Closeup/Cities

Atlantic City passes Go

Take a walk on the Boardwalk... of Last Vegas East

Elaine Dewar December 12 1977
Closeup/Cities

Atlantic City passes Go

Take a walk on the Boardwalk... of Last Vegas East

Elaine Dewar December 12 1977

The tiny public relations man from the mayor’s office chins up to the bar. He is excited. He waves his short, stubby hands in the visitor’s face. “This is boomtown U.S.A. and you can quote me on it.

The young street organizer, a slum kid with a record, rides through the crumbling neighborhoods and shakes with rage. “This a real live Monopoly board, man, and we’re learning how to play.

”It was a dream world once, a sweet simple song, a place where fantasies sucked in the breath of life, clothed themselves in brick, and concrete, and bright colors. A tiny island linked by road and rail to the great cities of the eastern seaboard—the Queen of Resorts, they called it, the summer heart of America.

The dream changed. The fantasies withered. Atlantic City faded out.

Now, Atlantic City has been born again. Last year, the State of New Jersey blessed it with gambling (instead of giving it the last rites) and the witnesses praise the miracle. Atlantic City is bathed in a fertile sea of cash and promotion. Soon that sea will gel into solid stuff—highrise hotels, plush casinos. Soon the town will make a shining second debut as the Las Vegas of the East Coast.

The visitor bumps down to earth in a 19-seat Twin Otter. The terminal is a one room shack. The taxi roars across Pacific Avenue. Conventioneers in leisure suits lurch into lampposts, easy prey for ladies of the night in full prowl. Sirens blare. Rummies slouch in doorways. Raggedy kids with long sticks pound out fevered rhythms on broken concrete. Down the narrow side streets, row on row of boarded-up Victorian mansions hunch close—maiden aunts at a rowdy party, shrinking together for comfort.

It's midnight. The Marlborough-Blenheim, site for one of the first casinos, dark, silent. It was built in two parts at the turn of the centuiy and it is of two minds. One half is a Moorish fantasy with concrete minarets and painted green gargoyles. The other is stolid Victorian in peeling pink brick with wooden turrets.

There is a glass-walled bridge between.

There is no doorman. The black bellhop in baggy brown pants leads the way to an elevator which wheezes to the third floor.

A bone white corridor. Paint hangs in strips from the ceiling, flakes on the floor like peeling skin. The bellhop muses: “Sammy Davis Jr. likes this place the way it is. Jerry Lewis always stays here.”

The lock on the door looks as if it’s been picked with a crowbar. The light reveals: a huge room, broken windows covered with crusted, tattered sheers; a white painted rocker with springs trailing on the floor; twin beds that look like an entomologist’s delight; a green carpet with suspicious red stains; piles of paint chips below the brown-stained ceiling. The bathroom door is jammed. The bellhop shuffles off, returns with a hammer and chisel. The door pops open. The bathroom is unspeakable. He turns to leave. “And George M. Cohan used ta write all his songs at the Shelburne ya know.”

The Bible is open to the 23rd Psalm.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death l shall fear no evil...” This hotel is Atlantic City’s beating heart—it is the comer of Boardwalk and Park Place.

From the 1850s to the 1950s it was the watering hole for the rich and powerful of New York, Washington and Philadelphia.

It was also the home of the great gimmick, the tourist attraction. There’s the boardwalk, a chevron patterned wooden highway, winding for 5l/i miles past the doors of tall hotels and elegant homes. Or the amusement piers: three-storey pleasure centres marching out to sea on wooden pylons, with rides and pinball and hot dog stands, billboards two blocks long. It was once the entertainment capital of America (long before Las Vegas bloomed on the Nevada desert), where Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra launched careers. Broadway shows of the Twenties and

Thirties lived or died by the Atlantic City crowds. Fortunes were made and lost, great hotels erected and tom down. Monopoly was invented as a tribute to the real games of organized greed played on this little island in the sun.

Steven Perskie, New Jersey Assemblyman, is in the midst of a successful campaign for the state Senate. His office phone never stops ringing. Reporters are at the door. There is a plaque on his office wall which thanks him for revitalizing Atlantic City through casino gambling. He pushed the gambling referendum through the state legislature and this year he helped draft the Casino Control Act which will bring it all to life. He pounds his fist on his desk and lays out the future: “This town will rise on gaming but it will be a family town, just like it’s always been, with taste. We don’t want to be Vegas East. We may be selling a piece of our soul, but we’re putting a high price on it.”

Some family town. It was the only city

on the eastern seaboard not carved up into Mafia fiefdoms: the spoils were so rich it was left open to all.

The politics were . . . colorful. Atlantic City and Atlantic County were run, for almost 70 years, by the most powerful Republican machine outside of Orange County, California. The first leader went to jail in 1911 for graft and corruption. He was succeeded by a flashy, dapper gentleman known as Enoch (Nucky) Johnson. Johnson wore flowers in his lapels, hookers on his arm, and was proud to be seen strolling the boardwalk with his pal AÍ Capone. They shared common problems. In 1940, Nucky Johnson went to jail for tax evasion (“They totted up the towels in the whorehouse. That’s how they got him,” explains Perskie) but the machine ground on under the inspired leadership of Frank (Hap) Farley.

The Farley machine controlled the courts and the entire civil service of the city and the county, “Those in positions of power got 10% of everything,” snarls Perskie. Farley’s grip was finally broken in 1971. The next year, a federal grand jury indicted the mayor, a former mayor and five city officials on charges of graft and bribery. In August, 1973, a state grand jury indicted 26 Atlantic City policemen. An informed source in the state police says: “We could have busted all 264 of them. But how would it have looked?” Farley was never prosecuted. He left a disastrous legacy.

Atlantic City had become a two-note melody. It was a beach resort in summer, a convention haven in winter. The hotel owners kept it that way, freezing other industries out, holding wages in the cellar. “They bled this town white,” growls a taxi driver.

By the mix-Sixties, cheap jet service lured tourists to more exotic towns, other beaches. The hotels decayed. Ten years later Las Vegas was drawing 11 million visitors a year, while Atlantic City (with 60 million people only a day’s drive away) got two million. Slowly, the Philadelphia rich were replaced by busloads of poor blacks from Newark and New York, carloads of touring Canadians.

From 1968 to 1973, seven major hotels closed. With them went 4,000 rooms. The utilities couldn’t or wouldn’t pay their back taxes. In the 15 years to 1975, the population fell from 60,000 to 44,000. Of those who remained, 25% were out of work, 20% lived in subsidized housing. Atlantic City had to have a miracle—something that would cause hotels to be built, planes to

land, tourists to spend, conventions to line up at the door. An industry that would fit in. And what was the fastest growing, most profitable, non-polluting industry that lived in big hotels? Gambling.

Committees were formed, campaigns were waged. Perskie and former state senator Joseph McGahn got a referendum before the state voters in 1974, calling for state-wide and state-run gambling. The voters were not enthralled. In 1976 another committee was formed, CRAC (Committee to Rebuild Atlantic City) raised $1.5 million and hired the best referendum organizer in the country. Supporters stumped up and down the state making lavish promises. The new gaming industry would be privately owned but it would be guided by rules, many rules. Gambling would be allowed only in casinos. Casinos could only be built in first-class hotels with more than 500 rooms. Since no Atlantic City hotels fitted this definition, casino operators would have to build new ones, or refurbish the old. Just to get into the game would require a $20 million investment. In 10 years, said CRAC, there would be 15,000 first-class rooms, 10 casinos, jobs for everyone and then some.

Fears were expressed about organized crime. Everyone would be licensed: casino owners, investors, corporations, hotel workers, janitors, chambermaids, dealers, security guards, waitresses. No “undesirables” would be allowed, no tainted money used. This Monopoly game would have the toughest rules in the world.

Other benefits were mentioned. New Jersey needed revenues, and gambling would provide. A percentage of the casino profits would be taxed to reduce the tax burden on the elderly and the disabled.

It was a brilliant package. When the referendum passed in November, 1976, they danced in the streets of Atlantic City. The Millenium had arrived. Stand by for the Second Coming.

Billy Weinberger leans back in his chair. He calls himself the Dean of Las Vegas because he used to be president of Caesars Palace. Now he’s in charge of turning the Marlborough-Blenheim into a gold mine. He stabs the air with his cigar. “Atlantic City will be a dateline again. A city of excitement. There will be prizefights, great social events, hoopla, and you can quote me on it.”

But you can’t quote him on what the Marlborough-Blenheim will look like, how it will be financed, when precisely it will open its doors. “We haven’t picked an architect yet. We don’t know how we will be financed until we know what we’re going to build.”

The streets are alive with rumors. In the red-flocked bar of the Marlborough-Blenheim, local businessmen huddle in packs and whisper, whisper over who’s bought what, who’s building what, which players have been shoved off the board.

The Convention Bureau (a private firm

that lures conventions to Atlantic City) offers press releases: their latest describes the unfolding miracle. Half a billion dollars in convention business coming by 1986. A billion dollars in hotel construction planned. Airlines begging for landing rights. The president, Gerry Kauper, chants the names of the properties bought and sold, like a nun working through a rosary.

Resorts International came to Atlantic City in May, 1976. It took an option on a 56-acre urban renewal tract (flattened years before by the city’s housing authority) and announced plans to build a 1,000room luxury casino/hotel complex. Four months later it purchased the ChalfonteHaddon Hall (a 1,000-room brick wedding cake with concrete icing) on the Boardwalk. So far, Resorts has spent $20 million refurbishing Haddon Hall.

Resorts came in before the referendum passed. The Bahamian government had moved to take over its casino complex on Paradise Island: it needed a haven. Recently Barron’s delved into Resorts’ background and came up with a fistful of mysteries. In a two-part article, the journal suggested Resorts took financier Huntington Hartford to the cleaners while gaining control of Paradise Island; that Resorts had business dealings with Robert Vesco; that a consultant appeared at Bebe Rebozo’s bank with large amounts of cash at odd hours of the night; that Resorts made heavy “political contributions” to Bahamian officials; that one of their Paradise Island managers, Eddie Cellini, was the brother of Dino Cellini, a known Meyer Lansky associate, suggesting a Mafia link to Resorts.

President Jack Davis becomes indignant when the Barron’s piece is mentioned. He insists Cellini was checked by the U.S. justice department and found to be free of any taint, but that Resorts is so careful he was fired anyway.

The big question about Resorts is whether skeletons in the closet will keep them from getting a licence.

The Bally Manufacturing Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of slot machines, leased the Marlborough-Blenheim from Boardwalk merchant Reese Palley and his partner, Marty Blatt. Then Bally bought the Hotel Dennis next door for four million dollars, and hired Billy Weinberger to run their show. Since Bally is a huge corporation (with $207 million in revenues last year), it should have no problem raising the $75 or $100 million needed to renovate. But there are questions about Bally.

When president William O’Donnell turned a small pinball company into Bally Manufacturing in 1962, he had financial help from some former owners. One of them was Gerry Catena, known to New Jersey police as the state’s Mafia boss. (Catena did six years for refusing to talk about his business to the State Commission of Investigation. ) Bally bought out Catena’s interest in 1964, but used his New

Jersey distributorship until 1971.

In 1975, Bally got a license in Nevada to operate slot machines there. The company was ordered to purge itself of some less than desirable individuals and practices. But then Bally vice-president Sam Klein was seen playing golf with Catena. N evada ordered Bally to get rid of Klein and gave Klein two years to sell his stock. This October, Bally was examined by Nevada again. It was put on probation, for three years, its license to be examined each year.

Will Bally get a license?

Caesars World, the group that brought you Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, announced they would build a major hotel on

the site of the old Traymore Hotel. They leased the land for 99 years at an initial annual rate of $825,000.

A Caesars World spokesman says feasibility studies aren’t complete and won’t be for several months. They don’t yet know where their financing will come from. They have not bothered to apply to Las Vegas for the right to apply for a license in New Jersey. “These deals aren’t put together over night,” says the spokesman.

And those are the straightest deals in town.

Little wonder that the mood of the business community is as steamy, as hysterical as a Holy Roller convention. “The revitali-

zation is more talk than actuality,” says Guarantee Bank president Jay Bradway.

Investigative reporter Mike Checchio is giggling to himself after running through the list of deals. Who, asks the visitor, is going to keep Atlantic City “a family town like it’s always been?” “Actually,” he laughs, “this is spy city, U.S.A.”

Law enforcement is Atlantic City’s real growth industry. Command posts for state and federal agencies sprout like fairy rings, keeping the forces of darkness at bay. There’s a beefed up state police intelligence unit, the FBI, the state investigators of the sei, the snoops from the Division of Gaming Enforcement. There’s the County Prosecutor’s office with its arson and homicide detectives. Then there are the combined task forces (the law enforcement task force, the liquor license task force) set up to coordinate these different groups so they don’t tread too heavily on each other’s toes. All are watching for signs of Mafia “infiltration.” They are also watching the Atlantic City police.

Local politicians refer to the police force as one of the best in the nation, well able to handle the problems generated by casino gaming. That line draws snickers from the vicinity of the prosecutor’s office, laughter from the state police, roars from those close to the force.

Ed Roth, a tall, doughy man with drooping eyes and beagle jowls, is the Commissioner of Public Safety, responsible for the police and fire departments. “I only took the job,” he says, “because I was the only person in town I could trust with it.” Roth wears a shiny gun that he flashes for visitors and likes to go out on fire alarms. After a recent hotel fire he ended up in hospital.“ I was just so scared they had to put me in for a while to calm down.”

Roth’s soldiers will not patrol the casinos but will beat down street crime. Roth is in a mild panic about it all. He recently threatened “to shut down Atlantic City” if something isn’t done about his budget. “I don’t have enough men to guarantee safety,” he intones, “and I’m not one to start screaming when it’s too late.”

To an outsider it appears that Roth’s real problem is quality, not quantity. Two young men who know the force well told cop stories early one morning in a seafood restaurant.

There is a 15-year patrolman who just bought into a full block of Boardwalk. Prices on the walk are now in the clouds; stores lease for $2,000 per running foot. Given the force’s history of graft and extortion, these young men would like to know where he got the money.

There is a police sergeant who owns a very successful vending machine business. Just before the referendum, the sergeant was seen having dinner with the top salesman of another vending firm that has tripled its business since the referendum. The top salesman was Angelo Bruno, alleged to be the Mafia leader of Philadelphia.

There is more. One of the force’s highest ranking officers is known to be a heavy gambler. A sergeant, recently suspected of extortion, has gone with city politicians on junkets to other gaming resorts and that is not normal for a man in his position. Officers find it almost impossible to arrest those involved in the underground games floating around town: participants seem to be tipped off. Unindicted co-conspirators named in the 1971 cleanup are back on the police force. Officers who have been openly critical of these conditions have received threatening phone calls. In short, there are strong allegations that the Atlantic City police force is as it always was.

Atlantic City is at least growing rich with ironies. Citizens who saw casinos as the panacea for the city’s ills, who campaigned up and down the state during the referendum (hoping to share in future spoils), now find themselves wondering if they will be allowed to stay. Forty merchants who leased shops in the Boardwalk hotels have had their leases canceled as the hotels changed hands. At the Marlborough-Blenheim, closing now for at least 2xh years, the hotel staff clunk mechanically through their paces. They thought gambling was the answer for the future, but the future will be a long time coming.

So they kiss the past good-bye.

The White family (who owned the hotel until this year) hold a farewell party. The crumbling rooms are filled again with the rich and the powerful—Philadelphians, New York money, Washington society.

Outside the vast seaside windows, storm clouds boil up, black and heavy, over the slate-grey Atlantic. The air is bone dry, dangerous. Inside, nostalgia, sweet and cloying as Easter lillies, settles like a velvet pall.

The social hostess (“My name is Gerry, I don’t have a last name”) grips the visitor fiercely. She points out a tall, thin woman wearing a ratty stole. She shrieks with delight. “See that? That’s real chinchilla. These are the real guests of the Marlborough-Blenheim, not those damn bakers who were here all week. The real guests just drip chinchilla.”

Diamonds and old gold glint on the pale necks of women like Fritz (who introduces herself as “The Chase-Manhattan Bank”) and women like Dorothea (who volunteers her listing in Who’s Who). One old gentleman is mournful. He is a retired colonel of the National Guard. Just before his wife died, she ordered him to the MarlboroughBlenheim where he would be taken care of. Next week he will have to move. He sighs over the passage of the old Atlantic City, then offers guidance for the new.

“What this city needs with gambling coming in is the kind of leadership we got from Hap Farley, a fine man. He really knew how to get things done.”

Don’t forget to bring the kids.>£>