The club world is always evolving. One year it’s bottle service, then it’s quality cocktails, mixologists, and drink menus, then it’s table service. It’s horseshoe-shaped banquettes, then it’s straight benches, then comfy couches. Flyers, then telemarketing, then Twitter and Facebook. The promoters and operators change as well. Some evolve, while other types of promoters fit for the times pop up, becoming major players. The gay market has also evolved. The community is larger, more organized, and easier to reach via electronic media.
In my past, a “gay night” might have filled up an “off night” or early week night. In my early years, Sundays were the “gay night” because—and I kid you not—the hairdressers were off on Mondays. A lot has changed since then, and the events of Gay Pride underline the social progress we have experienced in nightlife. Back in the day, names like Bruce Mailman, Steven Cohen, Jeffrey Sanker, Mark Berkeley, and John Blair dominated the boy toy invite era. There was much more of a mixed crowd—straights and gays and a blend of economic classes and races—in a time when 30,000 square foot nightclubs dominated the scene. As these super clubs fragmented into lounges and smaller joints, neighborhoods became one big nightlife entity, and places became specialized. Alas, the result was people hanging with people similar to themselves, and some say being less accepting of others. Tony Fornabaio and Brandon Voss take pride in embracing the mix. They had just finished with their Pride production and promotion when I caught up with them.
You guys must be incredibly tired after what turned out to be probably one of the most important Pride celebrations ever. Tony Fornabaio: There’s definitely exhaustion, but the jubilation of it all is still flowing. I woke up this morning and thought about the whole gay marriage equality thing being part of gay pride—it’s such an emotional moment. It was a great thing to be on the streets of Chelsea when the announcement was made and on our way to the “Rock It” party at District 36. And the whole, just the energy of it was so, so intense. It was such a total moment for gay rights, and so yeah, you wake up and you still feel surreal. You don’t really feel like it all happened.
Tell me about the Governor’s Island Bondi Beach gig, and the energy of that concert and party. Brandon Voss: We were really happy with the turnout. In the scope of events, it was so much work. We did a New Year’s Eve party with Josh Wood and we literally started on this right afterwards, just to give you an idea of how long we’ve been working on that event. It came out great, everybody loved it. I guess it was worth the work.
When I ran nightclubs, I’d have famous promoters in the gay community like Marc Berkley, Steve Cohen and Jeffrey Sanker doing nights with me. How has promotion changed in the gay community over the last five years? BV: I think it’s changed a lot. We actually work with John, so it’s funny because we joke about this stuff a lot. In the last five years, the advent of social media has really changed the landscape for promoters. It’s a double-edged sword. One on hand, you can get the message out to everyone pretty easily, but it also gives anybody with a Facebook account the opportunity to go online and say, “Hey, I’m a promoter. I’m throwing a party,” and blast it out to the world. So you really have to differentiate your products.
I see a lot of production in gay events as opposed to the so-called straight parties. Production certainly was important this weekend. Is there more competition? BV: There’s so much competition right now, even from two years ago, when we started but I’d like to think that we had a ton to do with that. I think a lot of people see what we do—right now I can name six “new” promotions or events companies that have just popped up and tried to load off at the events, if you will. So yea, our competition is steep. We deliver our role, we have more events in three days, and we have productions and performances at every single one of them.
What is the state of gay nightlife? It used to be the Roxy and now Splash has been there for a couple of centuries. Is the scene more lounge-y? Are Saturday nights at megaclubs for gay crowds still possible? BV: We’ve had an event every Saturday for two years at Providence on 57th Street. It’s a street-level dance floor and we have a lot of DJs, like the Roxy. It’s not as big as Roxy or Tunnel because that’s changing up today. To fill a venue like that every week would be difficult; the giant club scene has changed a little bit. There are so many options out there now and in terms of a big club night, Club 57 is about as big as it gets.
How do you guys approach promotions? TF: We’ve been doing the “Rock It” party for over two years now and we promote it with social media but we’re also very hands on. Promotions for our top events are verbal—you have to be out there, you have to be proactive, you have to be a part of the community and the party. It’s important to keep yourself socially active to see what’s going on out there. You’re meeting new people consistently and you need to be talking up your parties. You can’t just send out a Facebook blast, you have to build your name up. You have to have gotten to a point where people come into a party of yours because they know it’s successful, fun and worth their time. The build up to it all is work that allows you to go out and execute the party like we do. How much attention do you dedicate to setting up each event? TF: We’ll book entertainers—anything from a drag queen show to a top billboard artist, to international DJs. We pay detailed attention to who’s at the front door, and to what security personnel is going to work for us. We deal with the flow of the gay crowd versus the straight crowd. It’s a very big detail. Down to people who are gonna work the VIP room. Every aspect of a party is something that Brandon and I have to constantly think about. Who’s coming in, who’s working where, who are the go-go boys, are any celebrities coming in? Club 57 is a different aspect of Rock It because it’s more house-oriented and the main floor is the main attraction. A different crowd comes in, it’s because we have a different set of music there. Our international DJs all know that there are no big parties on Friday nights except ours, so we can’t just have pop music on Saturday night and have pop music on Friday night. …it won’t work. So we differentiate the two parties. And then the third parties that we have are very different because they become more of a mesh of everything into one than those other parties are. The preparation is weekly and a lot of work.
Do you do parties out of town? BV: We’ve done Fire Island before and we’re doing another party there at end of the summer for Labor Day. We’re working on other events to do stuff outside of the city soon.
Now, let me just get something straight here. It was Rock It that was Amalia? BV:Yes, it was at Amalia on 55th Street and then we outgrew that. They were selling the building anyway, so we moved on to Quo. Then we sort of outgrew Quo to, well actually it closed down and we moved over to District 36.
I designed Amalia and it was meant to be a restaurant, but it was converted to a nightclub. I like the fact that you were there, maybe I would’ve designed it more as a club knowing that. BV:That’s beautiful. Still to this day, one of my favorite spaces and by the end of it, we had turned it totally into a nightclub.
I was told that one of your best traits is creating a safe family environment for your patrons. TF: I think that’s one of the things that we’ve really been known for. It was very clear when we had Candis Cayne perform at the Dream Hotel’s rooftop party recently. When we had our event there, you could see the mesh of the muscle boys, the drag queens, the twinks, you have everybody and there’s this very harmonious thing that takes place. Throughout the whole weekend, but especially after Bondi Beach at Governor’s Island, if I had a dime for every time I heard it, I’d be a very wealthy person because every person said, “That party was the most fun party, whatever you guys seem to touch, it’s always a different atmosphere. It’s so much fun.”
It was very different than the party on Governor’s Island last year. Everybody just felt so together and the words ‘fun’ and ‘easy’ were all I kept hearing. Brandon and I both pay great attention to who we’re inviting, why they’re coming and to a lot of problems in the gay community as well. Unfortunately that exists in straight and gay worlds. Peoples prejudice against each other, no matter whether you’re gay or straight.
There has been a mixing of the communities. TF: Hands down, we’ve definitely got the biggest mix in New York City of any promoters. I’m from New York City, I’ve worked with Mark Berkley, I’ve worked with all the boys way back in the day—this is not new for me. I’ve been in this club scene since I was 13-years-old. We have drag queens, fashion people, the muscle boys, the twinks, the out of towners, the new 21-year-olds coming into New York City going, “Oh my god I totally wanna go downstairs and…” No one can say we’re prejudiced, no one can say we have a problem, no one can say that we have an attitude. It’s just one big, you know, gay family and people recognize it. They walk away feeling at home. It’s so comfortable. Is that another promoter’s dream, or another promoter’s idea? Probably not. They’d probably just choose one specific type of crowd and that’s good for them, but that doesn’t work for us. We want to reach everyone and we want everyone to have a great time.