The Life in Nightlife

There's a specter haunting South Beach. Actually it's just haunting two people: Danny and Tanya, a pair of delicate-looking Cabaret-style blonds affectionately known to their fellow clubland habitués as "the witches." Given that this threat takes the form of Wanda, one of our burg's most notorious drag queens, there's ample opportunity for comedy. After all, being viciously stalked by a seven-foot-tall black man in heels, a cleavage-revealing dress, and a feather-topped hat puts a novel spin on the classic schoolyard-bully saga. But Wanda (a.k.a. thirtysomething Anthony Lee) is no ordinary queen, and neither Danny nor Tanya are in any mood to laugh.

Nestled in at a dimly lit table inside the Fontainebleau's Club Tropigala, Danny and Tanya sit alongside Kulchur and nightlife veteran Rudolf Pieper, recently departed from his position at Billboardlive. The occasion is the 30th annual Miss Florida Pageant, a statewide drag competition that has packed the room. But Danny and Tanya are having a hard time enjoying the show. Wanda has been spotted, and though she isn't an official contestant, plenty of folks seem to be keeping a wary eye on her as she cruises the aisles.

"I'm not scared of her," Danny declares, a muster of false bravado instantly deflated when Rudolf playfully hollers, "Wanda!" Danny flinches, mulling a hasty dive under the table. He has good reason to be jumpy.

"Wanda pissed is like a spider monkey on crack," groused bar owner Morgan Craft to New Times writer Tristram Korten in 1998, and Craft had the painful bruise to prove it. Gary Thoulouise, currently of Opium Garden, recalled his own experience while working as general manager of Chaos. "She's a menace to society," Thoulouise opined, referring to a New Year's Eve gala at which Wanda stomped on another woman's toes. "You can imagine a six-foot-seven drag queen -- over 200 pounds -- in heels stepping on this woman's foot. The woman is screaming and Wanda is acting like nothing's wrong. I said to her, 'Wanda, you really have to be careful,' and she said, 'Darling, if she doesn't want to get stepped on, she should get out of the VIP room.'"

Virtually every notable nightspot on Washington Avenue eventually eighty-sixed Wanda, tiring of the fracas that seemed to ensue whenever she appeared. Yet Wanda herself seemed proud of her distinction. "I have been barred from every fucking club on the Beach," she crowed at the time.

Now, just as suddenly as she disappeared from South Beach in 1999, Wanda has returned, and in vintage form. The week prior to the Miss Florida pageant had seen Wanda manage to slip past security into crobar's Back Door Bamby party. Incongruously out of drag, none of the club's staff recognized her. The night ended with Tanya knocked to the ground, Wanda fleeing the scene, and Rudolf helping Danny nurse his freshly blackened eye.

Rudolf, however, appears anything but worried about the dire threats Wanda has issued to his friends. On the contrary, he looks downright inspired. Mischievously leaning in to Kulchur's ear, Rudolf asks, "Where's Elaine Lancaster?" -- Lancaster being another of the Beach's well-known queens, though decidedly less prone to fisticuffs. Then he motions toward Joey Arias, Back Door Bamby's featured drag queen for the evening, holding court on a makeshift stage nearby. "We have to spread the rumor that Elaine won't be seen in the same room as Joey."

Uh, Rudolf, are you sure it's such a good idea to set more ladies on the warpath?

"Hey, it's the off-season," he replies with a good-natured shrug. "We have to do something for entertainment."

Kidding aside, an injection of mascara-caked danger is precisely what Rudolf sees as painfully absent from South Beach. For a milieu that once staked its reputation as the arbiter of hip outrageousness, the Beach now seems, well, boring. Strip away most partygoers' designer duds and the sprinkling of foreign accents and you're left with a shindig about as transgressive as a frat-house bash. Sexual segregation is once again the norm; gone is any sense of cultural frisson.

"The cohesiveness of the gay crowd is diminishing," Rudolf argues. "It used to be very tight, go out a lot, and lend its prestige to premier events. This link is weakening." Indeed Back Door Bamby remains one of the only local affairs where gay and straight, fashionista and bona-fide freak hit the dance floor side by side. Just as telling, on a given Saturday night, you're now apt to find a sizable chunk of the Beach's gay revelers heading up I-95 to Fort Lauderdale clubs like the Coliseum.

"People from all walks of life who have some money come to South Beach," Rudolf explains, "and the curse of nightlife is that all these people think they can do a nightclub -- it just looks so simple. In reality that's not the case, Billboardlive included."

It was that very attitude, Rudolf says, which led to his late-June exit from Billboardlive as its nightlife director. "The ownership and CEO of Billboardlive have no prior club experience," yet he says he constantly battled their "bottom-line management mentality." He may have been hired to replicate his buzz-laden success with such Eighties Manhattan spots as Studio 54, Danceteria, and Area, but when it came time to implement those venues' winning formulas, he hit a wall of financial resistance.

"Area spent an average -- in 1985 dollars -- of $35,000 to $40,000 just to change the décor of the club for a particular party," Rudolf recalls. "I was a participant in some events at the Palladium that cost $250,000 to put together, again in Eighties dollars. They never made that money back on that night, of course not. Especially because they didn't have bottle service ... " (the practice of marking up bottles of liquor several hundred dollars for sale to customers at VIP tables). "Those parties never made back their cost, but they gave the charisma, the punch, the presence to bring in the people between those parties, the people who would spend money."

Accordingly, while Studio 54 may be famed for such over-the-top sights as Bianca Jagger astride a white stallion, it was bar mitzvah parties (such as those of Michael Tronn, co-maestro of crobar's popular gay weekly Anthem) that pulled in the profits. "People buy into the dream," Rudolf adds wistfully, "and that's what's missing right now. There are so many clubs in Miami, but none of them make you dream."

Back at the Miss Florida pageant, the competition is heating up. Danielle Hunter, emcee of the moment, takes the microphone and gleefully announces: "The swimsuit category is coming up and the duct tape is flying backstage!"

Kulchur isn't about to budge -- particularly with a drag tribute to the victims of September 11 also on the way -- but Rudolf is stifling a yawn. He excuses himself for a stroll while Danny and Tanya also rise, plotting a circuitous route to the restrooms that they hope will avoid contact with Wanda.

A short time later Kulchur's reverie is broken by a now visibly re-energized Rudolf. "The police are involved!" he gleefully relates of the near-melee currently unfolding in the Fontainebleau's lobby. Despite their skulking, Danny and Tanya were spotted by eagle-eyed Wanda, and as the loud insults began flying, the pair rushed over to two police officers conveniently stationed nearby. Despite urgent entreaties, though, neither officer was jumping to unholster his sidearm. As Tanya and Danny worked themselves into a frenzy, Wanda simply sat demurely with a bemused look on her face.

Why, one officer earnestly asked Tanya, was Wanda so hell-bent on smacking her down? Rudolf pauses for effect, careful to deliver Tanya's answer with just the right degree of gravity. "She told the officer: 'Wanda wants to kill us because we're blond! She hates blonds!"

Rudolf flashes a smile and nods his head in admiration. Now that is nightlife.

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