On Friday the New York Police Department announced that the body of former Chelsea club owner and center of the Vogue dancing scene, known as “Big Ben,” had been found strangled to death in his Upper West Side apartment. Police are now seeking to question his male masseuse.
The body of 54-year-old Savyon Zabar was found by the police in his home at 155 W. 81st St., between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenue, at approximately 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning. The police had initially identified the former club owner as Zabary Savyon but corrected themselves later. The circumstances surrounding Zabar’s death have not been made clear to the public nor has there been any arrests as of Friday morning.
Officials explained that although the body had been found on Wednesday, the announcement came today because the medical examiner had classified the death as a homicide.
Zabar, who also bore the nickname “Big Ben,” had been a prominent figure within the gay Chelsea club scene and was the owner of the popular gay club, Escuelita. According to friends, he also had connections to a club known as XL and further partnerships all over the city.
The man whom the police are seeking to question is the male masseuse that Zabar employed twice a week to attend him at his apartment. Pix 11 news coverage revealed that police sources said Zabar and the masseuse, 23, also had a sexual relationship. After their appointment on Wednesday, the masseuse left the apartment soon after; an act which Zabar’s roommate said was odd because the man usually stayed over. The roommate decided to check on the club owner and went to his room where he found him unconscious. According to the superintendent of the apartment building, Savyon often had young men in and out of his apartment “doing drugs with him.”
Sources involved in the investigation said it had not been immediately clear that the man’s death was suspicious due to his size. Savyon Zabar weighed over 400 pounds, and it hindered the discovery of the fact that he had been strangled to death. The officers who found him reported that he showed no visible signs of trauma, and his cause of death was not immediately known.
Zabar’s friends had only good things to say about the club owner, and after hearing of his death, they took to social media to express their condolences, mourn, and share memories of him.
In 2012, Zabar had gained more attention after he went to bat for club Esquelita when the state Liquor Authority had been trying to take the club’s license. The attempt followed a violent incident at the club, in which the former manager had punched a customer in the face. The Daily News reported that Savyon Zabar had accused the state of deliberately trying to destroy Escuelita as a means to keep minorities like Blacks and Hispanics as well as the LGBTQ community out of the area.
“Minorities are no longer welcome on West 39th Street as they do not fit into the gentrification plans of the city.”
Though Escuelita survived that particular challenge, it was shut down some time later after 49 years in business.
A friend of Savyon Zabar’s, Antonio “Pokey” Baez, started a GoFundMe page after he was strangled in an attempt to raise money to create commemorative banners, T-shirts, and souvenirs in honor of “Big Ben.” Baez wrote on the page of the type of man the club owner had been.
“His personality was different and tough. We learned, he made us tough, we [are] all going to remember him as a good person… He cared for a lot of us, even though he didn’t say it, he did.”
[Featured Image by Fernando Munizaga/ Facebook]