Duel Action

T he infamous gangster Bugsy Siegel, who helped launch the Las Vegas strip with his Flamingo Hotel and Casino, reportedly once said, “Everybody deserves a fresh start every once in a while.” 

Now a “fresh start” with his name on it has opened in Hamden. But unlike opening night at the Flamingo, which was a flop according to Smithsonian magazine, a recent Saturday night at Bugsy’s Dueling Piano Speakeasy, located on the second floor of Mickey’s Restaurant, was jam-packed and rocking.

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Happy hour—or, as owner Ari Gorfain prefers, “the happiest hours”—starts at four o’clock on Friday and Saturday afternoons. The atmosphere on a recent weekend was relaxed as the sun from a skylight bathed the silent back-to-back grand pianos, the staff prepped at the long, curved bar and parties ordered their first rounds of drinks. But by 6, the place was filling up, and by 7 it was standing room only. As the room darkened, a string of rosy lights highlighted theatrical red curtains draped around the central stage, giving the space that speakeasy glow. The evening’s three musicians (45 different pianists from New York, New England and beyond are on Bugsy’s roster) opened the evening with a toast, took their seats at the keys and launched into a tune by the king of the piano bar, Billy Joel.

Once the show begins, any idea that you’re there for a private birthday or bachelorette party is over. Everyone is at Bugsy’s to party together. As one of the sayings painted on the entry stairs puts it, “There are no strangers here, just friends who haven’t met yet.”

This is an all-request show, but there are a few rules you’ll want to learn. Requests come at a price, and songs will be played in “presidential order”— a Jackson beats a Hamilton, which beats a Lincoln, which beats a Washington. If you don’t like a song, you can pay to kill it (“If you can top it, you can stop it”). Such was the fate of a Kid Rock song. You can put up a toast on the toast board (also for a price) or root for your favorite team (“New York, New York” or “Sweet Caroline”), a game that really gets the crowd going, Gorfain says.

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You can also dedicate your requested song to the birthday boy or the bride-to-be. One woman named Donna, who arrived in a feathered hairband, flapper-style, got a hearty birthday serenade from the crowd. Later, she seemed to feel she might be in over her head when she was pulled into a lip sync competition against a guy who took a little too enthusiastically to the percussion instruments handed out to audience members, earning him the nickname “cow bell man.”

Certain songs were especially crowd-pleasing: “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Country Roads,” “Only the Good Die Young.” Gorfain says one of the pianists who’s sometimes there plays fiddle on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and brings down the house. “The crowd invents the whole night,” he says, “whether they’re going into ’80s rock or somebody likes a little bit more hip-hop.”

That night’s entertainers, trading seats at both pianos and a drum set, were as much jugglers as pianists while they bantered with the crowd, sorted request slips and bills strewn across the piano tops and rolled with the requests—banging out tunes, belting out lyrics and throwing in more than a few glissandos for good measure. In addition to sing-alongs, party games, PG-13 jokes and drinks (including free shots for the winners of the lip sync), an abbreviated Mickey’s menu provides small plates, appetizers and pizzas. Gorfain likens the scene to “adult Disneyworld.”

A bar owner, promoter and DJ, Gorfain discovered dueling pianos on a move back to Connecticut from Florida. “I was driving home with all my stuff in a U-Haul,” he recalls. Halfway here, he and a friend stopped at Myrtle Beach and went to Crocodile Rocks piano bar. The memory, he says, still gives him a chill. “I met the owner, hit it off, came home, said I’m opening this place in New Haven.”

That dream turned into Keys to the City, located first at Chapel and Temple Streets and later at Terminal 110 on Long Wharf. Bugsy’s is its second act, situated near the same Hamden corner—Whitney and Dixwell—where, years ago, Gorfain’s father owned a printing shop.

Like his piano players, who never sit still during their four-hour set, Gorfain is always on the move—taking calls, running interference and, from 11 to close on Fridays and Saturdays, spinning Motown, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s tunes for the late-night Bugsy’s crowd. His next project is a rooftop sports bar adjacent to Bugsy’s, which he hopes to have open in time for warm weather.

Though Gorfain isn’t a piano player himself, he clearly has fun listening and partying with the crowd. His own request list includes “Sail Away,” “Walking in Memphis” and “Don’t Stop Believing.” In the sense of that last song, at least, the gangster who believed he could build a casino in the desert and the DJ who believed he could build a piano bar on the corner have something in common.

Bugsy’s Dueling Piano Speakeasy
2323 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
Fri-Sat 4pm-2am (dueling pianos 6:30-11pm), special events some Thursdays and Sundays
(203) 288-2323 | ari@bugsysct.com
www.bugsysct.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Join her this month on Goodreads for a guided winter reading of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.

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