Deconstructing Tommy

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

Sunday, 3:00 a.m.: Tommy Pooch, South Beach nightlife promoter, wades through the teeming Washington Avenue club, appropriately called Chaos, accepting tribute from his fans. Everywhere he turns, bright red female lips pucker and land on his cheeks or the corner of his mouth. Ample young breasts, overflowing their bodices, press up against him. Glistening, pleasure-hungry eyes stare into his.

"Hello, Pooch."
"Hiya, baby."
"Nice party."

Men, distracted one moment from the amazing array of decolletage and taut thighs, call out in sincere, near-delirious appreciation: "Pooooooooooch!"

Tommy salutes them.
Techno music pounds. Strobes flash, scan, blink, and explode off chandeliers, blood-red draperies, and bobbing, bare-shouldered bodies. Tommy Pooch has done it again. Seven years after he arrived broke in Miami, hundreds of parties later -- some successful, some not -- Pooooooooooch is on top. The young, heedless, and hedonistic flock to him.

Pooch has accomplished all this by applying a formula he learned in the Eighties in New York City, where he tasted both bitter failure and sweet success. "What you're selling in the club business is sex," he declares flatly. "In Miami that's even more true than other places. There are more beautiful women here per square mile than anywhere: fashion models, gorgeous Latin women, strippers, you name it. They go around with hardly anything on. It's wild. And if you draw the women, the guys can't stay away. The celebrities come too: the Stallones, DiCaprios, Nicholsons, Clooneys, and De Niros. You get them, then you're golden."

No one in South Beach's nightlife industry has thrown more successful soirees in different locales in recent years than the 40-year-old Brooklyn native. He is also part owner of three pizzerias. And now that music recording and television and film production are expanding in South Florida, Pooch is getting his fingers into those pots, too. He owns part of an acting school and a brand-new recording company called Bogart Records. He is also trying to launch a production studio that will be rented to movie and TV crews.

Pooch's media ventures have yet to turn a profit and he is in debt. Though he contends he's on the brink of the big time, he admits his path has been rocky: two felony convictions by age 26, one for cocaine possession and one for credit card fraud; a 1992 drug charge, which was later dismissed; failed businesses that led to his being sued; credit card companies breathing down his neck; and, perhaps because he is an Italian in the club business, innuendoes about possible Mob ties. "I think he came down here to get away from all that," says a long-time acquaintance.

Like others before him, Pooch escaped to Miami Beach and hitched his future to the city. He epitomizes a new dynamic in the entertainment scene, one that glorifies the promoter, the guy who knows beautiful people and brings them together. He does it for profit, and occasionally for local charities. To track Pooch is to experience the haute monde and the naughty highlife of South Florida, and to meet the shakers who create it.

Tommy Pooch Productions occupies a sixth-floor office at the corner of Washington Avenue and Fifth Street in Miami Beach. That yellow, red, and blue building, designed by Arquitectonica to look like a Lego structure, is also inhabited by the trendy China Grill restaurant and glossy Ocean Drive magazine. It is owned by German financier, real estate magnate, and socialite Thomas Kramer. Pooch attended Kramer's three-day birthday party in London last year.

Pooch works behind his leather-topped desk in a room sponge-painted yellow. He peers out windows overlooking the Beach and downtown Miami. In front of him lies a stack of snapshots, including one of Pooch and Technicolor basketball star Dennis Rodman.

He is working two phones. On the first, he speaks with old acquaintance Bernard Fowler, a back-up singer for the Rolling Stones who is heading to South Beach to party. On the other line is Amy Reilly, a public relations consultant who is bringing fourteen swimsuit models to Miami for a promotion. She needs a restaurant owner who will comp meals for the women in exchange for publicity. The whole scene is to be shot by the E! Channel and broadcast on the Internet.

"I can getcha fourteen entrees and desserts maybe, but who's gonna handle everything else?" Pooch asks. He puts his hand over the mouthpiece and tells a visitor: "You should see these women. One is on Beverly Hills 90210, one is a Playboy playmate, and another one was in Penthouse." He rolls his eyes.

He and Amy cut a deal to feed the group at the Forge, the legendary Miami Beach restaurant where Pooch hosts a party that attracts hundreds of people every Wednesday night. Some high rollers from Texas are coming to town just to eat with the models. They'll spend enough money to make the deal profitable for the restaurant, Tommy is told. This is good. Pooch will share the evening's profits.

After hanging up he speculates about the future of nightlife. "These days people are willing to go to a party thousands of miles away if you collect the right crowd," he says. "Before long that will be the thing, not just a place, but getting them together. You make a list of 150,000 people, all of whom have money and time. They come to you because you cut through the bullshit and get them together with nice people."

Another veteran South Beach promoter, Louis Canales, considers Pooch the quintessential host. "He has a personal rapport with the people who come to his parties," says Canales. "He always remembers who they are. He's not just a name on an invitation, and that's why he has been so successful." But Pooch depends on an extensive phone list, which he turns into gold. For example: "I met this millionaire from Chicago years ago in New York and I stayed in touch. He introduced me to Richard Dent [former All-Pro defensive end of the Chicago Bears]. I'm in Chicago, call Richard, he invites me to a Bulls game. He introduces me to Michael Jordan. Michael comes to Miami to play. I call him and he comes to the Forge. Bingo! Anywhere Michael goes, you get a crowd."

The phones ring about twenty times in the next hour. Pooch is just back from a one-week club-crawling vacation on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza and he's delivering his reports. "Incredible. Clubs that hold 11,000," he tells one caller. "You go into one at 9:00 a.m. and you still have 2000 people dancing. They dress in costumes -- devils, fairies, whatever. And the women! My God, the women! Wild!" He describes a scene in which a woman performs oral sex on her beau in a parking lot as others look on.

Pooch saw something else while in Europe: "The clubs are making CDs from their house music," he says. "The Ministry of Sound, a big club in London, maybe it takes in ten million dollars a year from the club, but the CDs made by their DJs are selling all over Europe and taking in maybe ten times that. Club DJs are the big stars of Europe. We need to do that here -- the music of South Beach, of Chaos."

The secret of succeeding as a promoter is to stay on the cutting edge. Pooch recently started Bogart Records in a rented recording studio in North Miami. One of his partners is engineer Bob Rosa, whose resume includes sessions with Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, Mariah Carey, and more. Rosa is mixing the company's first CD with a heavy metal group from the Bronx, Gun Hill. The lead singer is a long-haired, geared-up 26-year-old Puerto Rican known professionally as "The Kid." "Pooch is my hero," the Kid gushes. "He gets things done, man."

Over the next two hours, Pooch catches up on pending business matters. Maureen Reidy calls. She works for Donald Trump and helped stage the Miss Universe pageant on Miami Beach last year. Pooch served as a judge in a preliminary round. She wants to discuss a possible recording career for a contestant.

Pooch then checks in with a young associate, nightclub promoter Gus Gallardo, about upcoming parties. They are negotiating their first international deal with clubs in Mexico. "Lots of high school kids from Miami take graduation trips to Cancún because there is no drinking age," Pooch says. He, his partners, and a local travel agent are selling weeklong vacations for the teenagers: about $500, including airfare, hotel, meals, and club admissions. Parents can pay $50 per month and purchase the trip for their kids. "We'll send our own DJs down there. We'll have their names and the name of Chaos on posters all over Cancun. It will be great publicity."

Next Pooch speaks to John Banner, owner of Filmtrade, a company that supplies equipment to film crews. They discuss leasing a well-known but troubled South Beach nightclub that they want to turn into a television and movie production site. The two men plan several more phone calls over the next few days, but Pooch won't discuss the issues at hand. "I'm at the table with the big boys and I don't want to blow it," he says.

Finally Pooch receives calls from two partners in Chaos. David Sarner says Emerson Fittipaldi, the Brazilian former race-car driver, will be at the club that weekend. Then partner David Ault calls from his summer home on Martha's Vineyard, where one of his neighbors is Walter Cronkite. "You're hanging around with Cronkite?" Pooch asks in disbelief. "You're kidding me." Ault has done the impossible. He has trumped Pooch in the celebrity game.

Trumping Thomas Eugene Puccio is difficult because, after a long career in the hospitality business, he is a celebrity -- the kind who has gotten close to so many stars that their fame has rubbed off on him like glitter. He was born and raised in Bensonhurst, one of the roughest parts of New York City. "All five Mafia families were active there," says Puccio, who uses Pooch as a professional name. "And, yeah, when I was a kid I was impressed with people like that. I mean, guys would say, 'There goes so and so.' And you would recognize the name." But Pooch insists he was and is not involved with organized crime.

Pooch's father is an insurance agent, his mother a housewife, and his sister a former school teacher. His older brother, Paul Puccio, age 46, graduated from college with a degree in criminology. He has been a private eye for 25 years and runs Blue Moon Investigations in Palm City, near Stuart. "Our parents would have kicked our butts if we got involved with gangsters," says Paul. He acknowledges his brother's run-ins with the law. "I'd say that has to do with where we came from. But he's a good person. He's the prince of South Beach."

After graduating from Roosevelt High School, Pooch briefly attended Kingsborough Community College, but he was already working on the party scene. Pooch's resume in the bar, restaurant, and nightclub business is lengthy. He says he began serving drinks at a bar in Madison Square Garden when he was seventeen. He moved on to a Brooklyn club, L'Amour, a year later, but soon branched out on his own. "I took over the coat check in a club called Brooklyn Zoo. It was owned by a Russian named Yuri." Was he Russian Mob? Pooch is asked. "Well, he was from Brighton Beach," Pooch says, naming the Brooklyn neighborhood that is said to be a stronghold for Russian-born mobsters. "You figure it out."

Yuri knew little about American music, so in order to keep the coat check full, Pooch started helping him book the bands. "James Brown played there, and Billy Idol," he recalls.

It was around then, says Pooch, that he was arrested for peddling a small amount of cocaine. (The public records of the arrest were unavailable at press time.) He insists he wasn't dealing for a living but just supplied the drug to an acquaintance, who turned out to be working undercover for the police. He pleaded guilty to possession and a judge sentenced him to probation.

Pooch started more businesses: lunch counters, pizza joints, and a Chicken Delight restaurant. He also sold bar supplies to big clubs like Studio 54, Xenon, and the Palladium. The profits went mainly to two things: women and bookies. "I bet on anything," he remembers. "Whether a raindrop would roll down a windshield, 50 bucks. I had a problem."

In 1985 he had another problem, a second felony bust in Leonia, New Jersey. "I found a credit card in a club and tried to use it to buy some cameras," he shrugs. "It was stupid." Pooch pleaded guilty to trying to purchase $400 worth of goods and again got probation.

He was managing a nightclub in Northpoint, Long Island. Business was bad. The club had had four names in three years, but Pooch met the man who would teach him the rudiments of his success on South Beach. "Jerry Brandt was the guy who brought the Rolling Stones to the United States for the first time in 1962," Pooch recalls today. "He was a vice president at the William Morris Agency at 24 years old. He started the Ritz," he says, referring to an extremely successful New York club of the Eighties. "Jerry was my mentor."

Brandt hired Pooch to promote a new club called Spo-Dee-O-Dee at 23rd Street and Eleventh Avenue in Chelsea, before that Lower Manhattan neighborhood became chic. They gave it a speakeasy look; a peephole in the door, black and white artwork of Twenties-era jazz musicians, and a VIP room called Great Expectations. "It wasn't a good area, but before long we had supermodels coming," Pooch recalls. "Studio musicians jammed there. Cyndi Lauper sang for free and hung out. So did [Daryl] Hall, [John] Oates, and Billy Preston. Malcolm Forbes hung out there. Kathleen Turner came to play pool. Uma Thurman was always there. That was before she hit it big and I could never remember her name. The place took off."

In those years money was "trickling up" to the wealthy. Attracting the city's new rich set, especially celebrities, was the key to success. Pooch became famous locally -- he was mentioned about a dozen times over four years in the New York Post gossip column "Page Six." His mother Anna kept the clippings in a scrapbook. "To run a successful club in New York is a great high. I thought it would never end," Pooch recalls.

He had to think again. In 1991, according to Pooch, a young woman was shot on the Spo-Dee-O-Dee dance floor by a man she had refused to dance with. "She wasn't even hurt bad, but the New York Times made a big deal out of it," Pooch laments. Business dried up. Brandt had moved on. Pooch changed the name of the club to ExSpo but couldn't revive the scene. "I poured money into that place but it did no good. It was over."

That same year, broke and living off cash advances from American Express, he climbed into his mother's 1984 Oldsmobile and drove to Miami Beach. Friends told him it was a good place to start over.

"I was here 24 hours and knew I wasn't going to leave," he says. "I saw all those fashion models. I mean, Miami Beach always had blue skies and palm trees, but [then] it had twenty modeling agencies within a mile. The number of beautiful women was amazing. I figured I could take over this town, but I didn't know how it worked here. In Miami you have to know the locals. They make the scene. I threw my first party right away at a club called the Institute and you know what? Nobody came."

These days Pooch promotes not only parties but himself. A lot of people know him.

It's lunchtime and he leaves his office headed for Big Pink, the popular restaurant on Collins and Second Street. When he enters it's as if the mayor has walked in. In fact, the first table of people that greets him includes Harold Rosen, once Miami Beach mayor and now an attorney who represents various club owners.

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.

Pooch goes home to his eleventh-floor penthouse on West Avenue in Miami Beach. The space, with views in all four directions, is decorated in a Southwest motif; a steer's skull on a wall, lots of deep red and umber. In one room hangs his five-foot-square oil portrait. Next to it is a painting of the ace of hearts. A Pulp Fiction movie poster, featuring Pooch's old Spo-Dee-O-Dee client, Uma Thurman, hangs nearby.

Pooch lives here with his eighteen-year-old girlfriend, Juliette Dudnik, a model born in Ukraine and raised in Chicago. They met last year on a golf course. "I took Juliette to modeling agencies here," he recalls. "They said her nose was too big or she needed to lose weight. She came out of there crying. Then I took her to Elite in New York, the biggest modeling agency in the world, and they wanted to shoot her right away. Everyone here calls up and says, 'Sorry, Tommy, we made a mistake.' Such bullshit." Juliette is currently appearing in a television ad for ESPN wearing gloves and shadow boxing. "I'm picking nothing but winners this year," he shouts. "Winners, winners, winners."

Pooch has never lived with a woman before, he says. "Do you know how hard it is in the nightclub business to stay with one woman?" he asks. "It's impossible." But philandering is not the only pitfall that Pooch faces. There are drugs. Corbett, his partner in the music business, fell into heroin addiction in the Eighties. A producer and former road musician with Kiss, Corbett saw his career plummet after the habit took hold. Pooch says he recently paid to move Corbett to Miami Beach from New York. "He has more talent in his pinkie than most people have in their whole bodies," says Pooch.

So far Pooch has also escaped another danger for any Italian in the entertainment business: being tagged with the m word. "If your name ends in a vowel then everybody wants to insist you're Mafia," Pooch complains.

Still, the rumors persist. One reason: as promoter at the Forge, he works for owner Shareef Malnik, whose father Al Malnik was reputedly an associate of legendary gangster Meyer Lansky. "I didn't even know about that until after I started promoting at the Forge," Pooch says. "But that's not what Shareef is about at all."

Pooch is also close friends with Chris Paciello, part owner of the nightclub Liquid, who was recently written up in the Village Voice and the The Miami Herald. Those papers reported that Paciello's arrest record included grand larceny and assault. They also said he had attended meetings with members of the Gambino crime family. "I don't believe any of it," Pooch insists. "The guy is just trying to make a living here." So is Pooch. A highly placed Miami Beach police official says he has no reason to suspect Pooch has Mob connections.

Early Wednesday night Pooch is preparing to host his now-legendary party at the Forge. He's worried because it's pouring rain. "Sometimes they don't want to get wet," he says. "We'll see."

When Pooch first went to work for Malnik four years ago, the Forge was legendary but fading, he says. "All their clients were old," he claims. "They were coming through the door using walkers."

But Malnik spruced up the place, which includes lots of stained glass and paintings in varying styles, a decor that is best called Late Twentieth-Century Excess. And Pooch went to work with his phone list. The Wednesday clientele now tends toward men with large cigars and thick wallets, and women with large breasts, both natural and surgically enhanced.

The night starts slowly, but the rain stops and business picks up. Women arrive in sequined sheaths, red halters, gold lame wrap dresses. In comes Gianni Pirelli, scion of the Pirelli Tire family of Italy; noted attorney Al Goldstein; and Jose "Pepe" Horta, a former top official at the Cuban film institute and owner of Cafe Nostalgia in Little Havana, which will soon open another club next to the Forge. Superlawyers Roy Black and F. Lee Bailey, who often attend, have stayed home.

Pooch sits at the table nearest the door, greeting many of the men and kissing and embracing the women, running his eyes over them with his trademark lust. Juliette and a bevy of other young ladies sit with him. They fuss over visitors who are important to Tommy, talking and dancing with them. "Juliette knows that's part of her job," he says.

Some of the women in attendance dance at Pooch's favorite strip bars, including one called Thee DollHouse in Sunny Isles Beach. They have positioned themselves around the premises like salt licks in a grazing pasture. It is rumored they are there more for business than pleasure. "I'm innocent to all of that," insists Pooch. "I don't ask people those kinds of questions."

Pooch has drawn celebrities here, too: Nicolas Cage, Michael Douglas, and Jordan. They recommend Pooch to their famous friends. It is said he helps them enjoy South Beach any way he can. "Some come to seriously party, some don't. But I don't talk about that," he insists. "I have famous friends because I keep my mouth shut."

Pooch has an attitude toward the rich. "I don't like the ones who did nothing to earn it," he says. "I don't like people who are the product of lucky sperm. If you earned it, that's fine."

By 11:00 p.m. the Forge is full to bursting. The DJ is playing all his ethnic cards: "Volare," "Hava Nagila," "Mi Tierra." Pooch is dancing in the aisles, surrounded by women. The DJ is dropping Tommy's name into the songs and people are cheering for him. He throws his arms out. "I love my life," he yells at an acquaintance. "Lots of guys have told me they want to come back as me. But they can't because I'm comin' back as me, buddy." Then Tommy Pooch laughs with glee.

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