The Life of the Party

It's just before midnight, and the hordes are filing into the Ultra 88 nightclub above the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut. The party is just beginning to lift off, and bartenders are working furiously to fuel the frenzy. Beneath a nexus of pulsating lights, stilettos slip on the sweat-greased dance floor, the mob bouncing to a hip-hop bass line like one huge organism with a thousand flailing limbs. Ultra 88 has never hosted such a fevered bash before. The club is brand new and fully loaded with add-ons. Secluded in the back, a room-sized bed for loungers sits surrounded by a curtain of gold lam>=, the kind of fabric you'd imagine Halle Berry slipping out of after Oscar night. High-rolling VIPs are milling in the private lounge, which features flat-screen TVs, butler service, and a bathroom for their exclusive use. Mostly velvet-red, the whole club is constructed like a high-end sports car, built for speed. And right now the speedometer needle's pinned. Celtics stars Antoine Walker and Walter McCarty are on the dance floor, working moves that make the basketball stuff look like hopscotch. Fashion guru Joseph Abboud mingles, dressed in a white suit, sans tie. Silver-screen producer Bobby Farrelly, half of the brother duo behind such films as There's Something about Mary and Kingpin, stands with cabernet in hand, talking about Stuck on You, the movie he has just wrapped up about a pair of Siamese twins. “Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear were literally joined at the hip for 58 days of shooting,” Farrelly is saying, chuckling almost sadistically. Leaning up against the bar at the edge of this frenzy, quietly soaking it all in, stands a tall man with dark hair. He's older than the dance-floor crowd, dressed casually in a striped button-down and black-rimmed specs. He whispers something to a beautiful blond bartender, who promptly begins handing out shots of tequila to a small clique of well-dressed friends. The quiet man lifts a shot himself and tosses it back. All around him, smooth-talkers are working the night, unaware of the quiet man leaning on the bar. Unaware that the man is in fact the guy in charge, this party's host, Patrick Lyons, the biggest entertainment mogul in New England for the last two decades. Understated in garb and posture, the quiet man is in fact the life of the party, the man responsible for it all, the one some people like to call the king of clubs.
Patrick Lyons doesn't like it when he's called the king of clubs. “That's old news,” he says. “I'm way past that.” He also doesn't like publicity. At all. That's why most Bostonians have no idea what New England's preeminent entertainment czar looks like. Lyons doesn't like to be recognized. Though he spends his life hobnobbing with celebrities and rock stars, he doesn't wish to be one himself. Over lunch in the Back Bay at Jasper White's Summer Shack (which he co-owns) inside the Kings bowling-and-nightclub complex (which he also owns) a few days before the big event at Ultra 88 (which he owns), Lyons, 48, is looking edgy in a wrinkled short-sleeve button-down, shades pulled back over his head, a two-day stubble riding his square jaw. His gaze is part businessman charming, part don't fuck with me. He is explaining why he doesn't like to have his picture taken or consent to interviews like this one, which took months to arrange. (Among other things, it required a promise to attend a pricey charity event he ran. Which is another thing about Patrick Lyons: He's all heart. More on that later.) “Personal publicity doesn't do me any good anymore,” he says. “I prefer anonymity.” It's an odd thing to hear from such a high-profile figure, not to mention one who is in the restaurant and nightclub business. Then again, Lyons is already doing nicely, thank you. His privately held company, the Lyons Group, is attracting “north of $50 million” in business annually. And it's expanding rapidly in what seems the worst economic climate since the Hoover administration. Along with even lower-profile partner Ed Sparks (Lyons handles the creative and conceptual stuff, Sparks the finances and operation), Lyons now runs 25 restaurants, nightclubs, lounges, and bars. Places like the Big Easy, Harvard Gardens, Lucky's Lounge, the Paradise, and Sonsie, to name just a few. The company dominates Lansdowne Street, the hipster mecca behind Fenway's Green Monster, with joints like the Modern, Embassy, Avalon, Axis, Jake Ivory's Dueling Pianos, the Tiki Room, and Bill's Bar. Lyons has also consulted for the likes of billionaire Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn and Mel Simon, cochairman of the nation's biggest single shopping mall company. Then there's that little music-venue venture Lyons helped launch back in 1992 called House of Blues. The first was in Cambridge. Now there are eight across North America. Make the mistake of asking Patrick Lyons what he's up to these days, and you'd better be prepared to hang out for a while. His reticence to talk is suddenly stripped away. In just the past 12 months, he'll tell you, he has opened Kings, the Tiki Room, two new Summer Shacks with Jasper White, and the nightlife complex at Mohegan Sun that includes not only Ultra 88 but a Las Vegas'style lounge dubbed Lucky's and an Irish pub, the Dubliner. “These places,” Lyons says, “will knock your fucking head in.” He isn't bragging. Patrick Lyons is on a manic mission. His goal: to keep himself from getting bored. He's spent decades hunting for the next buzz. And he's got the city of Boston in tow. “The most remarkable quality about Patrick,” says Stephen Mindich, a longtime Lyons friend and publisher of the Boston Phoenix, “is his ability to feel what is happening in his world, and to feel what is about to happen in the near future. If you're too far ahead, people won't understand where you're coming from. If you're too far behind, they won't care. You have to be right on the moment.” Still, long before this moment, long before the chi-chi eateries and the 2,000 full- and part-time employees, there was just the king of clubs, a streetwise kid who showed up in town, ready to play his hand.
Truth be told, Patrick Lyons was pretty much tricked into coming to Massachusetts. He arrived on a bus at the age of 23 with a couple years' experience working in nightclubs in his hometown of Buffalo, and later in Minneapolis and Detroit. He'd skipped college, finding a home working in discos instead. (Lyons inherited his service-trade genes from his one-time barmaid mom.) One day, his boss asked him if he'd be interested in opening a nightclub in Boston. “Actually, it's on Cape Cod,” the boss said. Boston? Cape Cod? Sounded exotic to a kid from Buffalo. But when he stepped off the bus, he learned the club — a 1,200-capacity disco called Uncle Sam's — was on Nantasket Beach in Hull. “It was a seaside honky-tonk,” he recalls. “The prospects were frightening. It was really bad.” Still, even in a town like Hull, the '70s disco craze could make a cash register grow legs and do splits on a dance floor — if a club was marketed the right way. With the help of his brother John, Lyons made the place a success. He worked a stint in New York City before transferring to a local disco called Boston-Boston at 15 Lansdowne, the current location of Avalon — arguably Lyons's best-known venue now. (John Lyons is now part owner and director of operations for Avalon and Axis.) In 1981, along with Sparks, an accountant who provided the financial know-how, Lyons leveraged a buyout of Boston-Boston. The Lyons Group was born. But it was just the beginning. “Patrick's eyes have always been on sticks,” says John Spooner, a financial planner (and this magazine's finance columnist), who began early on advising the budding club king about what to do with his profits. “He has an endless curiosity and an ability to clue in to what is coming next.”
In 1979, Lyons opened another room off Boston-Boston, at the location that is now Axis. He tried to think of the grossest name he could come up with. Within weeks, Spit was the hottest nightclub in New England. “Pat hired a cadre of DJs who broke punk rock in Boston, including Oedipus,” now program director at WBCN, remembers photographer Steven Stone, who was hired to shoot pictures in the club in the early '80s. “It was a wild scene — hot, loud, sweaty. Lots of Spandex, bright rayon, mismatched shoes, artfully torn clothing.” To make the place different (and pump up profits), Lyons pioneered a new party scheme called “double-decking,” now all the rage in clubs worldwide. He'd have a band play a set, then jack the party up another notch with a DJ to keep the crowd turning over. Boston-Boston became Metro, and its first act was a band called the Vapors, whose “Turning Japanese” was a hit on a fledgling MTV. The B-52s followed, then the Ramones. “Playing Patrick's clubs was like a personal party for me,” says legendary rocker Peter Wolf. “Everybody knew everybody, and I liked Patrick because he wasn't some big-shot money guy. He was a street kid like me, working his way up from the bottom. When my show was over, we'd have this after-hours get-together we called 'two-fingers.' Sometimes it was scotch, sometimes rum, sometimes bourbon.” Back then, Lyons courted publicity. He pulled stunts, once smashing two cases of Stolichnaya (worth $144 at the time) to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — after calling both major dailies and all the local TV news stations. When he remodeled Spit's moldy bathrooms, he made an event out of it. Crooned the Phoenix at the time: “Spit, the club for punk rockers, has imported a stock of black toilets and urinals from Italy to put a punk punch into its unisex restrooms.” Lyons hired tuxedo-clad waiters to hand out Champagne in the new latrines. It was all a joke, and the king of clubs was laughing his ass off. “Of course I'm a hustler,” he told this magazine in 1980. “It's all a sport. I'm only going to be this age once, so I might as well enjoy it.” As Lyons basked in the spotlight, partner Ed Sparks was working the back end. Unlike most nightclub/ service businesses (which, let's face it, are often run by flakes and sleazeballs), the Lyons Group hired top law and accounting firms. “We did everything in a professional manner,” Sparks says over lunch at Sonsie. “That's what enabled us to grow.” Disco and punk morphed into new wave and then grunge, and Lyons relaunched Spit and Metro as Axis and Avalon (after an incarnation as Citi). In 1982, he and Sparks bought the Paradise from Don Law. Lyons reshaped his clubs, staying one step ahead of the times. “There aren't too many people in town who've been able to reinvent themselves over and over for 25 straight years,” Spooner says. On the stages where U2 and Madonna once played (“We paid Madonna a thousand bucks to play Spit,” Lyons remembers, laughing, “with her brother as a backup dancer”), the Lyons Group started hosting Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phish — the hottest acts of each evolving era, before they hit the stadiums. “Patrick always had the ability to sniff out what was about to happen,” Phoenix publisher Mindich says. So where does that leave him now?
When you walk into the Lyons Group headquarters on Lansdowne Street, the first thing you see is a wall with all the logos of all the ventures that make up the entertainment empire. It's always been Patrick Lyons's strategy to hit every segment of the market. In the beginning there was disco and there was punk, and Lyons had a club for each crowd. Today, fine dining is the new disco, and yuppie lounges are the new punk. If you don't agree, you can still head over to Avalon or the Paradise on any given night and bang heads with some sweaty leather folk. Whatever you need, whoever you think you are, Lyons is serving up the good times. It's a spectacularly effective strategy. There's Lansdowne for the college kids, the Alley for the Euros and the twentysomethings. It's notable that, just as he did in the '80s, Lyons is also supplying venues now to serve an audience of people around his own age. Wearing a Fendi red beret and matching G-string? You'll feel right at home noshing on focaccia at Sonsie on Newbury Street. Looking to cheat on your wife with a girl half your age? Try Lucky's Lounge in Southie. “Patrick shows people how to have fun,” says Jasper White, the Lyons Group's partner in the Summer Shack venture. (There are three Jasper White's Summer Shacks now, with plans to go national.) “His creativity, his insight into the marketplace — he's just really good at it.” Most nights you can find Lyons in one of his places. Sometimes he pops up by surprise, finds a doorman or bartender who doesn't know who he is, and tests the service that way. Other times he entertains groups of friends, many of them celebrities, at one of his clubs or over dinner in one of his restaurants. While Lyons works the front end, his partner continues to handle operations. Says Sparks: “After Patrick plays with the Erector set, I come in and make sure the bills are paid, the money's in the bank, the payroll's taken care of. It's a great partnership.” Not that there haven't been some failures, like the “notable bomb on Newbury Street,” as the Globe called the ill-fated restaurant Fynn's, and the Mama Kin nightclub debacle, a venture with Aerosmith that ended in tatters in 1999; Lansdowne Street may draw dance audiences and Eurokids, but it was tougher to lure people there to hear the local rock that Mama Kin was meant to spotlight, a problem that only worsened friction between Lyons and Aerosmith over the club's finances. (Part of the space became the Modern and the rest was used to expand Avalon.) There are those who say that Kings, the 40,000-square-foot eating/drinking/bowling complex that opened in March in the Back Bay, is too big for its britches. Time will tell.
There's also a whole other side to this crazy business. The Lyons Group throws charity events. Big ones. If that sounds boring to you, you've never been to one. The Lyons Group runs some of the city's highest-profile events to raise money for some of the highest-profile charities, like those founded by Celtics stars Walker and McCarty, respectively. “He's a classy guy,” says McCarty, whose I Love Music Foundation for underprivileged kids was the beneficiary of a Lyons-sponsored party last year. “He's always everywhere, doing a lot for the community.” The Lyons Group also throws the Urban Improv's Banned in Boston bash every year, in which politicians and celebrities act out comic stage plays to raise money for violence- prevention programs in inner-city schools. This year's event featured Governor Mitt Romney singing and Mayor Mumbles Menino reciting Shakespeare. (Get that: a nightclub owner and a mayor who actually get along.) It raised nearly half a million dollars. At another event years back — one that included the best live show ever played in any of Lyons's clubs, according to Lyons himself — Prince took the stage at Avalon to benefit a scholarship named for a Berklee student who had been run over and killed while waiting in line for concert tickets on Mass. Ave. “We flew in his family and presented them with the scholarship,” Lyons recalls with his usual intensity. “Prince came on at 2 a.m. and played the first two songs in complete darkness. Then the lights came on and the place fucking roared!” On this particular afternoon, Lyons is sitting in his cluttered office, behind a desk so messy it looks like someone just had a kidney removed on it. He's holding a cell phone to one ear and his desk phone to the other, planning a party that is less than two weeks away. There's a problem with the invitations: They've been printed with the wrong date. Or is it the right date? No one can seem to figure it out. He hangs up the phone and flashes that devilish grin. “This party's going to be a bomb,” he says. By that, he means very good. Even sitting at his desk in his office, the man's having a good time, and he's going to make sure that, when this particular party comes, hundreds of other people are going to be having a good time, too. Which is what seems to count.
What happens to Patrick Lyons after the party's over and the guests have gone home? He's wandering around Boston right now, wondering the same thing. By now, it's likely that he's read this story and is probably not happy about being called the king of clubs again. Okay, maybe he's not the king of clubs anymore. Lyons used to own Saturday night in this town. Now, with his restaurants and his consulting business and his lounges, he owns every night. He's the earl of entertainment, Dr. Feelgood, the baron of Boston after dark. He's the life of the party, a man on a manic hunt for that next buzz. When he finds it, you'll know. One by one, party by party, half of Boston will show up to eat it, drink it, roll it, have it surgically enhanced, or whatever it is that people will be doing in Boston next year and the next year, in the hours after the sun goes down. B