To mark the 25th anniversary of White Party, I interviewed co-founder Jorge Suarez and event historian Bill Mathisen, who co-chaired the party a half-dozen times. Videographer Andrew Richardson recorded and edited the interview. (Photos included in the video courtesy of Suarez and Care Resource.)
Five years ago, for the 20th anniversary, I wrote a detailed report about White Party’s beginnings. Here is the Nov. 2004 article, illustrated with the original White Party poster designed by another one of the founders, former Miami artist Martin Kreloff, now living in California. (Poster courtesy of Kreloff’s partner, Tim Olsen)
Wednesday, November 24, 2004, The Miami Herald, Page 1A
White Party marking 20 years in AIDS fight
BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
As AIDS decimated their circle of friends in 1984, Frank Wager and Jorge Suarez began planning an event they hoped would raise awareness - and a few dollars - to help fight the virus in South Florida.
They dropped leaflets outside gay bars all over Miami-Dade and Broward counties, got businesses to donate food and liquor and told everyone about the big party at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami. Sixteen hundred guests, asked to wear white, showed up that Sunday night, Dec. 1, 1985. Each paid $10.
Saturday night, the big party at Vizcaya - now one of the best-known HIV/AIDS fundraisers on the gay party "circuit" - turns 20 and will host about 1,750 guests paying $150 to $225.
Suarez, now 53, will be there. Wager won't. He died at 42 of AIDS complications on June 7, 1994, five months before the 10th White Party.
"One thing Frank wanted to do was reach out to young people, to get out the message about safe sex, " said Barbara Shack, his widow. "And it turned into this fabulous party."
Through the years, White Party has attracted celebrities including Madonna, Calvin Klein, Nell Carter (who sang at the first White Party) and Lorna Luft. Saturday night, drag diva RuPaul performs.
The theme for White Party 2004 is "Universal Love: Heroes & Icons of the Revolution." Organizers encourage guests to dress as their favorites, such as Marie Antoinette, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.
"The pressure's on us that it has to be fabulous, " said Rick Siclari, executive director of Care Resource, Florida's largest HIV/AIDS service agency, which produces the White Party.
The one-night fundraiser has evolved into a week of events that kicks off tonight with events in Miami and Miami Beach. Most of the parties are geared to well-heeled gay men from all over the globe, but there are also several events for lesbians.
White Party's early years didn't get much mainstream publicity. "Miami in 1984 was a very different place than it is now, " Suarez said.
Most gays were still in the closet, and AIDS carried a great stigma. The Herald didn't report on the White Party until 1989, and then with a one-paragraph society item.
Wager, a Salvadoran-born real-estate entrepreneur, hadn't yet been diagnosed with HIV when he, Suarez, Shack and their friends planned the first White Party, which would benefit Health Crisis Network (now known as Care Resource). "There was a sense of urgency and a sense that we had to do something because this was happening to us, " Shack said.
She had to get rid of her personal phone book after many of her friends died. "I had to cross off 34 people, and it didn't stop then, " said Shack, 48, who now lives in Austin, Texas. She is the civic-activist daughter of Dade Community Foundation President Ruth Shack.
There were several smaller parties before the first Vizcaya event, the first a June 1985 fundraiser at Wager's Coconut Grove home.
For the first White Party, Miami-Dade County defrayed the Vizcaya rental costs and organizers persuaded local gay bars to donate the liquor.
"That's why the event was held on a Sunday night, because we wouldn't be taking away their clientele on Saturday night, " said Bill Mathisen, a Miami Realtor who chaired six White Parties and is the event's historian.
The original menu wasn't elaborate. "It's embarrassing to say that at the first White Party, we had apples and cookies that some committee member donated, " Suarez said. Everyone tried to outdo their friends by wearing lavish, often sexy, white outfits. Said Shack: "Who needed decorations? The people were the decorations."
By the second year, the White Party committee had established a $15,535 operating budget, including $500 for food. Ticket prices: $20.
White Party week now costs about $300,000 to put on, including about $21,000 to Miami-Dade County for use of Vizcaya. Care Resource expects to net $650,000 to $700,000.
Siclari began running Care Resource in 1998 after Health Crisis Network merged with another AIDS agency, Community Research Initiative. Then, the combined annual budget was $3.8 million. Now it's $6 million.
The number of young people still contracting HIV is what keeps Mathisen heavily involved in White Party.
"My whole mantra was AIDS awareness and to make everyone aware of what was happening, " Mathisen said. "I'm 50 years old. That's 100 percent older than my friends who died at 25."
Eric Mendez, a bioengineering student at Miami Dade College, was born in Miami the same year that Suarez and Wager began planning the first White Party.
On Saturday, Mendez, 20, will attend his first White Party event, White Starz, as a Care Resource volunteer. Since he's under 21, he can't attend as a guest.
Mendez began volunteering at Care Resource while a ninth-grader at Miami Senior High. Until then, he knew no one his age with HIV.
For Mendez, White Party is an optimistic celebration of life, not a remembrance of friends and lovers who died.
"It's more like gay men are getting together because it's Thanksgiving, " he said.