Sweet Charity, Part 1: Two for Tea

The success of Miami Beach's newest social event has bred competition, bad feelings, and possible violations of state law

In less than five months, the tea dance has become an institution. Or at least as much of an institution as anything can be in the mercurial world of South Beach. Initially held at Aqua, the restaurant in the Winter Haven Hotel on Ocean Drive at Fourteenth Street, the tea dance is an updated salute to a bygone era when people would come together on a lazy Sunday afternoon -- at tea time -- and commune with friends.

A predominantly gay event, it features Seventies-era disco and funk, a parade of drag queens, and drinking and dancing into the night. "I wanted it to have a real fun feel to it," explains Jody McDonald, the event's founder. "Today's music, the beat's all the same. But this is fun, you can sing along. It's pre-AIDS music, and I think it brings back good feelings."

After quickly outgrowing the confines of Aqua's dining room and patio, the restaurant's owners moved the tea dance several times -- to adjacent Fourteenth Street, to Espanola Way, to a parking lot at Twelfth and Collins, and most recently to the beach directly across from Aqua, where more than 1000 people now regularly gather on Sundays.

But success breeds competition. On August 1, the West End, a gay bar at Lincoln Road and Michigan Avenue, launched its own tea dance -- organized and promoted by none other than Jody McDonald. "One day Jody tells me he's leaving and that we can't use the name anymore because it's been incorporated," says Lou Ramirez, one of Aqua's owners. "The whole thing is sleazy." The tea dance name McDonald uses is "Tea, Tango, and Tricks." Aqua's weekly soiree is now called "Aqua's Tea by the Sea."

New competition and loss of the original name, however, may be the least of concerns for Aqua's tea dance. It appears that from the outset, the event may have been illegal, as the promoters have been exploiting a provision of the state's liquor law intended solely for nonprofit organizations. By state law, all nonprofit organizations are allowed three short-term liquor licenses each year in order to host fundraising events. When McDonald began promoting the dance for Aqua, he approached various nonprofit groups and offered them $500 to use one of their liquor permits.

The charity also would be allowed to set up a table, solicit additional donations, sell T-shirts, and distribute literature. But all profits raised from the sale of alcohol went to Aqua. "You're circumventing the law," says Jorge Herrera, an enforcement officer with the state's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. "These people know they cannot get a license on their own, so they go to these nonprofits. They are basically leasing the license, and that's a violation of the law."

According to Herrera, when a charity is granted a temporary liquor permit, the group must exert complete control over the event. The law also states: "The licensee must be responsible for all debts of the business and legally entitled to all incomes therefrom."

"By doing what they have been doing," Herrera explains, "they are bypassing all of the statutes." However, Herrera says he doesn't know quite what to do about that. He hasn't received any complaints, and in fact wasn't aware of the tea dances until this past week. Ultimately, he says, a judge would have to decide if the arrangement violated state law.

Aqua's Lou Ramirez believes that while his parties may be bending the rules, they are not breaking them. "We're not really buying or leasing the license from them," he offers. "We're like consultants for them. But obviously I control the costs and the event. A lot of these charities didn't even know they had these licenses. And for them, $500 is a lot of money."

For large, well-established groups such as the Health Crisis Network, which can raise $200,000 during its annual "White Party," receiving only $500 for one of its liquor permits would be foolish. But for smaller groups -- such as Miami Is for Me, the Children's Home Society, or the Body Positive Resource Center -- Ramirez says it is worth it, especially since those groups don't have the money to pay up-front for the expenses involved in staging a big event themselves.

And contrary to what many people in Miami Beach believe, Ramirez claims his events are not highly profitable. Using a recent week as an example, he says he took in $8400, but typically he also has nearly $6700 in expenses: $1000 per week for police protection, $220 for portable toilets, $400 for insurance, $700 for a DJ and sound system, $400 for ice, $160 for the dancing drag queens, $1000 for liquor, and $500 for the charity. "It all adds up," he says, rattling off a dozen additional expenses.

When the Lincoln Road event premiered on August 1, Ramirez says the competition caused him to lose money. But the tea dances, he adds, are not strictly about dollars and cents: "Not only is it good for us and the charity, it's good for the city of Miami Beach," Ramirez says.

On that point, West End partner Steve Radler agrees. "I'm 100 percent for their event, but I'm also 100 percent for me, and I'm 100 percent for South Beach," he says. Radler hasn't decided whether his tea dances will eventually solicit liquor permits from nonprofit groups. So far he is using the West End's own liquor license and is only selling alcohol indoors. But if he decides to turn to the nonprofits, he won't have far to look. Already, he says, groups have contacted him to see if he will offer the same deal as Aqua.

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