The Weiss brothers have been part of the Philadelphia scene for quite some time. The terrific twosome, Michael and Billy, have shaped the look and feel of Philly nightlife for most of us. I was a coat-check gal myself many moons ago in what was then the 2-4 Club (back when I could stay up past 2 a.m.). The 2-4 Club became Pure and is now called Voyeur, to go along with its hot new interior and attitude. Promoter extraordinaire Noel Zayas put me in touch with notoriously low-profile proprietor Michael Weiss for a chat about family, cars and bars.
PGN: Where does your family come from? MW: We’re fourth-generation Philadelphians, but there’s sort of a debate about where we originally came from. I tried to corner my grandparents about it, but they’re in their 90s and they started arguing among themselves about it, so I never got a clear answer. The best I can figure, on my father’s side we’re from the Ukraine in Kiev and on my mother’s side from Krakow, Poland.
PGN: How many kids in the family? MW: Three: I have an older sister, Sue, and a younger brother, Bill.
PGN: What did you like to do as a kid? MW: I rode my bike a lot and played with cars. I didn’t get into sports and never really had a hobby. I still don’t!
PGN: What did your parents do? MW: My father drove a truck for Coca-Cola and my mother was a waitress.
PGN: So did she influence you and your brother to get into the hospitality business? MW: No, actually it was my father. During the time when comedy clubs were really big, before HBO, my father was a comic and he had a part ownership in a club. I worked for him and his business partners. When they spilt up, I actually went with one of the partners to work. [Laughs.] His club was bigger and I got to manage there.
PGN: Which clubs were they? MW: I managed the Comedy Works on Chestnut Street and my father owned Going Bananas on South Street.
PGN: The last guy I ever dated was a comedian, Tom Wilson. MW: Yeah, I know Tom. He’s a great guy. So he ruined it for you!
PGN: Yeah, maybe I should have tried harder to be hetero. He went on to star in all the “Back to the Future” movies and he’s in a new film, “The Informant,” with Matt Damon. MW: We had a lot of people come through there that are big stars now. It’s interesting, though, because when you worked with them live, you saw them on a different level. There were some people that even though you’d see their act over and over, they’d still make you laugh every time and you’d think, this person is really going to make it big, and they never really crossed over. And then you’d have someone who was only so-so on stage and now they are big stars.
PGN: It must be fun to see people come into their own. MW: Definitely. We had two guys who went to California trying to make it and when I went to visit them the first time, they were telling me how tough it was making the rent, which was about $2,000 a month. Then they got jobs as writers on “Roseanne” and, the next time I visited, they were talking about how hard it was to make the $20,000 a month payment on their mortgages!
PGN: The myth is that comedians in person are miserable, insecure people. Do you find that to be true? MW: For some of them, but for the most part I’ve found that they are what they seem to be on stage. Jay Leno was exactly like he is on TV. He was a really nice guy and, when I rode with him from the airport, all he wanted to do was talk about cars. Rosie O’Donnell was the same on stage and off. The surprising ones were Jerry Seinfeld and Eddie Murphy. Jerry was very quiet and Eddie was the most antisocial of them all.
PGN: Were you always in the nightclub industry? MW: No. I worked in the car business for quite a while. I started selling Datsuns, which were eventually phased out by Nissan. I started out as a salesperson, then rose to business manager then vice president and later went to Kansas City and bought my own Toyota dealership.
PGN: So what do you drive? MW: I have a couple of cars. I have a Honda Accord here, in San Diego I have a Lexus SC430 and ... what else do I have? Oh yeah, a Mercedes S500 and a few others I think.
PGN: I’ll have to tease you for being like John McCain, who couldn’t remember how many houses he had! MW: [Laughs.] No! You have to understand that being in the car business for so long, I got really good deals on them. I was able to purchase vehicles cheap enough that they’re actually still worth what I originally paid for them.
PGN: So tell me about the new opening. MW: Well, it’s still the same place. I think that a lot of people don’t realize that the club is actually called the Mayfield Social Club. But I don’t think people would be flocking to join under that name, so we use trading names that reflect the character of the club. When it was the 2-4 Club, a lot of people thought it was called that because we were open between 2 and 4, but it actually stood for the 24th Ward Young Men’s Association. Around 2000, it became the Mayfield Social Club and we started calling it Pure. Now we’ve added a lot of visual components, so we are calling it Voyeur.
PGN: So did you own it when it was 2-4? MW: I was the president for a little while back then. It’s a private club, so there’s not an owner per se. We have a board with several members and, right now, I’m the president of it again. I’m not there all the time, so our vice president, Tre Rios, manages the club. My brother and I own the building, though.
PGN: And your brother is involved? MW: Yes, he does a lot of the promos: He runs events on occasion and he does most of the decorating. [Laughs.] He’s the gayest straight man I know. One time, we were on vacation going out to a nightclub and my brother said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re not going out wearing that, are you?’ I tend to dress like a typical “straight” guy. I said, “Hang on, you’re the straight brother, why do you care how I look?” I don’t have the gay decorating/designing flair but he does.
PGN: What’s a crazy incident from life at the bar? MW: We had a place in Manayunk and one of the employees went out to run a quick errand. When he came back, he drove up with the doors of his car missing and he was riding on the rims because he had no tires. The doors were sitting in the back seat of the car. I never found out what happened.
PGN: What’s one of the difficult parts of running a club? MW: For the most part, the customers are great, but sometimes you get someone who is just looking for trouble. They’ll start a fight and when the doorman tries to intercede, they’ll take a swing at him, and then when the door person tries to stop them from punching him, they want to sue us for assault. They’ll act like they were an innocent bystander and like we have nothing better to do than jump one customer, out of everyone there, for no good reason. And that’s not a gay thing — that’s in any of the clubs we have straight, gay or whatever. In fact, I think the straight clubs are harder to control. We have other issues in the gay clubs. One thing I don’t understand, not so much in Philly, but in other cities, we have problems when we try to do things with women. Not all, but some of the men get upset when we try to have it more balanced. We try to do our best to welcome and treat the women with respect and some of the men get resentful. I had one person talk about a club in Hollywood that started a ladies’ night: The men were boycotting and said that the owner should start charging the women more so that they would stop coming. I told him that not only was that unfair, it was also illegal. I hate that stuff: It seems to me that as a minority already, we should learn to be more open to each other. Fortunately, the younger generation seems to be more accepting, the gay boys are more comfortable hanging out with lesbians and vice versa and even the straight kids are more comfortable hanging out with gay people.
PGN: What issues concern you? MW: I think that one of the disappointing issues is the whole gay-marriage thing. I personally think that we should have two separate entities. Marriage should be something for the churches and domestic partnerships should be set up by the government — not just for gay people but for the joining of any two people, a true separation of church and state. That way, the state would have an obligation to recognize us. I think if we get away from the marriage word, we’d be better off legally. People won’t be able to bring up the religious objections if it wasn’t a religious entity anymore, if the state sanctioned the joining of any two people as DP [domestic partners]. I mean, we pay the same taxes that straight people do. Most of us don’t have kids, but we still pay taxes for schools, we don’t get a notice at the end of year saying, “Are you gay? If yes, deduct $10,000.” We need a way to get the rights we deserve. The Prop. 8 situation was one of the most disappointing acts I’ve ever seen committed by society against our community in a long time. It was very hurtful.
PGN: On a different note, any hobbies? MW: Not really; I’ve always been a workaholic. We currently have clubs both here and in San Diego. I’m the chair for the Pennsylvania Real Estate Commission and vice chair of the Police Advisory Commission, so I have a pretty full agenda. One thing I’d really like to do is encourage members of the LGBT community to use the advisory commission. A lot of people don’t know that it’s there for them. If you’ve had any issues with members of the police that you believe are related to you being LGBT, you can call and talk to someone from the community without fear of retribution from the police. We’re there to help. We give trainings to new recruits and work to sensitize police to the needs of the community. There’s also an LGBT liaison to the police commissioner who can help too.
PGN: How old were you when you came out? MW: I was actually outed by one of my father’s employees. I wasn’t out to my family yet, but I wasn’t exactly in. I wasn’t running around screaming, “Hey, I’m gay!” but I never would have denied it. It was around the end of high school when they found out and, surprisingly, my father, who was the truck driver, was fine with it. My mother was upset in the beginning, but now she hangs out with my boyfriend and even some of my ex-boyfriends! I’ve been lucky that I’ve never felt discriminated against because of being gay except for one time in the car business, when I was passed over twice for a promotion. One of the partners found out and insisted that I be given the promotion, but that was the only time I had anything negative happen.
PGN: You seem to be a bit of a mysterious figure. Why is that? MW: I think that’s a common misconception, I guess because I keep a low profile. It’s kind of funny: I’ll be at the front desk and people will tell me that they’re going to tell Michael Weiss on me because I wouldn’t do this or that for them. I say to them, “You should definitely tell him, I have a few things to say to him myself!” People know my name, but they don’t know me. I’ve been at parties where people will be talking like they know me and I’m like, “I’m me!” It’s funny, but it can be helpful too. At one point when we owned Woody’s, Bump and Pure, there were so many rumors going around, that it helped me to hear what people were saying so that I could correct it. They were saying that the clubs were straight-owned and that we didn’t care or give back to the community. The truth is that we do, but we just don’t choose to advertise what we do. We give a lot to the Mazzoni Center — in fact, we sponsored a room there — as well as giving to MANNA, Equality Forum and Equality Advocates and most of the LGBT nonprofits in the city. I just don’t usually like to talk about it. Someone who I really admire in that vein is Mel Heifitz. He doesn’t like to toot his own horn, but he gives a lot back to the community, a lot. He knows what’s going on, he puts his money where his mouth is. I take my hat off to him.
PGN: What other issues are important to you? MW: Well, I’m pretty politically involved. I was previously the treasurer of the Liberty City Democrats, because I think it’s really important for the gay community to realize that the people that we elect are the ones who create the laws. If we want to get things changed, we need to be a part of the process. If we don’t read about who it is we’re electing and know where they stand, we stand the chance of having laws passed that are against what we believe in or how we live. Votes go through all the time without notice, and suddenly you’re going, “Whoa, what is this, when did this pass?” and then it’s too late. We can always go back and try to change things, but it’s much easier if we are involved from the start by electing people who will look after our interests.