It sounds like another one of those classic tales of clubland reinvention: A teenage Persian Jew escapes the Iran of the ayatollahs, comes to America unable to speak English, but nonetheless manages to make a small fortune peddling car stereos, roach clips, and feather earrings. Despite his newfound affluence, he gets turned away from every trendy disco he tries to enter on account of his garish attire. As revenge, he vows to create his own fashionable nightspot, and after a visit to the hair colorist and a trip to a Dolce & Gabbana sample sale, ends up as the power behind four of the biggest Manhattan nightclubs of the moment: Spa, Exit, Capitale, and Estate, as well as the restaurant Butter. David Marvisi may be the new king of New York nightlife, but that title may not mean as much anymore, given the sorry state of the post-Giuliani club scene.
The 41-year-old Marvisi (born Homayoun Marvizi) is the mysterious multimillionaire who built a nightlife empire while nobody was looking. While the rest of clubland was preoccupied with the travails of his archrival Peter Gatien, Marvisi quietly rose from the shadows, and all of a sudden he was the most powerful club operator in town, drawing thousands of people to his venues. With a flamboyant lifestyle that automatically attracts attention, Marvisi is famously cheap but also a spendthrift who shells out hundreds of thousands of dollars for big-name DJs like Junior Vasquez and Paul Oakenfold. He drives around in a custom-made orange Bentley, wearing matching orange shoes and shirt, a diamond-encrusted watch hanging from his wrist. The effect that he creates is more Vegas—like Siegfried without Roy—than downtown cool. “I’m the king of the world,” he likes to brag, and from the outside at least it might seem that way—a magic-carpet ride to the top and a tribute to the American free-enterprise system.
But behind the scenes, Marvisi’s fledgling empire is already teetering, beset by money woes caused by the disastrous recent launches of both Estate and Capitale, not to mention the NYPD closure of his most profitable venue, Exit, three weeks ago for drug sales. Add in a rumored FBI interest in his operation and the new Peter Gatien is starting to sound a lot like the old one. (While the bureau’s policy is not to comment officially on ongoing investigations, a paid government informant claimed to the Voice that the FBI is curious about Marvisi. In addition, a former top Marvisi employee also said he was recently questioned by a federal agent concerning allegations that the club owner was involved in laundering money. “I know for a fact that the FBI is looking into Marvisi,” he said. “They called me a couple of weeks ago.”)
After initially agreeing to be interviewed by the Voice, Marvisi failed to turn up for a dinner date at Tribeca Grill. He declined repeated requests to reschedule the appointment and didn’t respond to written questions. His publicist, Claire O’Connor, subsequently confirmed that her client is aware of stories that the feds are looking into him and added, “I think it’s a tragedy in the current climate in which we live that someone who has done so much for New York City both in terms of generating employment and providing entertainment is now being taken to task based on the sour grapes of a few disgruntled former employees.” (Of course, the mere existence of an investigation is no proof of any wrongdoing.) Further contributing to Marvisi’s woes, his business partners in the stillborn Estate—launched last November but already temporarily shuttered, except for the lucrative Sunday nights, because of a lack of customers the rest of the week—now want him ousted, fearing that a scandal will stain their reputations.
“Marvisi is out, that I can promise you,” said an important player in the current drama surrounding the old Limelight space. “As far as I’m concerned, Estate will not reopen unless Marvisi is gone. Going into business with David Marvisi was the biggest mistake of my life.”
Marvisi first sprang to public attention in the mid ’90s with Mirage, on West 56th Street. This cavernous disco was truly a twin vista of tackiness, featuring two vast floors of chrome and mirror, a Versace room, and a young Sean “Puffy” Combs as a main party promoter. It was here that disgraced club kid Michael Alig threw his last ever bash before going to jail for manslaughter. Mirage eventually developed into Carbon, a hip-hop spot, which in turn became the more fashionable Exit, which unexpectedly became a raging success. For a while, Marvisi was bringing in buckets full of cash, which was stored in three large walk-in safes in the upstairs offices.
In April 2001, news of Marvisi’s booming business reached the ears of a crew of Italian gangsters. “They approached him,” said the former top aide, “and told him, ‘We know you have a lot of problems at the club with drugs, and the police are always busting your balls. If you want the problem fixed, you have to pay us.’ There were four of them. One of them told me to get out of the car and showed me a pistol he had in the waistband of his trousers. He said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not going to hurt you. We just want to talk.’ Marvisi told them, ‘Fuck you. I’m not paying you anything. I’m going to call the FBI,’ and he did. The FBI agents interviewed me and David, but I don’t think they believed him because David always exaggerates.”
“There’s no question he has a big set of balls,” said another insider, Paul Drohan, the onetime manager of Mirage. “But that same set of balls are about to break him.”
In extensive interviews with nearly 30 employees, ex-employees, business associates, promoters, and others, conducted mainly on the condition of anonymity, a portrait emerges of Marvisi as a brash and egotistical operator whose pathway to success was paved with a myriad of schemes, big and small, some of them legal, some allegedly not. “He used to get old broken phones and repackage them and get homeless people to sell them on the street—that’s a fact,” said a longtime associate, who used to go on vacation with the Marvisi family.
Joe Pappa, another close aide who worked side by side with Marvisi for many years before being let go, recalled, “I saw him pick up a credit card that someone had dropped at Exit, go to the bar, swipe the card, take a bottle of Cristal, and then drop the card back onto the floor.”
However, a current employee, William Curran, banquet director for Exit and Spa, painted a different picture, saying, “David has a big heart. He donates his clubs, his time, and his money to raise funds for countless worthwhile causes. David is also very generous with his employees, but he expects them to produce. And if they don’t, they’re out of there.” (Three other employees whom the Voice talked with agreed with Curran’s comments.)
Marvisi’s preferred mode of business is cash. He pays for nearly everything that way—supposedly including his $500,000 orange Bentley, one of three he owns. Promoters are purportedly paid under the table. “I never paid taxes,” said one of Exit’s former top party planners, who was convicted of minor drug charges. “I was always paid in cash. And that was the case with every other promoter who worked for him. He was paying out $30,000 to $50,000 a week to promoters, and it was all off the books.”
Two former confidants told the Voice that they regularly accompanied Marvisi on gambling trips to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, where they suspected he was laundering hundreds of thousands of dollars. One said the scheme worked like this: “Say you start out with $300,000 in chips, and you play for a couple of hours, and say you break even. You can now cash out and get a check from the casino for $300,000 made out to you, and it’s perfectly legit. Marvisi always loved to get big checks from the casino.” (Countered Marvisi’s publicist, Claire O’Connor: “Not that I believe this is true, but why would someone take their own money which they earned legitimately, and exchange it for a check if they’re going to have to pay taxes on it either way. This makes no sense.”)
One of the confidants also claimed that he was regularly dispatched from Exit with bags full of cash—hundreds of thousands of dollars in all denominations—to a payroll company in Chelsea where he said he would receive in return checks made out to Marvisi’s personal bank account.
The same intimate acquaintances also said they believed that a blaze at Spa in early 2000 wasn’t accidental. Peridance, a dance studio above the cramped Union Square club, suffered a serious fire that began around four o’clock on a Sunday morning. “The landlord told us that Spa wanted our space,” said a Peridance director, who requested his name not be used. “The insurance company thought the fire was suspicious. But nobody could prove anything, so the cause was ruled ‘undetermined.’ ” (Victor Angelillo, at the time a director of the company that owns the building, said, “There was nothing suspicious about that fire. Everybody received their insurance checks. The insurance company would not have paid out if they thought anything criminal happened.”)
The burden of debuting two large-scale, multilevel nightclubs at the same time occupied David Marvisi for most of the latter half of 2002. Capitale, housed in the landmark Bowery Savings Bank, became the subject of controversy after Community Board 2 suspected that Marvisi was trying to dupe them by concocting the ruse of opening a restaurant/catering hall, when what he really planned to do was launch a rowdy disco in the historic space, using Spa’s general manager, Margaret “Peggy” Millard (ex-wife of Psychedelic Furs bass player Tim Butler) as a front to get the liquor license. Marvisi’s reputation among his Lower East Side neighbors wasn’t improved by an incident at Capitale in September when one worker pumped a bullet into the back of another because of an ongoing personal dispute. Following a barrage of complaints from local residents and three stop-work orders, the community board asked the State Liquor Authority to deny Capitale a liquor license. The SLA chose to ignore the board.
According to another source, who was until recently an important player in Marvisi’s organization, the club owner wasn’t worried about community opposition to Capitale because he boasted that he had an official from the mayor’s office in his pocket. “He made a statement in front of a group of employees at Capitale that he paid her off with an envelope containing $5000,” he said. “I was there when he said it. Who knows if it’s true? He bullshits a lot. He’s the kind of guy who makes up stories as he goes along.”
Over in Chelsea, the commotion surrounding the transformation of the Limelight into Estate, housed in another landmark building, was equally intense. Shouting matches between the main business partners—Marvisi, the widely liked John Blair, and 32-year-old real estate tycoon Ben Ashkenazi—were common during the reconstruction period. Initially, Marvisi wasn’t even supposed to be part of the deal. But he came on board after he offered the landlord Ashkenazi $400,000 to cover back property taxes owed by the previous owner, Peter Gatien.
When Blair, the city’s leading gay-party promoter, bought the Limelight (the business, not the building) for $1.1 million in bankruptcy court, he had no idea that Marvisi had cut a side deal with Blair’s partner in the Flatiron Group (which also included Ashkenazi’s wife, Deborah, Blair’s associate Jay Janos, and Russian builder Joseph Klaynberg). When he found out, Blair was furious. For years, Marvisi had tried to lure Blair to work at Exit, but he always refused because of Marvisi’s reputation. But Ben Ashkenazi, worried that Blair didn’t know how to throw straight parties, insisted that Marvisi remain a part of the project. Marvisi persuaded him that he could turn the club into a runaway hit by bringing in the biggest DJs in the world.
“He told Ben that he could remodel the space to become the most prestigious nightclub in New York City,” said an Estate insider. “It would become a bottle place, where high-class people would come in and spend $500 a pop on champagne. Ben believed Marvisi because he had two other successful clubs, Spa and Exit, and was about to open another one, Capitale.”
The cost was $4.5 million to refurbish the old Limelight space. (Ben Ashkenazi put in $3 million, while the rest of the Flatiron partners contributed $1.5 million.) Marvisi was placed in charge of the rebuilding after he underbid Klaynberg, who wanted to refurbish the spot with union construction workers and carpenters. Marvisi convinced Ashkenazi that he could complete the job for half the price. How he was able to do that would later become clear. “Employing Mexicans and paying them off the books wasn’t done with either the approval of John Blair or Ashkenazi,” said a spokesperson for one of the partners. “They gave the money to Marvisi to reconstruct the place and they had no idea he was hiring illegal immigrants.” During the renovation, the carpenters’ union put a big inflatable rat outside the club in protest.
But after Marvisi took Ashkenazi to the opening of Capitale, where famous fashion model Heidi Klum was throwing a star-studded bash last Halloween, the young developer was hooked. Impressed by the mannequins and celebrities he met there, Ashkenazi returned to the Limelight convinced that Marvisi could turn Estate into a major money-spinner. “Ben came back thinking that Marvisi could walk on water,” said the same Estate insider. “It was like he was infatuated with him. Basically Marvisi suckered him. Unlike Marvisi, Ben is not very streetwise. Before meeting Marvisi, he had no experience in the club world. But Ben only has himself to blame. He was warned about Marvisi in advance but he chose to ignore the advice.”
Serious problems with Marvisi’s personality began to emerge as early as Estate’s opening night in November, when he got into a heated argument at the front door with the 13th Precinct’s cabaret sergeant. The precinct commander had previously visited and said, “This place isn’t ready to open. It’s unsafe.” The sergeant turned up wanting to know how Estate could be open, given his boss’s safety concerns. Marvisi became angry because he thought the sergeant was busting his chops, and told him, “You can’t touch me because nobody knows who I really am.” Marvisi’s activities are tough to pin down, perhaps because variations of his name—David H. Marvisi, Homayoun D. Marvisi, Homayoun D. Marzivi —appear on his various driver’s licenses.
“Marvisi has a big problem with authority,” said an eyewitness to the confrontation with the sergeant. “He doesn’t like being told what to do, and he doesn’t like cops.” Marvisi had been previously arrested in 2001 for trespassing in his own club, after Exit was temporarily shut down under the nuisance abatement law because of drug activity.
Further trouble ensued in December, when the vice squad paid an unexpected visit to Estate with a WABC camera crew in tow. Former Nassau County homicide detective John Dabrowski, hired by Blair to oversee anti-drug efforts at the disco, had allowed the crew to film the squad doing a walk-through, figuring it would be good publicity for the new venture, in addition to putting them in the good graces of the local cops. One of Marvisi’s managers saw them, came running over and said, “This is a David Marvisi club. No one films in here without his permission.” This was an unfortunate revelation, since at the time Marvisi’s involvement in the club was supposed to be a secret. Much to the embarrassment of the cops, the manager insisted that the news crew shut down their cameras and leave the place straightaway. John Blair was incensed that the cops had been needlessly antagonized. Given the scandal-scarred history of the space, Blair knew it was essential to maintain good relations with the local precinct if he was going to keep the liquor license he and Ashkenazi had spent $300,000 in legal fees getting transferred over from Gatien.
On Feb. 7, a Friday night, Exit was once again shut down under the nuisance abatement law because of what the police claimed was extensive drug activity. Undercover narcotics cops posing as clubgoers witnessed numerous illegal transactions and bought drugs there themselves. The police cited the club’s record of 170 drug arrests in a three-year period, and Commissioner Ray Kelly told the press, “We are sending a clear message to nightclub owners: If you allow illegal drugs to saturate your business and endanger your patrons, we’ll shut you down.” But even some of Marvisi’s harshest critics admit that he is vehemently anti-drug. “Exit has the tightest security of any disco in town,” said one. “He may be an asshole, but he takes every precaution to keep drugs out of Exit. Marvisi has fired top employees for even the inkling that they might be allowing drug dealers into his clubs.”
Nevertheless, a disco denizen who has worked with both Marvisi and the troubled clubland czar who preceded him, said Marvisi is “another Peter Gatien waiting to happen. Like Peter, he thinks he’s above the law. And that’s what will bring him down in the end.”
Frank Owen, a longtime contributor to the Village Voice, has a new book coming out in May 2003 entitled Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture (St. Martin’s Press)
“Disco Inferno: New York Nightclubs Fend Off Conflagration” by Tricia Romano with Daniel King