Cactus Club headed to Boot Hill
Tom Manning’s last stand?
By Chris Busby
The Portland City Council deadlocked 4-4 late last night over the question of whether to renew liquor and entertainment licenses for the Cactus Club, a Fore Street bar and semi-strip club owned by notorious Old Port proprietor Tom Manning. Further action on the renewal request was postponed to the Council’s next meeting later this month, in expectation that all nine members will be present to cast a decisive vote.
Councilor John Anton left last night’s meeting due to illness after hearing opening testimony from Portland Police Lt. Michael Sauschuck and Manning’s attorney, David Turesky. Reached for comment today, Anton said he was prepared to vote against the renewals last night, and added, “I don’t see anything that would change that.”
Turesky did not return a call seeking comment this afternoon, but is expected to appeal the Council’s likely denial to state liquor-licensing authorities. The bar would probably be allowed to remain open pending the outcome of that appeal.
The police department recommended denial of the bar’s liquor license last fall due to the high number of fights and other disturbances inside and outside Cactus Club. Between December 2007 and last November, cops documented 64 calls to the bar or the area outside its front door. There were 12 fights outside the club and two inside, including an incident last July when officers entered to find a man unconscious on the floor, his head “lying in a pool of blood approximately 6”-8” inches across,” Sauschuck wrote in his report. The man had been repeatedly kicked in the head after being knocked out, and two suspects were later arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, Sauschuck reported.
Councilors Kevin Donoghue, Dave Marshall, and John Coyne, as well as Mayor Jill Duson, voted to deny the renewal request. Councilors Nick Mavodones, Dory Waxman, Dan Skolnik and Cheryl Leeman supported an amendment introduced by Mavodones that would have granted the liquor-license renewal for another year but renewed the club’s entertainment license for only three more months, at which time calls for service between last November and this coming April would be assessed.
Without an entertainment license, it’s unlikely the club would be able to remain open. In addition to DJs, Cactus Club employs scantily dressed women to dance on the bar and entertain customers with lap dances and the like.
During a visit to the bar last year in the company of Marshall and Donoghue, The Bollard observed one of the dancers rubbing her ass into the crotch of a male customer while another male and a female customer looked on. The foursome left the bar together shortly thereafter.
Outside the club that night, another dancer — who goes by the stage name Chanta — told The Bollard a woman who previously worked as a dancer at Cactus Club had to quit after publicity from her appearances there and a related Internet post attracted stalkers. Chanta had earlier demanded $10 from this reporter after the photograph above was taken of her. She said $5 would go to her and $5 to the bar. A male bartender reiterated that demand, but both relented when The Bollard refused to pay.
Manning, a resident of Falmouth in his early 40s, told councilors the dancers work as “subcontractors.” They are paid with tips stuffed into their clothing or between their breasts.
Several Cactus Club employees gave brief statements urging the Council to grant the licenses, saying the club’s closure would cost them their jobs. No other members of the public spoke for or against the renewals.
Manning’s 12-year tenure as a bar owner has been marred by a series of ugly incidents. The first was in April of 1999, when police raided Metropolis, a dance club on Forest Avenue he owned and operated, and found crack cocaine, heroin, and a variety of hallucinogenic drugs. The club had been hosting all-night raves that attracted hundreds of teenagers.
Manning claimed ignorance of the heavy drug scene in his establishment, and he and his attorney charged that police had “unfairly labeled and targeted” the club. A grand jury indicted Vision Capital, the company Manning set up to operate Metropolis, of four drug trafficking charges. The charges were dropped after Manning agreed to dissolve the company and donate $1,000 to a youth organization, according to press reports at the time.
Manning ran The Pavilion, an upscale nightclub and banquet facility, between 1998 and 2005. He also previously owned and operated the Iguana, a rowdy college bar on Wharf Street where patrons danced on the bar, until last year; Cake, a short-lived restaurant and nightclub a few doors down on Wharf Street that also closed last year; and Digger’s/Liquid Blue, a combination bar and dance club on Fore Street.
Fights and other mayhem outside Manning’s Old Port establishments routinely put him in the hot seat with cops and councilors. But Manning usually avoided serious consequences by arguing that those incidents could not be directly connected to his businesses, given the density of drinking establishments in the area. He and Turesky made that argument again last night — citing the fact Gritty McDuff’s, Amigos and Foreplay are all within a block of Cactus Club — and they managed to convince enough councilors to create the deadlock.
That argument was less persuasive in 2007, when police urged councilors to revoke Manning’s licenses for Digger’s/Liquid Blue. In that case, police tallied 25 fights, 16 assaults and over a dozen other disturbances in a 13-month review period.
One of those fights involved Manning himself. On July 9, 2006, Manning was arrested for fighting another man on Wharf Street and then allegedly taking swings at cops who arrived to break up the fight. According to Matt D’Alasandro, a Marine who worked as a bouncer at Digger’s and witnessed the altercation, a highly intoxicated Manning provoked the fight by telling the other man, an African-American who formerly worked as a bouncer there, “I don’t allow niggers in my club,” then shoving him.
D’Alesandro described a work environment at the bar in which employees routinely drank hard liquor on the job and so disliked Manning that news of his arrest that night was met with shrugs.
Police charged Manning with disorderly conduct and refusing to submit to arrest. He pleaded guilty to the disorderly conduct charge in February 2007; prosecutors dropped the other charge and agreed to dismiss or “file” the disorderly conduct conviction if Manning stayed out of trouble for six months, which he has apparently done.
The Council denied Manning’s request to renew licenses for Digger’s/Liquid Blue in late 2007, and state authorities subsequently rejected his appeal.
Ryan Byther and a business partner took over the establishment early last year after city attorney Gary Wood determined that Manning would no longer be involved in the business — a condition the city demanded before granting the new licenses. That condition was violated after Byther and his business partner had a falling out over operation of the new establishment, called Prost/Club Onyx, and allegedly sold it to a third party.
Byther said Manning was brought back in to help operate Prost/Club Onyx after his business partnership fell apart. A former employee of Manning’s establishments told The Bollard Manning called and offered him a job there late last year. Portland police and state liquor enforcement authorities were investigating Manning’s ties to the business last October, according to internal correspondences between police and city employees. The business has since closed and the space is currently for lease.
Having lost Cake, the Iguana and Digger’s/Liquid Blue, Manning was left with only one Old Port bar at the beginning of last year, the smallest of all his past holdings, The Mercury. Formerly called the Lava Lounge, Manning changed the name again to the Cactus Club and instituted the current format about a year ago.
The Bollard was present last month when a bouncer at Cactus Club, talking informally to a local bar owner, remarked that Cactus Club attracts “the worst clientele in the city.” He went on to describe a huge brawl that erupted inside the club — which he said was packed past capacity — on New Year’s Eve, forcing the bar to close early. That’s presumably one of the incidents the Council would have considered this May had Councilors Mavodones, Waxman, Skolnik and Leeman been able to muster a fifth vote to keep the club open pending a review of more recent police calls.