How Frankie Sharp is Bringing New York Nightclubs Back to Life
Robert Adam Mayer
It's 1 a.m. on a Tuesday night and a disco ball in the shape of a female torso is spinning slices of light over the crowd. Zebra Katz's vicious underground hit "Ima Read" comes through the speakers at a deep, groin-vibrating decibel. A neon "WestGay" sign casts a pink glow through the smoke. The space is filling up with cute guys in Brooklyn beards, women in aerodynamic Tilda Swinton outfits, transgendered beings, fashion-industry snobs and club trash—the kind of carefully calibrated mix that can make a night in the city feel legendary. Writhing in the center of the room on a runway are five go-go boys whose bodies offer something for everyone, from jaguar-skinny to lumberjack-stacked. Two are boyfriends who go by the name the Meatballs. This is the hottest night in town.
Over the past year, WestGay, held at the club Westway over by the West Side Highway in the lower West Village, has become the "It" event in clubland. Frankie Sharp, a 32-year-old transplant from Southern California, is the weekly party's creator, and he has become the go-to guy for clubs that want to juice their profiles, credited with bringing a much-needed hit of licentiousness back downtown. Sharp—yes, that's his real name—favors tracksuits worn with leather harnesses, but has a classic Old Hollywood–handsome face like a young Orson Welles. Just two years ago, he was hosting a party at the small East Village gay bar Bedlam. Now he has three parties: WestGay; a regular Wednesday night at the Cock, the longtime gay bar in the East Village; and, as of last month, a new night on Fridays at Santos Party House—the much bigger, straighter club south of Canal Street. "WestGay is my main thing," says Sharp. "The Cock is my more casual night—where you go when you're hung over from WestGay but still want to go out. And Santos," he says with a grin, "is WestGay times a million."
It's been a breathless rise, even in the speedy, trendy world of nightlife, and some in the industry suggest he may be taking on more than he's ready for. Others whisper that he doesn't pay properly, poaches talent, and rips off other people's ideas. Of course, that kind of talk is inevitable when you're the current hot commodity. Many think he just may turn out to be the next Susanne Bartsch, ruling over clubland for a decade or more. "It's about having a party in the right place at the right time," says Linda Simpson, the drag performer and playwright, who has seen downtown's nightlife through at least two decades of change. "A party like Frankie's was lacking after Beige [Eric Conrad's long-running Tuesday night at the Bowery Bar] closed. Frankie's parties are sexy, with those go-go boys and hot people. And Frankie has charisma," she says. "He's a Pied Piper."
Sharp was born in the Philippines, where his American father was in the Navy and met his mother. "The story of how they met was always changing when we were growing up," he says, "but then I found out that my mom was a dancer, and met my dad at a club." The family moved often: Germany, Japan, Key West, Georgia, and, from eighth grade on, San Diego. Like many military kids, he learned that being friendly was a survival skill. "I would come to a new school," he says, "and become friends with the girls." After high school, he moved to San Francisco to attend San Francisco State University and study film. He dropped out, got a job at Diesel, and then worked at a design firm answering phones. In 2007, he organized a weekly party called "Work Me, Goddammit" at the Gangway, an old gay bar in the Tenderloin.
Meanwhile, in New York City, nightlife was in a lull. The scene was beginning to fracture between exclusive Boom Boom Room–style clubs—pissy door people, an overload of celebrities, $200 bottle service—and highly sexualized gay nights, where women weren't as welcome. The last big must-attend party in New York was Clubber Down Disco in the basement of the Chelsea Hotel, hosted by Ladyfag. It fell victim to the new ownership of the building last year. Before that, the most talked-about night was Mr. Black, which was busted for drugs in 2006.
A promo for Sharp's Friday night gig at Santos Party House: It's a fine line between party and orgy. [Video by Ursula Mann]
Sharp moved to New York in 2009. He got a job at a fashion showroom and lived in Astoria. "I didn't want to do nightlife again," says Sharp. Then he got laid off. "I went into Bedlam for a celebratory 'funemployment' drink. I spoke to the manager, Sam Chiera, who is also my ex-boyfriend from San Francisco. He said that they were looking for new things to add to the roster and that I should think about it. So I just did it. I had guests like Andy Cohen come in to DJ, and comedians like Drew Droege, and the RuPaul's DragRace star Manila Luzon, who no one knew yet. House of Ladosha, Sion, Maluca,Cazwell—they all performed there in that small bar. It was surprisingly successful."
A year ago, he was asked by managers at Westway to host a night. "We always wanted to have a fun gay party," says Lyz Olko, nightlife director at the club. "I've been friends with Frankie for a long time, and knew his parties at Bedlam. His parties are fun, diverse, and—fortunately—very popular." Sharp had conditions. "I told them I would do it if I had full creative control," he says. "I wanted a gnarly circus. I wanted downtown and sleazy. I remember watching Drag Race and saw Sharon Needles and kind of had a feeling about her. I told the management that I wanted to fly her here to perform. They were not into it, but I told them, 'If we do this, you will get your party on the map.' By March, WestGay was huge."
On a Tuesday afternoon in February, Sharp is folding laundry in his bedroom in the small East Village apartment he shares with a roommate. (He has a boyfriend, but they don't live together.) RuPaul's Drag Race plays on his TV with the sound off. His iPhone buzzes. "Sorry. Tonight is our one-year anniversary [at WestGay] and there's a little bit of drama." He checks his phone often, but Sharp, who is exceedingly polite, manages to stay present even as he taps away.
He just bought steel garment racks to get his clothes off the floor, and hanging on them now are rows of bright tracksuits with music-note, skeleton, and zebra prints. In one corner sits a neat stack of brightly printed canvas tote bags. "They are all from Jeremy Scott's shows," he says. "You get one every year if you are in the front row." Sharp attends the designer's show every season, and was the face of Scott's Adidas men's line for its first three years. "I believe that Frankie's parties speak to the same group of people that I do," Scott says via e-mail.
Sharp may like the front-row treatment at fashion shows, but he says his agenda at WestGay is to keep things unpretentious. "One time, I had a group of people show up—three famous designers and one famous celebrity," he recalls. "The manager came up and asked if we could get them a seat and a bottle right under the neon sign—for some reason that's the spot people like to be seen at—and I told them no. Everyone's the same here."
He also allows his creative team a surprising degree of freedom. "He's not one of those promoters who tells you what to do," says Nita Aviance, one of his resident DJs. "Nightlife was getting lame, and music had gone to the wayside when they set up a party. But we are supposed to be the New York City underground. It's not about what they want to hear; it's what they need to hear."
Sharp describes his party-organizing style as putting on "layers and layers" to build a night. That means having highly regarded DJs like Aviance or JonJon Battles, arranging a performance by talent like dance-music trio the Ones or Chicago's gay rap group Banjee Report, putting a DJ like Timmy Dowling in the back room, and making sure his co-hosts and comps are all happy, all of which requires running endless laps around the room. "It's all personality management," Sharp explains. "I'm really OCD, so I love it when things align. It's a Rubik's Cube of duties." Now that he is hitting critical mass with the three events, Sharp is making enough to live comfortably. "I can pay rent, eat where I want to, and go shopping," he says, as well as send money home to his two sisters and his parents, who now live in Seattle.
"This is a Big Boys job," he writes later, in one of his constant e-mails. "Every day Mon–Sun from 9am on I'm answering emails, Facebook messages, texts and phone calls about booking talent, whether it be flights, hotels, dates for WestGay and Friday. EVERYTHING. I'm ALWAYS personality managing. Blowing up EGOS, taming EGOS, lighting fire under lazy asses and calming the overly ambitious ones down."
"Nightclubs, when they're good, are about creating social spaces and breaking down cultural and social barriers," says Jake Yuzna, manager of public programs at the Museum of Arts and Design. "Frankie has a certain unabashed love for things that are tacky and over the top. You get the sense he celebrates all the things that you're not supposed to." For the past three years, the museum has awarded grants—the Fun Fellowship in Social Practice of Nightlife—to personas like Ladyfag and the collective FKNLZ to explore clubland's meaning and value. Sharp is one of this year's recipients. He plans on creating, he says, "an event or exhibit that celebrates every important person in nightlife in the last 40 years."
Bringing in Frankie Sharp to host a Friday night is an obvious calculation by Santos Party House to capitalize on his brand of tastemaking cool, and also represents a kind of crossover for him to a much bigger, more mainstream, straight venue. "I was beyond ecstatic when I heard that Spencer Sweeney [one of the Santos co-owners] was bringing Frankie Sharp on for a new weekly Friday party," says Cherie Lily, one of the club's creative directors. "I love Frankie's crowd and the energy he brings to his events." Santos, which was opened in 2009 to much fanfare by a team of entrepreneurs that include the pop star Andrew W.K., has had a challenging time re-establishing its presence since a drug bust in 2010. "There's the curse of Santos. It has a party hex," says one promoter. "They don't give out enough drinks to promoters and hosts, and they have a really jarring door policy where they search your bags and frisk you. Not good for parties, because you want people who do drugs. You don't want them driving a bus, but you want them at your night."
The pressure is on Sharp to use his signature recipe for fun—the go-go boys, the anti-pop remix music, the committed drag queens and baseball-hat-wearing club boys—to pack the cavernous space. As the night gets late, the room fills with young people who look as if they thought very hard about their outfits. The vibe at Santos is younger than at WestGay. It's more like a sandbox of a club, where people come to test out their nightlife personas and get their club legs. Here, too, Sharp never stops moving, except for the occasional photo op that will appear in Next magazine, on papermag.com, or on his own well-curated Facebook page.
"When I heard he was doing Wednesday and Friday I thought, Uh-oh, too much too soon," says Linda Simpson. "But then again, he should strike while the iron's hot." Other industry insiders think he may be flapping his new wings a little too early. "Any joker can call himself a promoter now," says Daniel Nardicio, who has been one for 14 years, and who has also been credited with keeping a sense of debauchery alive in the city. Nardicio will be presenting Alan Cumming and Liza Minnelli at Town Hall next week, and he just celebrated his 1,000th "underwear party" at the club Rebel near Madison Square Garden, where, to the surprise of hundreds of near-naked men, he had a marching band show up and weave through the crowd. "The proof with promoters is they can do more than one thing," Nardicio says pointedly. As for Sharp's prospects, he says, "Let's talk in three years."
After the last Friday-night party in February at Santos, Sharp comes down with the flu, and even spends a couple of nights in the hospital. He can't make it to WestGay or to the Cock. He responds via e-mail a couple days later. "The ONLY night at WestGay I [ever] missed," he writes. "Amy Cakes my INCREDIBLE full time assistant ran the show. She's simply invaluable. . . . I literally gave her a rundown of the showtimes, comps, guestlist with highlighted VIPs all instructions operational which I'm sure she just crumpled up and threw away. She doesn't need that."
Sharp is back on his feet and back out all night by the end of the week. And he's already brainstorming his next move. His night at Santos may be WestGay "times a million," but it is also a test for Sharp's greater ambitions. "I feel like I want to use this simple formula for bolder-faced names," he says. "I want to have a party that turns into a show that turns back into a party. Like, what if I did a party that had Björk, and then RuPaul, and after that a marching band," he says excitedly. "I mean—why does the night have to end?"
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.