A Midsummer Night's Scheme

Miami Beach is a party town, so the party must go on -- no matter what

It's hard to churn the waters over which the pencil-thin island city of Miami Beach glimmers. While its big sister across the causeway burns with big-city issues -- police brutality, fiscal ruin, election fraud -- the weightiest concern on the Beach, especially during the summer doldrums, are the bumps in the road of its pleasure economy. How has the Wall Street slump affected the hotels, nightclubs, and beaches that keep things humming in sybaritic bliss? In other words, the worry is that the party may stop. That almost happened in a micro way recently, when city officials closed down the South Beach club Opium Garden because of code violations.

The timing could not have been worse. Michael Capponi, one of the Beach's most prolific and enduring party promoters (currently he's responsible for the popular Wednesday nights at B.E.D.), was planning the launch of a new Friday-night soiree called "Prive" at Opium Garden, the sprawling, indoor-outdoor nightspot at 136 Collins Ave.

A Capponi launch is an event. He invites celebrities and lots of pretty women -- even pretty women who happen to be celebrities. This in turn attracts many people who are not celebrities. (At his 30th birthday party in April, thrown at a North Bay Road manse, more than 1000 people showed up.) Abruptly stopping a juggernaut like this is difficult. Who knows what the hordes of glitterati-deprived club kids might do?

Here's what happened: On Monday, July 22, officials from both the city's building and fire departments inspected Opium and found numerous code and safety violations. The next day they issued citations for, among other things, bathrooms having been remodeled without permits, illegal stairs constructed, and unauthorized installation of several air-conditioning units. On Tuesday, July 23, the city ordered Opium to shut down. "On Wednesday afternoon I was told we wouldn't open for sure," recalls Capponi. "It was a disaster. We had people flying in from New York."

By "people from New York" he means the likes of Guy Oseary, owner (along with Madonna) of Maverick Records. If something didn't come together fast, Capponi and company would lose face, and in the ephemeral world of nightlife, reputation is everything.

It doesn't hurt to have friends with big places -- big, big places. Opium's proprietors, brothers Francis and Eric Milon, put in a call to a pal who owns Villa Luna, a Star Island waterfront mansion recently on the market for $23 million, snug between the Estefans and Rosie O'Donnell. The simple plan: Move a huge party to one of the region's most exclusive and guarded neighborhoods, and do it in two days. No problem.

Capponi asked that Mr. Big's name not be published. "This is an older, wealthy guy," Capponi relates. "He wasn't the typical rich guy throwing a party to meet girls. His wife and daughter were there. He had no ulterior motive other than to help his friends."

The gracious host, whose money comes from the apparel industry and fast food, acknowledges he has security concerns about seeing his name in print. "We're private people," he says. (Never mind the fact that he agreed to let hordes of strangers pass through his gate that Friday night.)

Capponi had a couple of other things going for him, one of them being the resources of the shuttered Opium. "We had a whole staff that was out of a job for the weekend," he explains. "We had unlimited alcohol. These are things you normally can't afford for a house party."

He also had access to modern technology. Capponi and partner Ingrid Casares, former partner of indicted club king Chris Paciello, were able to spread the word through e-mail and his Website (www.michaelcapponi.com) that the party was migrating. Six or seven years ago they never could have reacted so quickly. "We would have had to print up flyers and distribute them," he notes.

The send button on Capponi's computer began getting a workout early Thursday. "Hi, the grand opening of Prive has been postponed due to circumstances out of our control and we will not open Friday the 26th as previously announced. However, the party must go on and it will! Therefore, along with Ingrid Casares, Eric and Francis Milon, Roman Jones, Mark Lehmkuhl, and Antonio Misuraca, I am pleased to invite you to a private gathering in one of the nicest houses on Star Island for cocktails, champagne, and sushi starting at ten o'clock."

Two off-duty Miami Beach police officers were hired to assist with traffic in front of the villa, and a valet-parking service was set up on a vacant lot down the street. A police report notes that the city's code-enforcement department was contacted and, this time, "They advised that the party was not in violation."

About 1300 people RSVP'd to the e-mail alone. By Friday night that number had grown considerably. At 11:00 p.m. the line of cars had backed up over the Star Island bridge and onto the MacArthur Causeway, slowing traffic. Once past the island's guardhouse, anxious partiers parked their cars anywhere they could find an opening along the island's parklike central oval, creating a rogue's gallery of conspicuous consumption: Beemers, drop-top Benzes, numerous Lexi and Range Rovers. The situation became a nightmare for limo drivers who found themselves in a small space with little room to maneuver. Svelte women in miniskirts escorted by men with hair-gelled heads paraded to the Villa Luna gate, where they negotiated with a couple of young ladies in black holding The List, backed up by dark-suited security guards who could have been the Dolphins offensive line. Everyone was cordial and stand-offishly well behaved, but there were a ton of them. The promise of a sumptuous party just beyond the entrance proved to be an alluring temptation, and the security hulks had trouble getting the crowd to back off and alleviate the crush.

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