How former club kid Dannee Phann turned his passion into his profession… and still gives back
SCOTT HUFFMAN | Contributing Writer
Many Dallas residents have known out club and event promoter Dannee Phann (pronounced “pawn”) as a bartender, a manager, and, at one time, even a dancer at a number of local gay clubs. Phann was most recently manager and club promoter at the Brick/Joe’s, which closed this summer after an historic run. But as founder of Dannee Phann Productions, he did more than just hire the occasional entertainer and approve a poster or two. Often at The Brick, DPP hosted many featured events, several with former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants and others with entertainers like Miami DJ Kidd Madonny, former American Idol contestant Frenchie Davis and dance-diva-turned-reality-TV-star Erika Jayne.
The closure of The Brick may have placed a road bump in Phann’s efforts, but it has not stopped them. He has now moved the party to Marty’s Live, starting big this weekend when he presents Pride Dance with circuit DJ Mark DeMarko.
“We were the first bar to bring RuPaul’s girls to Dallas with Nina Flowers,” Phann recalls of his tenure at The Brick. “But Dannee Phann Productions is not just drag shows — we were [also] bringing in circuit DJs. [And] I’m going to the next level.”
While Phann intends to host happy hours and club shows regularly at Marty’s Live, his business plan also includes expanding to venues like theaters or warehouses, spaces which offer bigger stages and accommodate larger audiences. And while Phann is considering a variety of entertainment bookings, he intends to continue a focus on drag shows, which currently draw enthusiastic crowds. In fact, after noting audience demographics at recent drag shows, Phann would like to target a wider audience.
“I want to bring shows for a younger generation, both gay and straight,” Phann says. “A lot of my crowds are straight who come to see the shows. A lot are 18 and up. We see a young generation following these drag girls around.”
While Phann certainly seems to have a sharp focus on business, a perhaps lesser known fact is that he has also devoted countless hours volunteering his time and energy to produce charity events directly benefitting local LGBT organizations — most notably, events like Purple Party and his own annual bash, One Night in Bangkok (so-named in honor of Phann’s Southeast Asian heritage). Phann’s passion for paying it forward, however, should come as no surprise. As the youngest of 12 children — yup! — he learned at an early age the power of community.
“I am from a huge family,” Phann, who was born in Cambodia and emigrated with his family to the U.S. around 1980, says. “I have about 26 nieces and nephews and probably 15 to 20 great-nieces and -nephews. But there can be only one queen in the house, and that’s going to be me — the queen and the black sheep,” he laughs.
Phann considers his late mother — who lost her left arm in the Vietnam War but who still reared her children “to be humble and to be grateful” — the inspiration for his work ethic. He also credits her for his philanthropic nature. Through her gay son, his mother’s philosophy lives on.
“[Before each fundraiser,] I have a speech I give everybody,” Phann says. “I take it from my mom who passed away last year. She was a Buddhist. She would give the shirt off her shoulders. She would say, ‘Always do your best and never think of the worst. The dollar you give is just as important as a thousand dollars as long as you give it from your heart. Be humble about it and expect nothing back. You will have succeeded.’”
Phann’s first Dallas charity event was the inaugural Purple Party in 2001. Phann describes himself at the time as a “circuit queen” who traveled the U.S. attending similar weekend-long dance parties. Phann volunteered alongside Saul Flores, the Purple Party’s founder, to produce the event in the parking lot of The Brick at its former Maple Avenue location, a club at which Phann worked and which Howard Okon, his longtime employer, friend and mentor, owned.
“I grew up without a dad,” Phann says. “I always look up to him [Okon] like he’s my father figure. I call him Dad all the time. I learned a lot of things from him. We have a lot of memories, way before cell phones were invented and Facebook and all of that.”
In 2006, with the support of Okon, Phann launched One Night in Bangkok, his own Asian-themed charity event. Phann considers the annual party a nod to his heritage. It is also an opportunity to introduce the local community to Asian culture in all its colorful splendor.
“I’m Asian, and I want to educate people,” Phann says. “When I did it [One Night in Bangkok] at The Brick, people didn’t even recognize [the space]. The theme is all of Asia. We have dragons, umbrellas, lanterns. We always do bright colors — reds, greens. Just like in any Asian city you go to, you see a little bit of everything combined.”
On a more personal level, Phann considers the annual party his chance to give back to a community that has given him so much. Each year, Phann’s fundraising goal is to surpass the previous year’s total. This year, the event’s tenth, he hopes to raise $60,000. He also expects this year’s party to be the largest.
“Every year, it’s getting bigger and bigger,” Phann says, promising that the event will continue this year. “I haven’t announced the location yet. It won’t be in a bar because it’s getting so big. I need a bigger place to sell the VIP tables and all of that. We will have dragon dancers and Asian fan dancers. It definitely will be bigger.”
And when someone with nearly a dozen siblings tells you “bigger,” you know he’s being serious.