Swelter

It's a visit to a nasty little place that makes you want to go somewhere else. Except that you already live there, it's home, and there's no way out anytime soon. It's parties where you don't know whether to be flattered or insulted by being included on the guest list. Intrigues. Insults to the system. Nothing human is foreign - but this...this is too much.

What is it, the heat or something? We're standing around at a trendy South Beach fund raiser, people dressed up, everything nice, and an adult woman hurls a lemon wedge at our back. Someone insists that certain members of the nightclub industry would like to see us in a condition "less than alive." (This, by the way, already pretty well defines our current day-to-day existence.)

Shaken by all the unsavory images, we run into art collector Micky Wolfson at the Center for the Fine Arts Ball and invite him and his entourage over to Hipodrome for a few laughs: pretty club, pleasant and airy, lightest touch of attitude, a chained Florida panther and line outside, although the place is half-empty. Naturally Wolfson - a bona fide fabulous person - has trouble getting in. "I asked the woman out front what kind of place it was and she said, `Oh, nothing special, just a regular club.' Can you imagine?"

Clubs are more or less absurd, but Hipodrome, apparently, has gone completely psycho. One spectacular opening weekend a couple of weeks back, then rumors of missing money, big fights, and bad checks. And irate co-promoters, like Robert Vickery of the club's Big Sunday gay night: "Opening night, Friday, was crowded. Saturday was a disaster. And then our first Sunday night drew like 1700 people, real mixed, fabulous crowd. The second Sunday, there were like 600 people, and right in the middle, some workmen came for the sound system. There were all these thugs standing outside. The club owes money to vendors and has been bouncing checks on people. They still owe us money."

Former promoter Garrick Edwards says Hipodrome is pretty much over: "You've got a quarter-million dollars, eight-months work, gone. Eighty-thousand dollars was just wasted, and there's still like $62,000 worth of checks unaccounted for. There's been so much bullshit and lies. The chief financial officer, Bernie Martinez, has bounced checks on everybody. Opening weekend there were like twenty people - laborers, contractors, printers, everybody - following him around, looking for their money. One contractor is owed like $70,000. The creditors were lining up to get the door money. I'm going to see to it that he never reopens the place."

Ana Moranzoni, who owns Sencle's restaurant with her husband Massimo, catered the opening-night party: "He [Martinez] wrote me three bad checks totaling $6625." Vincent Guardino, of Designs by Vincent, is owed "over a thousand" for flowers.

According to Ana: "My husband and Vincent went over to collect their money. Bernie kept them waiting for an hour. We had three signed checks that Bruce Singer had gotten for us, and Bernie told us he would cash one a night [from cash receipts]. Then Bernie vanished. My husband and Vincent were pushed out the door. My husband put his hands behind his back outside the club and asked the police officer outside to help. They realized it was a bad situation and went back across the street to our restaurant. They were arrested in front of the restaurant. We're filing false-arrest charges." Guardino and Massimo spent the night in jail.

Rosa Rodriguez of the pharmaceutical wholesale company Bacchi Enterprises, an investor and silent partner (along with businessman Carlos Cruz) is not happy: "We had nothing to do with the [check] signatures. He [Martinez] had complete financial autonomy. Regardless, we're no longer associated with the club. An investor, brought in by Bernie, is supposed to be buying out our shares. I'm in shock. This is such an unfortunate business." Carlos Cruz, from an ice-cream-and-candy retail background, is also not too pleased: "We trusted him, unfortunately. We didn't have much control over the situation. He would never let us see the books. Rosa and I have 20 percent, while Bernie and Dr. [William] Mittler had 75 percent. Bernie manipulated Mittler, led him around, and took him around the world. He's got a great sales pitch."

Marketing director Parnell Delcham has left the company, filed a complaint with the police department for two-months back wages, and remains amazed by the whole experience: "I can't believe grown people would act this way. You come across a lot of lowlife in the club business, but I've never seen anything like this. One time he called us all into a meeting and told us that President Bush wanted him to personally attend a meeting. I had to cover the plane ticket for Liz Torres out of my own pocket. He acted like freaking Moses, like Mussolini intoxicated with power. A lot of good people have gotten hurt by this, but it doesn't even bother anyone's conscience."

Bernie Martinez is the only one who seems unworried: "It's business as usual. We're bringing in an investor who will be buying out the partners who are causing all the problems - Rosa and Carlos. We all went in with 250,000 cash, no loans, and we're in sound financial shape. Parnell has taken a leave of absence and Garrick has resigned. As regards the problem with Sencle's, we never signed an agreement. That was an oral agreement between Rosa and Ana. Then Commissioner Bruce Singer came over, demanding [Sencle's] money. He had done the ribbon cutting for us on opening night, and I told him that it was unfair to use that kind of political pressure. Then this man Massimo came over, took a swing at our security manager, he hit back, and a police officer arrested both of them.

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