Lost Girls in the Night

Lesbian nightclub promoter tangles with heavyweight businessman over jinxed property leased from a bewildered City of Miami

When Lisa Cox staged her weekly "Girls in the Night" event earlier this month, everything ran smoothly. Women boogied with women to a thumping disco beat. Above the bar, silent videos featuring topless females cycled endlessly. A few girls made out in a dark corner.

There was only one problem: Cox's party was at the wrong venue -- Splash, a gay nightclub on Dixie Highway in South Miami. It should have taken place at Gadyva Bar, a nightclub she helped create in a split-level restaurant space at the rear of the Coconut Grove Exhibition Center on Dinner Key.

On February 13 Cox arrived at Gadyva to oversee another Friday night of revelry, as she had for nearly three months. But she was soon escorted out by the club's security men after manager Armando Perez informed her she was no longer allowed on the premises.

And so began another chapter in the turbulent saga of Cox, the city-owned restaurant space, and the man who controls the master lease for the property, Stephen Kneapler, owner of Monty's restaurants.

Lisa Cox is no stranger to turbulence. In the early Nineties, she fought aggressively for lesbian clubgoers against rival promoter Caroline Clone. Their very public skirmishes were as entertaining as they were vicious. In keeping with her feisty reputation, Cox, a few days after being ejected from Gadyva, wrote in a newsletter circulated among several thousand "Girls in the Night" devotees: "It is a nightmare to realize that I invested every part of myself financially, emotionally, and spiritually into finally giving lesbian women in South Florida a place of our own, only to have it stripped away by greed and envy.... Mr. Steve Kneapler and his associates are attempting to steal a concept that was not born of themselves."

Kneapler too has known his share of controversy. For years he has wrestled with the City of Miami over its terms for leasing municipal waterfront property, usually in an effort to turn over less money to city coffers.

And the site over which Kneapler and Cox are doing battle? It has chronically suffered from a commercial curse, always showing promise, always falling flat on its financial face -- from J.P.'s restaurant in the Eighties to the ephemeral Havana Clipper in 1990 to the short-lived Radiator Grill in 1996.

Long before Gadyva Bar opened November 21 of last year, Cox had been planning to create a lesbian nightclub using that name. But she needed the right space. She says she shared her ideas with David Tambasco, a Kneapler employee who had often attended her Friday-night parties at Splash.

According to Cox, Kneapler proposed that she relocate her event to his financially sputtering Radiator Grill. Though Cox thought the move might be a step toward her dream of opening a nightclub that catered to lesbians, she rejected the offer because Radiator Grill's decor was too ugly for her taste. "The place was disgusting," she says flatly.

Further discussions followed, however, and eventually Cox offered to open Gadyva Bar in Radiator Grill if Kneapler would cover the cost of redecorating. By this past October, Cox recalls, she and Kneapler had struck a compromise: They would split redecorating costs. "Tambasco said, 'Oh, we'll take care of you,'" Cox claims. "'You're going to be there ten years. Steve really wants you there. I can convince him to spend the money to get the place the way you need it. It's going to be your club. We're not going to have any say in it. He just wants to make money. He just wants to show up there and pick up the money.'" (David Tambasco could not be reached for comment.)

After two months of remodeling, Radiator Grill morphed into Gadyva. On the second level were two separate dance floors, one indoors and one on a veranda. Next to each dance floor was a small stage for go-go dancers. Over a bar in another interior room, video monitors displayed the omnipresent tapes of topless women. An outside bar area included tables and chairs while the ground level featured a lounge with couches.

Gadyva enjoyed an enthusiastic opening in late November, with Cox acting as promoter on Friday and Saturday. Bar receipts for December, the first full month of operation, totaled $47,000, according to a computer printout provided by Cox. "Gadyva was supposed to be a place that was built by women and all about women, and if men felt comfortable, they could go there," Cox explains. "Gadyva is supposed to be a women's bar and that's what it looks like."

Then came that fateful Friday the 13th in February: Cox was out; Armando Perez was in. According to Perez, son of well-known Cuban radio talk-show host Armando Perez Roura, Cox became persona non grata because she had not paid him $15,000 for ten weeks of work as manager of the club. He refused to comment for the record except to say, "I don't make comments. I just let God bring to people what they deserve."

Cox maintains that Kneapler was responsible for paying Perez. "It's weird that every other manager has been paid by Steve Kneapler and all of a sudden it's my responsibility to pay Armando," she scoffs. "It has never been my responsibility to pay managers at any club where I've worked. Why would I hire somebody to be manager who makes more than I make?"

Other former employees who worked for Cox at Gadyva also charge that she owes them money. "The bottom line is Lisa has good intentions. She doesn't have malicious intent. But her mouth is too big for what she can deliver," observes a woman who tends bar at Gadyva and insisted that her name not be published. Cox herself concedes that she is a better promoter than bookkeeper.

Stephen Kneapler, contacted in Orlando, declined to speak on the record for this article. In the past, however, he has acknowledged the difficulty of operating a profitable restaurant in the space at the back of the exhibition center. "We have been racking our brains on a concept for the restaurant that would make economic sense," he told the Miami Herald in 1996.

Apparently the racking continues.
The restaurant space overlooking Dinner Key Marina has been a financial sinkhole for many years. The first owner of the exhibition center's concession and restaurant lease was Gerald Pendergast, who took over in 1979. By 1986 he owed the city $259,000 in unpaid rent.

Real estate developer Manny Medina bought the lease that year, assumed some of the debt, and continued to struggle with J.P.'s, Pendergast's eatery. Then in November 1989, Medina launched the Havana Clipper restaurant, which was handsomely decorated with Pan American World Airways memorabilia. But eleven months later he shut it down. Financial troubles once again.

The following year Medina sold one of his companies, Terremark at Dinner Key, to Kneapler and attorney Manny Diaz, who were partners at the time. Along with the company, the two men acquired the exhibition concession and restaurant lease but had no better luck finding a winning formula for the old Havana Clipper space. In fact, the site sat vacant from November 1990 to July 1996.

A 1995 city audit concluded that Terremark at Dinner Key was not in compliance with the terms of the lease, which required an operating restaurant. In 1995 and 1996, the director of the city's office of asset management sent letters to Kneapler stating that his company was in violation of the lease. The city, however, took no action to terminate the agreement.

In early 1996, then-City Commissioner Joe Carollo called for a restaurant to be opened immediately, arguing that the city was losing between $80,000 and $300,000 per year in potential revenue. Also in early 1996, the Department of Finance informed Kneapler that he was ten months behind in his rent: $48,723. In February 1996, according to city records, the balance had been reduced to $4872 -- one month's rent.

In March 1996, however, city officials notified Kneapler he had until June 20 to open a restaurant and that "no extensions will be granted for any reason whatsoever, including delays caused by obtaining government approvals."

The deadline passed unheeded, but on July 31, 1996, Kneapler opened Radiator Grill. By November he was proposing to convert the anemic restaurant into a banquet hall, according to Christina Abrams, director of the city's Department of Public Facilities. Abrams informed him that a banquet hall was not allowed under the lease terms, and Kneapler dropped the idea.

Abrams says the transformation of Radiator Grill into Gadyva Bar last fall came as a surprise to her. "Radiator Grill was there until one day we saw the Gadyva sign up," she recounts. Abrams says her office was not notified of the change, though it should have been. "They haven't told us officially that the restaurant space is now changed to Gadyva," she notes.

Manager Armando Perez has the restaurant issue covered. He produces a one-page menu, printed on a simple sheet of paper, consisting of five items: soup du jour, Gadyva garden salad, cheeseburger, chicken sandwich wrap, and peanut butter pie. Most days he's the chef, he says with a grin, adding that the enterprise is no longer aimed exclusively at lesbians.

Technically, Abrams explains, that teensy menu qualifies the place as a restaurant. "The word restaurant is very subjective," she allows. "My interpretation of serving food in a restaurant is a meal. You sit down, you order from a menu. But apparently in zoning and legal terms, that isn't necessarily so. It's just the serving of food."

In any case, Abrams's main concern is maximizing revenue. If a nightclub that happens to serve a little food now and then can accomplish that, then it's fine with her. "I would like to see them gross $100,000 a month so we can get more money for the city," she says. "The quantity of the menu isn't really the key here. It's how successful they are as a business, how they are benefiting our cash flow." (The lease requires the holder to pay the city five percent of restaurant sales and thirty percent of concession sales, if those amounts exceed the minimum monthly rent of $4575.)

Lisa Cox is also interested in cash flow, though of a different sort and in a different direction. She says she intends to sue Kneapler for the $40,000 she claims to have invested in the remodeling effort. In addition, she wants an unspecified amount of compensation for each week the club operates under the name Gadyva, which she registered as a trademark in early February. Perez doesn't miss a beat. Kneapler's company, he asserts, registered "Gadyva" as a fictitious name one day before Cox.

"People are intimidated by Steve Kneapler," Cox fumes. "But he messed with the wrong little black woman this time. If I have to flip burgers at Burger King to fight this, I will.

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