Family Portraits: Dan Contarino

Impresario [from Italian, literally: one who undertakes; see “impresa”]: A sponsor who books and stages public entertainments, promoter, showman. They’re all apt descriptions of Philly’s own impresario, Dan Contarino. (The thesaurus also lists “exhibitioner, shower, organ-grinder and pornographer” as synonyms, but we’ll skip those for now …)

Contarino was the mastermind behind Shampoo Nightclub’s Shaft Friday parties and, over the last couple decades, has created close to 1,000 events and raised over a quarter-million dollars for charity. And, at 42, he still turns heads with his supermodel looks.

PGN: Where are you originally from? DC: I was adopted when I was an infant and grew up on a 100-acre farm in Mullica Hill, N.J. My parents sent me to a very small Catholic school for grade and high school. I only had 74 people in my graduating class and only about 300 in the whole school.

PGN: When did you learn that you were adopted? DC: I knew all along growing up. I recently found part of my birth family and just met my mother and my grandmother for the first time. It’s funny: With my adopted family, both my mom and my dad had large families, seven brothers and sisters on each side. My mom lost two children in pregnancy before the third survived. When my brother was in high school, they wanted more kids so they adopted my older sister and me. We’re not biologically related. Most of my adopted family — parents, aunts, uncles — are all a generation older than me, so I’ve been the youngest for a long time. Now I found out that I’m the oldest of three brothers! About a year ago, I met my younger brother, who’s about six years younger than me. We look identical! He and his wife came up to visit and a lot of my friends got to meet him. It was very surreal. And there’s a second brother we haven’t met yet.

PGN: So what was life like on the farm? DC: [Laughs.] It wasn’t much of a life! I baled hay after school and all summer long.

PGN: What did they grow? DC: At first it was a lot of soybean and barley but, in the ’70s, the prices fell off and they switched to straw and hay. We supplied feed to a lot of the horse-racing farms in the area. My mom also had antique shops in Mullica Hill.

PGN: Any animals? DC: When I was a baby they did, but growing up it was all Siamese cats and poodles.

PGN: [Laughs.] Well, no wonder you’re gay! How did you get off the farm? DC: After I graduated high school, I had a scholarship to the University of Delaware, but I was going through some rough times. This was in 1986 and things weren’t as open as they are now. I decided to take a year off before college and I moved to Atlantic City. At that time the gay scene wasn’t great there, but it was growing. I was only 18, but I got a job at the Tropicana, so most of the people I hung with were in their 30s. Unfortunately, it was also the height of the AIDS epidemic and I lost a lot of friends. Sometimes it feels as if my past is gone. I must have buried over 20 friends over the years. But despite that, it was a great time and, thank God, I’ve still been negative after all these years.

PGN:How did you come out? DC: I guess I was always out, but it’s hard to define. I was molested over a period of time starting when I was 6. It was difficult because people didn’t believe me.

PGN: I saw Todd Bridges on “Oprah” and he also spoke about being abused. He said that it wasn’t the abuse that sent him into a tailspin, it was the fact that when he told his father, his dad called him a liar. DC: Yeah, it caused a real rift in the family because half of them believed me and the other half didn’t. For years, I felt guilty because I thought that I’d been the cause of the family breaking apart. I guess the good thing that came out of it is that I’m a “Gold-Star Gay,” because I’ve never slept with a woman!

PGN: What was your first job? DC: I was a valet driver at Tropicana. Then I started working at the brasserie in the casino. One of my best friends was doing marketing for John Schultz, who owned Studio Six and the Brass Rail. My friend used to get me in even though I was underage and I got to hang out with people like Joan Rivers, Dom DeLuise and Peter Allen. Jade Starling was one of my good friends and her song, “Catch Me I’m Falling,” was a big hit. I would go to see her and Divine and a bunch of others perform live at Studio Six and it got me hooked on the club scene. That was phase one. After that, I moved to Philadelphia and worked at a couple of restaurants. A few friends of mine who lived in Ft. Lauderdale invited me to spend my 21st birthday there. I loved it and, a week later, I packed my Hyundai and moved to Florida. I got a job modeling and bartended at the Copa while running a car-detailing business on the side. I also did some veejaying at the Cathode Ray Club, which was really hot back then. At the time, South Beach was just starting to take off and I started bartending and then throwing events at the Warsaw Ballroom and the Torpedo Bar. That was around 1991 and it was the beginning of my career in promotions.

PGN: Tell me about North Beach. I remember the sand at the opening party! DC: When I came back to Philly, there was a place on Delaware Avenue called The Beach Club that, believe it or not, is sitting under where the SugarHouse casino is now. We had big plans and a full schedule of events to make it “the” gay place to go in the summer and called it “North Beach.” We had a big grand opening and, two days later, they had to close down. Unbeknownst to us, part of the property was on the SugarHouse land, which was in bankruptcy court, and a federal judge closed the club while they sorted it out. It sat there with all the tables and bars, sound equipment and lighting for a couple of years. I had events scheduled with RuPaul and Grace Jones, and with Diane Lusk and the Ladies events, but it worked out OK for me because I was able to move them over to [Club] Egypt and I developed a good relationship with the owners there. When they later opened up Shampoo in 1998, I did the promotions for them and started the Shaft Fridays, which I think I’m most known for.

PGN: How great is Grace Jones? I met her a few times and was surprised at how sweet she was. She comes across in public as such a diva, but she was very kind. DC: She’s great. When I was at the Copa, I did stage security for her and we became friends. A funny story: When she was on tour with “The Wiz,” she called me because there was a presidential summit in town and she couldn’t get a room at the hotel she wanted until they left. She was staying across the street in the Embassy Suites and, as soon as a room opened up, she asked me to help her carry her bags over to the Four Seasons. It was my second week doing Shaft Fridays and she came over and made an appearance for me. She’s an amazing performer.

PGN: Before Gaga there was Grace! So what was the most extravagant party you did? DC: Philadelphia was the first leg of Madonna’s U.S. “Drowned World” tour and I did the kick-off party. It was a two-night event and we had about 7,000 people attend. We honored her career by turning Shampoo into a history of Madonna. The garden had a Jacuzzi with mermaids, one room was the “Sex” room, another was made to look like the church from “Like a Prayer” and I had a Dick Tracy-style cab. The Drowned World tour is when she did the country thing, so I had 1,200 bales of straw delivered to the club and two-dozen horses outside. We had multiple performances as well, Noel Zayas got the kids from UArts to do a vogue dance number, we had a gospel choir and we even had Madonna’s actual background singers perform live. Tracey Young, who does Madonna’s remixes and spun at her wedding to Guy Ritchie, was a guest DJ. It was a $120,000 production.

PGN: What was the most outrageous outfit you’ve worn? DC: Every Halloween, we’d have a “Go to Hell” party at Shampoo. One year, I decided to go in drag. I got a big witch’s hat and hot-glued four black boas around the rim and put on these big glasses. It was great, no one recognized me. When I pulled up at Shampoo, my security guard almost wouldn’t let me park because he didn’t know who I was.

PGN: What are you doing now? DC: I’m becoming a managing partner at Darling’s Diner at the Piazza. We’ve had a successful first year and we are going national with our famous cheesecakes soon. We’ve expanded our catering and we’re excited by our relationship with the SugarHouse casino. I still do club events: I’m doing the monthly Ultra Friday parties at Voyeur. We have DJ Eddie Baez down from New York, trivia in the lounge with Natasha from 9 p.m.-midnight, classic and house music with Lee Jones until 3 a.m. and hip-hop on the mezzanine. It’s a lot of fun.

PGN: Random questions. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? DC: Probably my temper. I’d like to learn to be more patient.

PGN: What do you do to relax? DC: I like to Rollerblade. I was going to the gym regularly, but I’ve let that slip. I need to get back with all of the cheesecakes around here. I’ve got to watch my figure you know!

PGN: What actor should play your life story? DC: If he were alive, I’d love it to be James Dean.

PGN: An artist you’re embarrassed to admit you like? DC: Eminem.

PGN: Worst tasting food? DC: Sushi. I can’t do raw fish. The best tasting food is stone crab claws. Love them.

PGN: How do you come up with ideas for event themes? DC: Believe it or not, I have boxes of tear sheets. I used to buy magazines from all around the world and, when I saw something that inspired me, or a good idea that someone else tried, I’d rip it out and file it. I’d spend about $100 a month on subscriptions. I’d have them filed under fashion, outrageous themes, crazy ideas, etc. I’ve been doing it for 15 years, so I have a lot of material to pull from.

PGN: Are you a pack rat or purger? DC: I’m a pack rat, borderline hoarder. I collect anything with James Dean, Marilyn Monroe or Madonna. It’s taken over my house.

PGN: An event from the past you wished you’d been able to attend? DC: The first Live Aid concert at JFK Stadium. Everyone was there, from Mick Jagger to the Beach Boys to Run DMC. Madonna was introduced by Bette Midler and performed three songs. I would love to have been there.

PGN: Earliest recollection you have of your mother/father? DC: My cousins used to pick on me because I was the runt of the group. One time I fell through the ice on the lake and no one helped me, they just walked back to the house. I remember my dad pulling me out of the water. That’s my first memory.

PGN: What gift do you hate getting? DC: Any of them: I’m not good at receiving gifts. I love to give presents, but I’m uncomfortable getting them.

PGN: And I would think you’re in a profession where people would give you stuff all the time. DC: [Laughs.] No, they all just want to be on the guest list and they want free drink tickets.

PGN: A profession that you’ve never pursued that you think you’d be good at? DC: A priest or a vet. I love animals. I have a Dogbook page on my Facebook account for my boxers Madonna and Lourdes (Maddie and Lola for short, mother and child). Unfortunately, I lost Maddie about two months ago. They were show dogs and used to perform at the clubs. I still have Lola.

PGN: You were born on Dec. 21. What’s the best thing about being a Christmastime baby? DC: My Carvel ice cream cake that I always get for my birthday.

PGN: What era do you wish you could live in? DC: I guess the late ‘20s, back when places like the Cotton Club were hot. It would be amazing to be there on a Friday night.

PGN: I love what I do because … DC: I love to make people happy. My goal is to give them a journey, so that it’s not just a night out, it’s an experience they can tell their grandkids about.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].