The Brookside Café is located in the small southeastern Connecticut town of Preston, but it’s getting a pretty big reputation for alleged discrimination against gays and minorities.
It also turns out to have connections to some interesting folks up in Springfield who own a number of nightclubs and strip joints with real colorful reputations in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
One man, Marquis Lawson of Norwich, has contacted the state’s anti-discrimination agency to complain about being thrown out of the Brookside earlier this month simply for dancing with another man.
Lawson is also black and his troubles at the Brookside have generated an online campaign to “Boycott the Brookside.” A Facebook page with that title has already generated hundreds of supporters.
The controversy has produced lots of claims that the club also discriminates against people of color. Several people have posted accusations that Brookside employees have turned away minorities, and that the people running the place have told DJs to change the music in an apparent attempt to appeal less to black patrons.
Robert Downes, the man listed as the liquor permittee for the Brookside, failed to return requests for comment. Helen Santaniello and Alice Fusco, who are listed in corporate records as officers of the corporate owners of the Brookside, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Santaniello, of Longmeadow, Mass., is involved with a number of strip clubs in the region.
The Brookside has its own colorful history.
There have been at least eight complaints to the state Liquor Control Commission involving the Brookside since 2009, including several relating to drunk driving cases, accidents and bar fights. State officials say the bar’s owners paid a $1,000 penalty and shut down for a day in 2010 as a result of an investigation into several incidents.
In April of this year, the state issued another warning to the Brookside for minor regulatory violations found during an investigation of alleged illegal conduct by the club’s operators.
“I’ve been going there since I was 21,” Lawson says of the Brookside, “and that’s not the first man I’ve danced with there… I felt comfortable going there, I felt comfortable dancing with a guy there, that’s why I did it.”
But one of the Brookside’s bouncers didn’t feel comfortable at all about it, according to Lawson.
The incident happened on a Saturday night earlier this month. Lawson, who is openly gay, says the bouncer told him to stop dancing with the man and that quickly led to Lawson and his friends leaving the club. He says the bouncer followed them into the parking lot and tried to pick a fight.
He also says he’s personally experienced what he believes is anti-black discrimination at the club. Lawson, who works at Walmart, recalls one time when he and some white friends were sitting at the bar waiting for drinks.
“The owner took everybody’s order except for mine,” he says. “He skipped right over me… ‘cause I was black.”
According to Lawson and several of those Facebook posts, DJs at the club were told by the club’s manager to change the music they were playing because “It’s getting too dark in here.”
An official at the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities confirmed that Lawson has contacted the agency about filing a formal complaint.
Claudette Carveth, a spokeswoman for the state Liquor Control Commission says that agency has no current investigations pending against the Brookside and that it “doesn’t have any jurisdiction over bias complaints.”
According to local tax records, the Brookside property is owned by JAWS, LLC, a firm that lists its members as Santaniello and Fusco. The operator of the Brookside is Wendell of Preston, LLC, which has the same members on its records.
Santaniello was the owner of Club 418 in Springfield, a strip club that voluntarily closed in 2009 after one person was shot to death there and three others (including an 18-year-old dancer) were wounded. According to Masslive.com, police described the murder as gang related.
While Club 418 shut down, the same location is now being used by a new topless club named Scores. The same location turns out to be the principal office of Helesant Inc., one of Santaniello’s many companies, according to Massachusetts corporation records.
And it happens that she’s a vice president in Jazzberries Inc., another Springfield company that has Anthony J. Santaniello as its president. Anthony is also president of Mardi Gras Entertainment, which operates strip clubs of that name in several locations.
(In 2009, the Springfield Mardi Gras was the scene of another murder when a 22-year-old man sitting at the bar got shot in the head.)
There’s a strip club called Mardi Gras II in East Windsor that also has a Helen Santaniello connection. Although she isn’t listed among the owners of the club, the East Windsor Tax Assessor’s Office records do mention that the owners are to be contacted through Helen Santaniello at her home address in Longmeadow.
Lawson, meanwhile, is considering his options. He says those recent incidents at the Brookside were a first for him; that he never remembers experiencing racism or discrimination growing up in Norwich.
Now, Lawson is contacting attorneys to talk over what he should do beyond filing that human rights complaint with the state.
“I’m not too positive about which direction I should go,” Lawson says.
One route he won’t be taking any time soon is the road back to the Brookside.
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