Régine in 1972. She built a $500 million empire of 23 clubs in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, including Régine’s in Manhattan, the most famous nightspot of its era.Credit…Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Régine, Whose Discotheque Gave Nightlife a New Dawn, Dies at 92

Credited with opening the first disco, she built an empire of glittering playgrounds for the Beautiful People in Paris, New York and beyond.

May 1, 2022

She was born Rachelle Zylberberg in Belgium as the Great Depression struck: a Jewish child abandoned in infancy by her unwed mother and left alone at 12 when her father, a drunken Polish refugee, was arrested by the Nazis in France. She hid in a convent, where she was beaten. After the war, she sold bras in the streets of Paris and vowed to become rich and famous someday.

In 1957, calling herself Régine, she borrowed money and opened a basement nightclub in a Paris backstreet. She could not afford live music, so the patrons danced to a jukebox. Business was bad, and the young proprietor, in a decision that would have social historians wagging for decades, concluded that the problem was the jukebox.

“When the music stopped, you could hear snogging in the corners,” she told the BBC, using British slang for kissing and necking. “It killed the atmosphere. Instead, I installed two turntables so there was no gap in the music. I was barmaid, doorman, bathroom attendant, hostess, and I also put on the records. It was the first-ever discotheque, and I was the first-ever club disc jockey.”

And so began Chez Régine, widely regarded as the world’s first discotheque. In the 1970s, its owner built a $500 million empire of 23 clubs in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, including Régine’s in Manhattan, the most famous nightspot of its era, catering to the stretch-limousine crowd of arts and entertainment stars, society celebs, princes, playboys and Beautiful People.

Régine, whose chain of clubs peaked in the 1980s and faded in the ’90s, a victim of an open drug culture and radical changes in the club scene, died on Sunday. She was 92.

Her death was announced on Instagram by her friend the French actor and comedian Pierre Palmade, who did not specify the cause or say where she died.

A plump, effervescent empresaria with flaming red hair, Régine was known to everyone who was anyone as “the Queen of the Night.” With enormous fanfare, she opened her New York club in 1976 on the ground floor of Delmonico’s Hotel, at 59th Street and Park Avenue. She moved into the hotel’s penthouse suite. The city had just survived a fiscal crisis, but to her chic clientele that hardly mattered.

Régine made exclusivity an art form. She attracted privileged classes by selling 2,000 club memberships for $600 each, and by requiring tuxedos and evening gowns to get in. She installed a flashing “disco full” sign outside to discourage the hoi polloi and a slide-back peephole at the door to inspect supplicants for admission to the pounding music and gold-plated glamour of her Valhalla.

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