Veteran Atlanta nightclub owner Johnny Esposito died Monday at age 79, following a lengthy battle with diabetes. For decades, Esposito held the title of Atlanta's "Mr. Nightlife" as he presided over two generations of clubgoers at more than a dozen clubs located here and in Florida. But it was Johnny's Hideaway, the legendary Roswell Road nightspot he opened in 1979 that would become his greatest legacy. The life-long Frank Sinatra fan sold his share of the business in 1999 (complete with his telegram from Ol Blue Eyes thanking him for dedicating the Hideaway's Sinatra Room to him), but the club with his name on the sign still packs them in nightly. The Hideaway even has an extended cameo in the new big screen comedy "Hall Pass" starring Owen Wilson that was shot here last year.
For decades, night after night, Esposito, nattily clad in a suit and tie, positioned himself at the first table just inside the front door where he waited to greet each guest as they walked into the Hideaway. With a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, Esposito went table to table, introducing himself to first-timers and cutting up with the regulars. The Rat Pack era raconteur married and divorced five times and lived to chronicle it. Literally.
As a Christmas gift in 1996, Esposito once sent a typewritten manuscript to friends, detailing his exploits through five marriages. In the unpublished manuscript's preface, Esposito thanked each of the women "who took the time out of their life to spend with me. They had to put up with hell, some of them."
In 2002, the then-retired Esposito briefly returned to the club scene, overseeing Johnny's Side Door, a 70-seat club adjacent to the Landmark Diner in Buckhead.
"Retirement ain't all that it's cracked up to be," he confided to us at the time. "I don't wanna die on the couch. I wanna die on the dance floor."
Despite the ups and downs of running nightclubs and a host of medical problems later in life, Esposito maintained an eternal optimism, adopting his favorite saloon singer's 1958 hit "All My Tomorrows" arranged by Nelson Riddle as his personal theme song. In 1968, a down on his luck Esposito first heard the song on a juke box stopping off for a bite to eat as he and his wife and young son Johnny Jr. were on their way to start a fresh life in Atlanta.
"'Today I may not have a thing at all,'" Esposito once recalled to us, reciting the lyrics from memory. "'Except for just a dream or two. But I've got lots of plans for tomorrow and all my tomorrows belong to you.' You gotta have dreams."
Esposito's son Johnny told us Tuesday even in hospice care, "Mr. Nightlife" was planning the annual anniversary of his 39th birthday this July.
"You know Dad," the younger Esposito said. "He loved people, he loved a party and he loved attention!"
Services for Esposito will be held Wednesday, April 13 at Christ the King Cathedral at 2699 Peachtree Road in Buckhead at 3 p.m.
When notable figures like Esposito pass away, scribbler types like us typically call dignified individuals who pay solemn tribute to the deceased. But here at Intel Central, we opted to forgo that practice just this once and let the legendary storyteller himself have the final word on his life and legacy.
Over the past few years, we would routinely meet Esposito for breakfast in his regular booth at the Landmark Diner where he held court each morning. On occasion, we would record the sessions. Think of it as "Tuesdays With Morrie" but with fewer life lessons and lots more swearing. Here's Johnny reflecting on Johnny in the September of his years. Or as he put it: "I used to be into sex, drugs and rock n roll. Now, I'm all about companionship, coffee and big bands. Go figure!"
On the secrets to running a successful nightclub: "Treat each person nice, take care of your customers and your staff. If you don't have a personality, stay the hell out of the business. You've got to have personality, you can't be shy and you've got to be tough or you'll get robbed blind. And treat the women like gold. If women come to your club, the men will follow. We used to have a special club for the single ladies called the Johnny's Tomato club. When I was a kid, a tomato was slang for a good-looking girl. You got a card and it gave you discounts and entrance to special nights at the Hideaway. At one point, we probably had 5,000 women in this town walking around with Johnny's Tomato cards in their purses. I always knew things were going good at the club if I pulled into the parking lot in the morning and there were a dozen cars left over from last night. If the customers were getting lucky so was I!"
On the perks of running Florida's Melbourne Beach Casino nightclub in the early 1960s when it served as a hangout for the Apollo astronauts: "Alan Shepard was a regular and a buddy of mine. One night I booked Buddy Rich. Buddy could be a real son of a bitch. He didn't get along with nobody. He would fight with the wallpaper. This one night the place is packed and Buddy is refusing to do his second show. Alan sees Buddy giving me a bunch of [expletive]. Alan goes up on stage, grabs the microphone and tells the crowd, 'I'm going to the moon in a couple of weeks and if he doesn't get up here and do another set for us, I'm taking Buddy Rich with me!' Buddy got back behind his drum set for late show too!"
On booking Frank Sinatra Jr at his Florida nightclub one fateful weekend in 1966: "I'm in Frank junior's hotel room answering the phone for him when it rang. If the kid wanted to talk to the person on the other end, I would hand him the phone. Well, the phone rings this one time and I immediately recognize the voice on the other end. It says, 'John, this is the old man. Put Frank junior on the phone.' It was Sinatra calling to tell the kid he had just married Mia Farrow who was like 21 at the time and Sinatra was 50. He wanted to call the kid and tell him before it hit the papers! Years later, I go backstage to say hello to Frank Jr. at Chastain who was his father's musical director at that point. Now remember, at this time in the late 1980s, Sinatra was using a teleprompter on stage so he could remember the lyrics to his songs. He comes over to me and says, 'It's hell gettin' old, John. The memory is always the second thing to go!' I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Frank, how on earth did you remember my name from all those years ago?!' Sinatra just looks at me, laughs and says, 'Hell, I call all dagos John, what's the matter with you?!' He couldn't have said anything better to me!"
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