Nearly 15,000 gay men and lesbians gathered in Miami over Thanksgiving week to attend the string of opulent celebrations that have come to be known as White Party Week. Created in 1984 as a modest AIDS fundraiser, the affair now generates hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to combat the disease and assist its victims. Chief sponsor and recipient of the funds is Care Resource, Miami-Dade County's largest nonprofit AIDS service organization.
The five-day extravaganza drew people from around the globe and filled nightclubs, convention halls, and beaches with revelers who paid $15 to $150 per event to dance, imbibe, and enjoy. But this year's nonprofit fundraising effort was challenged like never before by for-profit entrepreneurs who hosted competing events in hopes of capturing a portion of the almighty jet-setting gay dollar.
Between the private soirees and those produced or sanctioned by Care Resource, visitors and locals had plenty of parties from which to choose. Official White Party events included an opening reception at the Eden Roc hotel on November 22 and several other parties at various South Beach venues: the "Victory Party" at Shadow Lounge, "Leche" and "Noche Buena" at Level, "White Stars" and "Recovery" after-hours parties at Amnesia, "Muscle Beach" on the sand at Twelfth Street, and "ICON 2000" at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Two Fort Lauderdale clubs, the Copa and Cathode Ray, participated for the first time, signaling Care Resource's impending merger with Broward County's leading AIDS organization, Center One. The actual "White Party," a glittering costume ball, took place at Vizcaya on Sunday, November 26.
This year revelers also could choose from several lavishly produced for-profit events that featured top-draw DJs and headliner acts such as Natalie Cole at "Snowball 6" at the James L. Knight Center, "Arena 2000" at the Miami Arena, and "White Heat" at Salvation in Miami Beach.
Despite different goals, the nonprofit and for-profit parties were similar. One constant was the wail of divas backed by an aural tapestry of synthetic rhythms. Another was the mass of shirtless men crowded on to dance floors illuminated by spectacular laser-light shows. And there was one more common factor: the exchange of money, lots of money. Care Resource executives estimate this year's White Party Week produced at least $855,000 in gross revenue. Once bills are paid, they expect to net more than $650,000. Though less than the group had hoped for, that number is one of the largest amounts ever raised.
Of course had the for-profiteers contributed some of their undisclosed revenues to the Care Resource cause, the fundraising figures could have been substantially higher. Not that the AIDS organization didn't try to tap into that revenue stream. On the contrary, critics say, Care Resource tried too hard, and in the process alienated some nightclub owners and party promoters who in past years had donated a share of their profits from White Party Week.
Care Resource's White Party advisory committee took a decidedly more aggressive approach this year in negotiating deals with these independent party producers: If they wanted to secure official sanction from White Party Week -- and the prestige attached to it -- they had to donate larger portions of admission revenue than in the past, in some cases 100 percent of the door.
Rick Siclari, executive director of Care Resource, attributes the advisory committee's new attitude to a more thorough financial analysis of past White Party Weeks. After studying the data, committee members realized the agency had been getting a fraction (in some cases only half) of what party producers claimed they were donating. "We looked at [the negotiations] from a business perspective," Siclari says. "This year more parties were approaching us. It told us we should have more of a leadership role in what we were willing to do and not to do."
Mark Mazer, a party producer and former owner of Salvation, produced three nonsanctioned and well-attended parties at Miami Beach's Salvation nightclub during the Thanksgiving weekend. He describes the White Party committee's new demands as "outrageous," because they didn't consider the operational costs of producing large club events. Additionally, he charges, the negotiating team betrayed Salvation's existing relationship with Care Resource by also negotiating with nightlife rival Club Space in downtown Miami. "If you're a charity and you're asking for help, you should approach with your hand out, not with a gun in your hand," he says. "From the club's standpoint, you can't give away the entire door." Shunning Care Resource altogether, Mazer and Salvation instead donated $5000 to the South Beach AIDS Project.
Aggressive negotiations also soured Care Resource's relationship with renowned party producer Jeffrey Sanker, who for the past five years has brought his popular "Snowball" events to White Party Week. This year roughly 2500 people attended Sanker's "Snowball 6" at the James L. Knight Center, but the proceeds went solely to Sanker.
Sanker says he was disturbed by the White Party committee's new approach. "It was rude," he complains, "and it's just bad business. This year they slapped everybody in the face. They're just hurting themselves as a charity. They lost sight, and their egos have taken over." Sanker, a seasonal resident of South Beach, claims he's donated more than $250,000 to the AIDS cause in Miami since 1994. He arrives at that figure by calculating his donation over the years of thousands of Snowball tickets, each valued at $75.
But Rick Siclari says the math isn't so simple. The Care Resource executive points out that Sanker actually has made his pledges of tickets as part of White Party Week multiple passes that included the Snowball admission at a discounted price. "By the time we factored everything out, it really wasn't that much money," Siclari explains. "When we looked at the net we said, Oh my God, we had no idea. Once you start chipping away at the costs, it's like, Wow.'"
Care Resource negotiators also failed to reach a deal with Orlando-based producer Mark Baker, whose "Arena 2000" party at the Miami Arena ended up directly competing with the White Party's top fundraising draw, "Noche Blanca," as the final event of the week.
The Orlando-based producer, who has won praise for his large-scale, high-energy spectacles at Disney World's "Gay Days," had reserved the Miami Arena last February, hoping to host the official White Party Week closing party on Sunday night, November 26. He says he offered Care Resource a donation of 1000 tickets valued at $85 each.
But White Party Week planners had other ideas. They wanted to interest Baker in producing the big party at the Miami Beach Convention Center, scheduled for Saturday, the night before. Baker balked, and when he heard rumors that Jeffrey Sanker was trying to book the arena for Sunday night, he put down his deposit and secured the venue. Care Resource, he says, rejected his offer of $85,000 in tickets, but suggested they would accept a smaller donation if Baker would agree not to mention the White Party in any of his advertisements. "It's been very odd, the whole thing," he says of his interactions with Siclari and Care Resource.
Siclari, however, remembers it differently. "We were taken aback by learning about it," he says of Baker's decision to host a competing party on Sunday night. "We hoped we could have talked, but here we had another conundrum, with a potential to split the crowd."
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Care Resource eventually put out to bid its Saturday-night event at the convention center. New Orleans party guru Johnny Chisholm won the contract and produced "ICON 2000." Baker's arena party wound down at 9:00 Monday morning with about 1500 revelers, far fewer than the 3000 he had expected.
One Care Resource negotiator who did not want to be identified for this article describes the discussions with Mazer, Sanker, and Baker as "dealing with sharks with your hands tied behind your back." Furthermore, he says, "I reject the notion that 100 percent of the door is an unreasonable request. The clubs just expect you to roll over and beg them."
Siclari, striking a philosophical note, views the tense negotiations and increased competition as an outgrowth of White Party Week's success. "It's understandable that the bigger an event becomes, the more it will attract additional players," he notes. But he also expresses concern that future competition could jeopardize Care Resource's fundraising opportunities. "It's a reality that's pretty scary, and worth one million dollars if the party falls apart," he cautions. "It can be a very scary, very serious dilemma."