Throwing a "mandatory clothes check" underwear party in a sketchy downtown nightclub one week and producing an iconic Broadway concert in an elegant, historic theater the next aren't exactly what I'd call pages torn from the same gay handbook. On a Venn diagram they might just barely kiss a little in the middle. But one lone, notorious downtown party promoter has managed to mastermind both of these events: next week he reunites Liza Minnelli and Alan Cumming at Town Hall for an encore performance from their steamy fire island performance last summer just a few nights after celebrating his 1,000th party for frisky, naughty boys.
Upon first hearing the buzz about the Liza/Alan concert, I assumed it was being organized by Live Nation or some other faceless entertainment conglomerate. It seems obvious that the show would have an enormous audience even if just for the global gay show queens. When I discovered it was Daniel Nardicio, my interest piqued and I wanted to find out how the event New York magazine is calling "the gayest evening in the history of evenings" came about. Because I lived nearby, I only knew about Daniel's parties at the Slide, a dingy basement club on the Bowery years before the avenue became filled with 7-Elevens, cupcake shops, and trendy restaurants. It was those early years on the Bowery that served as a sort of wildly creative petri dish where he would develop contacts, ideas, and talent that would later explode onto the downtown performance scene and beyond.
Whether it's A Star Is Born, All About Eve, or even the sinking Smash, the back story in show business is usually more fascinating than what actually happens onstage. So to find out how the the Liza and Alan concert came about -- and the story of the producer behind it -- Daniel generously invited me to spend a day hanging out with him and I learned that the 'only in New York' story is alive and well. In one hysterical afternoon, I watched him Skype, flirt, and hire a burlesque dancer in London; discuss P.T. Barnum-esque promotional stunts; and ponder who should bake Liza's birthday cake (the concert takes place during her 67th birthday week). And how many times do you hear someone bellow, "I just hired Charo!" during your office hours?
Our day led us from the circus-like atmosphere of his office to Town Hall for production meetings where we eventually sat down in the regal theater and he candidly answered a few questions about how he got there. With David Merrick as his idol and dreams of even bigger show biz projects prancing in his head, Daniel opened up about his past, present and future.
TR: Talk about your childhood and any influencing experiences.
DN: God... my childhood was characterized by chaos and erratic behavior, which has prepped me well in my career in working with famous people, go go boys, and artists. My mother was a schizophrenic, and a stripper at a local bar called the Buttercup Lounge near Cleveland. I grew up basically in bars and I find my comfort level in bars and clubs. They are home to me. It's the whole Born in a Trunk thing. The most recent thing to influence me is the book, The Abominable Showman, about David Merrick. I want to be the 21st century version of him. We have the same old-school approach to entertainment and I think the world is hungry for that.
TR: And then you pursued acting?
DN: I loved the art of acting, and the camaraderie of the theater. What I didn't like, was actual performing. I grew to be afraid of it. I ended up doing opera, for a few seasons at The Bregenzer Festival in Austria, where I developed my sonorous and booming voice. One day I wrote down what I got from performing, decided to find those things elsewhere, and started promoting. It was a fairly natural transition really. Never looked back once.
TR: Where were you before New York?
DN: I left Ohio and bummed around a year or so in LA before ending up in San Francisco, which I loved, but AIDS had really made it a sad place. Plus I recognized that SF wasn't creating any culture that I was interested in, and I craved to be where that was happening. New York still scared me so I left SF and my best friend Justin Bond, and moved to Berlin for 5 years, where I learned fluent German, became a working actor and traveled Europe. But Berlin would be great if it weren't for all the Germans, so I had to leave. I called Justin, and he wanted to move to NYC. So I flew from Berlin, he from SF, and we met in NYC, where we got a great apartment in Williamsburg on the waterfront when it was kind of sketchy but really cool. I still live there and I love it.
TR: What were your first years like in New York?
DN: Oh, well, I was boyfriends with that kid from Edge of Seventeen, Anderson Gaybrych, and he, Justin and I lived together. And I was temping, waiting tables, basically hating my life as an unemployed actor. So I gave it up and decided to produce, and there was this whole underground neo-burlesque movement with Dirty Martini, World Famous Bob, and tons of other crazy talented artists and I loved it. Austin Scarlett from Project Runway was my first go go boy. So I started doing gay parties that were dirty, but had a unique element of performance. And then Nina Hagen's manager came up to me and said she wanted to come to NYC and perform, so I produced a big ass concert at Webster Hall, which led to me to opening the Slide on the Bowery and that is where I really cut my teeth -- three parties a week for three years -- no idea was too dumb or small.
TR: Describe a couple of memorable nights while working at The Slide.
DN: Once, I was trying to book the Dazzle Dancers, and they wouldn't respond to my calls, so I went online and found dancers and created an Asian group called the Razzle Rancers -- they rehearsed all day and did this ridiculous performance at the Slide on a Friday. The Dazzles heard about it and showed up - it was stupid good fun. People had time then - they could focus because cell phones weren't around and everybody wasn't texting and constantly distracted. It seems, now, like innocent times. I had guys go go dancing for me then that are now huge pop stars, and Tony winners. So much talent was in those walls. That's when I met Alan Cumming -- I had gone to see him in Cabaret on Broadway and then he ended up coming to my parties at The Slide. On Fridays, I had a party called Queen Sized and Taylor Mac was a flyer boy for it -- then he just started hosting and his career as an artist took off.
TR: Did you have a philosophy in creating your events?
DN: There was this whole period when certain clubs were around that the door people were just nasty. And people got upset. I always believe that after a long work week, people want to go out and be greeted by someone kind, with an attitude like "we want you" and not cunty -- I feel that service has really served me well. I always have sweet people working for me. And I believe in alchemy -- you can see Liza or you can see Alan, but what happens when you put them together on a stage? Magic. Suddenly you have two old friends laughing, singing and something special happens. It's about the mix.
TR: Many promoters fall down the rabbit hole of addiction and nightlife burnout. Any experience with that?
DN: Lorne Michael said: "every successful person loses their first fortune" and I sure did. I could bore you with hours of stories that are all cliche, and they were fun. World Famous BOB calls it the "nightlife flu" -- when you do all kinds of things to keep going and just get burnt out. I made a lot of money, bought my first house in New Orleans -- my favorite city -- and then Katrina happened. I lost everything and nearly got stranded in New Orleans with no way out. At the same time, I got hit with the "flu." It was an awful time, and I wouldn't change any of it for the world. But I learned deep lessons being there, to keep going, to be ethical and apologize when you're wrong, and to try and do your absolute best. And I did all of that. And then after cleaning up my act, the tide started to turn. I realized that nightlife is a business. I have to steer the ship or otherwise we go way off course. And now I am the captain.
TR: Your biggest coup while working for Playgirl had to be getting Levi Johnston, but wasn't there more to it than that?
I've always been a huge fan of the Anita Bryant pie-in-the-face moment. It's truly one of the greatest moments in gay history, because it was actually so harmless, yet so effective. I really disliked Sarah Palin, and thought of her as not only dumb as a post, but actually dangerous for our country. Her getting into office effectively would dumb down the country more. So I decided to go after Levi because he's hot, and because it's a modern day pie-in-the-face moment for Sarah Palin. And I'm very proud to say that I chose to hold his shoot on the same day as Palin being on Oprah -- the reason was twofold: to get Oprah to say "Playgirl," and to take the wind out of Palin's sails. It was a thrilling day -- besides having a laugh with Levi (he's a sweet guy) I also tweeted about the day, and CNN kept running my tweets on the news scroll -- it had the exact effect I had intended. Palin had been punked, Oprah said "Playgirl," and I got to see Levi's cock.
TR: What were your first performance events?
DN: Nina was the first, then I brought Pam Ann over from England -- since then I've had the great fortune to work with my favorites: Margaret Cho, Peaches, Sandra Bernhard, Lea Delaria, Liza, Alan. Justin Bond, and of course next week Liza and Alan at Town Hall. I've had colossal failures as well. Not many, thank god, but they are in there. Thank god I blacked out for most of them! LOL.
TR: What inspired the Icon Series on Fire Island?
DN: There's a lot of emphasis in marketing, and nightlife on getting the hot 22-year-old. I see that everywhere. On Fire Island, I realized, who's giving something to the hot 40-year-old with money? Or the 50- or 60-year-old? So I created something more adult, with the absolute best people I could get. And it worked. The guys out there came out in droves for the series. It was a singularly inspiring moment for me, because I literally created a series out of nothing.
TR: Have you booked the line-up for 2013?
DN: How does Chita Rivera, Margaret Cho, Lorna Luft, Lynda Carter, Bruce Villanch, John Waters, and Dina Martina sound? And there are is another major film and stage icon I'm waiting to confirm that will blow the queens away. It's such a huge name and I'm giddy about announcing it.
TR: Was there any hesitation in Liza's camp about working with you because of your scandalous bad boy nightclub and Playgirl reputation?
DN: Nah, they are so cool it's bonkers. They care about the most important thing -- does he keep his word? Does he show up? Is he good at what he does? And I think they like that I'm fun to work with. And we all have a past -- we've all done stuff that's just as scandalous as Daniel Nardicio. The people in this business aren't exactly saints, you know.
TR: You can tell from the pictures on Fire Island that Liza and Alan have a palpable affection for each other. It's not something you see very often.
DN: This concert is definitely about their friendship and now my friendship with them. You can feel the alchemy between them. Their performance in Cherry Grove was incredible not only because it was them, but because it was also literally a hundred degrees in the club and it just didn't matter. They were having so much fun with each other and the audience that the heat wasn't a factor. It was two friends loving their experience together and as a result, everyone felt it. It was magical for anyone who was there. There's no other way to describe it.
TR: Town Hall is a huge leap from Cherry Grove. What does it mean for you personally and professionally?
DN: I would like to say I have a lot riding on this show, but it's sold so well I'm golden, so money isn't the issue. And Alan And Liza are really going to give a damn good show - I was surprised at all the new material. They could've just done the Fire Island show again and people would have been happy, but they are really bringing their best. I'm so excited. There are moments however, when I'm crossing the street, or on the subway, when I say to myself: you are working with Liza Minnelli. Its different with Alan because I've known him for years, and we're tight, but Liza Minnelli? I'm just this kid from Cleveland Ohio. I've had a few moments late at night when I'm alone and I get very scared, and I'd think: what if it all goes wrong? But the reality is, I've already done two spectacular shows with Liza and Alan, and then I calm myself down by remembering: we're all just kids from Cleveland Ohio. The only thing I'm a little nervous about is whether or not to add a second night. The first night is sold out, but adding another night is risky and I have to decide today.
TR: What will you be working on in a year?
DN: On the nightclub front, since I've been named "the king of the underwear party." I'm taking that and expanding that and touring with it, and making it much bigger. Like I did last week with my party at Rebel, I think: what would a huge underwear circuit party look like? On the more highbrow note, I just met with Chita Rivera's people and it looks like we'll be doing something soon, and there's a whole lot of people I'm dying to work with such as Dolly Parton. I make lists all the time. I'm plowing through that list, approaching people, figuring out ways to utilize amazing talents in different ways -- the alchemy as it were. And I hope to be touring some with Liza and Alan, because this show is just too good to not take to other places. So, to put it succinctly: one year from now I'd like to be in a hotel room somewhere on tour with Liza and Alan while planning my next big underwear party when the phone rings and it's Chita or Dolly. And that is enough for this kid from Ohio to hope for.
As we leave the theater and head to the subway, Daniel spots a small shiny object partially buried in the black snow on the sidewalk. It's a metal charm that says "Try." He picks it up and shows it to me and he is beaming. "See? This is the sign I've been looking for. The universe just gave it to me. I'm adding a second night. I just have to try or I'll regret it."
The second night was added and is now nearly sold out.