News Staff Reporter
THERE'S DANGER here. We're treading the edge. "Smile, dammit!" snarls one of the curiosities. A splay of ghoul-green teeth appears from poisonous nicotine vapor.
Tonight the urban-hip hang out at a "Human Petting Zoo" party. "Undress optional." It's the monthly F-Night event at the Crash club, presented by the big zookeeper himself, Tony Billoni.
The sharper the edge, the faster it dulls. The avant-garde has a ferocious appetite for strange sights, a hot beat and lion-cage thrills. Billoni feeds them. He stalks the cultural jungle, beating vicious foliage to flush the exotic prey. There's always something new, something different. He listens with an ear to the earth; a scent may send him off to SoHo.
The club is a pretty average-looking place when you first walk through the doors. Save for the name -- Crash -- and the huge, full-color fish that swims on the wall behind the bar.
Listen. It's the "Twin Peaks" theme, an ominous siren that beckons past the neon-number ceiling toward the bat-cave back hall.
Above the blackness of the stairwell, Tony Billoni floats, smiling. Is it a Nietzschean nightmare -- or Billoni's idea of fun?
Anyone with "Eraserhead" hair can't be all bad. Billoni keeps his black hair erect with various "kinds of exotic elixirs"; in his new club, he creates a surreal stage for the city's nightlife.
"The '90s are dead already," he declares. "They're starting to rehash the '70s. We might as well go right to 2000." Billoni should know. He catches the zeitgeist of young Buffalo with perfect pitch.
In his trademark black-frame glasses, the club and party impresario with the euphonious name is not at all a white-faced minion of the night. Robust and blustery, he has endless energy.
It might as well be the next century in Crash, on Virginia Place. Outside, a small sign modestly announces, "Drinks, pool and tunes." Inside, Gothic art student types get busy with James Spader and Sherilyn Fenn look-alikes. The crowd moves in a dreamy, slightly demonic two-story space.
"I want to bring back the feeling of 'The carnival is coming to town!,' " Billoni explains. Perhaps with a calliope borrowed from "Something Wicked This Way Comes."
"The best stuff comes from outside the boundaries," Billoni maintains. "I always think there's something more that can be done to pique people's curiosity. Something noticeably provocative. I'm always out looking."
In recent years Billoni has brought a piece of the downtown New York City club scene to Buffalo. Crash looks like a compact Palladium, with renegade art evoking Keith Haring and Andy Warhol.
Walls are festooned with tires, fenders and cracked glass, along with other smashing, side-swiping murals. Patrons chill out in "first class" lounge seats taken from the old 747 Club.
The powerful sound system can even be heard in the long, funhouse staircase. Billoni views the club as another project of his How to Have Fun Productions, an enterprise dedicated to staging exotic events in the Buffalo area.
Another Billoni creation, the Jam Club, im-ported Mondo New York denizen John Sex, a boa constrictor-toting lounge act parodist, who bolstered his high hair with a mixture of Aqua Net, Dippity-Do, Krazy Glue and semen. This camp singer's version of "That's Life": "I've been a hustler, a hooker, a honcho, a hero, a dyke and a queen."
Noticeably provocative. Hundreds of people were going downtown to be at the wildest place they had ever seen in Buffalo.
"Tony is fun," says Buffalo artist David Butler, recalling a mission the two of them went on, ripping into every single haunted house and attraction in Niagara Falls, Ont.
"We had an absolute riot. We went into everything from Ripley's Believe It or Not to the Elvis museum, which was probably a solemn moment for both of us.
"We have the same sense of humor, a tendency to be cynical, and have a bit of child in us, that's why we get along so well."
Area photographer Jim Bush describes Billoni as "refreshingly eccentric."
"Whenever I see him he's always full-speed-ahead. He never plans anything boring."
The head of performance art at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in the early '80s, Billoni was one of the first curators in the country to book shock artist Karen Finley, now a Jesse Helms target.
"You don't have to go to New York anymore to become famous," Billoni says.
"New York, which has always been looked on as the cutting-edge center for major trends, is in a valley now. Artists are getting pushed out. They can barely afford to live in the East Village."
His observations are not a case of sour apples. Remember, this is the man who brought the "Vampires of Capitalism" theme to his annual Artists & Models Affair, requesting "obsessive dress."
"With the whole idea of cable coming around, it's a lot easier to create from other areas. You don't have to go to major centers like New York or L.A.," he says. "The media culture is catching up to the idea of a true global village.
"We can produce our ideas here, maybe hit a larger market without even leaving Buffalo.
"What I do is less of bringing a New York thing to Buffalo, as opposed to bringing a more intense Buffalo feeling out. I really like the nature and atmosphere of this city." A resident of the city of no illusions, he refuses to promote the aggressively trendy "too-fabulous-for-you" attitude that has tainted Manhattan dance clubs. Not to say he doesn't attract "dudes with 'tudes."
His Crash club "F-Night" parties are themed after "whatever you can put after the letter F." That includes, on one invitation, "fantasy, feckless, fishnet . . . "
For the "Human Petting Zoo" we have live caged species on display like "Humanous T.V. addict," an ursine creature who is "relatively large from too much grazing." Then there's -- complete with her bathrobe and ironing board -- the American Breeder.
"Buffalo is a town that likes splashy events, but not every night of the week," Billoni says.
"The city's theater community is showing itself to be very strong. There could be a theater festival happening here, film festivals.
"Buffalo artists often operate without approvalof the masses. Hallwalls Gallery is possibly the most alternative art space in the country.
"Right alongside sports, the arts could be the next industry this town could live off of."
Spoken like a true Billoni. Tony, 32, is the youngest of Buffalo's fabled high-flying Billoni brothers.
These fraternal entrepreneurs are gifted with zeal and great ideas, albeit in a triptych of fields: arts, politics and sports. Mike Billoni, 35, is Buffalo Bisons vice president/general manager, the man who helped to sell Buffalo on minor-league baseball. Paul Billoni, 34, serves as a Village of Kenmore trustee and president of the family dry cleaners, Colvin Cleaners (started by their dad and his brothers).
"I'm proud to say I'm from Kenmore," says Billoni, who studied fine arts at Buffalo State College.
"An odd collection of people came out of Kenmore at the same time. We were creative, but we were also bored. In the late '70s all of a sudden this great music start happening, but none of it was happening in Buffalo.
"There wasn't much to do in the nightlife scene. None of us were interested in just hanging out in bars, although we definitely liked to have parties. We started inventing our own parties, and that's where a lot of my images came from."
Consider the concept of creation as an eternal wellspring. A river always flowing beneath us. Humanity stands, stranded by thirst. Billoni is a creative douser. He senses, searches and taps the fun river. He's a voyeur, reading WWD, his favorite publication, prowling Allentown at night. Always searching for a sign that the creative river is coming near the surface.
Kenmore, that picturesque village on Buffalo's north border, spawned some weird occurrences in the '80s. You'll certainly remember the demonic ritual in the abandoned grain mills, and then there were the John Justice murders.
Life, like art, is a matter of perspective: Tony Billoni described Kenmore life as boring. Another "Kenmore kid" musician friend described it as "stultifyingly boring."
Armed with these credentials, this man is sure to be . . . different. Today Billoni reads the paper in "stately Wayne Manor," the name he gives his home on Bidwell Avenue. He's always wanted to move in the downtown arena. Attracted by the "school of fish" crowds, he recalls downtown Buffalo in the '60s:
"When I was young I remember circling a large department store my mother was shopping in because my father couldn't find a parking space. There were crowds all over."
As a boy, bespectacled little Anthony "was a fanatical reader. He read everything," remembers older brother Mike.
"He always hated to conform, had a tough time with the grade school uniform. Even at a young age he was miles ahead of his time."
His vision for the year 2000 will start with First Night Buffalo 1991, organized by Western New York United Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
Running the "atmosphere" committee for the huge downtown New Year's Eve bash, which is alcohol-free, presents no irony for Buffalo's premier party planner, even though he runs a bar. "Just because you're in a business working in a bar doesn't mean you subscribe to people getting drunk. The whole idea of partying is not as strong as it used to be. There's a lot of negative feeling with what happened in the '80s, a lot of people burned out. We tell youth, just say no. But what do we do after we say no?"
He has a couple of ideas.
"New Year's Eve, come downtown and you'll see Artists & Models-style installations," he promises. "I'm pretty excited. We have assembled the most talented artists and performers in the Buffalo area." There will be dancers on roller skates, "neon-mechanical pieces, a number of videos, huge screen images."
This Czar of Atmosphere's definition of atmosphere: "anything that's more than you'd expect."
Crash! Fasten your visionary seat belts. Tony Billoni is planning a party.