Last dance at the AC

Atlantic Connection teen night. Photo by Ben Scott
AC teen nights drew large crowds. Photo by Ben Scott

By Julian Wise - January 26, 2006

This Saturday, Jan. 28, after the last bowl of chili is eaten and the last song by Johnny Hoy fades away, the Atlantic Connection will close its doors for good. Following a festive Last Blast Party scheduled for Friday, Jan. 27, Saturday's annual Big Chili Contest Red Stocking fundraiser and an Après Chili party with Johnny Hoy will be the final events at the popular Oak Bluffs nightclub. Furnishings, sound equipment, kitchen paraphernalia, memorabilia, and more will be sold at an "everything must go" closing sale on Feb. 4.

The owners, Robert Murphy of Oak Bluffs, a realtor, and James Ryan, owner of Ryan Family Amusements, a Cape-based amusement company, plan to open an arcade in the large downtown building. Seasons Eatery and Pub, the adjacent restaurant under the same ownership, will continue to operate, but under new management.

Reggae concert. Photo by Diana Waring
From reggae to rap and everything in between, the AC was the place. Photo by Diana Waring

The Atlantic Connection, best known as "the AC," leaves behind a legacy of live music, comedy, theater, and community-binding fundraisers. In the AC's prime, drag queens lip-synched across the same stage that nationally known musical acts performed on. Local thespians performed "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" during the 80s while chili chefs paraded their wares at the annual Big Chili Contest. "Ladies' Nights" that featured male strippers years ago, "Brazilian Dance Nights" more recently, Halloween, and New Year's Eve parties have all added color and spirit to the lore of the AC.

The building's square, functional, two-tier design never had the chic cachet of the Hot Tin Roof, yet its boxy structure seemed perfect for its working-class party atmosphere. Simple round tables and chairs punctuated the sparse decor. DJ lighting and disco balls shone down on the square wooden dance floor.

Big Chili Contest winner from 2004. Photo by Ralph Stewart
A happy Big Chili Contest winner from 2004. Photo by Ralph Stewart

People 's place
The Hot Tin Roof may have attracted the white-wine-and-pressed-slacks crowd, but the Atlantic Connection drew the blue-jeans-and- Bud crew. But it was not without its celebrity visitors. Spike Lee and actor Jaleel White ("Urkel") stood in line to get in alongside sports superstars Willie McGinest and Vin Baker. Yet in the end, the Atlantic Connection was a club of the people. It was a gathering spot for DJ dancing, award banquets, Christmas carol sing-alongs, and wedding receptions. While a new family-oriented game room will fill the space with noise and color, Circuit Avenue will nevertheless feel vacant without the landmark club.

The Atlantic Connection was an entertainment club, yet its character extended beyond that of a typical drink-and-dance joint. The owners and management made a conscious effort to interface it with the Island community in a meaningful way. Every Christmas the community of Oak Bluffs would gather inside after the Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony to drink hot chocolate and sing Christmas carols. The awards ceremonies for the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program and the Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby were held there, as were annual banquets for public school teachers. Numerous wedding receptions were held inside the building where Island families could gather in joyous celebration and it was a favorite location for roasts and retirement parties too.

Anglers accept fishing derby awards. Photo by L.A. Brown
The AC stage has held many winners over the years. Here some talented anglers accept fishing derby awards. Photo by L.A. Brown

The Atlantic Connection occupied the Circuit Avenue space that had previously been The Boston House. After prior owners George Monroe and Leo Convery sold the building, it rotated through half a dozen owners within a decade. Stability came when Robert Murphy and James Ryan of Ryan Family Amusements purchased the building in 1986, as the property teetered on the brink of foreclosure.

"When we bought the building, we took it down to its bones and rebuilt the entire property," Mr. Murphy recalled in a telephone interview this week. "Everything, plumbing, wiring, electricity, sprinklers; we did what it took to bring it back. It's run successfully with the same owners for the last 20 years. That's quite an accomplishment."

Mr. Murphy said his future vision for the property includes a shift away from the liquor scene to a more family-oriented venue that is attractive to youngsters. The rebuilt facade will give open view to a family-themed game room and dining facility.

Atlantic Connection manager Mike Santoro. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Longtime AC manager Mike Santoro. Photo by Ralph Stewart

"We've always been family dining at Seasons and we want to enhance that, to bring something where the children can enjoy themselves, to have something that will bring people into town to enjoy the atmosphere," Mr. Murphy said.

When the former Boston House was converted into the current layout, the venue evolved from more of a musical artist showcase to a dance/party club. Former manager Michael Santoro helmed the club throughout the 1990s and brought in a diverse roster of national talent. An incomplete list includes The Tom Tom Club, Arrested Development, Martin Sexton, Living Colour, Quiet Riot, Maxi Priest, Inner Circle, Israel Vibration, Yellowman, South Side Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, John Pousette Dart Band, Elvin Bishop, Ben Taylor, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Buckwheat Zydeco. The Peter Wolf concert, featuring several members of the original J. Geils Band, remains a talked-about highlight of the 1990s.

Talent and community
Mr. Santoro, a veteran of the food and beverage scene in New England's ski country, brought fresh energy to the booking process, forging connections with other New England agencies to steer premier talent to the Island. Chris Franz, former Talking Heads drummer and founding member of The Tom Tom Club, said in a previous interview that Mr. Santoro went the extra mile to make Island performances a pleasure.

"Everything's great, from the lobster dinners to the hotel accommodations. Mike really works hard to make it an enjoyable visit for us."

DJs who made their mark on the club include Billy Davies, Marc Pettricone, Josh Tucker, Mike Giordano, Jay Araujo, Doug Davies, Jeff Pratt, and Paul O'Neill. Live comedy nights featured then-unknown comics Joe Rogain (host of television's "Fear Factor"), Anthony Clark (star of the hit show "Yes, Dear") and film/television actor Lenny Clarke.

Local musicians also made their presence known on the stage, often contributing their time to the many benefit concerts that aided everything from local children with cancer to 9/11 and tsunami victims.

Blues artist Maynard Silva remembers the club's ability to gather people together for common causes. "It was a nice room to play," he recalls. "The sound of the room was decent, and it's gonna be missed for that. If you wanted to get a few hundred people in a room to raise some dough for a cause, that was the place to do it. A lot of money got raised there for different causes, and there isn't going to be a place to put that together unless the Hot Tin Roof goes year-round. It leaves a vacuum. It's a shame it's going."

Indeed, the club was a powerful engine for fundraising, with local musicians lending their talents to raise money for local families that were beset by illness or misfortune. Mr. Santoro says making the club available for fundraisers was a natural choice. "I've always been a big believer in businesses giving back to the community," he says. "I think businesses have a duty to do that. This Island is incredible with people coming together for family and friends that have illnesses. The network is unbelievable."

The club was a significant venue for local bands trying to make their mark on the local music scene. From the mid-90s on, weekly gigs by the retro disco act The Boogies and the world beat group Entrain packed the place to capacity. Tom Majors, founding member of Entrain, says the Atlantic Connection was instrumental in launching the band's career.

"It was the first place Entrain ever played, so we have a lot of history there. A lot of people from off-Island look at the club as being Entrain's home. People from off-Island would make special trips to see us at the Atlantic Connection. It's difficult to see it go, but like everything you have to take everything that comes and find the silver lining."

"Everything has to change," said Mr. Majors, reflecting on shifts in the music business, and the fact that fans these days are often under 21. "Clubs run their course."

Mixed emotions
Across New England, clubs are experiencing declining attendance and revenues. Some have closed, while others, like the Atlantic Connection, have been transformed into more family-oriented venues. Several factors led to the end of the Atlantic Connection's run. Fewer college students on the Island meant fewer young people going out every night to spend their earnings on entertainment. Higher costs of living on the Island mean less discretionary income to spend. Stricter OUI laws and aggressive police enforcement of the 0.08 blood-alcohol content limit have cooled patrons' enthusiasm for driving at night. Nightclub insurance has sky-rocketed in the wake of the horrible Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island and the Chicago club stampede three years ago. This combination of factors has squeezed the profitability of the nightclub business.

For Mr. Santoro, the end of the Atlantic Connection is a bittersweet experience. Among his many memories he says the annual Safe Haven pizza and dance party at the club stands out as a favorite. Over the years the Atlantic Connection hosted children with HIV and AIDS, many of whom, sadly, could not be certain that they would live long enough to enter a 21-and-over club.

"It was one of the highlights of my career seeing these kids with smiles as wide as the dance floor being able to dance in a nightclub," says Mr. Santoro. "I will carry that feeling with me forever. That's what donating the Atlantic Connection is all about. That magical thing about music is that it helps not only to raise money but to bring smiles to everyone's faces and help forget for a moment the hardships the individuals face. That's what made the Atlantic Connection so unique."

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.