She’s not a professional juggler, but Sharon Forton is, well, a juggler. It’s just that she juggles projects instead of bowling pins.

As managing partner (she prefers the term “head goddess”) and co-owner of Newport’s Syndicate, the 57-year-old Southgate mother of six juggles daily operations at the restaurant, descending on the Purple People Bridge that she and her staff have turned into an outdoor bar and restaurant, lending her hand to planning 20 to 30 private parties a month in the private ballrooms, hosting a monthly concert series (Starship, John Waite, Poco), working with the guys who conduct the “Gangsters, Gamblers and Girls” tours of hot spots from Newport’s Sin City days, all the while remaining one of Northern Kentucky’s staunchest adoption activists.

So how many hours a day does that come to? “I don’t know. How many are there? Lucky for me, I’m blessed with high energy and can be very good at keeping my focus,” something she has already shown as a 27-year veteran of Northern Kentucky restaurants, including the Waterfront and now defunct Conservatory.

Right now, Forton’s focus is on her cell phone, where she’s trying to describe her red gangster dress to her husband of 32 years so he can bring it in time for her to change for a gangster tour party looming four hours away. “He’ll bring the wrong one, wait and see.”

The gangster tours are the brainchild of Lloyd High School teachers Jerry Gels and Mac Cooley. They tested the idea Memorial Day and again in early June with a series of sold-out tours, then dove in head first with weekly tours starting in August and running through October and related tours planned for November. The eight-block walking tour visits the sites of notorious Newport gambling dens, brothels, speakeasies and bust-out joints (Flamingo Club, Playtorium, Glenn Rendezvous, Sportsmans Club, Tropicana, Yorkshire Club, you know the places) that made the city famous. Er, infamous.

It fits that the tours start and end at the Syndicate, original home of the Playtorium, a full-service casino born in 1952. “We still have the original bar,” Forton says, pointing to the large and well-padded horseshoe shape stretching the length of the room. “We still have all the tunnels and pass throughs and hidden exits they used to move people around when the cops would raid. People also tell me there’s a walled-off room in the basement that may still hide the gambling equipment. I’m thinking it’s true because the floor plan in no way matches the blueprints.

“I love the tours. We now have dinner and drinks packages to go with them. In the restaurant, not on the Bridge.”

Oh yeah, the Bridge. The outdoor dining idea formed earlier this year and became a reality on the Fourth of July. Picnic/bar food — burgers, chicken kabobs, ribs, pulled pork — is prepared by the catering staff, whipped up on grills on the Bridge.

“I’m thrilled with the turnout,” Forton says. “It’s only open Wednesday through Saturday, but we have music every night and a full bar. It got especially busy on nights when there was a Reds game.

“I’m happy enough with it that next year we’re going to run it Opening Day through the end of September and maybe even have brunch out there. The thing is, when the economy gets as bad as it’s been, you have to come up with new ideas and make them work because in this business, there’s no such thing as luck. So we’re working our butts off making it work because I refuse to participate in this current recession.

“That’s how the bridge baby happened.”

The word baby swings her around to adoption causes (three of her children are her biological kids, three are adopted). “This is what I want people to talk about at my funeral. I started ‘adoption fairs’ that drew 400 people from both sides of the river and I think one of the most important things they did was change people’s minds. They’d come in convinced they wanted an infant and leave knowing 6-year-olds were OK too.

“I ran the fairs for eight years and saw a lot of successful adoptions, but it got too big and I turned it over to another group. They ran it so well the state looked at the idea and now there are fairs like it all over Kentucky. We still have support groups meeting twice a month.

“It started totally grass roots with a budget of zero and look at it now.”

And sure, all this takes a lot of time, but as Forton points out, “If you have the passion, you have the energy. One of the coolest things about running a place like this is you see so many happy people having fun, and that really energizes you. Like our private parties. They’re a mix of corporate and personal events with a lot of 50th and 60th birthday parties. I love being a part of that, just watching it.

“Personally I’m planning on living to 100, so maybe we’ll have my 99th here.”

Newport’s Big Gamble

In Newport’s heyday as a gambling mecca, casinos were commonplace, earning the town the nickname “Sin City.”

Bookmaking thrived at local saloons. The arrival of Prohibition intensified the action, turning Newport into a hotbed of racketeering (“the rackets” was short for an illegal lottery). Monmouth Street was laden with streetfront brothels and illegal bootlegging operations, while nightspots such as the Hi-De-Ho Club, the Mouse Trap and the Tropicana (featuring headliners such as Gypsy Rose Lee) populated the strip.

The outlaw reputation drew gamblers from across the Midwest, along with Vegas-style shows by Liberace, Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante and, later, rat-packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

It’s a fascinating footnote to history that Newport’s John Thompson invented the Thompson Machine Gun — the so-called “Tommy Gun” so favored by gangsters of the era, as any passing fan of The Untouchables could tell you.

Finally, Newport citizens had enough. They launched a campaign that eventually convinced Kentucky’s governor to clamp down on police corruption. One group, the Committee of 500, targeted crooked politicians and backed a reform candidate for sheriff, former Cleveland Browns quarterback George Ratterman.

Ratterman was elected, despite a frame-up by gangsters that involved drugging the candidate with knock-out drops and setting him up to be photographed in a hotel room with stripper April Flowers.