Savyon “Big Ben” Zabar was a popular New York City club owner and Promoter. He owned “Escuelita” night club for almost two decades and was one of the many significant individuals who helped transcend the NYC underground LGBT club scene into mainstream popular culture. He was pronounced dead on January 4th, 2017, after being found strangled in his Upper West Side apartment.
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the summer of 2009 and my eighteenth birthday was just a week prior to being introduced to a young Louie Garay, who was eighteen and a half at the time. That same night, I was taken to a small closet-like room in the back of an unorganized coat-check at NYC’s most infamous gay club: Escuelita, guarded by a handful of cute young boys and Janet (an African-American man who enjoyed performing in drag to Janet Jackson tracks who was also a close confidant to Big Ben). I didn’t know it at the time, but that night was the beginning of the rest of my new life.
Ben sat me down in his office and offered me a paid photoshoot to be done by his close friend and personal photographer, Carlos Arias. At the time, I hadn’t found my outer beauty and my self-esteem was lower than average – so I declined (regretting it years later when Carlos Arias eventually become a highly reputable celebrity photographer). Nevertheless, Big Ben saw potential in myself that I didn’t know I had. Instead of the photoshoot, he offered me what he called the position of “Bar Manager” (more like barback, but whatever – I flaunted the title). Along with the position, I’d be paid a salary of $400 dollars a week. I didn’t know it then, but this was Ben’s way of wanting to keep me close. As an eighteen year old who had just moved out of his ultra religious parent’s home in fear of them finding out he was gay, I finally felt wanted.
The position granted me a lot more than $400 dollars a week. After leaving a religion that promoted friendships within the organization and frowned upon having “worldly” acquaintances, I met some of my closes friends at Escuelita that I hold so dearly to this day. The drag dressing room was next to the bar closet, so I began to build strong relationships to the resident drag performers that headlined the shows at Escuelita – they quickly became my family.
Ben always welcomed me into his home. I don’t think I’ve ever repeated anything more than “81st between Columbus and Amsterdam” to a NYC cab driver. His home was my home, and I had spent at least 4-5 nights out of the week working diligently out of his home to promote the establishment, plan for events, and just overall kiki with fellow members of the LGBT community. Big Ben became a father figure (or as referred to in the NYC LGBT community: “mutha”) after my parents decided not to communicate with me because of my sexuality. I slowly started realizing whom I was, or what Ben had seen in me all along.
I remember being alone with Ben in his room at times getting work done, and him looking deeply into my eyes and saying (with a strong Israeli accent), “Baby, you remind me of myself when I was younger”. I would quickly disagree and make fun of his weight, since I was slim at the time and he was beyond overweight. I’ll never forget the portrait of a thinner Savyon he so proudly hung on his living room wall, and secretly thinking that I actually did resemble a young (much thinner) Savyon. I hated it.
The fall of 2010 came around and I had become tired of the nightlife, Escuelita, and Big Ben. I told him I’d move to Miami and work at his alleged business partner’s club in Fort Lauderdale called Johnny’s. He wasn’t happy but he assured me he would make the necessary contacts in order for me to obtain the position at Johnny’s. He lied. Each time I spoke to him, he insisted I return and work for him again, but I didn’t want to return to the overbearing NYC underground LGBT scene. It was too much. I gave in during the fall of 2011, however. I moved back to NYC and began working closely with Big Ben again. This time, I practically lived in his Upper West Side apartment for about three months.
Surprisingly, the scene had changed fairly quickly and new faces came about inside the home of Big Ben. I was more work-oriented and didn’t partake in the nightlife drama as much as I was actually working. I even remember getting drunk one night at a bar on Dykman and accidentally tweeting absurdities on the Escuelita twitter account. Louie put me on check real quick. Eventually, I had started caring less for Escuelita when I commenced a serious relationship. I had cut all work/business ties with Escuelita by 2013.
My relationship with Ben grew apart when I decided to move back to Miami to finish pursuing my degree. I was in a happy relationship and began traveling the world. I had made new friends but always kept the friends I made at Escuelita since they took me in when I felt that I didn’t have an emotional support system. To this day, most of my closest friends derived from Escuelita. My first tattoo was made by one of the security guards. Both of my serious relationships had come out of Escuelita. Big Ben, Escuelita, and Robert Maldonado (general manager of Escuelita) were — and still are — ingrained in my heart and soul.
Savyon Zabar taught me the true meaning of loyalty, friendship, and how to get what I want. He taught me to never give up and always put up a good fight; how to smell bullshit from a mile away and that my gut instinct will never fail me. Most importantly, he taught me to always be grateful. Big Ben will forever be in me and in those whom he confided in so dearly. He was a staple and Icon in the NYC LGBT community and if it wasn’t for him, we would not have had a safe place to gather and exchange feelings of love and wisdom.
I remember the last time I sat and conversed with Ben. It was just this past summer of 2016 when I had just arrived from living some time in London and wanted to party at XL nightclub. I met him in the lobby of the establishment where he met my current partner and me. “You look like a man now, Mary. You’ve grown up.” Indeed I did – and I owe a substantial amount of credit to him. Him, Louie and I spoke for about 45 minutes when he handed me a wristband to enter the packed club and a few drink tickets. We said our goodbyes.
Savyon Zabar was a powerful man – he was business oriented. He had two addictions: cute boys and (spending) money. With power comes great envy and believe you me, he had an unwritten list of individuals and groups who wanted Escuelita (and even him) gone. He did not like to be alone and — with great reason — made sure he rarely ever was. Despite the recent closing of Escuelita, he was smart and successful nevertheless. And regardless of his strong attitude and questionable business relations, I admire his perseverance and commitment to the underground NYC LGBT community – since that’s where many successful members of our community were discovered. I will forever remember Big Ben as one of my strongest personal support systems. His passing marks the end of a NYC LGBT era. Rest in peace, Ben. You will forever be missed.
Omar Sharif Valdez is a contributor to the Huffington Post
Article originally posted on KickingCloudz.com