Ten years ago the LGBT community in Palm Beach County suffered a tremendous loss when a bar manager, activist and beloved member of the community was murdered. And even though he’s gone, his legacy continues to live on through others, Compass and H.G. Roosters in West Palm Beach.
That was a signature phrase of Michael “LaLa” Brown’s while he was alive. And back in those days there were a lot of Marys in Palm Beach County.
“He was famously known for saying ‘Hey Mary’ to get your attention,” said Tony Plakas, one of Brown’s best friends. “Then there was ‘listen Mary.’ That meant you were about to get a LaLa lecture. Of which I got many.”
Brown was brutally murdered March 21, 2008 by an on-again, off-again lover, who then committed suicide. The local mainstream media focused their coverage on Brown’s death, while ignoring what he meant to the broader LGBT community.
Over the course of several months, SFGN interviewed more than a dozen friends and family of Brown’s to capture a snapshot of the man he was, and what he meant to the community.
Those closest to him spoke of his jovial spirit, his generosity and his loyalty.
These three stories below illustrate those traits.
For Andrew Arena it was this anecdote.
Andrew Arena and Brown were on their way to the Mother’s Cupboard annual Black Tie gala in the early 90s at the former Omni Hotel in West Palm Beach. It was pouring rain.
“Well Mary, I’m not getting wet in a tuxedo,” Arena recalled Brown saying.
The next thing Arena knew, Brown was driving through the open automatic glass doors and into the hotel lobby.
“He got out, threw the keys at the front desk,” Arena said with a chuckle. “The front desk clerk was stunned.”
More importantly though Arena noted, neither of them got wet.
For Jerry Suarez it was this story.
Jerry Suarez and Brown attended the 1999 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa for a special display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt to highlight the epidemic.
“We always had an amazing time together. But Africa was different. I would sit and watch Michael in the old soccer field teaching all of the local church children English,” Suarez said. “They would follow him around like he was the great Pied Piper of Cape Town. They called him Uncle Mikey. The kids loved him.”
For Theo Smith this memory sticks out.
But Brown’s story cannot be told without the bar he managed, H.G. Roosters, and the NAMES Project – two of his greatest passions in life.
Brown was an integral part of the LGBT community in Palm Beach County for two decades until his murder in 2008.
Even today his presence is still felt at the iconic bar Brown managed for many years.
“It’s been 10 years and not a week goes by without his name being brought up” said David Zen, the current general manager of H.G. Roosters in West Palm Beach. “He was, is, and will always be, loved by those who had the pleasure of meeting him.”
It was through Roosters he became the face of the local LGBT community.
But he wasn’t just a bar manager. According to interviews, Brown used his position for community involvement.
“He was everybody’s big brother,” said Arena, one of his best friends. “He had everyone’s best interest at heart.”
He was affectionately known as LaLa, but none of the people SFGN interviewed knew why.
His sister Becky Peters surmised that sometimes when he was really focused on something he could appear to be in “la-la land.”
AJ Wasson and the original owner of Roosters, Bill Capozzi, were best friends. Wasson knew Capozzi did not have many years left. He wanted to ensure his legacy would live on, so before he died in 2006, he bought the building Roosters has been located in since 1984.
“I was investing in a piece of real estate, but I was also investing in Michael Brown,” Wasson said. “This is the guy that was going to make sure my single purpose building investment was taken care of.”
But when Brown was murdered, Wasson suddenly had to carry on the legacy of both Capozzi and Brown. He admitted the first few years were difficult.
“I don’t think I was ever going to close. It was Bill’s legacy. Now it was Michael’s legacy. I felt like the burden of the world was on my shoulders,” he said, holding back tears. “What was I going to fucking do, lock the door? I mean I thought about it, but I don’t think it was a credible option.”
Brown was known for using Roosters as a platform for building bridges in the community. He helped raise funds for a local HIV-related non-proft in the 1990s and gave Plakas a venue to do HIV education and outreach.
“That was during a time when people didn’t really want HIV outreach in bars because it was kind of a bummer,” said Plakas, the former CEO of Compass. “He would always open the door and let me in to Roosters.”
Plakas also credits Brown for helping make the PrideFest of the Palm Beaches more than a picnic at Howard Park in West Palm Beach.
“When Michael Brown got behind something you did, it was going to be a success. So the sponsors of the first PrideFest were all of the bars,” Plakas said. “He was the impetus to make PrideFest more than a picnic in Howard Park.”
Brown was “Compass before Compass,” Plakas noted.
After Brown’s death, Compass wanted to make sure he would forever be memorialized at the LGBT community center. They named a Memorial Garden after him and Bill Capozzi.
Compass Executive Director Julie Seaver said the LGBT center recently revitalized the garden.
“It serves as a place of refuge,” she added.
Compass also launched the Michael Brown Faces in the Community Award in 2008. More recently this past December they announced the permanent installation of Brown’s AIDS Memorial Quilt at the center.
The NAMES Project
Even though Brown did not die from an AIDS-related complication, the NAMES Project still accepted a panel from his loved ones honoring his legacy and contributions to the quilt.
It was Jerry Suarez who introduced Brown to the NAMES Project and the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Suzrez was involved with the NAMES Project and Brown soon jumped on board. He started out as a Quilt Display Coordinator, eventually taking over as the Southeast Region Coordinator. He also served on the board of the South Florida chapter of the NAMES Project. He traveled the country, and the world to display the quilt, often using up his vacation time.
“He was incredibly passionate about it,” said Suarez, who lost two family members to AIDS-related complications.
Brown frequently traveled back to his home state of Ohio to display the quilt.
“He was adamant about making people aware. We all buried too many people and saw too many people sick,” Suarez said. In 1993 Brown brought the AIDS Quilt to Palm Beach County for the first time, where it was displayed at the Harold and Sylvia Kaplan Jewish Community Center near West Palm Beach.
Greg Savarese, another close friend of Brown’s, remembers the event well.
“People were lined up out of the door with quilts,” he said. “From Georgia, the Panhandle. They came from everywhere.”
But what Savarese remembers most was Brown’s empathy – of which there seemed to be no limit.
As the people filed into the room, Savarese watched as Brown greeted each one with a hug.
“Michael cried with everyone single one of them,” he said. “It went on for the whole day. They had lost brothers, sisters, children.”
Brown and Tony Plakas bonded over their shared passion for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. As CEO of Compass, Plakas would host the quilt at the community center year after year for a World AIDS Day memorial and display.
Brown and Plakas would go on to become close friends. Plakas would often travel with Brown to help set up the quilt display around the country.
“He went out of his way to help. Any time I called him, he said, ‘Of course I’ll do it,’” said Gert McMullin, quilt production manager for the Quilt. “He didn’t get paid for any of it. The quilt helped him get through a lot of his grief. And he helped others get through their grief with the quilt.”
McMullin said she trusted Brown to take care of the quilt, which is the largest piece of community folk art in the world.
“He really did love the quilt,” she said.
Brown was a part of the last time the quilt was displayed in its entirety, which took place in 1996. He served on the steering committee for that display and was in charge of logistics.
“It was something he was incredibly proud of,” Suarez said. “He was that person I could always depend on.”
“I was a falling star,” Plakas said of himself when he arrived in Palm Beach County in 1997. But his life quickly changed when he met Brown.
Plakas had moved to the area to work for Compass as an HIV prevention educator.
“It was easier to run away from my entire family than to shame them by coming out. I ran as far away as I could to Palm Beach County. I was a college hot shot with too big of an ego to tell everyone I was gay,” Plakas said at a dedication service for Brown in 2009. “As fate would have it, I landed next to Michael. I met him while I was still running…I was running…I was running…with my golden retriever by my side. He took us in like the two lost puppies that we were. And like people do with falling stars he made this wish for me, and the wish was a lot better life than I had projected for myself.”
Soon after the two met, Brown gave Plakas a job at Roosters as a bartender. The job supplemented his income while also giving him an opportunity to immerse himself in the local LGBT community.
“I miss him so bad sometimes I have to forget him because I’ve never experienced a loss like that in my life. It was just so sudden,” Plakas said in 2009.
Ten years later it’s evident the pain of his loss still stings.
“Compass would not be here without Michael,” Plakas said, his eyes filling with tears.
But Plakas has more than just an early job to thank Brown for. Brown introduced Plakas to his future husband Jamie Foreman.
“I am going to hate myself for doing this. I can see it already. But I need to introduce you to somebody,” Plakas recalled him saying.
Brown’s affection for Plakas was obvious to others as well.
“Michael was really smitten with him,” Wasson said. But true to Brown’s generous spirit, he did not keep the two apart. “I know Michael loved Tony and Jamie, and encouraged their relationship.”
The Early Years
Brown was born Dec. 12, 1957 in Mansfield, Ohio. He had three older brothers and a younger sister. One of his brothers was quadriplegic, which his sister Peters said had a big impact on the way he looked at life and his positive attitude.
“His brother worked a job. He got married, adopted kids, lived a full happy life and was an example for all of us,” Peters said. “Michael was always bothered by people that didn’t make an effort. He didn’t believe in excuses – don’t sit back and feel sorry for yourselves.”
Brown had a close relationship with his sister and mother.
“Mike and I were partners in crime,” Peters said. She was also the first person Brown came out to.
Peters said he called his mother almost everyday and always sent her trinkets in the mail just to say “I love you” or “I miss you.”
“It was a truly special mother and son relationship,” she said.
And when she and his father came to Florida each year to visit he brought them to Roosters.
“Mom would always tell me stories of how people in the bar would come up to her telling them stories of how their parents disowned them,” Peters said. She added that those stories really affected her mom. “She was always willing to give them hug.”
Peters remembered when Brown moved to Florida, he told her, “I don’t just want to be just another gay man. I want to be a gay man who made a difference.”
And if there’s one thing Brown accomplished in his life – it was making a difference.
Peters said Brown moved to Florida when Doris Saferight convinced him to come to the state and run the gay bar she owned – Kismet Lounge. That bar closed in 1987. Saferight died in 2003.
According to Savarese, Brown started working at Roosters not long after it opened in 1984. Savarese did a brief stint between jobs during that time period and that’s how the two met.
Some years later Savarese would go on to lead Mother’s Cupboard, an HIV-related non-profit that raised funds to support the Comprehensive AIDS Program’s food pantry. At one time the organization was raising $100,000 a year, according to Savarese.
“Michael was a very big supporter of it,” Savarese said. “He would always help out anyway he could.”
Melissa St. John, a local drag queen who was deeply involved in Mother’s Cupboard, added: “He wasn’t shy about asking for anything we needed. He was also a leader in helping us with ticket sales [to the gala].”
In 2007 the Comprehensive AIDS Program in West Palm Beach awarded Brown the Fundraiser Extraordinaire Award, which recognizes people “who give their time, talent and skills to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in local, state, national and/or global communities.”
Savarese still remembers Brown’s community spirit.
“He’d let us do anything we wanted to do in the bar,” he said. “Every Monday’s bingo was for Mother’s Cupboard.”
Brown’s weekly bingo nights were legendary.
“It was always his thing,” Savarese said. “He almost never missed it.”
That’s how Dennis Williams, owner of the Rhythm Cafe in West Palm Beach, came to know Brown.
“I would go to bingo every Monday night. He was the bingo caller,” he said. “So funny. So charismatic. He would tease people, but in a nice way. One time [my partner] and I wore matching Mickey Mouse t-shirts. He teased us mercilessly while we were there. It was hilarious.”
Williams remembers 068 being Brown’s favorite number.
“He would always say, ‘You do me and I’ll owe you one,’” he said. “It was a great gay social outing when there was not much else to do in West Palm Beach.”
Over the years the Rhythm Cafe became one of Brown’s regular places to eat.
“He would come here for dinner. Talk business with us. He was a hard worker, who did a lot for Roosters,” Williams said.
For Plakas, Brown’s weekly Bingo was one more example of how he always thought about the community at-large.
“He had an informal authority among the community, especially when it came to coordinating our efforts,” Plakas said.
Plakas explained that Brown wanted everybody to have a slice of the pie and so he made sure to not conflict with the other LGBT bars as much as possible.
Foreman added, “He made sure everybody had their fair share of nights. And they always cross promoted all of the other bars. For the first PrideFest he made a map of the bars. It was important to him everybody knew where all of the bars were.”
But it wasn’t just West Palm Beach. He wanted to make sure that Broward knew where West Palm Beach was as well.
“He would make a point of making appearances in Fort Lauderdale to connect the cities. He took us to Copa to introduce us to people down there and sometimes he would guest bartend,” Foreman said. “He wanted people in Lauderdale to know faces when they came up here to West Palm.”
Michael Brown, The Man
While many people in the community knew Michael Brown as an activist and bar manager – there was also Michael Brown the man.
Physically he was big – some described him as a “tank,” others compared him to Mr. Clean. Brown was a practical jokester. His friends mentioned his sense of humor, and boisterous laugh.
Peters still misses her brother’s “infectious laugh and his compassion for life and people.”
“Oh and his wicked sense of humor,” she added.
“There was a mischievous side to him,” Arena said. While Smith added, “He was always playing jokes on people. He was a typical wise ass. He was the clown.”
But Brown was not without his pet peeves.
He hated when people cut him off on the highway.
“He had a little bit of road rage going on,” his sister said.
He hated being called before noon.
“Someone better be hemorrhaging blood or missing an artery,” Arena recalled with a chuckle. “I’d forget sometimes and he’d say, ‘Mary, I am sleeping.’”
And he hated when his bartenders did not face the napkins the right way.
“One time he got so angry he started throwing napkin holders all over the place,” said Artie Vale, a long time bartender who worked under Brown, and continues to work for Roosters as the daytime manager.
Here are a few of his favorite things: song – “I Love to Love” by Tina Charles; place to eat – Sonny’s BBQ; and drink – Absolut and soda lime.
And then there was his famous chicken noodle soup.
“It was the best on the planet,” Arena said. “He was constantly making it. He’d make 25 gallons at a time. He’d freeze it and then give it out to anybody who wanted it.”
When McMullin came down to Brown’s memorial she wanted to honor his spirit so she brought a bubble machine with her.
“I had heard he requested bubbles when he died,” she recalled. “Turns out he didn’t really want bubbles, he just wanted to see if anyone [would] actually do it. There were bubbles everywhere. That’s the kind of humor Michael had.”
Theo Smith first met Brown at Roosters.
“He was like the welcoming committee. He had such a kind heart,” Smith said. “He was my inspiration for getting involved in the community. He would give the shirt off of his back to you.”
Smith continued, “He was an open book. He never judged, never criticized.”
Some of the people SFGN interviewed said Smith was one of Brown’s legacies who continues to carry on his torch.
“Theo does carry on Michael’s personal legacy. Theo absolutely embodies that,” said Seaver, the executive director of Compass.
Foreman added: “Theo Smith has carried that torch.”
Compass founded the Michael Brown Faces in the Community Award after his death. Smith was honored with the award in 2017.
“There will never be someone like him,” Smith said. “But if I can be half the person he was, I’m doing a good job.”
Just like Brown was Smith’s “welcoming committee,” today Smith is affectionately known as “the gay mayor of West Palm Beach,” for his volunteerism. It was because of Smith, Roosters got involved with raising money for breast cancer awareness.
“A few years back I attended the Stonewall Ball and was amazed at the number of elected officials who showed up. The straight community was there for us,” said Wasson, who owns Roosters. “They come every year and support us. It overwhelmed me. These people accept us now.”
That prompted Wasson to start thinking of a way to give back to them. Smith came up with the idea of organizing a fundraising team for breast cancer awareness.
“We were the No. 1 fundraising team in Palm Beach County for four years,” he said. “Everybody from the cancer society knew we were there because they supported Stonewall and they supported Compass. They supported our community and we wanted to love them right back.”