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It's always a privilege to see a great performer at the peak of his form. Those who have witnessed Baryshnikov dance or Michael Jordan defy gravity on his way to the hoop understand this, and the experience remains permanently etched in their minds. Here in Miami, connoisseurs of another endeavor -- schmoozing -- have often been dazzled by a comparable display of talent: Michael Aller working a room.
Short, perpetually smiling, carrying his cellular phone in his right hand and his silk sports jacket slung over his left shoulder, Aller bounces around Amnesia's outdoor dance floor like a pinball. This is an early-evening cocktail party hosted by the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, a "networking" opportunity for assorted movers, shakers, and aspiring power brokers. It is fertile ground for Aller, a 54-year-old veteran volunteer and fundraiser for civic and charitable causes, a radio host, a man who has cultivated a reputation as a well-to-do philanthropist, and who this past February was appointed by the Miami Beach City Commission to the newly created position of "tourism and convention coordinator" -- at a taxpayer-provided salary of $30,000 per year.
Aller's public image -- a bubbly, outgoing personality with an eagerness to please and flatter that elevates him to some new stratosphere in the courtier cosmos -- has been tirelessly constructed over the years. It has been preserved by his vast network of friends and acquaintances, even as he's been trailed by whispers about unpaid debts, worthy causes that have lost money because of the "help" he's offered, and a penchant for exaggerating his current wealth and status. To a coterie of critics -- few of whom will speak on the record -- Aller's appointment to a city post created especially for him seems to be largely a plum for a friend in need. "I was shocked," says one veteran political observer. "Here, government was the employer of last resort."
These concerns have been largely hidden from public view; what Miami Beach sees of Michael Aller is the version of Michael Aller he wants revealed: all the effusive charm and largess that have made him so popular. At parties like this one at the nightclub Amnesia (held last month), what he does seems simple enough -- even banal -- when observed and analyzed. But then, so are the fundamentals that comprise a perfect shot by Michael Jordan. Aller is the walking, talking embodiment of another set of fundamentals, the underlying principles of which were enshrined eons ago in Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People: Make the other person feel important. Aller's brand of charm transforms the basic elements of genuine friendliness into something every bit as fluid as an athlete's grace, deserving of being captured on film in a long tracking shot by Martin Scorsese.
Aller moves toward the well-connected with the sureness of a heat-seeking missile. When he spots Gwen Margolis, the former president of the Florida State Senate who is planning a race for county commissioner, he gives her a big hug. "It's just so good for us to have you from 63rd Street [on] north, to have you on Miami Beach," Aller gushes. "I'm supporting Gwen Margolis 7000 percent!" If the past is any guide, Aller's support could be useful. In recent years, he has donated money, volunteered, or raised funds for virtually all of Miami Beach's elected political leaders, especially commissioners David Pearlson, Susan Gottlieb, Neisen Kasdin, and Martin Shapiro, and hosted radio debates on WSBH-AM (1490) for all the candidates. It's not surprising that Aller is so drawn to politics. In his own way, he resembles the legendary wheeler-dealer pols found in history books, as if, say, LBJ had been somehow recast as a short, gay, Jewish guy living in Miami Beach.
He's soon approached by Susan Scott, an Amnesia publicity woman. "Is this space big enough for your party in December?" she asks, referring to an event he plans to host for the opening of the Jewish Museum of Florida. As a member of the museum's board and events committee, and numerous other nonprofit boards, Aller often scouts locations. He smiles and replies, "I think so. This is plenty. We're only having 1000 or 1200 people." He describes himself at the party as chairman of the opening committee. (In truth Aller wasn't the chair of any museum committee and hadn't attended enough recent meetings to realize that the museum had postponed its opening until February and hadn't chosen a party site.) Whatever his exact role in that upcoming event, Aller is still a person worth courting, especially by those lower down the food chain of influence.
He then sees Miami Beach Commissioner Sy Eisenberg. "Commissioner!" he exults, sounding as if he's filled with unbridled joy at being in the presence of such a magnificent leader. They go off to huddle together for a few moments.
He hails another friend, Wendy Unger, who is active in senior-citizen causes, and launches into the prototypical Aller exchange: "You look wonderful," he says with his trademark fey verve.
"So do you," she responds. They beam.
In Michael Aller's world, everyone and everything is either wonderful or fabulous. He even takes time out to return a beeper call from gallery owner Barbara Gillman to tell her that this party is "wonderful" and she should come on over. For a change of pace he'll tell people they look "great." He's been saying these things to people for seven years in Miami Beach, at parties and lunches and fundraisers every week, and it adds up. There are now a lot of people in Miami Beach who really like Michael Aller. As Lisa Harris, director of sales for Nick's restaurant, says, "Michael is one of my best friends in the whole world. I love him to death."