by Matt Kalkhoff

Did you miss White Party this year? Staying home New Year’s Eve? Skipping Blue Ball in January? Well, don’t lose any sleep over it because when you get the urge to attend your next circuit party, you’ll be able to find one somewhere in the United States just about any given weekend. With so many party weekends competing for relatively few bodies, along with that infamous disposable income the media insists every gay consumer has so much of, promoters and event producers constantly strive to outdo each other.

This competition has resulted in the creation of some of the most amazing, outrageous, and over-the-top dance events that consistently impress even the most discerning partier. For the past six years, one such party in sunny South Florida has sent more satisfied boys and girls home with great big smiles on their faces than just about any other, all the while cementing its reputation around the world as one of the biggest and best. I am, of course, referring to Winter Party.

Northern Roots, Southern Causes

In August of 1993, a small group of Miami Beach residents left the Morning Party on Fire Island with a great idea. This idea, spearheaded by Stewart Stein and Jeffrey Morris, was to throw a similar event in South Beach during the winter. The timing was perfect, as the gay community in Florida was in the midst of preparing for a very tough statewide battle with the powerful American Family Association (AFA). The AFA was attempting to place a referendum on the upcoming election’s ballot that would effectively prevent any municipality or county in the State of Florida from legislating equal protection for anyone based on sexual orientation. (A similar measure had recently passed in Colorado.) Obviously a battle of this size was going to cost a lot of money, and much of the State was looking to Dade County to bankroll the fight.

Stein, who had become quite active in the local political scene, convinced his friends to take advantage of the sand, sea, and beautiful winter weather so plentiful in their hometown to throw a huge beach party of their own to help raise money for this important cause. Stein, Dennis Leyva, Ignacio Martinez-Ybor, and Clark Reynolds called upon their many friends from Fire Island to help them plan this massive event. Because of the financial support they drew from corporate sponsors like Seagrams, Out, HX, and Coors, plus generous donations from their friends, the entire party was basically privately underwritten. This allowed almost 100% of the proceeds to be used directly to help fund the fight against the anti-gay state-wide referendum.

On February 13, 1994, the very first Winter Party took place just a few feet from the crystal blue ocean under beautifully sunny skies and giant pink palm trees. Music was courtesy of circuit legend Buc, and Harry Bader provided his creative talents to design the open-air dance club on the sand. More than 1,000 people showed up (many more than expected), and over $68,000 was raised. The organizers were reveling in the success of the party when something very unexpected happened -- the Supreme Court of Florida declared the verbiage of the AFA’s referendum unconstitutional, and the referendum was promptly dismissed. (The United States Supreme Court later declared the Colorado measure unconstitutional, too.)

Even though there was no longer a referendum to fight, the Winter Party Committee still gave the $68,000 to S.A.V.E. (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone), the non-profit organization created to fight the referendum. Now, however, the money could be used in more proactive ways, such as hiring an executive director so that S.A.V.E. could function as an all-purpose political action committee serving the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community in Dade County.

A Foundation Takes Root and Grows

After the incredible success of the first Winter Party, corporate sponsors and local supporters started pressuring the group to throw another party the following year. Since it was such an effective and fun way to raise money for their community, Leyva, Martinez-Ybor, Reynolds, Stein, and others decided to do it all again, but this time they would form a structured foundation so that they could make the grants to various non-AIDS-related GLBT organizations throughout Dade County. They enlisted the advice of the Stonewall Community Foundation’s founder, Jim Pepper, among others, to establish the Dade Human Rights Foundation (DHRF).

DHRF was formed just in time to take advantage of a grant from the National Gay & Lesbian Funding Partnership (NGLFP). NGLFP was looking to form partnerships with local community foundations in 10 cities across the United States wherein they would match dollar-for-dollar all money raised by each foundation over a two-year period. In Miami, the prominent Dade Community Foundation had been selected, and it agreed to work with DHRF. The Winter Party Committee and DHRF were ecstatic and empowered by this unique opportunity not only to raise money locally for their community, but also to match a contribution from a prominent national organization.

And that was just the beginning. In it’s relatively short life, DHRF grants have been critical to the growth and flowering of the Miami-Dade GLBT community. Project YES, SAVEDade, Miami Pride, the film festival – these and an array of other diverse community projects can attribute their inception, projects, and services to money raised from dance floor boys. In the last couple of years, DHRF has grown into the third largest organization of its kind in the country. It has also diversified its funding sources, but Winter Party Weekend is still the largest source of grant moneys that benefit the entire spectrum of our community.

DHRF has grown into a rather complex organism over the years, but the basic concept of the Winter Party itself has pretty much remained the same – to throw a giant dance party on the beach in the middle of winter. DHRF then adds the proceeds to its budget, which has included grants to dozens of GLBT community organizations over its short life. By 1997, the volunteer structure of DHRF and Winter Party was starting to get overwhelmed. What started out essentially as a family organization had grown into a serious business, and the DHRF Board realized it had to hire an executive director to run the operation. Clark Reynolds resigned from the Board of Directors and was hired as Executive Director. Other paid positions would follow down the road, but for now the Board had the focus it needed to continue its operations.

Partying On

Mother Nature’s invitation to the third Winter Party must have gotten lost in the mail, because in 1996 the party was held under rainy skies and cool temperatures. The turn-out was still impressive, and most people’s spirits seemed to avoid dampening, but the Committee feared that the bad weather would negatively affect attendance in 1997. Despite these concerns, they went ahead with plans to expand Winter Party to a full-scale circuit weekend by scheduling several other events to take place throughout the weekend.

The added events were successful, and Winter Party established itself as a major national event. Barton G, who had created the décor the year before, returned in March 1997 to create another tropical wonderland on the beach, while DJ Buc resumed his place at the head of the turntables for the fourth time. Thanks to additional advertising and good word-of-mouth, the party was growing quickly and gaining much national exposure, but even more dramatic changes were just around the corner.

In 1998, New York DJ Julian Marsh was hired to fill Buc’s shoes at the helm of Winter Party, while many internal changes were taking place within the Committee. Dennis Leyva had decided he liked attending Winter Party more than organizing it, so he redirected his efforts to the DHRF Grants Committee. Stewart Stein resigned from the Committee and DHRF Board after four years, but Reynolds and the band of dedicated volunteers that had grown up over the years kept the Winter Party going.

An Integrated 1999 Weekend

The 1998 Winter Party organization had been plagued by a variety of problems, not the least of which were declining attendance and revenues. After serving on the Committee for the 1997 and 1998 Winter Parties, Steve Baird (who edits this magazine) was asked to join DHRF’s Board of Directors and to chair the 1999 Winter Party Committee. Baird accepted this challenge and presented his idea of DHRF’s "ownership" of Winter Party Weekend to the Board. He then designed and, with the help of DHRF’s staff, implemented many changes in the operation of Winter Party. Among their projects were expanding the volunteer base, early venue selections and agreements, an aggressive advertising campaign with a focus on national and international marketing, a stellar line-up of turntable talent the circuit had never seen before, a national host committee for the opening night party, the first up-and-coming DJ showcase on the circuit, and, most importantly, ownership of the weekend’s events by DHRF.

While the Winter Party organization had always done the advertising and promotion of the weekend, local clubs had been producing and benefiting most from the surrounding events in past years. Baird and the Committee believed it was time for DHRF (and thus the community) to reap more fully the benefits of the weekend they had created and nurtured. This, however, required taking more risks by producing most of the events themselves and the remainder in partnership with clubs. It worked. Not only did attendance substantially increase in 1999, but Winter Party Weekend netted over $215,000 for DHRF, more than double the previous year’s earnings. Of course, Baird did not do this alone. He was joined by an incredible network of scores of other dedicated volunteers, including DHRF board members Eric Salas, Bob Cole, Darrell Burks, Richard Wood, Jeffrey McDonel, Elkin Zapata, and Cyril Cohen, as well as Executive Director Clark Reynolds, independent producer Lily Majjul, bar manager Digby Liebovitz and new DHRF staff members Arnie Smith and Craig Smith.

In case you missed it, DJs Tony Moran and St. Peter opened the 1999 Weekend at the nationally hosted Thursday night party at Shadow Lounge, which received rave reviews. Friday saw a retro tea dance at Score and Peter Rauhofer’s U.S. circuit debut at Warsaw. On Saturday night, Billy Carroll and Abel performed in two official venues, while superstar Bette Midler headlined the weekend at Salvation. At Sunday’s beach party, a record crowd saw the return of DJ Julian Marsh under beautifully sunny skies and surrounded by shiny pink mylar designs blowing in the gentle warm breeze. After a T-Dance with Monty Q, Neil Lewis took the crowd into the night with a sizzling Tom of Finland party. Monday’s First Annual DJ Showcase was the sleeper hit of the event. DJs Marsh and Moran also joined forces with Centaur Music to remix the critically acclaimed (second) Winter Party CD. According to the latest Circuit Noize, Winter Party Weekend now ranks in the very top rung of the many "circuit" events.

Into the Millennium – Winter Party 2000

With the size and complexity of Winter Party having outgrown its purely volunteer roots, DHRF decided to professionalize the structure of its organization, which is now led by Craig Smith, DHRF’s full-time project director. Baird continues to serve on the DHRF Board and its Winter Party Committee in a less active role. On the volunteer side, Joe Guerrero has stepped up to serve as volunteer coordinator. Dennis Leyva has returned to a more active volunteer role this year, putting together a deal for Winter Party’s first host hotel, the Surfcomber. In keeping with their mission to raise grant monies for our community, Smith and DHRF Board member Steve Levin are spearheading a corporate sponsorship effort that promises to support an even more successful Winter Party Weekend 2000, to be held in South Beach from March 2 through 6.

Winter Party Weekend 2000 again boasts an amazing line-up of DJs. You can hear Victor Calderone, David Knapp, Neil Lewis, Manny Lehman, and the return of Peter Rauhofer after successes up and down the coast, including an acclaimed performance at Black & Blue in Montreal. The parties will take place in some of the hottest nightclubs in the world, including the new Crobar @ Cameo, the renewed Level at 1235, and Amnesia. Local hero Monty Q takes over the turntables at the weekend’s namesake event, the first local DJ in the party’s history. We hear some great performances are planned for the weekend, too. In any event, attendees can once again look forward to frolicking on the beach with thousands of the most beautiful men in the world, while participating in this extraordinary community-building dance party extravaganza.

If you would like to volunteer during the weekend, please e-mail Joe Guerrero at miajoeg@aol.com. If you would like to get involved with DHRF’s Winter Party Weekend in any other way, please call Craig Smith at (305) 572-1841 or e-mail him at csmith@dhrf.com. Your community needs you, and it’s fun.

© 2000 Matt Kalkhoff

This article first appeared in Miamigo's December 1999 issue.