The well-known owner of a popular Midtown gay club was found strangled in his apartment, cops said Friday.
A roommate found the 400-pound body of 54-year-old Savyon Zabar on a bed in their fourth-floor apartment on W. 81st St. near Amsterdam Ave. on the Upper West Side about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, police said. On Friday, police declared his death a homicide.
Zabar, who owned and managed the now-defunct popular Latin gay club Escuelita, died from strangulation and heavy internal bleeding, according to police sources.
His roommate was being questioned by police Friday morning. Nobody has been charged.
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Friends of Zabar, who called him “Big Ben,” were shocked by his murder.
“He got me started in the gay scene in management,” said Fernando Munizaga, 35, of New Jersey, who once worked for Zabar at Escuelita. “He helped me find my voice.”
He said Zabar was a giant in the city’s nightlife world and active in gay rights causes.
“He was a huge figure in the gay community,” he said. “He gave us a voice. He gave us opportunity. He gave a platform to the gay Latin community.”
Zabar had a larger-than-life personality and was a demanding boss, friends said.
“He was funny and outgoing,” Munizaga said. “He was always pushing harder so that you could recognize how far you could go. He wanted you to find your best quality.”
Zabar's neighbor, Vinnie de Angelis, 61, a nursing attendant who's been living in the building since 1976, was shocked to hear of Zabar's death.
He said he spoke to Zabar in the elevator just last week.
"I never thought it would be the last time," he said, clutching a Catholic rosary. “He was a very sweet guy."
He described Zabar as an eccentric man with a taste for the finer things who always had a car service pick him up outside their building — along with an ever-present entourage of good-looking buff young men who de Angelis said lived, traveled, and worked with Zabar.
"He had a whole posse of handsome young guys, mostly Latinos,” he said. “Really handsome guys, well built. Lots of tattoos. They were crashing there [in Zabar's apartment].”
Back in 2012, Zabar was involved in a bitter struggle with the state Liquor Authority over Escuelita’s liquor license. The authority tried to take the club’s license after its previous manager punched a patron in the face.
Zabar said bias against against gays, Hispanics and blacks played a role in the struggle to keep the license.
“Minorities are no longer welcome on W. 39th St., as they do not fit into the gentrification plans of the city,” Zabar said.
Escuelita survived that challenge but shut down in February after 49 years in business.