 Regine franchises across three continents, Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East.

The Regine clubs were opened in Paris, New York, Rio de Janeiro, London, Los Angeles, Miami, Cairo, Kuala Lumpur and other capitals.

She would draw up a list of the jet-set in each of the cities where she opened a club, to be targeted as clientele or financiers. According to her, all she invested in the clubs was her name, and some of them were franchises owned by entrepreneurs.

With 20,000 people paying $1,000 (Sh115,850) annual gold membership, the clubs reportedly grossed over $500 million (Sh57.9 billion) a year at the peak of their success.

“There was a mix,” she said of her clientele. “People with no names coming to see the people with names.”

The Chez Regine enforced a strict dress code of tuxedos and evening gowns. Even the famous Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones fell victim to the admission rules when he was denied entry into the New York Regine’s in 1976 for turning up in sneakers and no tie.

Regine also became a one-hit-wonder making it into the pop charts in 1978 with a French version of Gloria Gaynor’s disco hit “I Will Survive”. She appeared in several TV shows and films, opened cafés, and her apparel and perfume lines.

By the 1990s, changing night-life trends had taken a toll on the once-famous clubs and all that remained of Regine’s international empire was a handful of establishments in France, one in Istanbul, and a restaurant in New York.

The child of Jewish emigrants from Poland, Rachelle Zylberberg was born in Belgium on December 26, 1929. Her family moved to Paris in 1932 and were forced to hide in a convent from the Nazi onslaught in occupied France during World War II.

Regine received the highest French order of merit, the Legion of Honor, from President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008. She continued to perform on stage and manage a handful of clubs well into her 80s, famously saying there was no rush to retirement.

“This life is about fate,” she told the New York magazine in 1999. “Even when I was a little girl, I would tell everybody that I would one day have a big nightclub and rule the world. I always knew I would be a legend.