The skill, Sal DeFalco said, is in the smile.
“Give them a big ass grin,” said DeFalco, when asked his secret to bartending success. “It melts their heart.”
DeFalco was, without a shadow of doubt, a legend of the night. He passed away on Friday, Oct. 31 at the age of 56.
A regular on the New York club scene during the 1970s at the height of disco, Studio 54 and the gay liberation movement, DeFalco saw it all – and showed it.
“My life is a stage,” said DeFalco from his Fort Lauderdale home just days before his passing.
DeFalco’s stage in South Florida was Hunters in Wilton Manors and readers of the SFGN recognized that by voting him the Best Bartender this year.
“Wilton Manors is a lot like Greenwich Village,” DeFalco said. “There is a family spirit to it. There’s community. It’s a well kept secret.”
DeFalco and his longtime lover Claude Tant moved to South Florida in 2007 after living in North Carolina. The couple was together for 25 years. Their house contained photos of the two from the society pages in New York and Atlanta and on the front page of the Miami Herald.
“We came down here because we knew there would be a lifestyle,” DeFalco said.
That lifestyle, however, came with costs. DeFalco lamented the promiscuity he observed in New York during the AIDS crisis.
“And they are still doing it,” he said with tears in his eyes.
DeFalco was undergoing chemotherapy when he died. He said he was suffering from three tumors, one of which had developed in his brain and required an operation to remove.
“Fuckin’ witch doctor on Oakland Park,” he said, with bitter disgust.
That was Sal, said his bartending friend Joe Beasley. “He never took shit from anyone.”
Beasley worked with DeFalco for four and a half years at Hunters and, under the bar’s former name, Boom. He said DeFalco was well liked and had an “amazing following.”
“He was always happy here,” Beasley said. “He made people feel welcome.”
DeFalco was not happy when he spoke to SFGN for the last time. He cried several times during the interview and felt the doctor he was seeing did not listen to him and accurately diagnose his ailments. He had been HIV positive for 35 years.
“If you really feel sick, don’t wait,” DeFalco said. “Go to the hospital. Don’t go and wait in a doctor’s office.”
DeFalco grew up in the housing projects outside Newark, N.J., the son of Italian immigrants.
“I’m 100 percent whop,” he liked to say.
Pictures show a handsome young man with chiseled features, a full head of thick black hair partying it up in 1970s New York City – on roller skates no less.
“I was 20 years old thrown into a world of sex, drugs and disco,” DeFalco said. “Holy shit the drugs were everywhere. They were serving cocaine on trays.”
The parties at Studio 54 – in its heyday – are notorious and legendary for the appearances by A-list celebrities and the antics of former club owner, Steve Rubell.
“In those days they were all having sex with each other,” said Steve Rothaus, who covers the gay scene for the Miami Herald. “That was before AIDS and there were a lot of people having sex with different people…different partners. The club scene in New York during that time was full of promiscuity.”
DeFalco claimed to have slept with several celebrities during that period. His list includes several famous musicians and songwriters. One of which took him on drug binged getaways and he fondly recalled the time they were at the airport in New York when Carole Bayer Sager wrote the lyrics to “Arthur’s Theme.”
“We were flying back and forth to the Bahamas high on Quaaludes, cocaine and alcohol,” DeFalco said. “It was a mess.”
DeFalco settled down when he met Tant, a real estate broker. They were together for 25 years. At DeFalco’s “Celebration of Life” ceremony, fellow bartender Joel Slotnick delivered DeFalco’s eulogy, stating “Sal was so proud of Claude. He let everyone know that was his man.”
DeFalco recalled their love affair in New York with Tant meeting him once at Penn Station with three-dozen yellow roses in his hand.
“That silver hair and those blue eyes,” DeFalco said. “He was so handsome. He still is.”
More than 400 people paid their respects to DeFalco at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale at the ceremony. After a moving service complete with a choir performance, prayers and incense circulating throughout the church, a long line waited to get a few words with Tant.
“I think Sal would have approved,” Tant said.