Belly Up to the Cybar
A trio of young women in scanty club wear strides into a bar on Himmarshee Street in Fort Lauderdale. You know the drill: wine, women, and mangled renditions of Violent Femmes songs. You'd have to look long and hard to notice anything different about this scene, and even then you might miss the eight-by-ten-inch placard printed on black paper. It is a sign of the times, a warning to patrons that they may be filmed on the premises and that their likenesses may be used for promotional purposes.
Cybars.com, "the World's First Internet Nightclub Network," has arrived. All hope abandon ye who enter here!
In truth, comparing Fort Lauderdale's hectic Himmarshee Street to Dante's "Inferno" might not be fair. After all, to many in the crowd of tipsy twenty- and thirtysomethings that spill into the streets each week, the area's nightlife is a little slice of heaven.
And now, with the click of a mouse, you can visit these many levels of bliss or perdition while reclining in the cushiony comfort of your La-Z-Boy. The concept is simple, if a bit Orwellian: Homebodies log on to the Website to watch and interact with their clubgoing counterparts, who in turn can respond via a kiosk inside the club. Membership costs $9.95 and can be purchased at club kiosks or from the site itself.
"See them live!" exhorts the Cybars Website. "Meet them live!"
This see-or-be-seen venture is the vision of Gordon Scott Venters, who with his dark tan, bleached hair, and bundle-of-nerves demeanor, seems more like a rock guitarist than a dot-com CEO. He wears a trendy, bottle-green, uniform-style shirt with the name "Frankie" embroidered on the chest. "It's so hot," he moans, offering a soda. "I wore a suit yesterday. I just died."
Venters's family founded Magic Fingers, the famous massaging hotel beds. In 1992 he moved the company from Delaware to Florida, renamed it and turned the firm into MagicInc.com, an entertainment holdings company with its sights set on the Internet.
Yet for all his Web intentions, Venters and company have another goal in mind. "We're really just frustrated filmmakers," he explains.
The source of their frustrations: a nonexistent movie titled Liberty City. In fact Cybars.com and the whole MagicInc.com business is really in the service of getting Liberty City made. Promotional posters for the film hang on Venters's office wall, but all are mockups. A troubled production past has left Liberty City languishing as only a trailer and a much-delayed dream.
The project began as East of Overtown, a thriller set in Miami and based on the McDuffie riots of 1989. In December 1994, East of Overtown's collaborators, filmmaker Robert Ingria and musician Leo Casino, asked Venters to help them finance and distribute their project. Ingria joined the board of MagicInc.com, which reconceived and retitled the film in 1996.
Though Casino later objected to the involvement of MagicInc.com (see "There's a Riot Goin' On," January 15, 1998, Miami New Times), Venters says Casino has since come back to the fold, and the rights to make Liberty City are still for sale. Venters hopes to see the film's trailer play on the specially designed club video monitors that are part of Magicinternetwork.com, a related project he hopes will be to clubs what CNN is to airports. He pops a cassette of the trailer into the VCR, perches on the edge of a black leather couch, and grins at the images: "You'd pay $6 to see that, wouldn't you?"
But until Liberty City begins shooting, Cybars.com is Venters's main project, a service he says will help potential partyers decide what to wear, where to go, or whether or not to go out at all. To lure people to the site, he's plastered a few bumper stickers around town and has hired a digital photographer to circulate at clubs, snapping shots of the party people -- who must log on to the Website in order to view their photos. On the site a British-accented woman's voice breathlessly beckons visitors to sign up and view the action at the hottest clubs in town. Members can also type in a brief biography and sign up for an online dating service that has the advantage of being extremely local.
Club patrons will also be able to sidle over to a Cybars kiosk and check out who's checking them out. A sample kiosk that looks like a reconditioned arcade game sits in MagicInc.com's purple-painted, warehouselike headquarters on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. Venters says he plans to make it more interactive, maybe add a flashing light to indicate to passersby that someone watching wants to contact them.
No doubt the kiosks face competition from the bars' tangible features -- like, say, actual people and booze. So far one of the few working kiosks in town isn't getting much play. "I didn't see it used that much, but maybe it's because it's in the corner," observes Mike Buchinski, general manager of Stereo, a nightclub on SW Third Avenue.
Venters concedes that in-club kiosks aren't expected to be a big draw: "It's the lonely-person box," he says with a shrug.
He also sees Cybars.com as a potential deterrent against crime. "I think one of the most dangerous things a young girl can do is go out at night," he says soberly. To that end the Cybars.com Cyclops could be a tool for parents and police, "so then if a young girl doesn't come home at night you can say "She went home with him.'"
Some fear Cybars might also interfere in crimes of the heart. "Sometimes the wife is sitting at home and it's a "don't mess with the girlfriend' kinda night," laughs Eric Partatmer, a bartender at Lord Nelson's Pub. He says his bar may become a Cybar, too, but he's not sure if that's a good thing. "It could be very incriminating."
Indeed voyeurism, not law enforcement, is central to the success or failure of Cybars.com. Venters smiles as he pulls a chair to a computer at his desk and clicks through the site. It is early afternoon, and the image on the screen is of sunlight streaming into a dark, deserted bar. "They look really bad in the day," Venters says apologetically, adding that special camera lenses and the cover of darkness transform the nightspots: "Stereo looks unbelievable at night," he enthuses. "Stereo looks like Studio 54."
Though Cybars.com launched about three weeks ago, locals outside the hospitality business seem thus far unaware of the cameras that hang in the main rooms of several Fort Lauderdale bars and clubs. Amid the throng of revelers on a weekend night, the low-key signs at the entrance are nearly impossible to see. One camera posted at hip height on a wood-paneled wall near the entrance to Dicey Riley's is usually blocked by the standing-room-only crowd.
It's a scene with which Venters seems familiar. He's enthusiastic about Fort Lauderdale's nightlife and its anticipated synergy with Cybars, which will soon be in a total of ten area clubs. All of this is a disturbing trend to John Fore, who is 28 years old and lives within walking distance of the downtown scene. Fore hopes VIP rooms, at least, remain camera-free: "It's like your retreat to get away while you're still [at the night club]. You just paid $200 for a bottle of something...."
Venters assures the cameras won't roll on the high rollers. The rest of us should just say "cheese."
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