‘Riot on the Dance Floor’ Documents Legendary Trenton Punk Club, City Gardens

Film Has New Jersey Premiere in Beach Haven at Upcoming Film Fest
By JON COEN | May 29, 2014
Photo by: Ken Salerno Henry Rollins, who played with Black Flag, the Rollins Band and did spoken word at City Gardens, is one of the musicians in the documentary ‘Riot on the Dance Floor.’ The film plays on Saturday, June 7 at 3:30 p.m. at Surflight Theatre as part of the Lighthouse International Film Festival.

If you got into surfing or skateboarding as more than just an occasional hobby in the ’80s and ’90s, there was a certain music associated with it. It was fairly aggressive with bouncing chords and noisy breakdowns. Most of us had this music handed down on dubbed cassette tapes, read about the bands in magazines and discovered them on the soundtracks of surf films.

But the bands, the mags and the movies all came from the West Coast.

In my mid teens, I remember the older guys going to see Social Distortion at a place called City Gardens. When Agent Orange, a quintessential Southern California surf punk band came around the next year, we drove to this club, in the heart of Trenton. It was truly a hole in the wall. The neighborhood was gritty and decayed. And within the dirty walls of the place, you never knew what was going to happen.

But when we went to City Gardens, we discovered new bands – ones that were from New Jersey. The East Coast had its own sound.

City Gardens closed its doors two decades ago. And it wasn’t until after the fact that we realized its role in the counter-culture of New Jersey. We started to understand that City Gardens was a big reason we made a certain music, art and esthetic a part of our lives. Now this famous hole in the wall is getting its due as the subject of the documentary “Riot on the Dance Floor: The Story of City Gardens and Randy Now” by Steve Tozzi, which plays as part of the Lighthouse Film Festival on Saturday, June 7 at 3:30 p.m. at Surflight Theatre.

Randy Now, aka Randy Ellis, was a mailman and a DJ on the side. Throughout the 1980s, he went from DJing at City Gardens to booking college radio bands: alternative and punk rock. He attracted bands from all over the country, and eventually the world.

The 1980s are celebrated for how shamelessly cheesy everything was. It was an age where radio stations, major label record companies and MTV called all the shots. There were only a few airwaves and they played a narrow scope of hit music. And it was a full decade before anyone was accessing music or promoting shows to a niche audience on the Internet.

City Gardens gave underground bands a place to play. Perhaps more importantly, it gave people who weren’t into mainstream music a place to see those bands. Because of that, the music scene in New Jersey has always held City Gardens in a place of high regard.

The Beastie Boys, Bad Brains and Green Day all played here before they reached huge audiences. Sunday matinees hosted countless hardcore bands. Henry Rollins performed here with Black Flag and the Rollins Band, as well as his own spoken word shows. A Tribe Callled Quest and De La Soul packed the house. Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, a frequent visitor to LBI, was a bartender there. The Ramones played City Gardens 25 times.

It was the kind of place Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers stopped on tour. Nirvana went on to change the entire musical landscape while the Chili Peppers played the Super Bowl last year. And many others from the City Gardens scene have also gone on to become noted writers, artists, marketers, historians and other creative roles.

As Randy Now has explained in interviews, a dozen people said they wanted to make the documentary about City Gardens, but Tozzi, 42, was the one who actually did it. Tozzi first garnered industry attention at age 22 when he received an Emmy Award nomination for his creative package of the launching of ESPN’s X-Games. He then went on to design and direct the on-air rebranding of PBS, ESPN and ABC Primetime. He was a creative director at New York’s Pure, a studio he helped launch in 2004 and has directed spots for Sharp, Time Warner and Nike. In addition to his commercial work with Click 3x Studio, he designed the motion graphics for “Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone.”

Tozzi first dug into the City Gardens project in 2011. That summer, his Playfort Productions launched a Kickstarter (online crowd sourcing site) campaign to raise the start-up money. Three hundred people backed the project and they exceeded their original goal of $20,000, making nearly twice that.

“I think the overwhelming support we had from New Jersey during our Kickstarter campaign was pretty telling of how much people loved that club and what Randy did for them, by bringing those shows to Trenton, taking that chance,” said Tozzi. “The film is a strong representation of a crazy idea going right for someone who didn’t necessarily know what he was doing on the onset. That resonated to people back then and still holds a tremendous amount of weight for people today. Making something big from nothing with the odds always against you ... It’s a classic underdog tale an audience can identify with and I did as well.”

Watching him shoot interviews at Philly’s This Is Hardcore Festival in 2011, with members of legendary NYC hardcore bands Token Entry and H2O, he clearly knew how to draw the best from his subjects. Musicians Ernie Parada, Timmy Chunks and Toby Morse shared great memories of the venue. The film is highlighted by interviews with Rollins, Ian McKaye of Fugazi/Minor Threat, Milo Aukerman of the Descendants, Jack Irons who played in both Pearl Jam and the Chili Peppers, Jon Stewart, and Dean Ween, who also frequents LBI.

Because there was so little live footage at the time, much of the visuals were provided by Ken Salerno. Salerno was a self-taught photographer who originally shot surfing and skateboarding. As a contributor to Thrasher magazine, he became entrenched in capturing all the moments that went down at City Gardens – moments that are now legendary.

The film certainly has a visceral side. For as much freedom as it allowed, the club was known for aggressive performances. Punk’s creative movements were closely tied to violent outbursts. But the film’s human side tells the story of the club with the career of Randy Now, with the history of Trenton threaded through it.

In April, the film sold out its world premier at the Boston Independent Film Festival. But it has yet to play in New Jersey, meaning that the Lighthouse Film Fest screening is its highly anticipated home state premiere. And not only will patrons and bands that played the club from Trenton, North Jersey, Philly, New York City and other regions be attending, but Island locals are thrilled that such an important part of their lives will be retold here on LBI.

This is a big deal to locals who used to travel to Trenton and now drive to Philly, New York or Asbury Park to see bands, as LBI offered little original music then or now.

“City Gardens existed at the perfect time, when underground music was still underground. Every Sunday in the heart of Trenton – and that was a little scary – you could go see incredible bands that you’d never hear at home,” says Brian Strahle of Giglio Awnings, who played City Gardens as a drummer for the locally based band Hogan’s Heroes in 1993 and later toured the U.S. and Europe with indie-rock outfit the Trans Magetti. “It’s awesome that City Gardens is finally coming to visit us in our home own.”

And Tozzi is very excited about the New Jersey premiere.

“To be at the Lighthouse Independent Film Festival is a big deal for me actually. I’m a New Jersey native, and like a lot of kids from my hometown of Old Bridge, we vacationed on LBI a lot. The shore was a big part of all of our lives so having my film have a New Jersey home at LIFF is a very satisfying ending to four years of filming,” offered Tozzi. “This film is about how one man brought alternative music to New Jersey and how City Gardens was an outpost for kids who didn’t sign on for top 20 music. So having it screen here is very important to everyone involved in ‘Riot.’

“I really enjoy the buzz that happens around going to the movies, in a guttural sense. You are going to be entertained. Well hopefully,” he laughed. “It’s exciting to see people excited about something you’ve made and come up to you and thank you for doing it. I also like connecting with other filmmakers because you instantly get each other. You’ve just completed a huge project... you all have so you have a ton to talk about.”

As for early buzz, thus far, the “Riot on the Dance Floor” link has been the most visited page on the Lighthouse International Film Fest site. Tickets can be purchased at LighthouseFilmFestival.org.



"Riot on the Dance Floor: The story of Randy Now and City Gardens" trailer
"Riot on the Dance Floor," New Jersey premiere at the Lighthouse International Film Festival (Video by: Steve Tozzi)
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