Elegance & Antics
Newport Syndicate and Gangsters Piano Bar
Are Great for Banquets and Laughs

For those who were around during Newport’s murky past, it may be hard to conjure the image of its infamous underworld figures sitting piano-side, warbling a Neil Diamond tune or belting out the latest Lady Gaga hit. Or, maybe not.

The Syndicate — along with its newest attraction, Gangsters, an upscale dueling piano bar — are both local staples, hosting Northern Kentucky’s family and business parties while paying tongue-in-cheek homage to Newport’s “sin city” past.

“It’s become a tourist attraction, as well as a local thing that pairs nicely with the Gangster Walking Tour in Newport,” says Sharon Forton, who owns the venue. “The Syndicate is a nice, elegant space for gatherings, while Gangsters is something I like to call it a ‘Chuck E. Cheese’ for adults. It’s fun!”

Weddings, Proms, Meetings

The Syndicate, which includes seven themed rooms in its 50,000-square-foot space, is one of the premier banquet halls in the Tristate, hosting groups of 20 to 1,000 people for corporate gatherings, weddings, high school proms or family celebrations. It also hosts a winter concert series, with headliners like the Little River Band and country favorite John Michael Montgomery, coming to its main stage later this year.

It celebrated its unusual opening in 1995, on the site of one of the city’s former gambling halls, Glenn Schmidt’s Playtorium, and with an equally unusual owner — Newport developer David Hosea, whose father was president of the Committee of 500 reformers group that forced gambling out of Newport in the early 1960s.

Forton, a restaurant and entertainment veteran, has worked at the Syndicate since its opening, later becoming its owner. Two years ago, looking for a way to make the space more accessible to customers, she hatched the idea of Gangsters in space that was formerly little-used banquet space.

Sing-alongs, Serenades

It opened in November 2009, on Friday the 13th, but has been good luck for the business. With a pair of pianos surrounded by room for 200 people, it quickly became (in its name-inspired parlance) a hit.

The venue brings in pianists from around the country to perform, taking requests from the audience, even at times pulling audience members on stage to help sing, be sung to or about, or just put up with the gags and fun. Sing-alongs are common, as is being serenaded by the wait staff, says Forton.

“It’s very interactive. People have a blast,” she adds. “We bring in different artists every week. They’re a different breed, touring around the country, going to a different place each weekend. They can play anything you request, from the old standards to the current stuff, and make it fun for everyone.”

Gangsters is open Thursday through Saturday nights, and there is no cover charge. Like the Syndicate, it’s also available for private parties.

Prohibition Tea?

Building on the new success, Forton isn’t resting on her laurels. Beginning in January, she plans to offer yet another attraction in the complex: a Saturday afternoon tea room. The teas, she says, will include formal and party teas. In keeping with the mobster theme, it will also offer “Prohibition tea,” the usual fare spiced up with a touch of alcohol as it was in the days of the speakeasies of the 1920s.

Forton expects the tea addition to be another success, further cementing the Syndicate as an entertainment destination.

“If you ask people in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God! I love that place!’ That’s what we like to hear,” says Forton. ■