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The gang's all here

A trio of nightclubs add their cachet to the lures attracting young people to Mohegan Sun

Email|Print| Text size + By Jim Sullivan
Globe Staff / September 21, 2003

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- It's nearing 1 a.m., exactly one week ago today, and we've spent a couple of hours in clubland at the Mohegan Sun complex. We've modestly imbibed a martini or two, and maybe we're not seeing straight. In the semi-sequestered "white room," a private VIP booth at the nightclub Ultra 88, we seem to be seeing Johnny "Sack" Sacramoni, New York mob boss, and Christopher Moltisanti, Tony Soprano's "nephew" and a made man in Uncle Tony's New Jersey mob. Have we fallen through the rabbit hole? Is a deal going down? Is this club Mafia-owned? Are we on HBO? No, it's real life, and the actors who play Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) and Christopher (Michael Imperioli) on "The Sopranos" are in the semicircular booth, with six rather impressive-looking bodyguards nearby. A bottle of chilled Kettle One vodka arrives. Imperioli says, "I'm here every chance I get. I'm here to gamble and I did terrible. I lost money." Still, he's pumped for the night life.

"At my age," adds the older, gray-haired Curatola, "I like to see what the young people do on Saturday nights." The two men were actually brought up from New York to Mohegan Sun for an earlier corporate appearance -- "We show up, take pictures, it's maybe a treat for the people that work for the corporation," says Curatola -- and they had time on their hands. "It's hard to do an appearance," Curatola adds, "and just go back to your room."

Especially here at Mohegan Sun.

The new wrinkle to this upscale mall and gaming pavilion, this adult playground -- opened in 1996 and graced last year with a luxurious, 34-story, 1,200-room hotel -- is nightclubs. There is an arena for sports and concerts, and there is a smaller site, the Wolf Den, for live music. There are 6,000 slot machines. There have been name-brand restaurants on the premises such as Jasper White's Summer Shack and Todd English's Tuscany for two years, but the nightclubs are new. Lucky's Lounge -- meant to evoke 1950s Las Vegas (at least some of the time) -- opened last year, and the adjacent clubs, The Dubliner, an Irish pub, and Ultra 88, a fast-paced, techno-oriented dance club, opened in June. The clubs shut down at 2 a.m. on weekends, a surprise to some who are swimming in this 24/7 casino world.

Heather Marvin, who does marketing for the clubs (all together tagged as "Mohegan After Dark") says, "The last piece of what the casino was missing was the nightclub aspect." The man who put all this together is Boston nightclub king Patrick Lyons, whose specialty is spotting market niches -- finding people underserved by whatever else is out there and then providing an environment for these people to enjoy themselves. He doesn't make too many wrongheaded moves, and he likes having new toys. He opened the Summer Shack with White before developing the nightclubs. How many clubs does this make? Lyons thinks for a moment and says, "20-something."

"Mohegan Sun is like a fort," says Lyons, "and in its entirety it's like a cultural force driven by people who like gaming. But Mohegan Sun can do forty, fifty thousand people a day and it's beautiful. Who are we going to offer this to? People who want to take a little break [from gaming] and have a little slick city experience. Look at Las Vegas: It has nightclubs that are destination spots for youth, and young people are attracted by the casino, too. There's the hip restaurants, the rock shows. Look at Providence, Boston, the Hamptons, or Hartford. We've created clubs as good as any in those cities, if not better. [Mohegan Sun's] decision to have nightclubs was parallel to what happened in Vegas."

Lyons's pal, director Bobby Farrelly, told him: "At least as good as any club in Boston and New York, and you can widen that to Las Vegas."

We attended a private opening party at the complex in conjunction with Boston Celtic Antoine Walker's charity golf tournament in late July and returned last weekend to mix it up with hoi polloi. Initially, as it was the only club option (it opened in August 2002), Lucky's was constantly packed. With the soft opening of the other clubs in mid-June of this year, Ultra 88 has clearly become the hot spot. Ultra's oldest customer so far has been a 90-year-old man who, as they say, really cut a rug. Mostly, you find women 21 to 35; for men, the range goes up another decade or so. A lot of the customers come from nearby cities and towns.

Last weekend, there was a steady queue outside Ultra 88, waiting to pay a $10 cover. The Dubliner and Lucky's had no cover and were readily accessible. Overall, there is 20,000 square feet of club space.

Once inside the 9,000-square-foot Ultra, you can reserve a VIP table bordering the dance floor for $250, which goes toward alcohol. Drinks run from a $5 beer to $12. They don't want you looking ratty and will enforce a you-must-wear-a-collar or a no-crummy-looking jeans dictate, but some of the high rollers consciously dress down and they're pretty likely to get in. The focus of the front room is a sunken, 420-square-foot dance floor surrounded by cubicles and bars. There is a chill-out room with a horseshoe-shaped couch and 14-by-14-foot plush bed in the back. Primary color: deep, dark, rich reddish hues. There's a velour tapestry. There is dark marble. Said one patron: "It's Lansdowne Street kicked up a notch." But, of course, on a much smaller scale.

Ultra 88 is your oasis of cool and hip.

"We go into New York and Boston sometimes, but it's just so much easier here," said Elisabeth Barrett, chatting with her three girlfriends, all from nearby, last Saturday. "It's not as expensive, you can walk from bar to bar without having to go outside."

"Boston's just not as nice," maintained Laurie Nivison. "The girls are snobby and there are a lot more of them in the clubs."

Can you hook up?

"You meet somebody every time," said Christina Sivigny. "I'm not saying you hook up, but you can spend the night talking and dancing with somebody."

"Classy girls, classy guys," added Julie Alaimo. "You feel like it's a real night out -- something special."

It was a first visit for Alison Costa, a professional from Rock Hill who was here for a bachelorette party. "I absolutely love this place," she said. "It's a great setup; it's very classy." Downside: It's 45 minutes away. Upside: It's not Hartford, where she usually clubs and knows too many of the same people. "Now that I'm a little older, I don't go out having any expectations. I don't go looking for guys. Now, it's more of a go-out-with-the-girlfriends thing."

If you're going with a group, consider renting one of the private rooms. Pay $1,500 for "the VIP suite" and they will comp 18 people -- that is, let them in without paying a cover charge. Half the money goes to the rental; the other is your alcohol minimum. "The Moroccan Room" is $1,000 -- $500 rental, $500 alcohol, with 10 comp tickets. In the "white room," which seats 10-12, it costs $750, $300 for the rental, $450 toward alcohol, and you get eight comps.

"You can be a big fish in a small pond," says Diane McNamara, out for an overnight on the town with longtime pal Peggy Rose. "Come down for a weekend and be a real shining star." (They're both Boston-area publicists; neither has a Mohegan account.) Rose adds that it's a nice escape from Boston, a place where you don't necessarily know many of the people you run into and, thus, an opportunity to let your hair down. "Tons of fun, and not necessarily for just the twentysomethings," Rose says.

If you're planning on getting up to groove on one of the speakers in the four corners of the dance floor, you should be young, attractive, and female. Failing to meet those criteria, several patrons said, will result in a nudge from the staff to step down.

At the 3,500-square-foot Dubliner, a replay of the day's Red Sox game is on the telly and low-level rock 'n' roll on the sound system. There's a fireplace and a small oval-shaped dance floor. There are numerous Gaelic touches -- paintings, hand-carved corbels and metal work -- imported by Anne Browne, who did Ned Devine's in Quincy Market. Guinness is on tap, of course. "The best around," is the club's boast. Capacity is 170, but there are considerably fewer people when we visit both nights. But a good time is being had.

"It's about dark wood, atmosphere," explains manager Chris Leonard. "We've hired young and good looking," he says, "all the beautiful people, mind and soul." There's live Irish music on Sundays, and a small dance area. Mostly, there are stools, tables, and booths, and the idea is to be able to exchange "craic," the Irish term for good conversation. There's often an "Irish ambassador" on duty, Simon O'Toole, who gets paid to promote socializing. Your waitress may actually put down her tray and join you for a dance -- all approved by management.

Lucky's, with a 220 capacity and 5,000 square feet, has a big round bar that seats 40, a fireplace, and a jolly vibe. The crowd sings along and dances to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" as the club nears closing time. (Families are welcome for food and drink before 9 p.m.; it then becomes a 21-plus nightclub.)

"This place blows any place around here out of the water," says a manager at one of Mohegan's restaurants, speaking about clubs outside the complex. The surrounding area, he says, has a lot of downscale bars, where 50 cents buys you a shot. This place, he says, weeds out the riffraff. "It's a totally different crowd here." He says Lucky's was packed all summer, with new people in every night.

You have Vegas-style music until 7 p.m., and then a mix of rock 'n' roll from the '50s through the '70s. There is no cover charge.

"A good mix," says Josh Kelly, an ironworker from Waterford, who calls the casinos and nightclubs "the best thing to happen to this area for so many local people."

Jim Sullivan can be reached at jimsullivan@globe.com.

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