All Rights reserved
Last weekend, Cherry Fund, a D.C. nonprofit run entirely by volunteers who raise money for LGBTQ+ mental health, HIV, and AIDS support kicked off its 25th anniversary weekend. More than 1,000 people came to enjoy a four-day-long program of dance events. However, after a confluence of circumstances, some of the events were canceled while others shut hundreds of ticket holders outside in the cold.
Now, Cherry Fund has announced that it will process refunds for dissatisfied customers and conduct an internal investigation into what went wrong.
The Advocateobtained documents, interviewed witnesses, and consulted industry experts to understand what happened.
A review of available evidence shows that a lack of communication, lack of planning, late permit applications, and, most notably, allegations of a conspiracy to defraud Cherry Fund each contributed to the weekend's outcome.
Here's what we know:
The main issue of the weekend, which led to hundreds of people being denied access to FLAWLESS at Howard Theatre, was capacity.
Cherry Fund president Allen Sexton told The Advocate that Cherry Fund sold 1,240 tickets, "and not one more," for FLAWLESS, one of the main dance parties. Daniel Brindley, owner of Howard Theatre, confirmed to The Advocate that capacity of the theater is 1,200 people.
Jon Weis, a talent buyer for Howard Theatre, appears to have indicated in an email to another production company, which The Advocate obtained, that Cherry Fund oversold the event.
"After a poor experience with an outside promoter overselling tickets by over double our legal capacity over the weekend, we are no longer allowing any outside ticketing to be sold indefinitely," Weis wrote Monday afternoon. The only event over the weekend in question was FLAWLESS.
On Saturday, the night of the event, tweets spread across social media alleging that hundreds were shut out of FLAWLESS. Sexton says that some of those who were kept out had hoped to buy tickets at the door, which were not available.
On Sunday afternoon, rumors spread that a rogue actor had ordered and distributed the same generic wristbands being used by Cherry Fund, in order to gain entrance to the party. The organization had ordered the bands from Amazon after not receiving the custom bands they had originally planned to use.
Sexton initially declined to confirm the rumor when asked but said that the matter was under investigation.
"Cherry is not at liberty to discuss the details at this time," he said.
However, Guy Smith, a prominent lighting designer who has worked closely with Cherry Fund for more than a decade, including this Cherry Weekend, confirmed the wristband theory in a public post on his Facebook page.
"Counterfeit VIP bands for the Howard were ordered from the same supplier that supplied Cherry and were sold by unscrupulous criminals in our community," Smith wrote, putting estimates at about 600 fraudulent wristbands. "Those people have been identified and are being investigated as we speak."
In a subsequent conversation, Sexton confirmed certain details to The Advocate.
According to him, around midnight, a patron informed staff at FLAWLESS of someone inside with fraudulent wristbands and staff reported the person to Metro Police, who found the wristbands, confiscated them, and asked the person to leave.
A Metro Police spokeswoman said in a statement to The Advocate that the department had no record of this incident or any call for service related to Cherry Weekend.
Cherry Fund leadership believes the wristband fraud began Thursday at FLASHDANCE when a patron discovered two stacks of VIP wristbands on a bathroom floor, Sexton said.
Cherry Fund is investigating whether a volunteer who worked the ticketing area stole wristbands, he said.
Sexton says that after officials discovered fake wristbands, he directed staff to cross-check VIP wristbands against sales records, and they did so for the remaining weekend events.
However, multiple people who attended Sunday events tell The Advocate that's not true.
Alex Gasparski, a scientist in D.C., says he had a VIP all-access pass and disputes Sexton's assertion that Cherry Fund verified wristbands.
"The only time they checked QR codes against their list was at wristband pickup," he said. "But at the entrance to venues, it was a visual check of did you have on the armband."
While the wristband fraud issue appears to be a significant factor in this weekend's events, on Friday Cherry Fund's EVOLUTION event was canceled over permits.
Before the Howard Theatre capacity debacle, organizers had applied for a permit with the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) to extend the venue's business hours for Decades, the venue hosting EVOLUTION. According to records viewed by The Advocate, five days after the application was submitted, ABRA sent it back to Sexton, as signatures were missing.
"If a complete application with proper signatures had be[en] resubmitted prior [to] Tuesday, April 5, every effort would have been made to include the application in the ABC Board's licensing agenda for the following day," Powell said. The application was never resubmitted.
While some people have condemned Cherry Fund, others say people shouldn't pile on because Cherry Fund supports the LGBTQ+ community.
Nathan Barrera-Bunch who had VIP tickets but couldn't get into FLAWLESS wants accountability.
"Cherry let down their friends, their community, their home," Bunch, 33, said. "This level of amateurism is quite staggering, and I certainly hope that this is the impetus for some organizational change."
The Advocateasked several prominent international entertainment industry insiders with expertise in large-scale events to assess the weekend's failures. Each spoke with The Advocate on the condition of anonymity to discuss industry and trade secrets.
"This is what you get when people with good intentions try to do on the side what a professional does full-time, day after day, months in advance," one insider said.
"Wristbands were ridiculous, the late permitting was ridiculous, and not refunding the tickets from 2020 was ridiculous. These amateur mistakes could have been easily avoided by paying key professionals to join the board."
The insider said, while criticism is certainly warranted, people ought to consider that Cherry Fund certainly didn't set out to provide customers with a horrible experience.
"It was incompetence, not maliciousness," they said. "When shit hits the fan, you get shit everywhere and if you're not a professional you get what Cherry experienced - a disaster."
Cherry Fund released a statement on Tuesday confirming the process they will be taking for refund requests, but disabled comments for the post.
The DC attorney general's office said toThe Advocate in a statement that the office takes all complaints seriously. Those with concerns about refunds or other business-related issues may submit a complaint online.
Cherry Fund also indicated Tuesday that because of the financial implications, the organization might not be able to make donations this year.
Sexton noted that eight out of the 10 events scheduled in this year's celebration went off "100% perfectly."
He says that he understands why people are upset but asks everyone to be patient with Cherry Fund as they process refunds and complete their investigation.
"We will release a report of the investigation when we are ready," he said.
Sexton did not return The Advocate's multiple follow-up requests for clarification on who is conducting the investigation and what the status is.
Disclosure: Christopher Wiggins is based in the Washington, D.C. area. He attended Cherry Weekend regularly between 2003 and 2010. In 2006, he volunteered on the Cherry Committee and was responsible for producing a Sunday closing event featuring D.J. Abel.