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"I can control what you experience through the night," Gary Santis says, "with my lighting."
The mad-scientist statement drops from the hot (very early '90s George Michael, yum!) promoter for the most prominent dance venue in Broward County, the 18,000-square-foot Coliseum nightclub (2520 S. Miami Rd., Hollywood).
Unless you've been holed away for two decades, you know that the name Santis is synonymous with the South Beach megaclub of '90s lore, Warsaw, and Fort Lauderdale's noteworthy club of yesteryear, the Saint. His current, 4-year-old project, the Coliseum, is one of the biggest dance venues in South Florida and has established a stronghold on gay nightlife in the region.
Indeed, the Coliseum, located in a nondescript location just north of Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, draws enough star talent to hold its own in any major city.
I met with Santis on a recent Saturday night (Sunday morning) at the Coliseum. After diva Jeannie Tracy regaled the thousand-strong, shirtless crowd of men with her "Cha Cha Heels" number and Santis had escorted her out through the rear exit of the club to bid her a hug-hug, kiss-kiss adieu, we sat down at 4 a.m. on a wicker loveseat in the club's back lot.
Who's his competition? I asked. Besides small clubs prostituting seven-for-one drinks and the like, he can't think of anything. "If they're going to open," he says, "they better be prepared to handle me, honey."
Handling Mr. Santis seems like a tough proposition for a club owner but not altogether unpleasant for anyone else.
The 40-ish, Cuban-born, Miami-grown club lord says his entrance into the subterranean nightlife world began at age 16 when he became fascinated with a hairy-chested little phenomenon called disco. "I had a dance partner, and there was a dance competition every night of the week. Then Dance Fever came along [in the early 1980s], and I made that. After that, I was always going to dance clubs," he says, and that spilled over into promoting gigs.
"A friend of mine had a nightclub. I'd go in there and give him ideas. He started doing the things that I said, and his business started growing and growing."
Then, inevitably, the conversation leads to his experience as promoter and general manager of Warsaw, the South Beach club renowned for celeb-spotting and a launching pad for the South Florida rave scene, which opened its doors in 1988.
"When Warsaw opened," he says, "it was such a force that it closed about ten clubs, you know? We just did our homework, and we went to town. I got my thing from Studio 54. It's like, what? Wait a minute! I can do this on a grander scale. We easily spent $20,000 a party. We would work 18-hour days, four days a week with a crew of 25. But when you walked into the Warsaw, it was like, 'What the hell is this?'
"The fire marshal would come every night and shut the club down. He would stand at the front door and start screaming, 'Nobody's coming in here. One person in, one person out.' That was the fabulousness. If the club wasn't shut down, it wasn't fabulous.
"Warsaw revolutionized South Beach. Immediately, another club and another club would open. It was a gay little city of clubs and stores. Fabulousness."
His voice fatigues. "And then, you know, the straight people. You weren't prejudiced, but you just didn't let any straight couples into the Warsaw."
"Well," he explains, "we'd let everybody in, but you had to have a look. What happens is the news. Madonna at the Warsaw. Someone was seeing Sylvester Stallone and Gloria. All of a sudden, people were like, 'Huh, what is this? Let's go!' I mean, if you're in just to look for Madonna, you ain't comin' in. You had to be fabulous."
As Santis tells it, on a particular night, Madonna (Esther, that is) herself failed to put up the requisite fabulousness for admission. Sans makeup and donning a baseball cap, she just didn't have that look. "The second time she came to the Warsaw," he says, "my doorman didn't recognize her and carded her, and he turned her away. She started arguing with him, and she's not telling him she's Madonna. She didn't have her ID. The next day, I get a phone call at the club wanting to know who's in charge, and it's her. And she wants that guy "fired" and she will never come back.
"So, I told her, 'Absolutely, he's fired." Then, he mutters, "I didn't fire him."
"No, I know how she can be: very difficult. Besides," he snickers, "she should have had her ID."
In 1997, Santis moved to Fort Lauderdale, where he designed and promoted the Saint, a popular gay club on State Road 84. "I moved to Fort Lauderdale because I didn't like the way South Beach was being commercialized. And the boys here in Fort Lauderdale are more professional-minded. South Beach was just getting a little too much into drugs.
"The idea for the Saint" he says, "came from one of my favorite parties at the Warsaw Ballroom, 'The Garden of Ultra Delight.' We made three huge trees; they looked like oak trees. We literally constructed the base, and it took us three days to cut all the limbs on the tree.