Blacker than Thou

When the Marlin Hotel canceled Louis Oliver's Friday-night soiree, it sent a mixed cultural message

At 11:00 on a Friday night, former Miami Dolphins safety, now event promoter Louis Oliver, shoulders through the side door of the Marlin Bar at Twelfth and Collins. He's carrying a bouquet of balloons with the words "Thank You" printed on the sides. His six-foot three-inch frame is packed with more than 230 pounds of muscle. His neck is as big as a normal guy's thigh. A snug black bandana binds his size triple-X skull. Looking oddly delicate, he gingerly ties the Mylar globes to brushed-steel Deco railings. Then, moving from the lounge's pillowed "opium" den to its upstairs balcony, he is stopped every two steps, it seems, by hugs, hearty handshakes, and kisses from arriving guests.

After three and a half years at the Marlin, Oliver's regular party has attracted a sophisticated and eclectic mix of professionals -- from sports stars to hospital technicians. Like other parties that draw the well-to-do and glitterati, Oliver's affair is decidedly casual and upwardly mobile. Unlike the others, however, the former All Pro's Friday-night soiree is a mostly black affair. In fact, it is the party for what is known in the hip-hop world as the bougie (for bourgeois) crowd. Regulars meet and mix in the Marlin's intimate setting as R&B and hip-hop thumps above the rising din. Despite occasional baggies and football jerseys, this crowd is groomed to impress. Women in spaghetti-strap halter tops mingle with men in linen shirts. On the porch, plans are made over silver StarTACs sutured to earringed ears. The flavor is casual-sexy-cool, and revelers tilt martini glasses and champagne flutes both indoors and on the glam veranda; a line forms at the hotel lobby entrance.

But a sadness hovers over the velvet ropes tonight. Oliver has been told by Marlin management that this party, June 29, will be his last at the hotel lounge. He received a letter, about a week after Memorial Day, notifying him that the hotel was seeking an alternative direction on Friday nights. No explanation was offered, Oliver says, except that management wanted a change. Despite the news, Oliver seems all cheers and handshakes while handing out slices of goodbye cake with his wife, Tonya. As he pours drinks, he tells his guests he'll soon announce where his weekly party will resurface. He's the ultimate host, reveling in the attention showering him, ignoring the blues.

Goodbye cake: Former Dolphins safety Louis Oliver savors a bite of the sweet life at his final party at the Marlin, Twelfth and Collins
Juan Carlos Rodriguez
Goodbye cake: Former Dolphins safety Louis Oliver savors a bite of the sweet life at his final party at the Marlin, Twelfth and Collins

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But beneath his cool façade, Oliver can't help feeling a little stung. In the aftermath of big-time Memorial Day negative publicity, when the hip-hop nation -- unwieldy in its youth, arrogance, and gangsta posturing -- descended on South Beach and shook the city to its core, and hoteliers, club owners and residents began pressuring government and police for "more control," Oliver was forced to defend his own event, Urban Fashion Week, too. Some people blamed UFW for sparking the parties that brought the unruly throng to town (when in fact, the hip-hop influx was due to heavy radio promotion in northern cities). Oliver's name has since become linked with the chaos that erupted that weekend, despite the fact that his "older" fashion show went on without incident, and his weekly mixers cater to a mature, much less volatile crowd. (It also is interesting to note that of the 199 persons arrested over the Memorial Day weekend, 106, or 53 percent, were black, while the other 93 were white and Hispanic. Total arrests were only 21 more than last year, when a large black presence was not a factor. So the idea of blaming the hip-hoppers for a tidal wave of volatility, simply is wrong.)

Seated at a table on the balcony of the Marlin, Oliver leans back on a velour bench, thrusting his huge arms outward as if fending off an invisible guard. "I have so much to say about this," he declares. "You'd think that people [were getting] beyond this shit." While he hesitates making a direct connection between the Memorial Day noise and the Marlin's decision to cancel his party, the matter clearly doesn't rest easily in his mind. "It's like our money isn't good enough," Oliver gripes. "They know my events; they know we've had no incidents. They want to give me a lot of bullshit reasons. But the reason why is simple ... this party is just too black for them. My diversity is not eclectic enough."

The accusation is more than ironic. The Marlin is part of the Island Outpost chain of hotels, owned by music and film magnate Chris Blackwell, the man who brought reggae "prophet" Bob Marley to the white world. Blackwell, who has close business and personal ties to Jamaica, is one of the most prominent promoters of black artists in pop culture worldwide.

The Marlin's managers would not comment, but Island Outpost reps are quick to deny Oliver's assertion. Brad Packer, the hotel chain's spokesman, says cutting the party had nothing to do with Oliver's notoriety in the wake of Memorial Day. The party's complexion, he insists, was not a factor. "That is not what our decision was based on," Packer says. "The decision not to have Louis's party at the Marlin was part of a bigger plan to change direction. It was not a knock against hip-hop, or any type of customer."

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