By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Fort Lauderdale's Pulse Nightclub had it all. A woman wearing a spiked leash welcomed you at the door. Electronica and hip-hop sounded on two strobed dance floors while svelte, bikinied babes in space-age wigs danced on pedestals out by the pool, and black-suited pseudo-Mafiosi schmoozed everywhere. Owner Keith Miller spent tens of thousands of dollars rehabbing the place, where booze went for as much as $350 a bottle.
So why, then, did Miller shutter the joint December 26 after just two weekends?
To find the answer, I dialed the place. Keith Howard, a close associate of Miller's, picked up the receiver.
"That opening/closing sure was quick," we said. "Must be a record."
"It's definitely gonna be a record," Howard shot back, "given the amount of employee theft."
Turns out that the $20,000 to $30,000 worth of speakers and lighting taken in a likely inside job (doors were found locked and the alarm on) was only the final chapter of this throbbing mystery, which echoes the regular weirdness on that art-deco-dominated strip of sand to the south.
The whole thing started more than a year ago when Miller, who made a bundle from a business that bills people over the Internet, decided to open a restaurant/lounge on Dixie Highway in Hollywood. He paid $690,000 for the quaint, former Hemmingway's building, then opened Mankind, a place that, according to the Sun-Sentinel,was geared for an "eclectic" (read "primarily gay," explains Miller) clientele. Last spring Miller opened Paradise, another gay venue, on Federal Highway just south of Oakland Park Boulevard in the former Velvet Lounge. Seemed as if the 35-year-old was a club kingpin in the making.
Then Paradise didn't work out, so Miller decided to convert it to something closer to a straight disco inferno. And that's when his problems really started.
Jaime Fiore, a former manager at two other clubs -- Level and Chili Pepper -- was hired as general manager at the new place, which was to be called Pulse. Stanley Passaforo, a bar owner from Puerto Rico, also joined the management team. Jackie McNichols of Space Modern provided furniture and design advice. And 23-year-old Ray Rafaty of Delirium Productions, who had put together private parties in South Beach and Fort Lauderdale, began setting up entertainment.
Work on the building cost more than expected, Fiore says. Remodeling set Miller back $30,000 to $40,000. Electrical problems added about $17,000 more to the bill. And sound and lighting totaled about $22,000. (Miller wouldn't confirm those figures.) Soon, checks were bouncing.
Just a week before Pulse was to open, however, Miller mysteriously closed Mankind. "It was a money-losing organization," Miller said. "It was completely separate from Pulse." That, he says, had nothing to do with the problems in Lauderdale.
Then, on December 15, opening night at Pulse, only about 400 people showed up at the slick Federal Highway location. That seemed sparse, Miller explains: The place is built for 1500. "Certain people told me that when we opened the doors, we'd have huge crowds of people and boatloads of cash coming at us. It never materialized."
Miller wouldn't say who those "certain people" are, but he confirmed that the opening dry spell continued on night two and into the second weekend. I attended night two, which seemed appropriately hedonistic, if somewhat underattended. Our follow-up reporting confirmed just what you'd guess: nastiness, blame, and bitterness.
"Every single person that was involved in this lost big," Rafaty says. "We invested $8000 in this and didn't get any of it back.... We brought in people. The problem is, the club didn't do its own marketing."
"My personal feeling is that no one is telling the truth in all of this," says Fiore, who claims he worked seventy days, seven days a week, twelve hours a day, for peanuts. "I have never been a part of something so fucked-up. My credibility is gone."
"The bottom line is that Keith Miller was taken for a ride," adds McNichols. She blames Passaforo, whom I couldn't reach for comment. He walked out after the first week, she reports. "He said, "Here's my keys. You guys can do whatever you want with the place.'"
Miller declines to name names but says the real story will be clear in a week. He came in last Wednesday, he reports, to find two speakers gone from the pool area and more equipment purloined from inside. Then he changed the locks and began allowing creditors, including McNichols (to whom he signed a promissory note last week), and liquor distributors to pick up their goods. He says he plans to pay all the club's debts. He won't say where he'll get the money but acknowledges that the now-shuttered Mankind is up for sale. Asking price: a cool $995,000. And he may sell the multimillion-dollar home on Sunrise Key where he has lived since April.
"I was set up from day one," Miller concludes. "There were seven to eleven people involved. There was so much money pocketed, it isn't funny.... It was a bad concept at a bad time, and it didn't work.