The Sultan of Schmooze

It's always a privilege to see a great performer at the peak of his form. Those who have witnessed Baryshnikov dance or Michael Jordan defy gravity on his way to the hoop understand this, and the experience remains permanently etched in their minds. Here in Miami, connoisseurs of another endeavor -- schmoozing -- have often been dazzled by a comparable display of talent: Michael Aller working a room.

Short, perpetually smiling, carrying his cellular phone in his right hand and his silk sports jacket slung over his left shoulder, Aller bounces around Amnesia's outdoor dance floor like a pinball. This is an early-evening cocktail party hosted by the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, a "networking" opportunity for assorted movers, shakers, and aspiring power brokers. It is fertile ground for Aller, a 54-year-old veteran volunteer and fundraiser for civic and charitable causes, a radio host, a man who has cultivated a reputation as a well-to-do philanthropist, and who this past February was appointed by the Miami Beach City Commission to the newly created position of "tourism and convention coordinator" -- at a taxpayer-provided salary of $30,000 per year.

Aller's public image -- a bubbly, outgoing personality with an eagerness to please and flatter that elevates him to some new stratosphere in the courtier cosmos -- has been tirelessly constructed over the years. It has been preserved by his vast network of friends and acquaintances, even as he's been trailed by whispers about unpaid debts, worthy causes that have lost money because of the "help" he's offered, and a penchant for exaggerating his current wealth and status. To a coterie of critics -- few of whom will speak on the record -- Aller's appointment to a city post created especially for him seems to be largely a plum for a friend in need. "I was shocked," says one veteran political observer. "Here, government was the employer of last resort."

These concerns have been largely hidden from public view; what Miami Beach sees of Michael Aller is the version of Michael Aller he wants revealed: all the effusive charm and largess that have made him so popular. At parties like this one at the nightclub Amnesia (held last month), what he does seems simple enough -- even banal -- when observed and analyzed. But then, so are the fundamentals that comprise a perfect shot by Michael Jordan. Aller is the walking, talking embodiment of another set of fundamentals, the underlying principles of which were enshrined eons ago in Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People: Make the other person feel important. Aller's brand of charm transforms the basic elements of genuine friendliness into something every bit as fluid as an athlete's grace, deserving of being captured on film in a long tracking shot by Martin Scorsese.

Aller moves toward the well-connected with the sureness of a heat-seeking missile. When he spots Gwen Margolis, the former president of the Florida State Senate who is planning a race for county commissioner, he gives her a big hug. "It's just so good for us to have you from 63rd Street [on] north, to have you on Miami Beach," Aller gushes. "I'm supporting Gwen Margolis 7000 percent!" If the past is any guide, Aller's support could be useful. In recent years, he has donated money, volunteered, or raised funds for virtually all of Miami Beach's elected political leaders, especially commissioners David Pearlson, Susan Gottlieb, Neisen Kasdin, and Martin Shapiro, and hosted radio debates on WSBH-AM (1490) for all the candidates. It's not surprising that Aller is so drawn to politics. In his own way, he resembles the legendary wheeler-dealer pols found in history books, as if, say, LBJ had been somehow recast as a short, gay, Jewish guy living in Miami Beach.

He's soon approached by Susan Scott, an Amnesia publicity woman. "Is this space big enough for your party in December?" she asks, referring to an event he plans to host for the opening of the Jewish Museum of Florida. As a member of the museum's board and events committee, and numerous other nonprofit boards, Aller often scouts locations. He smiles and replies, "I think so. This is plenty. We're only having 1000 or 1200 people." He describes himself at the party as chairman of the opening committee. (In truth Aller wasn't the chair of any museum committee and hadn't attended enough recent meetings to realize that the museum had postponed its opening until February and hadn't chosen a party site.) Whatever his exact role in that upcoming event, Aller is still a person worth courting, especially by those lower down the food chain of influence.

He then sees Miami Beach Commissioner Sy Eisenberg. "Commissioner!" he exults, sounding as if he's filled with unbridled joy at being in the presence of such a magnificent leader. They go off to huddle together for a few moments.  

He hails another friend, Wendy Unger, who is active in senior-citizen causes, and launches into the prototypical Aller exchange: "You look wonderful," he says with his trademark fey verve.

"So do you," she responds. They beam.
In Michael Aller's world, everyone and everything is either wonderful or fabulous. He even takes time out to return a beeper call from gallery owner Barbara Gillman to tell her that this party is "wonderful" and she should come on over. For a change of pace he'll tell people they look "great." He's been saying these things to people for seven years in Miami Beach, at parties and lunches and fundraisers every week, and it adds up. There are now a lot of people in Miami Beach who really like Michael Aller. As Lisa Harris, director of sales for Nick's restaurant, says, "Michael is one of my best friends in the whole world. I love him to death."

What's truly astonishing about Aller is how many friendships and contacts he has developed in nearly every segment of Miami Beach life: politics, business, the Jewish community, artists, nightclub trendies, the elderly, upscale society, gays -- you name it. In 90 minutes at Amnesia, he embraces someone from almost all of these groups.

The affection he's elicited is also stoked by the small and large favors he seeks to do for people, and they for him. With Lisa Harris, for example, he gently reminds her that he wants her boss, Nick Nickolas, to participate in a hospitality training program at local hotels. As he circulates around the party, he also promises a charity volunteer he'll arrange for some free food at her event, and even reassures her that she'll have an opportunity to plug the party on his noon radio show.

And like any ward heeler, he seeks to make the system work better for his friends. So when Tanya Manfra, a membership account representative with the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, tells him she's been thwarted in her efforts to enroll her fiance's child in a public school summer program, Aller is eager to assist. "Call me tomorrow, you have my number, and I'll make arrangements," he says confidently. (As with some of his other promises, he wasn't able to deliver on this one. But as he said later, "It's not the act, but the effort that counts.")

At one point in the evening he moves near the entrance of the club and begins greeting yet more new arrivals. "Welcome aboard the good ship Lollipop!" he says, adding with self-mocking irony, "Look how we became the official greeter." It's a role he naturally assumes -- but now the city is paying him to do it.

To Aller and the city officials who unanimously approved his job, it is self-evident why the work he does is so necessary. (They try A not always successfully -- to avoid using the term "greeter" when describing Aller's position; it seems too redolent of doormen in uniform or washed-up athletes welcoming people to casinos.) His boosters note that when major conventions come to town, such as last year's gathering of the American Booksellers Association, visitors usually leave complaining about poor service. When the commission voted to award Aller a one-year contract, Mayor Seymour Gelber explained the hospitality crisis that imperiled the city's tourism industry. "We pay no attention to a convention when it comes to the airport," he said. "They're on their own -- they have no opportunity to have a contact person who shows some interest in their well-being. Nobody does that." Michael Aller, though, could do "one great job for us greeting these conventions."

City Manager Roger Carlton added to the praise: "Michael Aller is the right person for this kind of job. He's used to organizing events, and he knows all the ins and outs of the city."

Aller, not surprisingly, concurs with this exalted view of his abilities. "They call me Mr. Miami Beach," he points out. "I'm eminently qualified for this position." Larry Feingold, the city attorney, adds, "If we did a nationwide search, we couldn't have gotten a better greeter." But there was no such search, no advertising of any sort for the position. Aller was the first and only choice, and city officials point out that it's neither legally required nor customary to open up consultant contracts to competition.

Just how the city decided to create the post Aller now fills remains murky. Aller says he'd been talking up the idea for more than two years A but not, he emphasizes, for himself. Carlton, however, concedes that Aller discussed the concept of the job with some people at city hall: "Michael is a nudge, and he was nudging." But that had "nothing to do" with creating the new post or hiring Aller. "This position is necessary; it was not created for Michael Aller," Carlton asserts, despite the fact that the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau provides virtually the same sort of assistance.  

Kathy Harper, who heads the bureau's convention services department, says she and her colleagues are pleased with Aller's appointment. "We're so gratified that they're doing this," she says. "We need a liaison so we don't have to work the bureaucracy on our own. Michael adds a higher level of customer service." Carlton calls it "Cadillac service."

The Cadillac service Aller is supposed to provide is spelled out in a memo Carlton wrote to the commissioners and mayor back in February. Aller's role, as described in the memo, is both vague and a bit mundane: He will "enhance the visitors and convention experience." Duties include greeting dignitaries at the airport, ensuring that hotel rooms are ready, enlisting city departments to aid conventions, and acting as a "master of ceremonies" at assorted meetings. Of course, some of these tasks could be done by any competent city staffer -- or just a decent hotel concierge -- but Aller, Carlton says, is "an ambassador of goodwill, a person known for his skills in hospitality and scheduling events. The city is getting its money's worth with Michael Aller."

But what exactly does he do all day? As an independent contractor, albeit one with an office at city hall, Aller doesn't have to work any set schedule, although he does report to the mayor and city manager a few times each week. He works about 40 hours per week on city business, he claims, and puts in numerous additional hours on other civic causes and his radio show. Much of his efforts involve either planning for upcoming conventions or not-so-aimless schmoozing with anyone connected to tourism.

His eager-to-please personality is perfectly matched to his job. When the American College of Physicians was in town in late April, for example, Aller learned that visitors at one hotel couldn't get hot water. The surly manager allegedly hadn't listened to pleas from the group, so when Aller got on the phone, he told him, "If your guests aren't getting hot water, how are you cleaning your dishes?" -- implying that the hotel might merit a surprise visit from health inspectors. As Jean O'Donnell, the physicians' convention manager tells it, the hotel's general manager rushed over to the convention center to apologize, and soon the hot water was restored. O'Donnell says, "Michael had the level of authority to make things happen, and he didn't hesitate to use it."

Aller worked especially hard on the May 23 Ocean Drive party for the 5000 people attending the international tourism trade show Pow Wow; he recruited volunteers, went door-to-door to businesses, and pressed city departments to spruce up the area. His job isn't always so demanding, though. Recently, for example, he held forth on a South Beach tour bus filled with representatives of corporations that will host parties at next January's Super Bowl. In this role, Aller essentially had become a high-priced Gray Lines guide. "This is the cleanest and clearest of the oceans," he enthused. "We've got fabulous boutiques....Here's the News Cafe. It's like the Polo Lounge."

A typical Aller day is not solely devoted to his official work, but he has such an expansive view of his role that, as he says, "It doesn't make any difference." Besides his one-hour radio show, in any week he'll make time for such activities as emceeing an AIDS fundraiser (last month the United Foundation for AIDS luncheon he hosted raised $175,000), planning a gay business group's lunch, or organizing a holiday concert in North Beach. In Aller's mind, practically everything he does helps advance tourism and conventions, directly or indirectly. "It all overlaps," he says. "Everything I do is for the betterment of the city." Indeed, he'd probably be just as devoted to his work even if he didn't need the money.

The sometimes earnest nature of his city job occasionally mutes Aller's dishy, effervescent personality, but that side of him is given full rein every day at noon on his radio show, and on his raucous Saturday-night program. Both programs are broadcast live from the Booking Table Cafe on Ocean Drive, with Aller at a front table, talking to anyone with something to plug. New store owners, restaurateurs, Miami Beach city commissioners, even total unknowns who somehow are acquainted with Aller can get their shot. It is a form of patronage, and he dispenses it liberally.

Occasionally a real quasi-celebrity will make an appearance. On one recent afternoon, he and cohost Linda Stein welcome someone who's an even greater self-promoter than Aller himself. "Ladies and gentlemen, the one and only, the man who is famous for being famous, Monti Rock the Third," Aller says as a pony-tailed Monti Rock begins a fast-talking hypefest of his assorted projects.  

Later, as Rock begins to recount his climb to fame in the 1960s and 1970s, Aller and Rock discover they have more in common than being flamboyant and gay. Rock begins to explain how he met record producer Bob Crewe when Aller interjects, "Oh...I went out with Bob Crewe!"

Before long it turns into a mutual ode to each other's fabulousness, and Aller pays Rock the ultimate compliment: "You're sick. They should lock you up, Monti Rock -- and they have on several occasions."

Rock is pleased. "You know how I love you," he says.
"I love you, too, Monti," Aller responds. But he can't resist getting in a final dig: "You've had more careers than Linda's had colors of hair." Stein smiles faintly at the put-down.

Aller is not shy in asking other people about their sex lives, either, although he claims to be celibate himself. On a Saturday night not long ago, he and one of his regular guests, businessman Kevin Burns, owner of Condomania, spent much of their time stopping people on the street and asking, "Do you practice safe sex?" Then Aller would hand them a free condom and say with a grin, "These are Rough Riders." Most people take the inquiries -- and the condoms -- with good cheer, but some people aren't so pleased with his intrusions. Two young jocks come by, and when he asks them if they practice safe sex, the shorter one says, "I don't. I have a steady girlfriend." His taller buddy responds, "What he doesn't realize is that his girlfriend had sex with twenty guys."

"Fuck you, Jason!" the short guy shouts on the air as Aller pulls the microphone away, red-faced. Aller says, "Let's not start a fight, guys." But he continues to ask more questions: "So where's your girlfriend tonight?"

"She's out getting laid," Jason quips, and the short one chases after him.
"Welcome to live radio, ladies and gentlemen!" Aller laughs.
This may not exactly be an exemplar of dignified broadcasting, particularly for a public official, but Aller isn't worried that these kinds of shows will tarnish his or the city's reputation. "I don't think anything I do on the air would embarrass the city or anyone else," he says. "This is 1994."

There comes a moment in every young man's life when he's seized by a dream. For Aller it came in 1953, when he was fourteen and went to a theater in Detroit to see "Mr. Showtime," Georgie Jessel. Jessel was a feisty raconteur and entertainer who was dubbed the "Toastmaster General of the United States" by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "I went nuts," Aller recalls of that Detroit show, adding that he insisted on waiting backstage to meet Jessel. He got an autographed photo and exchanged a few words. Most people would have been satisfied with that, but not Michael Aller.

Aller kept pestering his father, a wealthy builder, to arrange a meeting with Jessel, until his father invited Jessel to the family country club. (It wouldn't be the first time Aller got what he wanted from his family; as an adopted child, he was showered with love and lavish treatment from both his father and mother.) At the luncheon his fascination with showbiz grew, and he formed an improbable, long-lasting friendship with Jessel. During the summer months over the next two years, he went on the road with the entertainer. Today Aller quickly points out that there was nothing improper about their relationship.

In fact, unlike Aller, Jessel was a ravenous womanizer who often awoke the boy at 2:00 a.m. for a special request. "It's a beautiful night," Jessel would say in the rough-hewn vaudeville style that Aller mimics perfectly decades later. "Come down and sit with the bellman." Then Jessel would sneak up to the hotel room with his female conquest of the night. Jessel even took Aller with him to meet Jack Kennedy at the 1961 presidential inauguration, and took him to the fabled Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles, where he watched Jessel sitting around cracking jokes with the likes of Jack Benny.

Aller's own later effort to make it in show business was short-lived -- but at least it lasted longer than his aborted college career at the University of Miami, where he dropped out after a few hours. Though he had no interest in higher education, his parents didn't want him to be the social pariah of an upper-middle-class Jewish family. And no mere college dorm was good enough for their son, his mother decided, so his parents rented him an apartment in Coral Gables, gave him plenty of cash, Diner's Club and Texaco credit cards, and arranged for him to get meals -- billed to his parents -- at a nearby motel. Aller was set to attend college in high style, an expectation of first-class living he has carried with him ever since, even as his wealth has dwindled in recent years. He was, he admits, a spoiled kid.  

Aller went to his first day's classes, discovered that he was assigned $162 worth of books, and decided it wasn't worth the money. He never showed up at classes again, but continued to fool his parents into believing he was busily attending school. When the sham was finally exposed, his parents were naturally upset, but now Aller was free to pursue his real dream: to go to New York and make it in show business.

Here, too, he was supported in fine style by his parents, living at an apartment in the Wyndham Hotel on 58th Street. He failed at his bid to become an entertainer after a prominent TV producer told him bluntly, "You have no talent." He became an agent instead, building up a client base of about 50 small-time performers.

His exuberant personality and constant networking enabled him to meet such celebrities and rising stars as Frankie Avalon, Barbra Streisand, and Joan Rivers. His ultimate coup, though, came when one of his friends who was related to a Vatican-based cardinal enabled him to win an audience with the pope. As Aller tells this name-dropping topper, he was quite nervous when he joined those ushered in to see the great man, and when it came his turn to receive a papal blessing, Aller blurted out, "I'm Jewish!" Pope John XXIII smiled benignly and said, "I know."

While working as an agent, he stumbled by accident into the field that would help make him a wealthy man. Using some of his family's money, he had loaned a friend $25,000, and as part of the deal, a nineteen-bed nursing home in Brooklyn was offered as collateral. Five months later his friend defaulted on the loan, and Aller and his family became wary owners of the business. With his family's backing, he says he gradually acquired a string of eleven nursing homes in Michigan and California. He moved back to Michigan and stayed in the field for about twenty years.

He also lived for a while in California, and in the late 1960s, he did something rather unusual for an out-of-the-closet gay man: He married a woman with whom he'd developed a close friendship. But what he admits was an unconsummated marriage ended five years later when "she ran off with Richard Simmons," as Aller puts it. They'd befriended Simmons, he explains, but his wife left him to work on Simmons's burgeoning health-and-exercise business.

Eventually Aller decided to get out of the nursing-home field, and the businesses were sold in 1979. Given his precarious financial situation here, some Miami-based friends of Aller don't believe his claim that he made a fortune in nursing homes, but all signs indicate he's likely telling the truth. The flagship of the family business was the Sherwood Hall Convalescent Home in Royal Oak, Michigan, and Michael Aller was the president and only shareholder, Michigan state records show. That one home was sold for a million dollars, according to Sigmund Speckman, treasurer of the firm that bought the home from Aller's family. Other nursing-home sales brought in sufficient funds that at age 39 Aller had made enough money to retire.

Michael Aller has always enjoyed living well, and when he cashed in on his nursing-home business, supplemented by money from his family, he decided it was time to live out a gay man's fantasy: He headed to where the boys were, Fort Lauderdale. Aller recalls that in 1979, the city was one of the gay meccas of the eastern seaboard. He enjoyed himself, living a life of ease and hedonism. "Then AIDS came in, and I took up golf instead," he says now.

In 1987 he arrived in Miami Beach to begin caring for his ailing mother, who died in 1990. Soon he made a splash on the society scene, establishing his image as a carefree, affluent civic activist. He rose up the ranks of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, co-chaired the local United Way, and served as a board member for many nonprofit organizations, including the Miami Beach Jewish Community Center and the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra. He also expanded his social network by his willingness to sing and tell jokes at socialites' homes; eventually he and some friends rented a 78-foot catamaran to offer a floating piano bar.  

But he always volunteered his time to good causes, and at least in the early days, friends say, he was often generous with monetary donations. Aller declines to discuss how much he has given to various groups, but he's been known to brag privately that he casually wrote a $50,000 check to one Jewish organization. In recent years, he has devoted most of his volunteering to various Jewish groups and AIDS organizations. To almost everyone who sees him engaged in so much public-spirited work, it's clear that, as the Concert Association's development director, Lenore Toby, puts it, "He really cares about Miami Beach."

Over the years, it has seemed just as clear to many that Aller is a man of great wealth. He humbly refers to himself as "comfortable," and he managed until recently to devote himself to full-time volunteering and entertaining -- without having a regular job (he gets only a "modest" sum for his radio show). But those who know him well began to realize that his affluent image was, as one former friend puts it, "an illusion": He lived in a small rental apartment, he couldn't pay back small loans, and his friends kept hearing stories about bounced checks and angry merchants who were seeking payment on huge tabs.

The consequences of these problems have been felt most harshly by people like Maria, a demure, Peruvian-born manicurist in a North Beach barbershop who had known Aller only as a friendly customer. "I trusted him," she now says with regret. (Maria is not her real name; she declines to be identified because she fears retaliation; other critics who declined to be quoted by name for this story have been reluctant to do so, in part, because of fear of offending Aller's influential friends. "I don't need the grief," says one. "He's so well-protected.")

Maria is still bitter over what she says happened to her. Back in May of 1992, she was planning to visit her relatives in New York, but couldn't afford the plane fare. She mentioned her situation to Aller during one of his manicure sessions, and he said he had a discount ticket he could sell her. Total cost: $206. In September she went to the airport to take her long-awaited trip, only to discover that the ticket, made out in Aller's name, wasn't transferable. Dejected, she returned home and called Aller, who reassured her he would straighten things out during his next manicure visit later in the week. But all he did was ask her to return his ticket; Maria got no money. She didn't worry about it then, however. He was rich, after all, and a steady customer. She never saw him again.

After repeated inquiries from Maria, Aller eventually responded by giving her the same ticket again, which Maria's husband later used by pretending to be Michael Aller. "No matter whether you're rich or poor," she has concluded, "he hurts you."

Aller has also accrued a string of debts at shops around town, former friends say, though most of the business owners -- including a druggist and a printer -- don't want to comment on the record about their alleged difficulties in getting paid. But Israel Sands, owner of Flowers & Flowers on Lincoln Road, found it "very infuriating" that, starting in September 1992, Aller bounced a $550 check, then kept covering it with more checks that didn't clear. Sands says Aller's repayment promises continued for several months. At one point he told Sands he'd leave the check downstairs at his apartment building; when Sands came to pick it up, there was nothing. "I found it insulting," Sands recalls. Last year Aller finally paid $250 on his debt, but when Sands asked him to begin working off the remainder by volunteering to take Mother's Day phone orders at his shop, Aller refused. "He's too grand for that," Sands says. "He was very arrogant."

This sort of fecklessness might be viewed as irrelevant to Aller's public role as civic leader, except that it sometimes harms the very organizations he has seemed so eager to help. A case in point is the financially disastrous Moon Over Miami Ball in January 1992, organized by Aller. The ball is the highlight of the Miami Design Preservation League's Art Deco Weekend, but under Aller's direction, it lost close to $20,000, League officials say. "The League was disappointed that the ball didn't make any money," says Michael Kinerk, chairman of the Art Deco Weekend Committee. "Michael works from the heart, but he doesn't understand the intricacies of finances." His overspending doomed the event, yet Aller promised at least three board members that if there were any shortfall, he'd make up the difference. However, when it came time for him to make good on his promise, one official recalls, "he never paid a dime."  

Another fiasco unfolded several months later when staffers at the now-defunct Beach newspaper Antenna were struggling to keep their paper afloat. They learned through an intermediary that Michael Aller wanted to help keep them going and find new office space. "'I want to do something good for the Beach,'" a former staffer says Aller told them. Aller vowed to pay their printing costs for the next few issues. And in fact the next issue was actually printed and distributed, thanks to the check for $1411 Aller wrote to Review Printers -- but then the check bounced, twice. The printing company refused to publish the next issue until the first debt was repaid, but Aller never did, and the paper folded. "I couldn't figure out his motivation," says the former staff member. "Maybe he has this delusional thing about being a philanthropist." (Aller's bounced check prompted Review Printers's parent company, American Lawyer Media, to file a lawsuit against him last December. The case was dismissed this past March after court officials reported they couldn't locate him to serve notice of a hearing. (Hint to process servers: Try the Booking Table Cafe around noon.)

With other organizations, his record is more varied. When he follows through on his promises, Aller has been invaluable at lining up big donors for charities and serving as a superb networker. And yet he's broken so many pledges to help, says one prominent gay activist, "everyone on the Beach has been a bit burned by him." He adds, "If he comes through, great, but people know you can't count on him."

In addition, some friends say, Aller's view of himself has been wrapped up in his role as the hard-working philanthropist, and when his financial situation changed, he couldn't change with it. "It was like an addiction," says close friend Bruce Singer, president of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce and a former city commissioner. "He didn't know how to re-adjust his lifestyle. Michael can't accept that he's not capable of doing all the good that he'd like to do."

Aller, after granting New Times several interviews, declined to answer specifically any of the charges raised against him. In response to a series of questions faxed to him, he replied with a general statement defending what is left of his honor: "It is unfortunate that a few people have distorted facts, misrepresented events that took place, and by innuendo created a perception that I am a dishonest person or one that is unreliable. I have tried to conduct my life in a positive way by working very hard, helping people, and doing good deeds."

Some of those familiar with his financial plight, such as a friend who was unable to collect $200 he'd loaned to Aller last year, were flabbergasted this past February when they happened to turn on a cable channel and see Miami Beach commissioners vote to award Aller his new post. "My mouth fell open," the friend recalls. "Each one of those bastards knew that he needed this money. It makes you wonder: Did the town give Michael the job because they knew he was in trouble?"

City Manager Roger Carlton has an answer to that question. "I was aware that Michael was experiencing financial difficulties, but that had nothing to do with the decision to hire him," he says. "The sum of $500 a week is not going to affect anyone's financial condition." Except, perhaps, Michael Aller's.

Aller earns his keep these days not simply by ingratiating himself to visiting bigwigs, but also by continuing to treat city political leaders with a subtly unctuous deference. As Miami's leading courtier, he is well-suited to be the host of the city-sponsored call-in show, Open Line, broadcast on Gold Coast Cable channel 20, lobbing puffball questions at politicians. In the mezzanine above the commission chamber, he takes his seat, looking prosperous in a jacket and tie, in front of a painted backdrop of a beach. He reviews the questions he will be asking Commissioner Nancy Liebman, and graciously lets her glance at them before firing away.

"Welcome, Nancy," he says gently. "You've always been someone who's sparked interest in our community." He adds, "I wore this tie in your honor," referring to a Miami Beach Development Corporation tie that features Art Deco hotels. Liebman has been a leader of the Art Deco preservation movement, so Aller asks her how she views the prospect of a high-rise being built across the street from the two-story Century Hotel. She offers a vague answer to the question, referring to "incompatible zoning," but Aller lets that slip by. There's no reason to offend her.  

At the end, after she diplomatically answers questions from Aller and the viewing public about parking, trash collection, and other problems, they exchange compliments. "You are wonderful for doing this, Michael," she says. "That was terrific."

He has praise for her, too, when they go off the air. "The people want the openness of the commission. You've always been the open person, you've always been there [for them]," he says with seemingly heartfelt sincerity. As usual, Michael Aller, Mr. Miami Beach, is being very nice to his friends, and they, in turn, will be good to him.

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