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Nightlife Everlasting

Clubland proves nostalgia for fallen club king Chris Paciello is stronger than ever
photo by CHRISTIAN LUDWIGSEN

Frank Owen is on his best behavior. "I'm not getting drunk tonight," he announces firmly, wagging a cautionary finger at Kulchur outside of the Beach's Books & Books. The 41-year-old British author has a promotional appearance there this evening, and then it's back to his hotel. "I'm going on CNN tomorrow morning," he adds, "so forget about anything crazy."

Most writers would hardly have to apologize for a teetotaling regimen on their book tour. But Owen's new book isn't exactly a clinical exercise in traditional reporting. Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture opens in 1995 with Owen inside downtown Manhattan's Limelight, wading through a late-night throng of "vacant-eyed club kids," and snorting a line of ketamine off the back of his hand.

"Fancying myself one of the last of the gonzo journalists," he writes, "and willing to do almost anything for a juicy headline, I intended to sample the psychedelic catnip that everyone in clubland was calling 'the new Ecstasy.'" After all, he reasoned, if you're going to write authoritatively about club culture, you'd better be intimately familiar with it.

The Village Voice cover story that resulted from Owen's fieldwork eventually led him to the meat of Clubland -- the loosely intertwined nightlife empires of New York City's Peter Gatien and Miami Beach's Chris Paciello, demimondes considered the hedonistic high-water marks by many of their city's respective scene-sters. The details of Paciello's case should be more than familiar to most Miamians, but Owen serves them up with an engaging relish, blending straightforward reportage with dips into hard-boiled prose. And given the subject matter, what could be more appropriate than dragging Raymond Chandler onto the dance floor?

Indeed Paciello's rise is nothing if not a classic slice of pulp fiction come to life: After a 1994 botched robbery that left Staten Island housewife Judith Shemtov dead, the 23-year-old Colombo mob family associate fled to South Beach, where he quickly reinvented himself. Trading in his thuggish mannerisms for a high-society patina, he built a trio of nightspots -- Liquid, Bar Room, and Joia -- which were soon grossing millions and, as they became a playground for Hollywood celebrities and leggy models, helped to define the Beach as an international chic tourist destination.

By 1999, when Paciello's past finally caught up with him in the form of federal murder and racketeering indictments, he'd progressed from "Page Six" mentions alongside Madonna to the respectability inherent in hosting the re-election victory party for Miami Beach's mayor. This would be the Fabulous Rise cited in the subtitle of Owen's Clubland. Less clear, though, is where the Murderous Fall kicks in.

Paciello may currently be in the FBI's witness-protection program, but his life seems to serve less as a warning than as a textbook for aspiring overseers of VIP rooms. Even from the cover of his newfound anonymity, in 2001 Paciello was able to sell the rights to the name Liquid for $50,000, according to a source with knowledge of the deal. The purchaser, Bad Boys Unlimited's Billy Shaw, opened his "new" Liquid a block north on Washington Avenue, obviously hoping the mystique associated with Paciello's heyday would remain a profitable draw for out-of-towners.

Two years on, both Shaw and his grandiose plans for worldwide Liquid franchises have disappeared, yet Paciello's glow endures. The Liquid building itself was taken over by rapper and Source magazine co-owner Raymond "Benzino" Scott, who reopened it as Club ZNO last month, banking on there being at least some of that old cachet still left in its walls. "The building is a landmark," Benzino told Kulchur, brushing aside any qualms over its previous tenant's crimes. "Chris Paciello did a great job of making Liquid equal South Beach, and that's what we want with Club ZNO."

Likewise Paciello's plans to murder several nightclub rivals -- as heard on police wiretaps -- have done little to dampen his local reputation. "I personally believe that if Chris ever came back to the nightlife industry in South Beach, he would dominate it instantly," Michael Capponi, Paciello's Bar Room manager and now host of popular nights at Prive and B.E.D., muses in Clubland. "Down here we have some very fond memories of Chris." Asked by Owen just what this says about the Beach's moral character, Capponi shoots back: "What does it say about all superficial lifestyles? How about, party people will forgive anything for a good time. "

In that light, Billy Shaw may want to consider relicensing the Liquid name. Paramount Pictures and überproducer Scott Rudin have signed up Boys Don't Cry director Kimberly Peirce to bring Paciello's story to the silver screen, complete with a $1.5 million screenplay -- one of Hollywood's biggest sales of the past year -- from 25th Hour wordsmith David Benioff. Perhaps not coincidentally, Liquid remains an active corporation with Paciello as its president and his younger brother Keith -- now a Beach resident -- as its vice president. Paciello's lawyer, Ben Brafman, continues to dispute reports that his client is receiving a consultant's fee from Paramount, telling the New York Daily News that "Chris has no intention of personally profiting from the tragic death of Judy Shemtov."

Ingrid Casares, Paciello's erstwhile partner, apparently has no such reservations, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Of course this would hardly be the first time Casares has cashed in on her infamous connection. When she's not waxing poetic to the media about the newfound wisdom she's acquired via motherhood, Casares is advising would-be Paciellos on how to negotiate their own entrée into the Beach's rarefied circles. In a 2001 deposition taken during child-support proceedings, multimillionaire Shawn Lewis admitted paying Casares $8000 a month to "promote" and "enhance" his downmarket Beach clubs.

Casares's makeover of Krave, the Living Room, and Red "wasn't fruitful" (Lewis was claiming under oath to be bankrupt), but that hasn't stopped Casares from continuing to shop around her skills as a latter-day Henry Higgins. There's always next season, and with it the arrival of a fresh crop of nightlife hopefuls. Which is the true moral lesson of Clubland.

Owen is personally disgusted by the experiences he chronicled; the runner's high brought on by his morning jogs is the strongest chemical buzz he enjoys these days. And Paciello's successors at the velvet rope only induce revulsion: "There's no culture in this culture," he scoffs to Kulchur, "unless your idea of a meaningful event is paying $500 for a bottle of champagne and hanging with the Hilton sisters." But few of Clubland's characters or their customers seem to share his chastened outlook.

Pointing to Beach nightlife's "general slump in fortune" in the wake of Paciello's arrest, Owen writes: "Models still clogged the streets, but they were B-list and C-list girls, not the Kates and Naomis who used to flock there. What was once the sandbox of the stars, by the start of the millennium seemed more like a freak fest for drunken frat boys. Another chapter in Miami Beach's ongoing history of boom followed by bust appeared to be coming to a close."

That's a gloomy portrait, and one Kulchur has echoed previously. But to see the next chapter in that boom-bust cycle, one need only widen the lens and recall similar "end of an era" pronouncements greeting the imprisonment of Studio 54's owners in 1980. Just up the street from Liquid's old South Beach digs are the Delano and Shore Club hotels, both run by former Studio 54 head Ian Schrager, whose jail time for tax fraud is long forgotten. Schrager's hotels are thriving, with celeb-studded bar and poolside scenes that rival anything to be found in the local clubs. The beat most definitely goes on.


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