“I’m not a very professional person,” Ron Rineck says, hunched over an unopened bottle of water. “There are things I had to learn. Or ignore.” He’s seated at a table overlooking the empty dance floor at Monster Ronson’s Ichiban Karaoke, his beloved Warschauer Brücke spot where drag queens wrestle microphones from karaoke geeks and wasted tourists belting out Destiny’s Child. Rineck isn’t usually there on Tuesday afternoons, but the pandemic has meant eight of Ronson’s 24 full-time staff have been stood down, leaving him plenty to do in the club’s back office.
Where the club would host up to 350 people a night pre-coronavirus, regulations that Tuesday allowed them fit up to 80, and even less at the seated weekly drag shows. The current lockdown means Ronson’s will be closed until at least January. Instead of being here, Rineck would rather be firing off emails from his north-east Brandenburg farm, where he lives with three cats, nine chickens and 10 adolescent ducks in Uckermark, not far from the Polish border.
Raised in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, a Mormon hotspot he calls “one of the whitest cities in America”, Rineck arrived in Berlin on a bitterly cold winter day in 1998, following a pen-friend he’d contacted during a five-year stint in New York. Back then, he still saw Berlin as a “playground for adults”, and his $7000 savings lasted two years. Any other Americans he met were usually in the military. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” he says. “All I knew was Love Parade.” After bouncing between Prenzlauer Berg squats and the thriving queer scene, Rineck eventually got his hands on a karaoke machine and started doing paid gigs. By 2004, sporting a green mohawk, he’d saved up enough to open a three-box karaoke joint of his own in a former brothel by Schlesisches Tor.
Ronson’s Sing Inn, as it was called, became a key meeting point for Berlin’s growing international queer scene, before relocating to the once dead-end Warschauer Brücke. When Monster Ronson’s reopened there in 2008, Matrix was the only other nightlife option around. Within just a few short years his venture was a powerhouse known throughout Europe, dubbed by regulars as the “happiest place on earth” – even if running the show was a little more serious than Rineck had first imagined.
“I thought I’d give all my friends jobs and we’d just have fun working together,” he says. “But it’s not like that at all.” And now, over two decades since belting out The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” during his first karaoke binge in New York, Rineck has well and truly left his mark on Berlin, the city he discovered as a wild twentysomething. He might be finished with urban life, but he won’t be returning to the US anytime soon. “What would I do there?” he says as he heads back to the office, maybe thinking of his farm.