On Point With: SPUNK’s Daniel Tobey

Celebrating a decade of the City’s hottest gogo party they created while breathing new life into a classic venue they’re now co-managing, Daniel Tobey and his work-and-life partner Luis Gomez are an increasingly important force in post-lockdown NYC nightlife.

Thotyssey: Hey Dan, thanks for chatting with us today! Yay, it’s finally getting autumn-ish out there… did you and hubbie / business partner Luis Gomez get a chance to do fun summer stuff?

Daniel Tobey: We found time to escape on mini-vacations to the Pocono Mountains, and the Catskills, and a couple of trips upstate.

Sounds fun! Fortunately when it comes to your field, business can be as fun as vacation. Well, sometimes, at least! Pride Weekend at your home base Monster Bar must’ve been pretty wild, for one thing.

Indeed, this year we saw the return of the crowds celebrating Pride in the West Village. They definitely came out to play… the crowds were huge, inside and out.

Excellent! Now that you and Luis are also managing Monster, are you seeing in general that business is back to what it was pre-Covid?

Business has experienced a steady return to pre-Covid times. The Monster was among the first clubs to reopen when we hosted outside “dining” in several versions of our ever evolving patio — it went from makeshift tables, to tents, to the expanded structure it is today. We wanted our customers to have as normal an experience as possible, in not-at-all normal times. Looking back, it is mind-boggling to think of all the hoops we jumped through to make it here. Once the doors were opened, we followed very strict protocols so people could feel as protected as possible.

They have returned in droves and business is booming. The biggest change has been in closing times; the Monster never closed before 4am, even on weekdays… but the customers dictated that [earlier close]. Slowly but surely, they have returned to late night adventures in the village. The shows, the disco, SPUNK, the piano bar have all returned to pre-pandemic glory… and we’re thrilled to be back. When you go strong until 4am on a Monday or Tuesday, you know the good old days are back!

Let’s back track a bit… where are you from originally, and how did you discover and break into NYC nightlife?

I am originally from Seattle; Luis is from Guadalajara, Mexico. We met in 2007, when we both were living in Denver. In 2010, we moved to NYC together. When you’re new to any city, getting out and meeting people is essential to survival. Luis worked in nightlife as a gogo dancer, and I sought out all things musical theater by helping out with marketing for Ben Cameron’s “Broadway Sessions.” We both had different interests that turned us into creatures of the night in clubs and cabarets. Luis met many nightlife personalities, including Amanda Lepore and others, who helped put him on the nightlife map.

After a couple years, Luis was the one who envisioned his own party. I wasn’t very involved until almost 2012, when SPUNK had started to get some traction and he needed more help. Charlie Rice, owner of the Monster, was the first to give him a chance at his own gig.

[Men of SPUNK]

Was the SPUNK brand always about gorgeous dancing guys and great DJs?

Absolutely, but we also wanted a drag queen for comic relief… and for it to feel less like a strip club and more like a party for all.

These days Holly Dae is your primary SPUNK queen, but also rotating hostesses Bootsie LeFaris, Brenda Dharling, FiFi DuBois and Inita D also join in the fun. What are some other queens that were part of the party over the past decade?

Drag hosts have also included Honey Davenport, Sherry Vine, CoCo De’Ball, Prada G. Major, Trinity Beat, Olivia Lux, Ari Kiki, Kareem McJagger, Kendra H Kinx, Tammy Spanx, Pixie Aventura, Jasmin Van Wales, Skyla Versai, Jolina Jasmine, Jada Valenciaga, Egypt, Dusty Ray Bottoms, Tiffany Anne Coke, Clarice Hart, Candy Buttons, Novaczar and Cherry Poppins.

I have loved drag queens since my first days as a club kid in Vancouver, BC in the early 90’s. We think they are a vital element to our community’s identity, and always will be. Luis knew many queens from his days in Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta.

One great thing about SPUNK’s signature guys is that they represent a pretty diverse selection of sexy: many ethnicities, ages, body types and personal styles are represented. I’ve even noticed more gender fluid presenting SPUNKers recently. How do you find these men?

In the early days, we often had to recruit guys from out of the area. We would travel to Massachusetts, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and even Puerto Vallarta. Sometimes we’d cover airfare or travel expenses to get them to discover the party. After some time, the word was out and they started to contact us — when dancers make good tips, they talk. We started to get small caravans of dancers that would drive in from Philly and Springfield for the night or weekend. We’re lucky that we don’t have to spend as much time finding dancers now! Plus, the fact that we have been more inclusive with body styles and image has helped us. The Spunk website provides a steady flow of applicants nowadays.

A few years ago, the longtime manager of Monster got caught up in a controversial scandal about representation on show flyers a few years ago that culminated in Honey Davenport very publicly quitting a party she hosted there. After that guy left and his replacement eventually left, you and Luis — who’d been running SPUNK there to great success for years — became managers of the whole venue. How has that shift been for you, from running this one big party brand to running many aspects of a bar?

Charlie offered the position to us during a very difficult time of uncertainty at the beginning of the pandemic, and shortly after the incident with former manager. He knew how we operated our business, and that we had also maintained Spunk parties at Pieces, the Ice Palace and Fairytail Lounge (in conjunction with Adonis Lounge). At one point from 2016 through 2018, we were running nine events a week.

Although we did not have experience running a nightclub, we jumped head first at the opportunity to help make sure The Monster survived — and in turn, SPUNK. The learning curve was steep, but Charlie gave us full reign to create whatever we needed: staffing, shows, generous show budgets. We also had some fantastic veteran staff members that helped us learn the ropes. It was a group effort.

While we may have been at the helm, it truly took the work of so many people to get us back to where we are today… not to mention the incredible devotion of our loyal customers who supported us in every way possible, even lining up in heat and snowstorms to buy a drink while dodging an unknown virus.

Most of your stuff is obviously at Monster now, but the weekly SPUNK Sunday at Pieces with Holly is still going strong! What do you think makes that particular night different from what the Monster SPUNK parties?

Pieces, by virtue of its size, is more casual, more cabaret, and a bit more intimate. With the absence of dancing in the room, it relies on stage performances and connection to the audience. Holly Dae has helped keep us there for eight years now!

I’ve had the privilege of working with Monster’s team for Pride Week’s Bacardi Party and August’s Night of 1000 Thots, so I can attest to all the cool newer things happening now. In addition to SPUNK’s Thursday and Saturday recurances, Jada Valenciaga’s weekly musical revue “Curtains Up” has become a huge elaborate hit, Tiffany and Clarice have a fun Monday night, and the upstairs piano bar has gotten some development as well with bigger shows!

You never really know if something is going to work, so there is often trial and error. I firmly believe that you have to give shows an opportuity to grow, and with that you have to invest time and money. Fortunately Charlie has had a similar approach, and doesn’t pressure based on dollars earned and drinks sold, but ideas and potential. There’s no way to tell if a show is going to work after a week or two, so you have to feed them and be willing to direct a bit with honest criticism. When you hire talented people with similar approaches, it makes thing much easier. We’re proud of all the efforts and hours put into creating great entertainment. The piano bar is growing with a new generation of enthusiastic singers and players…and they are sitting right next to the guys that have been there for 30+ years. It’s great fun to work in a bar that has such a range in the age of its patrons.

We’re planning some revamping on a few things for Fall with a throwback to original Monster programming, and the disco is still going strong after 40+ years. Spinning and twirling to great music will never go out of style.

Back to SPUNK: the party / brand’s 10th anniversary is this Thursday, 9/22! Obviously many of the SPUNK men will be turning it there, as well as many of the party’s drag hostesses past and present. And I’m sure there will be some surprises!

We always treat an anniversary party as not only a celebration of our team’s successes, but also as a “Thank You” to our customers and staff. The night is all about doing what we’ve been doing for more than five hundred Thursdays, but doing it to the extreme. More is more, right? Champagne and cake and the infamous SPUNK T-shirt will be given away all night. Ten years of memories will play out on the screens, while a house full of entertainers light up the stages. It’s all the things we love about SPUNK, just bigger! Tickets are $15 at the door with a limited number of $10 spots available on the website. Plus, there’s an expanded VIP section if you want the best seats in the house.

Sounds like a Can’t Miss event! To close: in this past decade, what’s the wildest thing you’ve seen at a SPUNK event!?

By far, the wildest was October 2015… the night SPUNK went viral due to a (literally) over-excited dancer who jumped onstage with our surprise guest, Demi Lovato. She was dropping her Confident album, and arranged to do an unannounced performance.

The morning headlines read “Demi Lovato performs alongside massive erection.” The articles went around the globe, and can be found with a simple search. The videos, however, have been scrubbed from the internet — presumably by Demi’s people. The dancer had no idea who she was, and simultaneaoulsy one of our regular customers approached and tipped her a dollar… convinced she was just another drag queen SPUNK host. Demi was a sweetheart and a real trooper, and didn’t miss a beat.

We got massive attention for SPUNK. In fact, one of the dancers was outed to his mother because she saw the footage in Brazil. Wild — you never know what might happen or who will show up.

True that! Thanks Dan, and happy anniversary to SPUNK!

Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Spunk’s upcoming dates, and follow Spunk on Facebook and Instagram. Also follow Manhattan Monster Bar on Facebook, Instagram and its website.

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