A Party That Did and Didn’t Take Off

December 7th, 2003 - New York Times

EARLY last month, Robert Forcelli (friends call him Fastlane) thought he was going on a business trip, so he packed a change of clothes and hitched a ride with his business partner, Jesse Itzler (friends call him Jesse James) to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

A private jet greeted him on the rain-soaked tarmac, pilots sat in the cockpit and a group of business partners waited inside, eating mixed nuts passed around by the flight attendants. Mr. Forcelli, however, was the only one with luggage.

Surprise!

The 10-year anniversary of Mr. Forcelli’s introduction to Sharley, his wife, happily coincided with the promotional schedule for a new fitness infomercial featuring Mr. Forcelli and a bouncing, sweating workout class. Two investors in his project, Mr. Itzler and Kenny Dichter, run a company that leases private jets, and they thought that a business trip would be a good cover for a surprise party.

But the jet, which was equipped with a stereo system, a VCR player, telephones and Internet access, would not be going anywhere. ”We thought it would be just as good to stay on the ground,” Mr. Dichter said. ”We didn’t want a bumpy dinner.”

Pushing the curtains into the cabin aside, Mr. Forcelli, who has the biceps and the toothpaste smile of a fitness instructor, was greeted with a roar. ”Fastlane in the house!” someone shouted. He staggered back a few steps, surprised.

”When I couldn’t get a hold of my wife for over an hour, I was freaking out,” he said. ”Jesse kept saying: ‘Bad cell connection here.’ ”

A flight attendant handed Mr. Forcelli a drink, and he settled into a seat to watch the latest version of the infomercial, which was playing on little monitors that folded out of the walls, filling the cabin with the strenuous sounds of exercise: ”One, two, three — come on, ladies!”

For four years, Mr. Forcelli has been teaching fitness classes in Westchester County. One of his clients was married to a venture capitalist, and, as a result, for the past few months Mr. Forcelli had been talking with him and a group of other investors about videotapes, clothing lines and television contracts.

The attendants squeezed past the seats with trays of food that would send any Atkins adherent fleeing: baked potatoes with assorted toppings, tuna tartare on potato crisps, lightly braised purple fingerling potatoes.

Before his career as a fitness instructor, in the austere 1980’s when butter-slathered steak was still a bad thing, Mr. Forcelli ran a group of street stands in Manhattan that sold baked potatoes. The business was called Potato King, and its intention, explained Mr. Forcelli as he sprinkled a potato wedge with bacon bits, was to provide a healthy alternative to normal street food.

”Sweetheart, when was the last time we had potatoes?” Mrs. Forcelli said.

”Not since the Potato King,” her husband answered wistfully.

The guests, with the exception of his wife, were all connected with Mr. Forcelli’s business venture, called the Contenders Club. Bonnie Bernstein, a reporter on CBS Sports, who is a spokeswoman for the workout program, complained about some of the cities she had been visiting to cover the National Football League. Steven Starker, a former partner in Goldman Sachs, who is a primary investor in the project, leaned back in his seat, recalling a recent occasion when he almost took a commercial flight. ”I actually went through making a reservation,” he said with a shudder.

A few minutes later, Mr. Forcelli was summoned to the center of the cabin, where a giant red cake in the form of a boxing glove sat on a little table (a no-carbohydrate cake, presumably for the Atkins followers, who would otherwise be reduced to eating the in-flight magazines).

There was a pause as the crowd debated whether to sing ”Happy anniversary” or ”Happy infomercial.” Finally, it was decided that an innocuous round of ”Happy Fastlane to You” would cover all the bases.

After the song, the guest of honor was called upon to deliver a speech, or, at the very least, to do some push-ups. Mr. Forcelli, who was choked up for a moment, said he was living out his dream. ”I haven’t flown anything but private for a year and a half,” he said.

Source: New York Times