Deconstructing Tommy

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Pooch had his own setback, when he tried to open a new Spo-Dee-O-Dee on Washington Avenue. It failed badly.

Then he found his niche: creating one party after another on different nights in varying nightspots, many of which are extinct. He chose the DJ, in some cases he arranged for the decor, and he always worked his Rolodex. Because of his criminal record, Pooch cannot hold a liquor license or own a club in Florida. But in two years, on the fifteenth anniversary of his last conviction, he will ask the state to wipe his slate clean. Meanwhile, he works for others.

Pooch's client list of clubs and restaurants reads like a Nineties history of South Beach: Cassis, La Voile Rouge, Velvet, the Whiskey, Bar, Follia, Glam Slam. Some were busts, like his "Danceteria" party at Warsaw. Others weren't. "Prince came to my Thanksgiving party at Le Loft," he remembers. Pooch also threw the opening party for the Blue Door restaurant at the Delano Hotel.

Pooch tasted success, but he was hounded by credit problems. Though two pizzerias that he owned on South Beach were successful, two others in downtown Miami and Kendall failed. In 1996 and 1997 the Henry Lee Co., which had supplied him with restaurant equipment, sued Pooch for $30,000. Pooch says he paid off the debt last year. Court records confirm the case is closed. In August he was sued by Diners Club for a credit card debt of more than $9000 dating back to 1993. Explains Pooch: "I lent my rental car to a friend and he lent it to a guy named Pinky, who was doorman at the Spot," Pooch says. "Pinky crashed the car. I'm going to talk to them about making payments."

Four years ago Pooch began his most successful promotion, Wednesday night at the Forge. It is the gaudiest regular gathering of high rollers anywhere in South Florida. Pooch has parlayed that success into other projects, including his association with the Miss Universe pageant. He taps that same list of moneyed clients to promote charity events and has sponsored parties to raise funds for the Police Athletic League and a concert to benefit the Everglades. Last year he helped organize the Kidz Care Golf Tournament for the United Foundation for AIDS, which raised $56,000 for treatment of children with the disease. Comments Steve Polisar, an attorney who has represented Pooch: "South Beach has seen a lot of con men who have tried to rip it off for as much as they could. Tommy isn't a carpetbagger. He tries to put something back." Pooch says he is building his resume as a positive force in the community. "I came from a rough place, but I think I'm turning out all right," he says. "I think," he repeats, and laughs.

Pooch goes home to his eleventh-floor penthouse on West Avenue in Miami Beach. The space, with views in all four directions, is decorated in a Southwest motif; a steer's skull on a wall, lots of deep red and umber. In one room hangs his five-foot-square oil portrait. Next to it is a painting of the ace of hearts. A Pulp Fiction movie poster, featuring Pooch's old Spo-Dee-O-Dee client, Uma Thurman, hangs nearby.

Pooch lives here with his eighteen-year-old girlfriend, Juliette Dudnik, a model born in Ukraine and raised in Chicago. They met last year on a golf course. "I took Juliette to modeling agencies here," he recalls. "They said her nose was too big or she needed to lose weight. She came out of there crying. Then I took her to Elite in New York, the biggest modeling agency in the world, and they wanted to shoot her right away. Everyone here calls up and says, 'Sorry, Tommy, we made a mistake.' Such bullshit." Juliette is currently appearing in a television ad for ESPN wearing gloves and shadow boxing. "I'm picking nothing but winners this year," he shouts. "Winners, winners, winners."

Pooch has never lived with a woman before, he says. "Do you know how hard it is in the nightclub business to stay with one woman?" he asks. "It's impossible." But philandering is not the only pitfall that Pooch faces. There are drugs. Corbett, his partner in the music business, fell into heroin addiction in the Eighties. A producer and former road musician with Kiss, Corbett saw his career plummet after the habit took hold. Pooch says he recently paid to move Corbett to Miami Beach from New York. "He has more talent in his pinkie than most people have in their whole bodies," says Pooch.

So far Pooch has also escaped another danger for any Italian in the entertainment business: being tagged with the m word. "If your name ends in a vowel then everybody wants to insist you're Mafia," Pooch complains.

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John Lantigua