SWANSEA, Mass. — A little piece of Rhode Island is up for sale, and in keeping with the state’s long tradition of quirkiness, it’s in Massachusetts.
For decades now, the Venus de Milo banquet hall, a former duckpin bowling alley on Route 6 in Swansea, has provided the stage for some of Rhode Island’s most uproarious and memorable political moments.
Amid the unmistakable aroma of lobster Newburg and Brut cologne, the annual Providence Newspaper Guild Follies drew the state’s political establishment across state lines to the Venus – along with ink-stained wretches, labor leaders, and others – for an annual night of irreverent songs and cutting parodies poking fun at Rhode Island politics.
But after a 45-year run, the Follies ended in 2018, and now the Venus is on the market – the latest victim of a pandemic that makes mass gatherings impossible, no matter how amusing.
“Obviously, it’s a Massachusetts business, but it is a Rhode Island institution in many ways,” said US Representative David N. Cicilline, who wore a long white fur coat when he served as the “mystery guest” at the Follies. “It’s sad news to hear it’s being sold.”
“It’s the passing of an era,” said US Senator Jack Reed, who donned a LaSalle Academy basketball uniform when he was the mystery guest, challenging then-US senator Bill Bradley to a game even though the former NBA star stood nearly a foot taller. “It was all part of an annual ritual of life in Rhode Island.”
Aside from the Follies, the Venus has hosted innumerable proms, sports banquets, wedding receptions, retirement dinners, and political “times” over the past 60 years. With the capacity to hold up to 2,000 people, it was one of the largest banquet halls in the region, and its loss will be felt from Taunton to Tiverton.
Christopher R. Carreiro, chairman of the Swansea Board of Selectmen, said his parents held their wedding reception at the Venus in the 1980s, and he has a photo of his mother at the Venus with Frank Sinatra.
“When folks in the greater Swansea area – in Fall River or Providence – think of Swansea, they think of the Venus de Milo,” Carreiro said. “We are losing a significant landmark.”
The other landmark that people think about is the Swansea Mall, he said, and that closed in March 2019 after 45 years in business.
Carreiro said the town has created a redevelopment authority to deal with the mall’s closure, and that authority might be able to work with whomever purchases the Venus. But he emphasized how much the Venus has meant to the community, noting the owner let the town hold its annual meeting there in June, at no charge, amid the pandemic.
Venus owner Monte Ferris choked up as he discussed the decision to put the banquet hall up for sale.
He talked about the thousands of weddings and proms held there, the thousands of high school and college students who have worked there, the thousands of hours that his family has devoted to the establishment. And he recalled the celebrities who came there, ranging from Danny Thomas and Red Buttons to singer Van Morrison and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.
“It has been a fabulous run,” Ferris said.
But he said the coronavirus outbreak, and the resulting indoor capacity limits, made it impossible to continue running a banquet hall that’s set up to feed 1,500 people in two seatings. He said he had been hoping the pandemic might recede in a few months, but now six months have passed and the busy holiday party season is fast approaching.
So now the Venus is on the market, with an asking price of $4.75 million.
Ferris said the restaurant’s signature dishes will be available through a new takeout business called Venus Foods that will be available at Jillian’s Sports Pub & Grill on Route 103 in Somerset; there are plans to expand to a location somewhere in or near Providence.
But he doesn’t know what the property will be used for next.
“It could be a lot of things,” Ferris said. “It could be a mixed-use type of development, with some residential, some commercial uses.”
If the seven-acre site does become some sort of condo complex, that’s going to be a bland substitute for the tasty minestrone and baked stuffed lobster that the Venus served up over the years – not to mention the salty language and tart commentary that spiced up the annual Follies satire.
The Follies began after a bitter 12-day strike by the Providence Newspaper Guild in 1973. Carol J. Young, then a union leader and later The Providence Journal’s deputy executive editor, came up with the idea, looking for a way to mend fences and bring people together.
The organizers looked at Rhode Island venues, such as the Biltmore hotel and the Rocky Point amusement park, but the Venus owners were so enthusiastic and helpful that the first Follies took place there in 1974, Young said. Former Providence mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. began asking why the Follies wasn’t in Rhode Island, but by then it had grown too big for local venues, she said.
“The joke was that we had the Follies at the Venus so we would be outside the reach of Rhode Island law enforcement,” said Andy Smith, a former Providence Journal reporter who directed the Follies about a dozen times. “We always thought of the Venus as a little piece of Rhode Island that had drifted off and somehow ended up in Swansea.”
The Rhode Island political scene provided rich material to lampoon, and the Venus provided a rich buffet, including roast beef and lobster Newburg. “We used to joke that they would have a cardiologist on hand,” Smith said.
The annual satirical review traditionally ended with an appearance by a “mystery guest.” Young recalled that the very first mystery guest was then-governor Philip W. Noel, and in the years before he pleaded guilty to charges of bribery, extortion, and racketeering, then-governor Edward D. DiPrete served as the mystery guest, playing the clarinet, she said.
“It was sort of our version of the Gridiron Club,” said Bob Kerr, a former Providence Journal columnist. “We had politicians or mystery guests come out at the end to respond to the smart-ass reporters.”
For about 20 years, Kerr served as the master of ceremonies at the Follies, embodying the role of “Lonnie Love the Lounge Lizard.” He would rent out a lemon-yellow or lime-green tuxedo and belt out admittedly awful versions of “My Way” or “Feelings” in between skits.
Kerr said the Guild presented “Lifetime Achievement Awards” to Rhode Island politicians who had gone above and beyond in providing skit writers with material – including former governor Bruce Sundlun, former US senator Claiborne Pell, former attorney general Arlene Violet, and Cianci.
One year, before he was convicted of felony charges, Cianci was the target of on-stage barbs at the Follies, and afterward, Kerr ran into him in the Venus men’s room.
“I guess we hit him pretty hard in the show,” Kerr said. “He said he was sick of it, and he wasn’t coming back – and he didn’t.”
Smith recalled that in later years, some of the more memorable appearances were by former congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, who took the stage wearing a yachting cap after an incident aboard a boat; former US senator and governor Lincoln D. Chafee dressed as a hippie and played the guitar, and Cool Moose Party founder Robert J. Healey Jr. appeared as Jesus.
But now the show is over, and the Venus stage is empty.
“A lot of Rhode Islanders have had their celebratory moments there, and a lot of politicians have had their ‘times’ out there,” Smith said. “It was a little piece of Rhode Island.”