Trumping Thomas Eugene Puccio is difficult because, after a long career in the hospitality business, he is a celebrity -- the kind who has gotten close to so many stars that their fame has rubbed off on him like glitter. He was born and raised in Bensonhurst, one of the roughest parts of New York City. "All five Mafia families were active there," says Puccio, who uses Pooch as a professional name. "And, yeah, when I was a kid I was impressed with people like that. I mean, guys would say, 'There goes so and so.' And you would recognize the name." But Pooch insists he was and is not involved with organized crime.
Pooch's father is an insurance agent, his mother a housewife, and his sister a former school teacher. His older brother, Paul Puccio, age 46, graduated from college with a degree in criminology. He has been a private eye for 25 years and runs Blue Moon Investigations in Palm City, near Stuart. "Our parents would have kicked our butts if we got involved with gangsters," says Paul. He acknowledges his brother's run-ins with the law. "I'd say that has to do with where we came from. But he's a good person. He's the prince of South Beach."
After graduating from Roosevelt High School, Pooch briefly attended Kingsborough Community College, but he was already working on the party scene. Pooch's resume in the bar, restaurant, and nightclub business is lengthy. He says he began serving drinks at a bar in Madison Square Garden when he was seventeen. He moved on to a Brooklyn club, L'Amour, a year later, but soon branched out on his own. "I took over the coat check in a club called Brooklyn Zoo. It was owned by a Russian named Yuri." Was he Russian Mob? Pooch is asked. "Well, he was from Brighton Beach," Pooch says, naming the Brooklyn neighborhood that is said to be a stronghold for Russian-born mobsters. "You figure it out."
Yuri knew little about American music, so in order to keep the coat check full, Pooch started helping him book the bands. "James Brown played there, and Billy Idol," he recalls.
It was around then, says Pooch, that he was arrested for peddling a small amount of cocaine. (The public records of the arrest were unavailable at press time.) He insists he wasn't dealing for a living but just supplied the drug to an acquaintance, who turned out to be working undercover for the police. He pleaded guilty to possession and a judge sentenced him to probation.
Pooch started more businesses: lunch counters, pizza joints, and a Chicken Delight restaurant. He also sold bar supplies to big clubs like Studio 54, Xenon, and the Palladium. The profits went mainly to two things: women and bookies. "I bet on anything," he remembers. "Whether a raindrop would roll down a windshield, 50 bucks. I had a problem."
In 1985 he had another problem, a second felony bust in Leonia, New Jersey. "I found a credit card in a club and tried to use it to buy some cameras," he shrugs. "It was stupid." Pooch pleaded guilty to trying to purchase $400 worth of goods and again got probation.
He was managing a nightclub in Northpoint, Long Island. Business was bad. The club had had four names in three years, but Pooch met the man who would teach him the rudiments of his success on South Beach. "Jerry Brandt was the guy who brought the Rolling Stones to the United States for the first time in 1962," Pooch recalls today. "He was a vice president at the William Morris Agency at 24 years old. He started the Ritz," he says, referring to an extremely successful New York club of the Eighties. "Jerry was my mentor."
Brandt hired Pooch to promote a new club called Spo-Dee-O-Dee at 23rd Street and Eleventh Avenue in Chelsea, before that Lower Manhattan neighborhood became chic. They gave it a speakeasy look; a peephole in the door, black and white artwork of Twenties-era jazz musicians, and a VIP room called Great Expectations. "It wasn't a good area, but before long we had supermodels coming," Pooch recalls. "Studio musicians jammed there. Cyndi Lauper sang for free and hung out. So did [Daryl] Hall, [John] Oates, and Billy Preston. Malcolm Forbes hung out there. Kathleen Turner came to play pool. Uma Thurman was always there. That was before she hit it big and I could never remember her name. The place took off."
In those years money was "trickling up" to the wealthy. Attracting the city's new rich set, especially celebrities, was the key to success. Pooch became famous locally -- he was mentioned about a dozen times over four years in the New York Post gossip column "Page Six." His mother Anna kept the clippings in a scrapbook. "To run a successful club in New York is a great high. I thought it would never end," Pooch recalls.