"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.
"For the Saint, I wanted the murals, all the Adam's Creation by Michelangelo, but I wanted it in the garden. I wanted the whole celestial thing." The organic décor was topped off by half-naked dancers striking erotic poses in a shower behind a glass wall. Inside, the large club hosted DJs and divas; there was a tiki-style atmosphere out back to relax in.
He decided to leave the Saint in 1998 after, he contends, "the owners didn't want to maintain the club in the manner my customers are accustomed to." When Desperados, an enormous country-western bar on the site of the present-day Coliseum, closed in 1999, owners Brett Tannenbaum and Paul Hugo saw an opportunity. They approached Santis, who agreed to design and promote the place. "I wanted the flavor of the Coliseum, to give it this Roman feel. At the beginning of the night, when you walk in, we have this beautiful artwork, and my light show is at 25 percent. My videos start off honoring the DJ. And then, through the night, it starts getting homoerotic, and you start seeing torsos of men. The light show starts coming on, and I switch to an erotic kind of lighting.
"I try to be attentive to every aspect of the night. What time it is, what's going on with the people. How are they feeling if they have one drink, two drinks, three drinks? I try to play with people all night. You need to provoke everyone's excitement through a DJ, through a drag show, through a theme party, through décor. It's an evolution of your senses."
I ask him why Coliseum has no designated VIP area and no wait to get through the door. "I will not have that; you know why? Because number one: I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. I think it's cooler if you just let people mix." He recalls the Studio 54 vibe of princesses dancing with mechanics and adds, "It's like, who cares what you do? The music is fabulous. Let's dance and kiss if we want to."
Still, Santis finds the vibe at straight-club VooDoo Lounge (111 SW Second Ave., Fort Lauderdale) on Sundays cool enough. For the past six months, he's been promoting the Babylon T, a Sunday-evening tea dance before the famed drag show "Life's a Drag." "It reminds me of my Warsaw days. It's really amazing to see that mixture of gay people and straight people respecting their sexualities but doing their own thing. So I have the most wonderful time at VooDoo."
As for his plans, Santis is looking back south again to downtown Miami's biggest club. "I'm in negotiations with Space," he reveals. On a more elaborate note, he hopes to take a stab at South Florida's biggest gay gathering: "I want to be the founder of the Fort Lauderdale White Party, on a massive scale like Miami has theirs. I can't call it 'white party' 'cause that's a trademark, but I'll definitely call it 'white event' or 'white masquerade' or 'white something'..."
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