Gary Berman and sidekick Mike Schreiber, aspiring night-life impresarios, were lost.
The pair of South Africans-turned-Australians (who are now trying to turn into Manhattanites) were walking uptown through Times Square. They were looking for the Whiskey Bar in the Paramount Hotel, on West 46th Street. Disoriented, the two took out their Palm Pilots and called up maps of Manhattan to get their bearings.
“It’s that way,” Mr. Berman said, pointing west.
Sure enough, thanks to their gadgets, the men found the place, got a table, ordered martinis and started trying to explain Bar Code, their new nightspot in the Bertelsmann Building in Times Square.
Bar Code, which is opening on May 9, is a bar full of games-video games, carnival games, Daytona 500 race-car simulations, pinball. It’s a sort of liquor-licensed romper room for adults who are more comfortable shooting down spaceships than striking up conversation with other humans-adults for whom a good night out is still a roll of quarters. To Mr. Berman and Mr. Schreiber, the new night crawler is at heart a distractible prepubescent, incapable of feeling comfortable around strangers without the help of an electronic interlocutor. So they have opened what is essentially a giant Game Boy with booze, to lure the introverts of the Sega generation out of their lairs.
“You walk into Bar Code, grab one of our high-energy cocktails and on your own move off and start playing some of the games,” Mr. Berman explained in his mongrel colonial accent, as he sipped his martini. “It’s a total ice-breaker. The focus isn’t on standing around and having to engage in conversation. It’s a real easy place to get comfortable.”
Mr. Berman, 40, is chief executive of the Melbourne-based company Entertainment Development Group, owner of about a dozen 24-hour nightclubs and high-tech circuses in Australia and Asia. In recent weeks, Mr. Berman’s Australian cohorts have been crawling all over Times Square-handing out Pez dispensers, holding tryouts for “millennial freaks,” installing “cyber coasters” and fiberglass rockets-in an effort to promote this strange new place they’ve installed in Times Square.
Meanwhile, visiting Aussies have cluttered Mr. Berman’s West 42nd Street offices with duffel bags and suitcases. The place is full of guys with bloodshot eyes just in from down under. They are Mr. Berman’s evangelists, here in an effort to convince New Yorkers that we’re as deprived of entertainment as the good citizens of Melbourne.
Then there’s the South African contingent. Mr. Berman is being escorted around town by a crew from his hometown of Johannesburg. Colin Cowie, a “party-planner to the stars,” who produced weddings for Don Henley, Kenny G. and Kelsey Grammer, has been introducing him to lawyers and bankers. And Colin Finkelstein, who holds the dubious honor of being chief financial officer at Golden Books, is showing him the “latest and greatest” restaurants. “It’s fantastic,” Mr. Berman said of his Manhattan tour.
An ex-punk rocker (he played bass for a band called The Young, Dumb, and Violent), Mr. Berman has shoulder-length brown hair, a square jaw and a scary tan. He rents an apartment at the Grand Millennium at 1965 Broadway, and commutes regularly between Australia and New York, picking his two kids up at school in Melbourne one weekend every month. With round-the-clock nightspots in many time zones, Mr. Berman often sits at odd hours in front of his computer watching the security cameras and cash registers at his Australian venues.
At the Whiskey, he was wearing black boots, black pants and a black silk shirt. He kept flipping his hair back as he tried to describe the E.D.G. philosophy: “It’s a very simple statement: good games never go out of fashion. Pool, pinball, certain redemption games, certain video games, the classics, they’re here forever,” Mr. Berman said. “I was reading an article in GQ that talked about the end of pinball. Forget about it. Pinball will be around forever.”
“It’s a good time to invest in pinball machines,” added Mr. Schreiber, who described himself as a “techno games geek.”
“The more people play games in any fashion-at home on PlayStation or on the Internet, on a plane on the way to Asia, at the airport, at a bar-regardless, the more they will play games,” said Mr. Berman. “If you have a hamburger, you don’t feel like another one. You watch a movie, you watch another one. You play a game, you play another one. The appetite for entertainment is insatiable.”
Somehow, after spending a little time in New York, Mr. Berman has come to the conclusion that there is nothing to do in Times Square.
“Here you have one of the biggest tourist districts in the world-something like 26-million people coming a year-and there’s really nothing to do, is there?” Mr. Berman asked. “Where is all the entertainment?”
Mr. Berman’s company has 25,000-square-feet of space on three floors of the Bertelsmann Building. The ground floor is occupied by the 3,000-square-foot company store where they will hawk Bar Code halter-tops and baseball caps. From there, an escalator will bring you past a massive fiberglass rocket ship to the Galactic Circus, a sort of all-ages high-tech games parlor filled with circus performers, jugglers and “scary mimes.” Bar Code is on the third floor. Between the two top floors there are 220 electronic games.
Attendants wander around organizing competitions among game participants. Illuminated stars and moons and circus tents hang from the ceiling. The emphasis is on redemption centers-those prize booths where you trade winning tickets for feathered roach clips or Peter Frampton mirrors. Only at Galactic Circus, you can win real stuff: money and electronics.
Those of legal age can further ascend to Bar Code, the 24-hour nightclub offering much of the same fare as Galactic Circus, but also serving High Energy Boost cocktails-fruity cocktails, basically.
With a recent infusion of $20 million from the South African venture capital company Kersaf, they are looking to bring their ideas to Orlando, Fla., Chicago, Las Vegas and Atlanta. They are hoping to take the company public a year or so from now. Asked to say more about their initial public offering, “We could tell you, but we’d have to kill you, mate,” Mr. Berman said. He and Mr. Shreiber snickered at that one.
Mr. Berman grew up in Johannesburg, where his father sold cars and his mother sold real estate. After college, Mr. Berman took a job with Ernst & Young, the accounting firm, where one of his clients was Warner Brothers. Eventually he joined Warner Brothers home-video division, and became vice president of operations for Home Video Australia within a few years. By the age of 27, he had been transferred to Los Angeles and charged with setting up video stores throughout the world.
While in Los Angeles, Mr. Berman married an Australian woman and the couple relocated to Melbourne, where he went into business with his father-in-law, an Australian shopping-center developer. They negotiated the rights for Blockbuster Australia and New Zealand.
“I just hated working in a family business,” he said. “It was a terrible situation in that I had moved to a foreign country, given up what could only be classified as a fast track career at Warner Brothers, and found myself in a family business I didn’t want to be in. That put all sorts of strain on the marriage.”
After getting divorced, Mr. Berman sold his interest in Blockbuster (“That is where I would’ve made my money,” he said, regretfully) and started looking around for a new project. Then he got together with his current posse, Mr. Schreiber, an heir to the South African Bic lighter franchise, and Joe Gersh, an Australian lawyer, and they developed their theories about games. Now they are sharing them with New York.
The other night, Mr. Berman and Mr. Schreiber finished their martinis and stepped outside the Whiskey. Mr. Berman checked his Breitling watch, which told the time in both Melbourne and Times Square, where it was just a little after 9 p.m.-time to get back to work putting the finishing touches on Bar Code.
But before heading toward the bright lights of Broadway, Mr. Berman had one more quibble with the way we do things in New York: “You’d think that in the city that never sleeps you could have a 24-hour liquor license.”