Martin “Marty” Chernoff, a Denver-based businessman who is credited with employing state-of-the-art technology in video, lighting, and sound systems for the gay nightclubs called Tracks that he opened in Denver, D.C. and other cities, died May 3 in Denver. He was 76.
People who knew him said Chernoff, who was straight, hired a cadre of gay managers and employees who he mentored in the art of operating large-scale nightclubs. Many of them went on to open their own successful gay clubs.
Using the business model and amenities he created for his first Tracks nightclub in Denver, Chernoff opened Tracks D.C. in 1984 in a large warehouse building at 1111 First St., S.E. in the then-warehouse district that has since disappeared following the construction of Washington Nationals Stadium.
Nightlife advocates familiar with Tracks D.C. say that in its 15-year lifespan – it closed in 1999 after Chernoff sold the building to a developer – it brought to D.C. a gay nightclub that offered features no other nightclub offered in the region, gay or straight.
Ed Bailey, who worked at Tracks D.C. as a DJ and later as its director of promotions, said the sprawling warehouse building’s main room or hall included the D.C. area’s largest dance floor at the time. He noted that Chernoff installed the same state-of-the-art theatrical lighting and sound system he had been using in the Denver Tracks.
Unlike most other clubs at the time, Chernoff had a large outdoor space as part of the Tracks property in which he installed a volleyball court with beach sand rather than a paved cement surface. He also built an 18-inch-deep pool surrounded by a large deck with chairs and an outdoor bar and grill, where hot dogs and hamburgers, among other food items, were served.
The outdoor space also featured yet another dance floor and sound system that became highly popular during the warm weather months.
“I built what I thought would work well, including some things where people said, ‘Are you crazy? Who ever heard of a volleyball court in a nightclub?” Chernoff told the Washington Blade in a 2013 interview on the occasion of a Tracks D.C. reunion party.
“And I said, ‘Well, I tried it in Denver and it worked pretty well. Let’s give it a try here.’”
Bailey and others familiar with Tracks said the volleyball court along with the numerous other amenities at the club worked very well, as capacity crowds exceeding 1,000 or more patrons came to the club on most weekends.
Under Chernoff’s direction, Tracks D.C. also featured nationally known live performers almost one a month for several years. Among them were Gloria Gaynor, Thelma Houston, Crystal Waters, The Village People, Martha Washington, and CeCe Peniston.
Chernoff told the Blade in the 2013 interview that he was proud that Tracks drew a diverse cross section of the LGBT community, including whites, blacks, men and women, Latinos and Asians. He noted that as word spread about Tracks’ grand scale, straight customers began to come to the club at various times. Before long, people familiar with the club said, Friday nights became known as “straight night,” even though gays continued to come to Tracks on that night.
“It was the biggest, coolest club in the city, so other people started going,” Bailey said at the time of the 2013 Tracks reunion. “The straight crowd knew it was a gay club but they couldn’t find anything like it anywhere else.”
Chernoff told the Blade he and his staff welcomed the diversity of the crowds. But he said he made it clear in no uncertain terms on a sign posted at the entrance that while everyone was welcome, Tracks was a gay club “and if that is a problem for you then you shouldn’t come in.”
In a joint statement to the Blade this week, Bailey and John Guggenmos, a former Tracks manager who, along with other partners, later bought Tracks D.C. from Chernoff, said Chernoff changed their lives by teaching and mentoring them in the nightclub business.
“After envisioning a potential nightclub in an abandoned building in Southeast D.C., Marty created a remarkable facility, and laid the foundation for what most who experienced it would call the single greatest nightclub in all D.C. history,” Bailey said in the statement.
“John and I are immensely proud of our time at Tracks and I know that Marty was proud to see how Tracks grew and evolved during our time there,” Bailey said. “Marty should be revered for what he did to create such a remarkable nightclub space and John and I will always owe him a debt of gratitude for allowing us to launch our careers in the process.”
Mark Lee, a former D.C. nightclub event producer and current nightlife business advocate, said Chernoff’s innovative approach to the nightclub business opened doors for others to build on D.C.’s nightlife scene.
“D.C. nightlife owes a special place in history to Marty Chernoff, alongside the gratitude of the gay community,” Lee said. “He initiated one of the most momentous and memorable local dance club venues and fostered a legacy of new expectations,” Lee said.
“He engendered professional opportunities and creative possibilities for men and women, gay and straight, who made continuing contributions to the nighttime culture here and elsewhere, and which enliven our city and other places to this day.”
Andrew Feinstein, Chernoff’s business partner at Tracks in Denver, which is still operating, and in the Denver based EXDO Event Center, posted a Facebook remembrance of Chernoff, who he called his best friend.
“Our Tracks and EXDO family has lost our founder and fearless leader Martin Chernoff,” Feinstein wrote in his post. “For those of us who had the privilege of getting to know Marty over the 76-plus years of his life, you know he was truly one-of-a-kind and had the biggest heart imaginable,” Feinstein said.
“Marty recognized in the very early days of Tracks Denver (opened in 1980) how important it was to have a welcoming venue that accepted all people of all sexual orientations, races, religions, ages, and so forth,” Feinstein said. “As a man who grew up without even a modicum of pretentiousness, there was no judgment from Marty about who walked through our doors.”
Feinstein said in his post that Chernoff is survived by his wife Kay and his daughters Lisa and Linda. He said a “grand celebration” of Chernoff’s life is scheduled to be held Aug. 4 at Tracks in Denver.