The Ocean Club was a meeting place for drinking and dining in Henrietta with a tropical atmosphere designed in part to counter the harsh reality of Rochester-area winters.
The chic club featured metallic palm trees, marble floors, and hand-painted murals of beach scenes. The owners reportedly spent over $3 million to build the place in Cohoes Commons, a spot off Jefferson Road.
The Ocean Club catered to an “older” and upmarket crowd with a huge sound and light system, valet parking, and restroom attendants. Professional athletes, TV stars and rock stars visited. A redesign added a restaurant and a revised format last year.
The Ocean Club debuted in early 1989. Sabeeha Johnson wrote in a Democrat and Chronic column that “waves of people and dozens of limos lined up for a VIP reception for 1,500 people.” The crowd included musician Rick James, best known for the ’80s funk-rock hit “Super Freak.”
“I was lucky enough to attend the special ‘invitation-only’ night before they opened to the public,” Barbara Behnke Fox, of Rochester, posted on Facebook. “I was standing across from Rick James. He had an entourage of bodyguards who accompanied him when he entered the men’s room. Damn it !”
At first, customers had to be at least 23 years old to enter the Ocean Club. One of the venue’s partners said the Ocean Club was a place where “people can dress up and not wear jeans” and “a big city club that Rochester has been dying for years.”
The 8,000 square foot Ocean Club began with three “theme bars”. Jazz music played during happy hour, which featured an elaborate buffet. Deejays churned out dance tunes over a 24,000 watt PA system later that night.
The Ocean Club has held fundraisers and promotional events, such as when two stars of the soap opera and Joe Regalbuto of the CBS series Murphy Brown came in 1989. Other renowned visitors followed.
Former heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes pulled over in 1990 and “danced the night away” with a girlfriend while six bodyguards stood by. Professional football players Pete Metzelaars of the Bills and Webster native Pat Kelly of the Denver Broncos were there the same year. Later in 1990, several major league baseball players stopped by the Ocean Club after attending Ken Kaiser’s annual dinner.
Sabeeha Johnson wrote in the Democrat and Chronic “Namedropping” column that Mark McGwire and Cecil Fielder held up at the bar (and bartender Spike Measer showed them how to do blue whales) while Don Mattingly “took brisk steps on the dance floor”.
In 1991 the minimum age for entry was lowered to 21, but the atmosphere continued as it had. Betty Ciacchi describes the clientele in a Democrat and Chronic story as “work-weary 9-to-5s eager to let their hair down, even though they keep their suit jackets on”. Musical acts included Johnny Matt’s Big Band and Nate Rawls’ Big Band. Chubby Checker performed at the Ocean Club as part of a “Rock N’ Road Rally” to benefit the Adam Walsh Resource Center.
The Ocean Club has left many memories for people who post on Facebook. “The line to get in was always long unless you knew someone who had VIP privileges,” Donna Lisi-Sutton said. “People from all over came to the club because there was no such thing.”
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Lisa DiFrancesco from Penfield remembers when her husband brought her there for her birthday. “I got VIP treatment with my name on every monitor,” she posted. Jennifer Traugott Gnage announced that she went to the Ocean Club for her 21st birthday and planned to drink ‘only smooth fruity drinks from the blender… the blender was broken so someone suggested we order some Long Island iced teas instead. It was an interesting evening.
In 1992, the Ocean Club was completely renovated. One of the three original bar spaces remained a bar, and another was demolished to make way for tables. The third area was transformed into a restaurant, Valentino’s, which opened on Valentine’s Day. The new restaurant was much quieter than the prominent main club, as Lisa Gutierrez wrote in a Democrat and Chronic review.
“It’s a safe bet that anyone who’s ever been to the Ocean Club has some striking impressions of the place — turquoise and pink neon lights, a flashy dance floor, shiny aluminum palm trees,” Gutierrez wrote. “So, what should we expect from the restaurant at the Ocean Club? Glow-in-the-dark silverware and tropical-print napkins, perhaps? Barely.”
Valentino, Gutierrez continued, was “simple where the club veers towards the showy, the calm as the club veers towards the supersonic sound” and “a shock if you come in with preconceptions”. But the end soon came.
In November 1992, the Ocean Club and Valentino’s were closed. Plans were announced for a “concept” type restaurant to open when the venue reopens the following year. This new restaurant was Union Square, which combined railroad, cinema and other themes. The building is now occupied by a Bill Gray’s restaurant.
As for the Ocean Club, where officials boasted of having more limos up front than any other building in the Rochester area, the tide had receded.
Alan Morrell is a freelance writer based in Rochester.
About this feature
” What happened ? …” is a feature that explores haunts of the past and revisits headlines of yesteryear.
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