Deconstructing Tommy

How a Bensonhurst boy rose to the summit of South Beach's promotion biz

Former Miami Dolphins defensive back Louis Oliver embraces him. Pooch has been a friend to Oliver, who now arranges jazz nights, art shows, and other events on South Beach. "Louis is already planning Super Bowl parties," Pooch says of the big game that will be played in Miami in January. "That's going to be huge."

Veteran South Beach disc jockey Mark Leventhal offers greetings. "I got him the DJ job at Madonna's New Year's Eve party," Pooch says. Then a young singer named Stephanie comes up to speak to him about Bogart Records.

Pooch's lunch companion is Gary Corbett, who also grew up in Bensonhurst and is Bogart's producer. "All the way back to high school, Tommy knew a lot of people," says Corbett. "He always got along with different groups. But he wasn't driven the way he is now."

The first people Pooch met on South Beach back in 1991 were other nightlife promoters, such as Gary James and Michael Capponi. He also knew actor Mickey Rourke, who in partnership with James then owned a club called the Spot on Espanola Way. The party scene was already lively, but Pooch thought it would continue to grow.

"We used to sit in the News Cafe and dream up businesses we could start," says Pooch. "We looked at those models walking down Ocean Drive. In one way, we didn't want anybody else to find out. But we were promoters and we wanted people to come."

Capponi helped Pooch break in to the South Beach scene, cutting him in on promotion deals. "Michael was the god back then," Pooch says. One acquaintance recalls Pooch recruiting girls on Rollerblades to distribute flyers for parties. "He was like Fagin, the character in Oliver Twist who uses the street kids to carry out his business for him," he says. One difference: Fagin was a thief, Pooch a promoter.

Pooch suffered his only South Florida arrest one night in the alley behind the Spot. "This beautiful Latin girl comes up to me and says, 'You wanna do a bump, Tommy?' I went into the alley and seconds later I got arrested for the residue of coke on my nostrils. Do you believe it?" He was also found to be in possession of the drug Ecstasy. The charges were later dropped, according to court records.

Eventually Rourke sold out and James moved to Texas. Capponi took a long leave of absence to battle heroin addiction. Pooch persisted. "One of the secrets of his success is he avoided the dangers in the business, which I can't say about myself," says Capponi.

Pooch had his own setback, when he tried to open a new Spo-Dee-O-Dee on Washington Avenue. It failed badly.

Then he found his niche: creating one party after another on different nights in varying nightspots, many of which are extinct. He chose the DJ, in some cases he arranged for the decor, and he always worked his Rolodex. Because of his criminal record, Pooch cannot hold a liquor license or own a club in Florida. But in two years, on the fifteenth anniversary of his last conviction, he will ask the state to wipe his slate clean. Meanwhile, he works for others.

Pooch's client list of clubs and restaurants reads like a Nineties history of South Beach: Cassis, La Voile Rouge, Velvet, the Whiskey, Bar, Follia, Glam Slam. Some were busts, like his "Danceteria" party at Warsaw. Others weren't. "Prince came to my Thanksgiving party at Le Loft," he remembers. Pooch also threw the opening party for the Blue Door restaurant at the Delano Hotel.

Pooch tasted success, but he was hounded by credit problems. Though two pizzerias that he owned on South Beach were successful, two others in downtown Miami and Kendall failed. In 1996 and 1997 the Henry Lee Co., which had supplied him with restaurant equipment, sued Pooch for $30,000. Pooch says he paid off the debt last year. Court records confirm the case is closed. In August he was sued by Diners Club for a credit card debt of more than $9000 dating back to 1993. Explains Pooch: "I lent my rental car to a friend and he lent it to a guy named Pinky, who was doorman at the Spot," Pooch says. "Pinky crashed the car. I'm going to talk to them about making payments."

Four years ago Pooch began his most successful promotion, Wednesday night at the Forge. It is the gaudiest regular gathering of high rollers anywhere in South Florida. Pooch has parlayed that success into other projects, including his association with the Miss Universe pageant. He taps that same list of moneyed clients to promote charity events and has sponsored parties to raise funds for the Police Athletic League and a concert to benefit the Everglades. Last year he helped organize the Kidz Care Golf Tournament for the United Foundation for AIDS, which raised $56,000 for treatment of children with the disease. Comments Steve Polisar, an attorney who has represented Pooch: "South Beach has seen a lot of con men who have tried to rip it off for as much as they could. Tommy isn't a carpetbagger. He tries to put something back." Pooch says he is building his resume as a positive force in the community. "I came from a rough place, but I think I'm turning out all right," he says. "I think," he repeats, and laughs.

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