By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
A New York City journalist in town to do his own now-requisite take on the Chris Paciello story remained unfazed by the case's lurid allegations of Mafia racketeering, armed robbery, drug dealing double-crosses, and murder. No, what reallyshocked this seasoned writer was discovering firsthand that Paciello's famed Liquid and Bar Room nightclubs (billed as the paragon of all that is chic) played music that was downright cheesy. In fact a weekend of vigorous clubhopping revealed that even the latest additions to South Beach's glittering dance floors contained that same unmistakable whiff offromage.
But then clubland these days has little to do with music. Indeed inside the bulk of the city's nightspots, the soundtrack of choice is little more than background noise, a fact belied by the seeming interchangeability of local DJs. Despite each venue proclaiming its fierce sense of individuality and unique vibe, scan a handful of club flyers and one notices the same names appearing up and down Washington Avenue. This is hardly a coincidence. These DJs aren't artistespushing a sonic envelope or painstakingly constructing an aurally transcendent experience. They're focused professionals with a demonstrated ability (in the eyes of club owners) to provide an unobtrusive lubricant to an evening's affairs.
Given this, the most crucial player in clubland's current financial equation is the promoter, a role made even more important by the record number of new clubs all competing to lure in the same bodies. It's a point dramatized by the federal government's telephone wiretaps of Paciello. During heated conversations with Colombo crime family associate Dominick Dionisio (currently on trial for stock fraud and mob-related money laundering), Paciello bemoans the attempts of New York City nightlife impresario Stephen Lewis to woo away his own erstwhile partner Ingrid Casares into a new venture. "He's a great manipulator; he'll talk her ear off," Paciello says, after weighing the merits of beating Lewis senseless. "She'll start believing him; she's fucking stupid."
It would seem then that it's not the loss of Casares's keen business acumen that has Paciello so worried. In fact if several sources are to be believed, Casares's actual day-to-day responsibilities at the Paciello-anchored Liquid, Bar Room, and Joia seem to entail little more than showing up. Of course in clubland, showing up is what it's all about, ensuring that the "right people" make the scene. It's this crowd that Casares's name could supposedly draw -- a name apparently worth killing for.
Second only to Casares in local promoter notoriety is Tommy Pooch, who quickly can boil down nightlife's economic mysteries into layman's terms. Fellow Brooklynite Ian Schrager, seemingly filled with jailhouse spirituality after serving time for tax evasion, may drape his own South Beach entertainment efforts in new-age phrases and speak pretentiously of constructing "dreams." Pooch (né Thomas Puccio) however, keeps it simple. As he once declared to New Times: "What you're selling in the club business is sex. In Miami that's even more true than in other places. There are more beautiful women here per square mile than anywhere: fashion models, gorgeous Latin women, strippers.... 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."
Such street-level bluntness has endeared Pooch to South Florida's media, and both monthly glossies and New Timesalike have obliged with a deluge of fawning profiles. Rather than harming his reputation in Miami, felony convictions in New York during the Eighties for both credit-card fraud and dealing cocaine seem only to have equipped Pooch with a fashionable bad-boy allure. It's certainly done little to dampen enthusiasm for the Pooch-helmed Wednesday evenings at the Forge, the living embodiment of the man's philosophy. Appropriately enough the Forge's owner, Alvin Malnik, is considered by law-enforcement officials to be a major organized-crime figure in his own right; in its heyday the spot was the storied stomping ground for a cluster of notorious mobsters and their molls, many of whom made it their grazing site of choice after Fidel Castro shuttered their favored Havana joints in 1959. Several decades later Pooch's party is an unabashed throwback to those bygone Batista days, gleefully bringing together wannabe Rat Packers, as well as the silicone set and the wealthy men who love them.
In 1997 that track record of pulling in high-rollers was precisely what attracted Michael Ault, David Sarner, and Tony (né Antonios) Theodore -- the owners of the then-new Chaos nightclub -- to enlist the services of Pooch. The exact nature of that relationship, however, is currently at the heart of Pooch's million-dollar lawsuit against the trio, a move whose ramifications threaten to further air clubland's dirty laundry.
In an interview with Kulchur, Pooch contends that in 1997, Ault, Sarner, and Theodore invited him onboard as an equal partner in Chaos. Because of his cocaine conviction, however, he was barred by law from ownership in any establishment with a liquor license for fifteen years, a period that expires this June. Pooch alleges that an explicit oral contract was agreed upon, within which it was understood that when that fateful June arrived, he'd be given 25 percent of Chaos. In the meantime he worked as a promoter for the club, receiving a weekly salary based on Chaos's fluctuating draw.
"I couldn't legally own the place, so my contract was supposed to be written that when I became legally eligible, I would get my shares," Pooch explains. "I guess I wasn't worried about it. The club was successful, we were playing a lot of golf, I thought everything was hunky-dory." Asked if such a blasé attitude toward receiving a writtencontract seems naive (if not downright hard to believe), coming from a veteran 41-year-old businessman currently operating three pizzerias and a recording studio, Pooch responds simply: "I've always had handshake deals all my life. I trusted them."
This past July Pooch says he met with Ault, Sarner, and Theodore, seeking to cash out his theoretical shares. "I asked for a small amount of money to buy me out and they said, 'You have nothing to sell.' I was shocked!" Pooch recalls. Citing his own promotional efforts as a key ingredient in Chaos's success, he adds with a sigh: "At [Theodore's] wedding he makes a nice speech: 'If it wasn't for Tommy, I'd be getting married in Queens!' Then a week later he says, 'I don't owe you anything.'" As to why Chaos's owners have seemingly conspired to screw him, Pooch says, "It all relates back to ego. They couldn't handle that I was getting all the press. They're three guys from New York that have been in the club business for a while. I don't think they were able to handle it. Every celebrity that came in [to Chaos] sat with me, not them. After a while it pissed them off."
For his part Theodore says that any oral contract is a figment of Pooch's imagination, noting further that as a twice-convicted felon, Pooch doesn't have much in the way of credibility. "I wish him well, but Tommy's lawsuit is bizarre to say the least. It has no merit." As for Pooch's departure from Chaos, Theodore adds only that Pooch quit. "He wasn't forced out, he wasn't unpaid. He was paid verywell."
Still Pooch remains adamant. "[Ault, Sarner, and Theodore] introduced themselves as my partners for two years straight to every single person they met. They never said, 'meet Tommy -- my promoter.' They said, 'Meet Tommy -- my partner.' Now [Theodore is] claiming otherwise. It's going to be pretty easy to get 100 people [in court] to say I was referred to as a partner; I can get 300, 500! Now it's funny; they've forgotten all that." He pauses, and then continues with a short laugh: "I can picture the three of them perjuring themselves, lying on the stand. But it's only going to take oneof them to screw up."
While a number of nightclub figures contacted by Kulchur concurred that Pooch was indeed publicly referred to as a partner by Chaos's owners, it would be hard to prove in court that the utterance implied anything beyond a minority share. There's also the growing possibility of an out-of-court settlement between the two parties, if only to keep prying eyes from Chaos's books. As part of his sworn deposition for the lawsuit, Pooch has stated that Chaos's owners paid him weekly figures ranging from $500 to a 1998 New Year's Eve peak of $25,000. While Theodore calls such a sum "way off the mark," Pooch remains firm. Still it's hard to see anyone coming out a winner if these disputed numbers draw the attention of curious I.R.S. agents. Come June Pooch plans to petition state authorities to allow his then-expunged record to enable formal ownership in the rechristened Penrod's, now known as Nikki Beach Club. Isn't he worried that an inquisitive trial judge might uncover other improprieties in his background? Pooch answers slowly: "I'm hanging all my clothes out to dry."