November 28, 1983 12:00 PM

It was billed by Andy Warhol, whose Interview magazine was sponsoring the opening, as “the party of the year.” But after the Episcopal Bishop of New York, the Rt. Rev. Paul Moore Jr. huffed, “We are horrified,” the question became whether Manhattan’s newest disco, Limelight, operating from the former Church of the Holy Communion, might not wind up being the scandal of the year.

No matter that the 137-year-old church had been deconsecrated 11 years ago and until recently had served as a drug rehabilitation center. The disco’s kinky kicks obviously come from its ecclesiastical trimmings, including pews, an altar, a gilded church pipe organ that descends from the organ loft and laser beams bouncing off the stained-glass windows.

“Is this consecrated ground?” asked fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo nervously. “Everybody’s having a good time, so I’m not putting it down,” said supermodel Cheryl Tiegs, there with hubby Peter Beard. “Listen,” chimed in Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft, “they’ve been dancing in churches for a long time. Now we’ve just got a little bass added.”

More than just a little bass. Mega-decibel rock music boomed through the nave as the throng boogied and scenes from The Ten Commandments flashed on a giant video screen. “I think it’s a little sacrilegious—and I’m Jewish,” said Dr. Stephen Kritsick, coauthor of Creature Comforts: The Adventures of a City Vet.

Untroubled by clerical overtones was the proprietor of the scene, Peter Gatien, 31, a Canadian self-made millionaire who purchased the former church for $1.6 million, then spent $3.5 million restoring and decorating it. “New York is dying for something new,” says Gatien. “Studio 54 is nearly seven years old now.” And as his two previous Limelight discos (in Hollywood, Fla. and Atlanta) show, Gatien has a flair for novelty. His Atlanta club made headlines when sharks swam under the glass dance floor and again when Anita Bryant glided atop it with a minister devoted to reforming gays.

“In New York you’ve really got to knock ’em dead,” Gatien says, so he gave his real estate agent one directive: “Find me a church.” Though he kept most of the architecture intact (“Eighty percent of the stained glass is original, but it needed repair”), innovations, including a spiral staircase up to the bell tower and three balconies overlooking the nave, were installed. “People watching, in New York more than anywhere else, has got to be the greatest entertainment,” Gatien explains. Quake, wind and snow machines, as well as a hologram of a “supernatural figure” are planned. “I want high-energy music,” he says. “You want it to be happening when you walk in at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

A onetime Catholic altar boy, Gatien is no longer a regular churchgoer, but he says, “I do believe in God. I do speak to Him. Somebody’s been good to me.” Certainly Gatien, a postmaster’s son from Cornwall, Ontario, has had a way of snatching victory from defeat. Having lost his left eye in a high school hockey match, he donned an eye patch in 1969 and with his $17,000 insurance settlement from the accident opened a jeans store. In 1974 he turned a “dead” country-and-Western lounge into a hit rock-music nightclub. “I get bored reasonably quickly,” admits Gatien, who two years later opened his Florida Limelight and made his first million. Three years after that he bought an Atlanta dinner theater for his second Limelight. Theme parties, including “Bare as You Dare” nights and celebrity fetes (Burt Reynolds filmed part of Sharky’s Machine there), sealed its reputation for outrage.

Gatien likes to keep his personal life out of the limelight. He spends every second weekend with his daughters, Jennifer, 9, and Mandy, 8, who live in Canada with their mother. (The couple was divorced in 1977 after five years of marriage.) Gatien, who’s selling his mansion (“comparable to Tara”) in Atlanta, now lives in a townhouse in Manhattan’s Tribeca section and tools around the city in a chauffeur-driven limousine. That is about the limit of his ostentatiousness. He says he now seeks not financial, but, if you will, spiritual rewards. “I measure success by pleasing. I look at the New York market, and I figure I will please a million people over a year.”

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