By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Mark proposed to Mare while wearing an exfoliating facial mask. They walked down the aisle to techno music and had their reception at a nightclub.
"When I met Mark, I was dirt poor," Mare says. "My electricity had been turned off, my rent was late, my car didn't work. And I made the decision that day to find something I could do that would make us wealthy. I just knew that day I would never [be broke] again."
In 1995, Mare started Safari Media with a graphic designer friend, Mark VanZorn. While VanZorn worked on Web design contracts with high-profile companies, Mare sought out venture capital investors and advisers through an online message board.
One respondent would play a crucial and controversial role in her company's fate. Thuc Nguyen, an investment adviser representing a group of deaf investors, told the Chisholms he could help Safari raise capital, the Chisholms say.
And he was right. The capital came rushing in.
There was the technology investment rush going on, after all. And Safari Media grew rapidly, but eschewed hiring staff members through traditional multimedia resources, such as online ads or corporate headhunters. The Chisholms hired friends, and friends of friends, young people who fit into their clique.
In 1996, VanZorn left the company. Chisholm says she bought him out after a dispute. VanZorn, who couldn't be reached for comment, was the first of several controversial Safari defectors who would later provide testimony to the Arizona Corporation Commission.
To hear Mare tell it, each was a heartbreaking story of personal betrayal. Somebody she trusted too much, who spent too much company money for personal use, who took advantage of her generosity.
While Safari had always blurred the line between work and play, staff and friends, in December 1998 the Chisholms took a major step toward aligning their company with their lifestyle. They had just returned from seeing a Florida-based DJ and friend, Andy Hughes, play an outdoor show in Tucson.
"They had him down as the headliner, but put him on this dirt mound, in this dark corner, under a tree, on a '70s sound system," Mare says. "And I thought, 'He's too good for this.'"
Mark signed Hughes and acclaimed Valley artist Markus Schulz away from Tempe-based Dream Music, effectively launching the Safari music division. The idea, Mark says, was to spend two years promoting the Safari name by sponsoring Schulz, Hughes and other Valley DJs performing at clubs, music festivals and raves (a term traditionally applied only to unauthorized warehouse parties, but now cavalierly used as a blanket description of electronic music events). Once Safari became synonymous with extravagance, the Chisholms' hopefully successful talent would begin paying back the company.
It was truly a business plan for the dot-com age -- spend now, grow soon, profit later.
"Mark and I started doing events because we knew [Schulz and Hughes] were talented and deserved more respect than what they were getting," Mare says. "It just grew from there and became this amazing wild adventure ride. We wanted to redefine the standard of Arizona's music scene."
So Safari came to the Valley, and the party began.
For a while, everybody got what they wanted.
Markus and Heather Schulz got a sponsor for their Plastik Records label and record store in Tempe ($250,000 worth of sponsorship, according to Mark Chisholm).
Java magazine got plenty of full-page ads, New Times got a co-sponsor for a series of dance events, and many young party promoters, DJs and hangers-on got dream jobs.
"Their name got out fast," says former Safari graphic designer and event promoter Randy Phillips. "There was a lot of talk going on. Suddenly, Safari was everywhere, and everybody was asking, 'Who are these people?'"
Safari aligned itself with longtime Valley party promoters GrooveTribe ("We thought it better to join them than compete with them," says Mare) and aggressively pursued the Valley's top talent.
"They didn't skimp on anything," says Jas, a GrooveTribe member. "They got all the best people."
Mare says Safari expanded to 141 Arizona employees, plus subcontractors nationwide. Many full-timers brought in new employees by hiring friends as assistants.
"It was sort of a joke; you'd just hang out and run errands," says Ayers, who was first hired as an assistant. "They liked to bring in naive young people and shower them with gifts, shopping sprees and cars. And they told you [the cost] would all come out of your paycheck, but it didn't."
In return for its generosity, Safari wanted talent and credibility. The talent came with the money, but the credibility was tougher. The underground dance scene has its own unwritten codes of conduct, rules that observers say Safari employees either did not understand or ignored.
For example: A newbie rave promoter typically establishes himself by booking lower-tier artists for his shows. Once the promoter proves to talent agents that he can consistently provide large crowds and treat artists respectfully, agents will offer their top acts.
Safari was having none of that.
"Safari wanted big names almost immediately," says Jeffs, "and had to pay out the ass to get them."