ATLANTIC CITY, N.J., Jan. 3 (UPI) -- Most casinos try to hide their past, or get rid of it altogether. Their very design is all about "Now," "Tonight," the promise of the future. They eliminate all consciousness of time and space -- no clocks, windows blacked out, all possible distractions banished (with the notable exception of alcohol).
That's why Resorts International is so refreshing. The only casino I know of that has actual historical markers inside. Resorts is the grande dame of Atlantic City, an elegant wedding-cake hotel that has entered its third century while managing to retain at least a few of its ghosts and legends.
If you go to the 13th floor, for example, you'll find a perfectly restored proscenium theater that was once one of the grandest halls of burlesque -- old burlesque, from the days when it was a true competitor with vaudeville.
The intricate seahorse woodwork on the front of the stage is still in excellent condition, and the worn boards behind the curtain conjure up memories of Sally Rand and Blaze Starr and a thousand jakeleg comedians. If you go farther up into the belfry -- the top of the wedding cake -- you'll find the weathered courts of the venerable Atlantic City Squash Club, which finally moved out last summer so that the new owners could turn the area into deluxe high-roller suites. (Alas, nostalgia only goes so far.)
During World War II the building was converted into a military hospital -- commemorated by a plaque in the beautiful art deco lobby -- and the hotel is full of nooks and crannies, doors that lead down mysterious corridors, entire wings that are never seen by the public.
For years it was known as "Merv's place," when owner Merv Griffin lived in the beautiful oceanfront suite on the second floor, complete with baby grand piano and a private elevator entrance. (Today the suite is the most prized of high-roller accommodations.)
There is no theme at Resorts. Resorts is its own theme. It's gone through a few rough years under the management of Sun International of South Africa (the "Sun City" people), but last summer it changed hands and its new owners are determined not to mess up a good thing.
Sun International had panicked many Atlantic City old-timers when they talked of building an artificial coral reef near the beach and turning Resorts into another version of its Atlantis casino in the Bahamas. But now everyone can relax. The new owners, Los Angeles real-estate investors Colony Capital, want to restore the hotel's elegance and grandeur -- nothing more, nothing less.
Casino gambling in Atlantic City was legalized almost exactly 25 years ago, and when the dice started to roll, there was only one place to be: Resorts.
The very first slot machine in New Jersey -- the first legal one, that is -- was unveiled on May 26, 1978, and it's still there today, enshrined on a chrome throne in the Boardwalk lobby, like a curiosity from the nearby Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum. It looks quaintly outdated, with its crank handle and it's single-coin slot. It's affectionately named "Jack Pot," and for the record, it sucked up $3,895 a day in quarters, returning 90.5 percent of them to a public that couldn't get enough.
Resorts International, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was the favorite non-stop party hangout of every Damon Runyon character from Boston to Newport News. For any real gambler, the place is pure history, part of the days when everyone was into action, not leisurely vacations.
The classy twin-towered building, white with black trim, was pieced together from the ancient Chalfonte-Haddon Hall, a resort that dates to 1868 but took its current shape in the 1920s, when Atlantic City was still a high-ticket summer destination. But by the time James Crosby bought it in 1977, it was an aging hulk in the middle of a slum.
Crosby was the mogul at Mary Carter Paints who managed to be the first guy to get licensed and open for business after New Jersey legalized gambling, and on opening day there were so many people lined up to get in that, by the next day, Las Vegas casino executives were flying in to take a look.
So much money poured into Resorts in its early days that they had special duffel bags to hold it all, and for a time the Vegas casinos really thought their days were numbered. The cash flow the first month at Resorts was higher than any casino month in Vegas history, for a simple reason: Atlantic City was within one tank of gas of 30 million people. Access to legalized gambling had never been this easy for this many, and by the end of 1977 there were two more casinos open -- the Sands and the Claridge, which are both still there and both still open but both, ominously enough, recently sold by a bankruptcy court.
Crosby sold out to Merv Griffin in 1988, and many people still wander in asking "Is Merv here?" But Merv has been out of the picture since 1996, having been pretty much beaten into submission by Donald Trump's billion-dollar Taj Mahal, which opened right next door in 1990 and for eight straight years was the city's cash leader. (Since 1999 it's been beaten out by Harrah's.)
There were still some old-timers who refused to gamble anywhere except Resorts, but Sun International didn't really make them happy.
Sun is best known for its Atlantis casino in the Bahamas, on an island also bought from Merv, and their Sun City mega-resort in South Africa where the Rat Pack once played, but their attempt to revive Resorts pretty much wrecked their stock price (from 50 down to 17).
In 1999 Resorts had its worst year ever, and Sun made one last-ditch effort to save itself, spending $50 million in renovations of the casino floor. When they finally sold out to Colony, they got a mere $140 million on an investment of $350 million. (Things are looking up, though. Of the 12 Atlantic City casinos, only three are showing real growth for the year, and Resorts is one of them.)
Colony is run by Thomas Barrack Jr. who became famous running the investments of the Bass family of Fort Worth, and he rules over a strange empire.
Resorts is Colony's only casino. For three years they owned Harvey's Casino Resorts (three gambling hotels in Lake Tahoe, Colorado and Iowa), but they sold them at a profit of $255 million at the same time they bought Resorts last summer. Colony is all about buying low and selling high. Among their other holdings are the eighth largest bank in Korea, a 317-room Hyatt at the Dulles Airport, a master-planned golf community in San Diego, a luxury resort in Hawaii, a 67,000-acre ranch in Arizona, the largest chain of pubs (!) in the United Kingdom, 200 luxury condos in Mexico City, a Tokyo office building, the Savoy Hotel in London, and Public Storage, the nation's largest chain of self-storage facilities.
And now Resorts.
Colony has definitely benefited from the $50 million spruce job that occurred two years ago. The main casino used to have this ratty paper-thin carpet that looked like Leroy Neiman threw up on it, but that's been replaced with a thick pile that has a little Air Jordan bounce to it.
Most of the 50 mill was obviously spent on the building itself, because it was starting to look like a V.A. Hospital in East St. Louis, but the main thing they added was a huge porte-cochere in the Vegas style for making your grand entrance.
When I showed up, there were no cars there -- zero -- and no valet parker in sight, but it was still a damned impressive place to walk inside. There's a whole lot of marble and mirrors and glass left over from the Merv days, and the casino is full of these giant red-and-gold King Cole crowns that hover over the tables. They must be doing okay because when I arrived in the middle of the Friday night rush, the blackjack minimums were 25 bucks, which is the highest I've ever seen. Even the Bellagio in Vegas has a few $15 tables on the weekends.
Resorts has three gourmet restaurants and a beautiful all-white buffet with gold-leaf chandeliers. Camelot is one of those Medieval-themed places, specializing in group dinners and Mardi Gras weekends. Capriccio, the beautiful Italian restaurant, overlooks the once-famous Steeplechase Pier, which not only no longer has the diving horse, but no longer stands at all. Just a few stubby planks extend out a few feet into the surf. "There has been talk of rebuilding the pier," says Kim Butler, the Communications Manager.
The hotel actually sits sideways to the Boardwalk, but the "Entrance of the Stars" is one of the most distinctive in Atlantic City.
Since the 1,350-seat Showroom Theater was THE number one casino showroom on the East Coast in the '70s and '80s, the management started recording handprints in the concrete, a la Mann's Chinese Theater.
The first print, on June 27, 1980, was that of Lou Rawls, and the ones since then constitute a Who's Who of casino legends: Barry Manilow, Tom Jones, Cher, Buddy Hackett, Englebert Humperdinck, Don Rickles, Ben Vereen, Foster Brooks, Dean Martin, Dom DeLuise, Lola Falana, Anthony Newley, Tony Bennett, Alan King, Danny Thomas, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, Wayne Newton, Donna Summer, Rodney Dangerfield, Glen Campbell, Liberace, Tony Orlando, Shecky Greene, Perry Como, Milton Berle -- and that's only a few of them.
Colony has gotten permission to enlarge the sidewalk out onto the Boardwalk, and promises to revive the handprint tradition.
The Superstar Theater is not what it once was, but they still have what would be called B-level Vegas headliners. Regis Philbin is always a big draw on the East Coast -- recently he's been appearing with Daniel Rodriguez, the New York City cop who sings opera -- and other recent bookings include Kool and the Gang, The Temptations, Lorna Luft (singing her mother's standards), Bobby Vinton, and the immortal Denny Terio & Motion.
The casino floor is one of the most comfortable in town, and features a few proprietary games that are exclusive to Resorts. (Two of them are "Loose As a Goose" and a quick-hit jackpot game based on the "Halloween" movies.) Locals like the elegant horseracing book, which has a convenient entrance from the street, and Resorts has the most convenient bus depot, for its slightly older-than-average clientele.
The standard room rate is around $89, but you can always beat that, especially in the winter. It's no longer the exclusive haunt of the Beautiful People, but it's haunted by something better -- the real Atlantic City.
RESORTS ATLANTIC CITY
Theme: Historic Elegance
Total investment: $270 million
Known for: The most beloved of Atlantic City's 19th-century hotels.
Marketing niche: Drive-ins, bus business from Philadelphia, north Jersey and New York.
Gambler's Intensity: Medium
Cocktail speed: Medium
Surrounding area: In a cluster at the north end of the Boardwalk, with its own white beach, right next door to the Trump Taj Mahal and the Steel Pier, with the Showboat a little farther north.
Web site: resortsac.com
Overall rating: 85
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $47 after an hour of Three Card Poker: total to date: +$192
E-mail Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's website at joebob-briggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221.