Magic the bum races up Washington Avenue on his beat-up bicycle, screeching to a halt just outside a velvet-rope line. He boots the kickstand theatrically. "Valet!" he bellows. His timing, as always, is good. The beautiful people are just beginning to stream in to club B.E.D., and they turn, like a flock of well-groomed birds, to regard this skinny little fellow in camouflage pants, black boots, and an oversize red hat that hasn't been washed in ages. Magic's bushy mustache and ragged goatee seem to thrust out at them as he accepts their laughter and uses it to pull them in.
"I'm a fairly honest bum," he chatters, staring at a young woman. "You ever been with a bum?" Magic keeps up the monologue as he goes through a slightly juiced routine of Chaplin-esque physical comedy and legerdemain. The latter consists mostly of making cigarettes and money disappear, which he does with the aid of a fake thumb he picked up in a South Beach shop. Justin Levine, a University of Miami student perched on the hood of a nearby police cruiser, hands him a $20 bill, which Magic walks away with and pretends to eat. The boy lets him keep the money.
He often gives Magic a few bucks during the slow part of Monday evenings, as he waits for B.E.D. to fill with the rich, the bored, and the gorgeous. This is Levine's job, to make sure these people come and spend enough bling on drinks every week to support his reputation as a party promoter who delivers. Sitting beside him is his business partner Perry Sasson. If Levine has adopted the dressed-down street chic that goes with the hip-hop parties he promotes in various clubs throughout South Beach, Sasson's style is more yid-hop. Baggy jeans and T-shirt? Check. Baseball cap and sneakers? Got 'em. Bushy black beard? Uh huh. Yarmulke and tzitzis? All set.
Welcome to the new age of South Beach promotions. Levine, Sasson, and a third partner, Michael Robbins, are the next generation of club kids who have turned socializing into a lucrative business. They've taken the modest name of Empire Events and in about three years have established a recognizable brand of parties that regularly attract the high rollers and boldface names that constitute the life force of clubland.
Nightlife photographer Seth Browarnik describes their clientele aesthetic as "a mix of really good-looking Jewish college girls and a bit of thug." It took them awhile to earn respect, he adds. "I wouldn't even look at them four years ago, but these kids proved themselves. They throw good parties and they have hot girls that follow them. That's important."
The trio have worked for just about every major club on the Beach, but their current regular roster includes B.E.D., Mansion, the Forge, and Prive, at which they host weekly parties. "It's not the kind of job you apply for," says Robbins. "You just wake up one day and realize you have all these connections."
The big names in South Beach promotion are still the old-timers like Michael Capponi and the team of Tommy Pooch, Ingrid Casares, and Alan Roth. But in a place so trendy and cyclical, it doesn't take long for young pups to become old dogs. Rich Santelises, a Beach veteran who handles nightlife accounts for Ocean Drive, remembers the Nineties, when South Beach was wild, dominated by promoters who were as beautifully fucked up as the people who came to their parties. "It was so fresh and crazy," he remembers nostalgically. "It's become [a business] of young guys with good college backgrounds, who come from good families. They've grown up watching their parents throw great parties, and they just continue that and turn it into a business. They make phone calls and text-message their buddies. It's not much different than throwing parties in high school."
Levine, Sasson, and Robbins are definitely of the latter tradition, though they've taken it to a higher level, with marketing databases and rapid expansion into other ventures, such as limousine charters and real estate. It is more about the business than the lifestyle for them, although of the three, Robbins is the most likely to be found slurring pleasantly by the end of the night. Levine rarely drinks, and Sasson has sworn off alcohol, drugs, and women entirely because of a decision he made six months ago to adhere to Orthodox Judaism.
Robbins is the old man at age 27, a Long Island native who graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in business administration. A short, nebbishy fellow with a receding hairline, he got his start as many young promoters do, handing out club flyers to cool-looking people on the street. While still in college in the late Nineties, he got a taste of the seedy glitz of the Beach scene working for bad boy Chris Paciello at Liquid. Then Paciello got arrested for murder and bank robbery in 1999 and was taped by an undercover cop talking about whacking Gerry Kelly, a competitor. (Paciello got seven years in exchange for becoming a government witness. A British tabloid claims the feds are tailing his ex, model/actress Sofia Vergara, and actor Tom Cruise, in case the hotheaded goon gets any bad ideas.)
Robbins soon got an offer from Kelly to help promote Saturday nights at Level. Later he garnered another gig, on Friday nights at Club Space. He left those jobs to work for the owners of Opium Garden/Prive. At Prive he ran into another ambitious club kid, Florida International University student Perry Sasson, an Israeli by birth, raised mostly in Miami (now age 25). "I'd hired ten guys to promote," Robbins recalls, "and he was the only one who brought a hundred people. I fired the other guys and kept him."
Robbins knew Levine as a connected UM business student involved with a lot of campus organizations. "There were cool kids on campus," he shrugs. "He was one of the more influential." Levine, now 24, says he doesn't remember how he got involved in nightlife. "I have no fucking idea," he grins. "I got suckered into this shit."
The thing about Levine, a tall, moon-faced Italian-Jewish mix from New Jersey, is that once he's in, it's balls-out time. For instance, Levine says, he was recruited by fellow students to run for vice president of student government as part of a slate. He treated the race as if it were a nightclub promotion. "They were passing out lollipops, and we were passing out T-shirts," he remembers. "I was in the Grove and even saw a bum riding a bike wearing one of my shirts. The Grove was covered." Levine won.
There's a pause while he answers his cell phone, which rings frequently. It's one of his regular "friends," a Sony Music exec wanting to make sure his guests get a primo table at Prive, a high-end club Levine promotes on Saturdays. "The problem is the cast from The O.C. is sitting out there tonight," he explains. "I gotta check on that. Don't worry. Call me later." All promoters refer to clients as friends, even though this is mostly bullshit. Empire Events claims a pool of 4000 to 5000 people who attend their events on at least a semi-regular basis. Of this group, each partner has a personalized list of a few hundred really good friends who get special treatment based on their spending habits, their looks, their coolness (often consisting of access to other people in the above categories or those who work in the entertainment industry).
This is what the game is all about, selling wealthy people the idea of an exclusive world of beauty and sex. Why else would anyone accept a 1000 percent markup on a magnum of Grey Goose when he could get a couple of bottles from the corner store and drink them in the limo with a $250-per-hour escort and an eight-ball of booch for roughly the same price? The trick is to find the right mix of actors to fill the stage.
Enter the model kids like Logan, a winsome lad perpetually oozing the spoiled indifference of a sultan in repose. He is stretched out on the central platform at B.E.D. but sits up as Sasson approaches. "Hey, it would be great if we could get a bottle of wine," Logan begs immediately. "These girls want to drink with their dinner." Also on the platform are two more model boys and pneumatic young women who might possibly be as old as 21.
"Go ask Kevin," Sasson instructs, waving vaguely at the bar.
"Everything is rigged," he whispers in an aside. "The girls eat and drink for free."
And guys like Logan, who flock to Miami Beach from northern climes during the season to pick up modeling work, also frequently hook up with promoters to make extra cash by pimping out their model friends as eye candy. They're like promoting subcontractors. "If we pay them $100, give them dinner and drinks, we expect them to bring 30 to 50 people," Levine says.
On this night, Sasson is displeased with Logan's performance. "I'm not happy with the crowd tonight," he grumbles. "Not enough girls. My crew slacked. I don't care how cute these girls are, three of them don't cut it. He's going to get paid, and then he's going to get bitch-slapped through the phone."
"You usually have more girls," Sasson complains.
"Dude, I've only been back in town five days," Logan replies carelessly. "Give me time."
Models are not sufficient to make a good party. The mix also requires enough different cliques that neatly balance the dual social needs of comfort and excitement. So the trio hire other types of "hosts" who bring in niche elements of their contacts, maybe richie-riches or athletes or celebrities or successful hangers-on who make those people feel important. They also work with other established promoters hired by the clubs. For several of their parties, Antonio Misuraca, frequently a first mate of Michael Capponi events, brings in a slightly older, wealthier crowd. Or as the blue-eyed, cracked-voiced 32-year-old veteran puts it with a cackle: "Guys my age, girls their age," he says, indicating Sasson and his partners. "It's a good mix." Gold diggers and pussy hounds, the twin pillars of nightlife.
It's all part of the glitz. "You need a model kid out there in ripped jeans and a trucker hat, the guy in a jersey spending ten thousand," Robbins explains. "You need Steven Tyler dancing on his bed, drinking bottled water for three hours, or P. Diddy, Busta Rhymes, Jermaine Dupree busting out a free performance with the DJ."
How do celebrities get there? The boys claim it's just word of mouth about a good party that brings in athletes like Derek Jeter, Josh Beckett, and Eddie Jones; actors like Jamie Foxx and the Wayans brothers; pop stars like Fat Joe, Ja Rule, Timbaland, Gwen Stefani, Fred Durst, and Pitbull; and reality TV types like that guy from Joe Millionaire. "They have that whole athlete and urban celebrities thing on lock-down, and God bless them," says Jose "Jochy" Ortiz, who promotes events at the Pawn Shop Lounge. "They work very hard."
And you need some well-behaved paparazzi to assure everyone that they really did have fun. The unofficial mayor of that operation on the Beach is Seth Browarnik, a grinning toothpick of a photographer whose success is based on his ability to schmooze gracefully on every level. Some others who shoot in the clubs are less professional. Sasson, from his perch on a cop car, whips out his cell phone to chew out one such guy for the lousy photos he sent after a night of partying. "Tell him to lay off the coke when he's shooting," Levine advises.
There is constant chaos and negotiation and lying and bullshit in clubland. Levine, in particular, loves it. "Justin is the pit bull," explains Robbins. "He likes to negotiate. I'm the nice guy who throws parties, the creative guy. Perry does some of both." (Sasson describes their respective roles as "bad guy," "bitch-work guy," and "glue guy." Levine says he's the "on-top-of-everybody asshole guy." "I don't know -- what does Michael do?" he chuckles. "Creative, left-brain stuff, I guess. Perry's the behind-the-scenes guy.")
Sasson comes from an observant family, but he rebelled against that until recently. "When I was a kid, my goal was to do this," he says, gesturing at the party scene around him. "Well, my goal happened by the time I'm twenty -- and I'm not happy. I woke up ten months ago and I'm thinking to myself: What's my purpose? I'm not learning anything.
"I was so far into the scene," he continues. "There were things I told myself I'm never going to do. I did them and worse. I went to visit my family in Israel and I'm ashamed to touch my father's hand with the level of impurity I have on me. So I went on a search. I felt sick. I spent ten, twenty thousand on doctors. Finally one told me: öYou need mental help.'" Sasson decided he needed spiritual help more. He decided to consult with rabbis and took up a course of study, prayer, and clean living.
"Perry seems to be happier now," Robbins says. "The religion settled him. He used to bounce all over the place. He'd do five things at once and maybe get three done."
Sasson's partners are supportive, more or less. The religion thing is mighty inconvenient in the club business, such as when Sasson won't work any Friday nights. But if he wavers, Levine is going to be first in line to kick his ass. "With everything he does, we'll go along with it until he fucks up and has that one drink or works a Friday or kisses a girl," Levine warns. "Then it's over, as far as I'm concerned. He knows that."
Sasson is giving it a shot. "I have daily conversations with God. This industry doesn't take what I do well. I don't give a shit."
Industry regulars dominate the party scene, and because of this, one type of negotiation is selling the real estate within a given club. "Everybody always wants the same table," Sasson says. "It's always the little white kids that are all, öYo, my nigga, I spend four G's a week in here.'" In the VIP sections, people like to claim their usual spots, much as children do in school cafeterias. "B.E.D. is segregated by Aventura, Gables, the SoBe crowd, and people nobody knows," Levine says. "People will say, öHey, don't seat me in the Gables!' The athletes like to be on the left side near the DJ. The model kids are always center so people see them. Celebrities usually like the first four beds on the right."
The market shifts throughout the night. Early on, a small group can hold down a table with just a bottle or two, but as the crowd grows, it takes more money to stay in place. But the equation is not just how much you spend on a given night. Factored in are details such as spending over the long term, how often you come, how nice you are, how good you look, and how well you fit with the crowd demographics. This is often where the arguments come in because the doorman, the promoters, the club manager, and the customers will not, as a rule, agree on the relative weight of all of these factors. "There's lots of screaming," Levine allows. Robbins adds, "It gets heated, but having a friendship helps. We got a majority-rule thing."
One example of the heat: Sasson asks a bouncer why Levine let a less-than-fabulous group of 40 people on a rented bus roll into the club. "They reserved four beds," the bouncer replies. "I don't care," Sasson complains, "they look like shit." Another example: A guy offers to buy eight bottles because Levine bitches him out for wearing an ugly shirt. "He doesn't walk out without paying $5000; it's your fault [otherwise]," Levine instructs a staffer.
"I love the locals, the industry people. I hate the fuckin' people who are rich and obnoxious. That doesn't work on me," avers Levine.
Sometimes ego clashes and money disagreements lead to the trio's parting ways with a club, as they did with Nikki Beach in January. They used to promote a night at Pearl, a restaurant/lounge within the Nikki Beach complex, but moved it to Prive. Levine being Levine, he twisted the knife by producing e-vites that read "Upgrade your Saturday to Prive" and then hired a plane with a banner to fly loops from First Street to Fifteenth Street. "It's such a short distance, the plane was constantly buzzing [Nikki Beach]," he laughs. "It pissed them off. But, hey, we get along with those guys. It was just stupid shit. Everyone takes it too seriously." In fact, the team hosted another event at Nikki Beach during the Winter Music Conference this year, although they were hired by an outside vendor.
Empire Events has an office, a two-room affair on the second floor of a building overlooking Washington Avenue. The doorways are decorated with mezuzahs. There are a few computers and a handful of young girls doing data entry or making calls to people they want to show up for events. Checks come in and go out from here, as do a dozen or so flyer pushers who work the streets and the girls who walk around the clubs with clipboards, taking down the contact data of desirables. This will later be entered into the database that powers the whole enterprise. Text messages are composed and then blasted to thousands of people a week, along the lines of: "Hey, come hang out tonight."
For all of this, Empire gets a cut of a club's nightly revenues, a figure that varies from club to club and that sometimes takes the form of a percentage and sometimes takes the form of a consulting fee. In the case of a percentage, an Empire employee will check the sales periodically on the house computer system. It's mad money the clubs are pulling in during the height of season. A big place such as Mansion can do $60,000 to $75,000 on a weekend night, and sometimes as much as $100,000. "At Mansion [the strategy is] just bang 'em out," Levine says. "Call everyone and let the doorman sort 'em out."
Although the crowd is more exclusive at the Opium Garden/Prive complex, similar money is being made. For smaller venues, such as B.E.D. and the Forge, $20,000 to $30,000 in liquor sales a night is good. "Right now it's a walk in the park," Levine says. "Everyone in the industry gets a big head. But if you can make it through August, then you know what you're doing. In the summer, we weed out the clubs and negotiate better deals."
By no means is their vision limited to local club promotion. The partners are now throwing a regular Monday-night Secret Society party at Sushi Roku at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas and are trying to work a deal for a club night in New York this summer. They've found that a lot of their contacts are active in the party circuit in several places.
Levine and Sasson are especially interested in using their growing database of mass affluents to market other things, such as real estate. "We dabble with anything, trying to market it," Levine says. "I own a limo company that's doing really well. I started arranging limos for celebrities and then someone said, öHey, you ought to get money for that.' We have two cars, but we get twenty percent for referring jobs to other companies. We had nine jobs on the Beach last night alone. I also charter boats, planes, whatever for celebrities."
The Forge on 41st Street is ancient by Beach standards, comprising a dimly lit warren of rooms and featuring tons of stained glass, dark woods, and chandeliers and a fair number of slightly creepy older men on the make. In the Jimmy'z part of the complex, Empire Events brings in the hipper set.
Sasson laughs as he gives the rock-star tour of the Forge's inner workings to a bunch of paunchy, balding men in sport coats and no ties. These are the money guys behind a real-estate venture Empire Events will be promoting. Hot girls in cheerleader outfits and white vinyl go-go boots circulate through the dining rooms and the bar areas as the club slowly fills to capacity. SMK Cape Horn Development Group is selling office condos at an eleven-story tower off Lincoln Road and chose Empire Events to help host parties for prospective clients. Sam Konig, a principal, was impressed by the trio's marketing system and by a more ineffable social quality. "I just liked them," he says. "I felt comfortable with Perry."
Sasson's yellow ball cap, fitted backward, floats under the chandelier as he works the crowd. Occasionally he steps over chairs indifferently as he shakes the hands of the people whose names he never remembers. "The average question is: öDo you have drink tickets?'" he says. He's like a hamster, continuously circling through the crowd, eyes always scanning. Way more high-fives are thrown than necessary, backs patted. "Not many people can do what I do," he says. "I have to play the glue. I don't know where Justin is right now. He says, 'Oh, I go to school,' but that's bullshit. I was up as early, for prayer."
Wiry Seth Browarnik, an enormous camera slung over his shoulder, runs up to Sasson. "I told an old lady you were a rapper," he grins, teasing him about his beard. "She said, 'Oh, I think I saw him on TV.' I said, 'Yeah, but watch out, he's the biggest Ecstasy dealer.'"
"Oh, that's just what I need," Sasson cries. "Don't let Shareef [Malnik, the Forge's owner] hear you say that."
This is Perry Sasson's life now, ever since he decided to give up being the party boy he was for years and become devout. People mess with him all the time to test whether he's serious about the change. It's one reason he likes the beard; it's a physical barrier between himself and his old life. It reminds him who he wants to be.
"This has been the best change of my life," he insists constantly to anyone who will listen. "I've seen it all." As he says this, a blonde bends backward over the banquette on which he's sitting. She asks for the candle on the table to light her cigarette. "I wouldn't even touch it," Sasson says as the girl rights herself and gyrates in the corner with a dreadlocked man. "I really didn't think I could not smoke pot. Or even kiss girls. I get up early and pray three times a day. I study three or four hours a day. I told a rabbi: 'Listen, I don't give a shit. I'll drop this whole business tomorrow if you tell me to.' He looks at me and says, 'You think it's this easy? No. Show your friends what it's all about. Make an example of yourself in that world.'"
He tries. For instance, he's turned his party-promoting skills to a cause he considers worthy -- promoting a Kabbalah workshop in Aventura. Avi Shitrit, who teaches the workshop, gives Sasson credit for increasing enrollment from an average of 60 students to almost 300. Not bad for a lecture spoken in Hebrew. "We've got people coming from Boca Raton, Plantation, Hialeah, everywhere," Shitrit declares. "We love him." Sasson does this one for free, a way of giving back. He donates ten percent of his take to charity. "People say I'm crazy to give away my money. I say it isn't my money. It's God's money. Ten percent, you're a minority contributor. Twenty percent, you're God's business partner."
Back at B.E.D., he takes a break from the constant schmoozing to sit on one of the bed platforms. "I hate being fake, but I hate being an asshole too," he says. The photographer whose drugged-out pictures he was complaining about earlier sits down next to him to make peace. He wears jeans, a white T-shirt, a sun visor, and a wristband, plus a big honking camera around his neck. He is, alas, clearly on something. "All these people on the Beach turn into fucking butterballs," Sasson says after conversing with him. Two girls dancing provocatively in the middle of the bed start playing with each other and teasing Sasson.
He ignores them for a moment, turning philosophical. "I could go home with a different girl every night," he says. "I could have this, or I can have God. Which is more important? These people here (he points vaguely at the Romans cavorting on the beds) would sell their mothers for five dollars."
Then suddenly he falls to the bed and allows a girl in a black dress to dance-grind over him. The bleary-eyed photographer has the presence of mind to snap a few shots, thereby transforming a random act into party mythology. "I'm not being good," Sasson's muffled voice acknowledges from a crumpled heap. "God's gonna complain." He gets up.
Later Sasson will get the following text-message query from Browarnik: "What up, rabbi prudism?"
Looks like the rabbi of nightlife will need to have another little conversation with God tomorrow.
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