As the heat index reached 110 degrees this past August, Cathleen Parra stood attention at the side of an outdoor dance floor on New York's Governors Island. Her job, she says, was "to make sure no one was getting too rowdy."
At first, Parra, a burlesque artist who performs under the name Regal Mortis, was excited about working the Jazz Age Lawn Party, a popular Gatsby-esque, Prohibition-inspired shindig now in its 11th year. After spending the weekend covered in sweat and wrangling drunk partygoers, she expected to pocket about $300. But four months later, Parra says, she and dozens of other event staffers still haven't been paid.
"I'm really frustrated and angry, and at this point, it's a matter of principle," Parra says.
The experience, she believes, is a cautionary tale for Miamians. Under the same management, the Jazz Lawn Age Party will be held in South Beach for the first time as part of Art Deco Weekend this January.
"They've been promoting the Miami event, but it's important that people know about this before they sign on to work the event," Parra tells New Times.
The party's founder, Michael Arenella, confirms to New Times that several dozen employees have yet to be paid for the New York event. But he says "a new business structure" has been put in place for future events. He blames a heat wave for low attendance and sales in August.
"For our Miami event and all company events going forward, we will be prepaying a staffing agency that will be organizing all payments for staff," he says through a PR representative.
The Jazz Age Lawn Party began as a small cultural event in 2005 and over time morphed into a megasuccessful costume party for the elite that has frequently sold out. But behind the scenes, former employees complain that Arenella's business practices have left many unpaid.
"He's a musician first. He's not a businessman," one woman who worked closely with Arenella for several years tells New Times. The former employee spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid career repercussions.
Arenella grew up in Georgia with artist parents and later moved to New York for music school. His band, Michael Arenella & the Dreamland Orchestra, headlines the Jazz Age Lawn Party each year and reportedly plays 60 weddings annually.
Arenella has been a media darling, racking up numerous complimentary mentions in publications such as the New York Times . In fact, the Times' most recent piece about the event — a glowing profile of Arenella and his twee lifestyle — was written in August and describes him as "a strongman with broad shoulders," giving him several paragraphs to brag about not wearing underwear or having a TV set (although he does cop to watching "old movies" on his computer).
screenshot via Cathleen Parra
Arenella says ticket sales lagged at his last New York fiesta, which has led to difficulty paying performers. But he disputes the idea that he mismanages money, and he says everyone will be paid eventually.
"This past year, we were challenged with Mother Nature, and it’s one of the biggest risks with an outdoor event," he says through a spokesperson. "We’ve had to work hard to recoup losses from less-than-normal attendance due to the sweltering heat, but we’re nearing the end of fulfilling our responsibilities."
Emails he sent to 35 unpaid staffers — several of whom shared the messages with New Times — paint a more desperate picture, though. After promising payment within two weeks of the event and then pushing the deadline to September 30, an email sent on behalf of Arenella on November 29 asked the employees to continue waiting.
"As most of you are fellow creatives, we trust you understand the intense struggle and leap of faith it takes to put on an event such as this," Arenella wrote. "Sadly, this year was not a success, and we lost a tremendous amount of money due to the heat wave. The overhead for the event is staggering, and breaking even has become increasingly difficult."
The email also stated that proceeds from ticket sales in Miami would be floated to employees waiting for payment in New York.
"Every effort of our work in putting together future events such as JALP Miami is a way to continue to keep revenue coming in — this is how we are working toward being able to pay you," Arenella's email said.
Former employees tell New Times it's not an uncommon arrangement for Arenella, whom they say has often used ticket sales from future events to cover the cost of low-performing events that have already happened.
"Traditionally, the event always made a bunch of money, like $100,000 to $500,000, and then he spent the entirety that was left," one former employee says. "When it was time for the next event that happens, there'd be no working capital going into it. He assumes that the event is going to make money and that's how he's going to pay people."
Another woman who worked in event production with Arenella says the year-round staff that worked out of his home office — typically just two to three young women — often went months without being paid. On numerous occasions, they say, they were forced to continue working because putting upcoming event tickets online for presale was the only way to ensure they'd eventually be compensated. Still, they say Arenella kept spending money on himself.
"He bought this vintage BMW after still owing me money," a second former employee said. "It was just like, how dare you not save money out of your profits to pay people? You're supposed to pay people first."
Staffers at the August event, many of whom belong to New York's burlesque community, say they're furious at the treatment. Minnie Crisis, a performer who worked as a "line wrangler" at the event, says the $300 she's missing is no small amount of money.
"We're artists, not venture capitalists. We can be flush one month and broke the next. That's the reality of being an artist in New York City," she says. "When an event like Jazz Age Lawn Party has such a reputation that precedes it, you'd think they would treat their people better."
Like Parra, Crisis is concerned for service industry workers in Miami who will staff the event in January.
"I just don't understand how they're moving their entire operation to Miami and yet somehow they can't pay us," she says. "It's a shame."
Employees from New York have tried to post warnings to South Floridians on social media, but they say Arenella's staff has removed their posts and deflected criticism. In the November 29 email, Arenella said he was "hurt" by the comments.
"I have personally put everything I own up in an effort to ensure you are taken care of. But the many negative posts online we are seeing are only making our efforts to dig out of the hole more difficult," he wrote.
Cathleen Parra, a burlesque artist who performs under the name Regal Mortis, says she was blocked by Michael Arenella, the founder of Jazz Age Lawn Party, after posting about her experience on Facebook.
screenshot via Cathleen Parra/Regal Mortis
That response hasn't gone far in restoring the goodwill of people who worked his event during the hottest part of the year.
"We keep getting these put-off responses that they're hurt, we can't understand their struggle," Parra says. "It's ridiculous."
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The South Beach event is scheduled for Janunary 13 through 15 on Ocean Drive. As of this week, ticket packages ranging from $65 to $5,000 remain on sale.
Here is Arenella's full statement to New Times, which was provided by his girlfriend, Analucia McGorty:
All events have ups and downs — some of our events have made profits and some have not. This is the nature of the event business and frankly any business.
We have offered opportunities and employment to countless individuals and artists over the years, something we take great pride in. As such we put all of our efforts into creating amazing events and experiences and will continue to do so in the future regardless of how difficult it may be at times.
We are not a huge corporation but a very small team who put our heart and soul into what we do. Our number one priority at this time is to fix the financial problem the August heat wave caused the company and proceed with future events using a new business structure based on lessons learned from this past year.