Metro Weekly

Cherry Changes

Annual party weekend moves beyond 'circuit' association

Over the years, Cherry has had its share of high-profile moments and controversies. News of the past couple years is that D.C.’s annual dance benefit has been a shadow of its former self.

And this year’s event? It won’t even be Cherry at all. Formerly named after the District’s famed springtime cherry blossoms, the 2009 event, set for April 17 to 19, is being retooled as Taste for Life.

The name Cherry ”has a negative connotation,” says Paul Marengo, chair of the Cherry Fund, the nonprofit organization that’s presented the event since 1999. ”It’s a double-edged sword – it has as much name recognition as it does baggage.”

The baggage, according to Marengo, relates to the event’s image as a ”circuit party” at a time when the circuit and nightlife in general are seriously crippled. Organizers see the event being recognized primarily as a benefit for the community, not just a weekend of multiple dance parties.The Cherry Fund recently refocused its goals to more specifically target HIV/AIDS, just as it was in the very beginning. Organizers have also scaled back on the venues they’ve selected for Taste for Life, only working with those that have either donated space for the party or agreed to split door proceeds.

”We’re not paying for any club at all,” says Cherry Fund Co-Chair Allen Sexton. There’s also a new cap on how much DJs may be paid, and the introduction of several artistic and cultural events.

Among events on tap are DJ Drew G at Halo on Friday, April 17, following a fashion show at Town; DJ Stephan Grondin at Town on Saturday, April 18; and DJ Paulo at Cobalt on Sunday, April 19. DJ Sin Morera will also spin for a Friday night party at a venue yet to be confirmed. In addition, a food-tasting event at a local restaurant is in the works for Saturday evening. There will be no Saturday after-hours party as in years past. ”One of the clear indicators that a party is a circuit party is the ‘after-hours,”’ says Marengo.

Still, Sexton says he has been in discussion with another organization that wants to host its own after-hours party, from which a portion of proceeds would go to the Cherry Fund. Details of that should be finalized soon.

”We want to become known for the fund itself rather than just as a party,” says Sexton, noting that the fund’s name will precede the Taste for Life name in all marketing and publicity materials.

The change is a reflection of the organization’s marketing and sponsorship needs. ”We don’t want people seeing the ‘same-old, same-old,’ you know, boys on the cover naked. That stuff doesn’t work,” says Sexton, when enlisting mainstream sponsors such as banks.

”But it will always be Cherry,” Sexton continues, suggesting that at least informally, Taste for Life will still be referred to as Cherry Weekend. ”The point is just to change the perspective of how people view us and to stress the charitable nature of the event.”

During the past few years the Cherry Fund has had difficulty raising money for charitable causes. Moreover, the all-volunteer organization’s board hasn’t taken on any new members in about three years, even though at least two Cherry veterans, Al Baggett and Colin Stewart, stepped down more than a year ago. It’s unclear how active any current board members besides Marengo and Sexton are in overseeing the organization.

”There’s no transparency,” says James Decker, a member of the Cherry steering committee in 2008. ”No one really knows what the real numbers are and the board has atrophied, if it exists at all.”

Several longtime Cherry volunteers declined to comment on Decker’s charges when contacted by Metro Weekly.

Marengo, however, counters that, ”Some people just don’t understand why we’re doing this, or they don’t think it will work.”

Marengo and Sexton acknowledge that the changes are a risk. But both say they are also imperative.

”It was a lot of work to market the weekend,” Marengo says. ”We weren’t seeing a lot of return on our investment. So we’re branching out, re-branding and marketing to a broader base.”

Adds Sexton: ”Like with anything in life, there’s a chance for growth and advancement. Part of that will come from people who have a willingness to step forward and do their part.”

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.