Evenings at a New Britain Nightclub
(Part one of a four part series.)
“Less than two hundred years ago there were about forty houses in the territory now occupied by New Britain. We can hardly believe this today, when looking from the hill in Walnut Hill Park, we see church spires, factory chimneys, large school houses, and busy city streets on almost every side.”
– New Britain, “The Hardware City of the World,” 1850-1950
On March 6, 1998, New York City rapper Rakim played what would end up being the last majorly billed show at the Sting nightclub–ending with the cops shutting down a riot involving 200 people–and by September a sheriff threw a padlock on the decadent club’s front door, signaling the end of an era in the city of New Britain.
I personally don’t remember the Sting, a short-lived music venue in a venerable city deep into post-industrial decline that closed 15 years ago. But, I’ve always heard stories about this place that burnt out like a firecracker, feeling as if I had been there before, like a childhood memory you can’t quite seem to tell is real or not.
The Sting’s days were numbered, like so many businesses, institutions, or places or people in New Britain that have struggled to find a home here since all the factory jobs were exiled to some far away place and things changed. The crime and poverty arrived, a highway cut through downtown, and soon it looked like the good times had passed through this city. The Sting is about a particular time period in New Britain where each layer continues to unfurl, endlessly revealing itself like a mysterious flower, but never giving you clear answers.
The nightclub had many up and coming, no-name, famous and legendary musicians play its cabaret-style venue that was home to some of the wildest nights this city has seen in its 163-year history. It’s hard to believe that so many big acts played there, many of which were in disbelief that it shared a building with a strip joint that soon became all too common to joke about.
Twenty years after it first opened, there have been many theories on why it closed down: competition, financial trouble, a slow local economy, shady business ties, or maybe because people flat out just had too much fun there. In its 8-year window, from November 1990 through the winter of 1998, acts like Keith Richards, David Bowie, Emmylou Harris, Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, Matthew Sweet, B.B. King, Cyprus Hill, Little Feat, Blues Traveler, the Spin Doctors, Tower of Power, George Carlin, Weezer, Sheryl Crow, George Clinton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Kansas passed through its doors.
The story of the Sting and those involved is a story about a city still having fun even while everything else is going down. It marks a time when such an innovative and storied city hit rock bottom, decades after it was celebrated as a place where exciting new things were taking place. By the time the 20th century came to a close, New Britain was a skeleton, a part of the past that continues to haunt you.
New Britain is at once Any Town USA and its own unique phenomenon, relentlessly functioning through decades of economic and political decay.
The Sting and those closely associated with it had all the ingredients for a weird soap opera, a la “Twin Peaks,” featuring an already-in-place cast of eccentric, intertwined characters.
But the most interesting characters might be the Newman family itself, including owners Jimmy and Ronnie Newman and the types of people they dealt with. The Sting was a venue that from the beginning seemed to survive on mystery and rumor, backed by money from the Sisti brothers, who ran a shady company named Colonial Realty Co. based in New Britain, who once owned Mike Tyson and rapper 50 Cent’s sprawling 50-bathroom mansion in the nearby affluent town of Farmington. In 1992, the chief financial officer for that company, who helped screw up many people in Connecticut financially–destroying jobs and lives, hung himself in his gorgeous West Hartford home just before being indicted by a federal court in New Haven on embezzlement charges. His name was Frank M. Schuch, he was 40. Benjamin Sister, his son Kevin and Jonathan Googel all admitted to defrauding banks as their company filed for bankruptcy in the early 90s.
The Hartford Courant, in a story about the Sting the year it opened in 1991, said that the nightclub’s origins sprung from a business alliance with the Sisti brothers. In 1988, one of the Sisti’s bought a hotel somewhere in Hartford via Colonial Realty Co. and drove fixtures from the property to the Sting that were then used to renovate it. Newman denied working with the Sisti’s, though for a time, the Sting was owned by West Main Street Associates, which was a partnership made of the Sisti family, and Ronnie and Jimmy Newman, the two brothers who ran the club.
There was Cheri Newman, a small, introspective and pretty young blonde with flashing green eyes and Ronnie Newman’s daughter, who spun deeply into drug abuse at 28 and was stabbed in the face to death by a local tattoo artist Patrick Walsh, 18 years ago right down the street from the Sting. Both frequented the club to party there. Cheri Newman worked there and Walsh was a notoriously stern person who people called “Wild Man” Walsh, with a long and troubled criminal record, killed her at his tattoo parlor on the corner of Lincoln and West Main Streets sometime during those early morning hours. He is locked up at Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown until 2051.
Walsh told investigators that along with his brother, Jimmy Walsh, they stuffed her body into a 2 foot by 3 foot box and buried her in a village so remote that if it were a movie it would take investigators forever to get to the crime scene. The Walsh’s dug a hole so deep in the ground that the results were epic black comedy: they could barely escape the grave they had dug out. But they eventually got out somehow, and soon Walsh was under police custody; his co-accomplishes a short time after.
And then there was her father, Ronnie Newman, who pre-deceased Cheri just before her own death, and was found dead deep in the woods of Vermont sometime in 1994 after suffering a heart attack. Cheri Newman was buried with her mother, who collapsed of a heart attack upon hearing the news of her daughter’s long-feared murder.
The surviving brother, Jimmy Newman, still lives in the city. Newman, Cheri’s uncle, rifled through the streets of New Britain that summer of 1995 looking for his niece. He confronted Walsh once in front of his home–pretended to play stupid–but Walsh insisted the Puerto Ricans took Cheri.
Those are just some examples of what New Britain was like during this time period. But the Sting was the one place in the city where people could go to escape all of that and have some fun.
When I called up a local historian in the city to ask about the Sting one afternoon, she had no idea what I was talking about. It seemed like the Sting was one of those places in time that people either had no idea that it existed, or a place that was like a dirty little secret, a special club only so many people knew about, who smiled at its mention and pretended it didn’t exist at the same time.
“I never went there, because I had a family,” one longtime resident told me.
New Britain, a corrupted city that used to be the “tool making capital of the world,” a city home to different ethnic groups, a city that had spawned off rampant gang and drug problems by the time the mid 90s hit, and a city that would see its first female mayor shot dead in a strange going postal workplace massacre in 1998. Nevertheless, it’s a city with great people who work hard. Ask those who have experienced this city. New Britain has some sort of unique influence on you.
And there are those who remember when the Sting was alive, in that brief window of time when it was open and connected to a strip club beginning in the fall of 1990.
Located on Corbin Avenue and West Main in a building that also housed a strip cub called Molly Malone’s, “The Sting” was splashed across in yellow and purple on a black building where a CVS and Liquor Depot stand today. Inside it was general admission, a free for all, if you will. A bar was located to the left right when you walked in, and the ceilings there were high, like an airport hanger’s.
(Watch for part 2 next week.)