The year 2001 will be remembered at the Sands Casino Resort not for how much money it made -- it wasn't that much, if truth be told -- but for finally demolishing the buildings along Pacific Avenue. Ever since the small but classy casino opened in 1980, it's been so cooped up that it was impossible to actually SEE IT from either Pacific Avenue, the city's busiest street, or from the Boardwalk, the city's busiest walkway. For two decades it was hemmed in by old buildings on the west, while to the east it was blocked by a maneuver by those sneaky guys over at Caesars Palace. In the late 1970s, Caesars bought the vacant lot next door -- between the Sands and the Boardwalk -- and turned it into a parking lot that cuts off access to the tourists. (The lot has no practical value for Caesars, which is four blocks away.)
As a result, the Sands sat on a little island surrounded by old buildings and an ocean of asphalt, and for many people it was just too much trouble to walk there. The Pratt family of Dallas, which owned the hotel for 15 years and now runs Hollywood Casinos in the Midwest, installed one of those fancy moving walkways to bring people in from the Boardwalk, but it still looked a little forbidding, especially since most of the other hotels have doors opening directly on the oceanfront.
But when Carl Icahn finally fished the hotel out of bankruptcy in late 2000, he pulled off what nobody else could. The flamboyant owner of the Stratosphere in Vegas, where he's used to getting his way, managed to get ALMOST all the blocking landlords to sell out. There was one holdout, a restaurant and bar owned by three brothers who wanted more money than Icahn wanted to pay. So all the buildings except for that one were imploded -- the restaurant is the sore thumb on the corner of Pacific and Martin Luther King Boulevard -- and now the Sands has a gorgeous porte-cochere entrance like everyone else, decorated with brightly colored obelisks.
"I don't know what they are," says Kevin McCarthy, director of Public Relations, as we gaze at the giant obelisks. "Something colorful. On the inside we turn 'em upside down and hang 'em from the ceiling and call em 'spams.' We're just happy to be able to put the logo all over the building now, and we even convinced the city to let us string a neon sign over Pacific Avenue."
Spams, obelisks, neon and loose slots -- that's the formula the Sands is pursuing at the moment in an effort to reclaim the magic of its once famous name. This is the home of the Copa Room, where Sinatra and the Rat Pack all appeared, and where Sinatra continued to sing right up until his death. Perhaps because of the Sinatra connection, people have always believed that the Sands in Atlantic City is somehow connected to the legendary Sands in Las Vegas, the ORIGINAL home of the Rat Pack, which was demolished seven years ago to make way for the Venetian.
But the reality is more mundane. After New Jersey legalized gambling in 1977, a developer named Gene Gatti called up the Sands people and made a deal to lease the name. (To this day, the Sands pays 1.5 percent of all room charges to the Venetian for use of the "Sands" name.) But Gatti was less savvy when it came to building the casino.
The hottest hotel at the time was Resorts International, which was converted from the old Chalfonte-Haddon Hall. Many developers thought that the easiest and most successful formula would be to take an existing hotel -- with at least 500 rooms, the legal minimum for a casino -- and convert it into a modern casino. So that's what Gene Gatti did, buying the Midtown Vala and ending up with precisely 514 rooms. Other companies took a new direction, demolishing entire city blocks and putting up Vegas-style hotels, and they eventually carried the day. The Sands, the Claridge and Resorts, all carved out of old hotels, are all struggling today to keep up with the giants.
In 1982 Gatti sold out to the Pratts, and they used the name for all it was worth. They didn't have Boardwalk access. They didn't have a lot of hotel rooms. Their casino was smaller than everyone else's. But they positioned themselves as the high-roller's haven, a little boutique for elite gamblers, and they signed Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme to long-term exclusive contracts in an effort to make the Copa Room the premiere entertainment venue on the East Coast. In many ways they became more like the Sands than the REAL Sands, as Sinatra, for example, remained extremely loyal to the Pratts, even doing concerts at the Pratts' much smaller riverboat casino in Aurora, Ill.
And they played the high-roller game to the hilt. They sought them out, flew them in, wined them, dined them, and spent millions keeping them entertained. Caesars was their chief competitor, but they hung in there even when they took multi-million-dollar losses at the tables. (The problem with high rollers is that sometimes they DO win.)
But it was always a struggle, so the Pratts also worked in the low end of the business, doing elaborate "bus promotions" to bring day-trippers in from the cities of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. By the mid-90s the Boardwalk casinos were in an all-out "bus war," offering more and more money to customers who would board a casino bus, and it caused a crisis for the whole industry. At the height of the promotional wars, you could board a bus in New York City and get $35 in chips plus food for the whole day. In effect, the casino had to win back $50 just to break even -- and these were not big gamblers.
By the late 90s, both the Sands and its even smaller next-door neighbor, the Claridge, were in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Carl Icahn's dream was to buy both hotels, combine them into one operation, and compete with the big gorilla of the Boardwalk, Park Place Entertainment, which owned Caesars, the Hilton, and Bally's Park Place. But the bankruptcy judge gave the Claridge to Park Place and only the Sands to Icahn, making Park Place the first company to own four hotels (it was previously illegal to own more than three) and pretty much ending that scenario. Among other things, it gave Park Place even more incentive to hold onto that parking lot between the Sands and the Boardwalk.
Nevertheless, Icahn has done a lot with the place. Just as he resuscitated the failing Stratosphere, he did a major makeover on the Sands casino floor, moving all the table games to the ground level to create one enormous pit and kicking the poker players and horse-racing bettors upstairs to the fourth floor. (Which is fine with them. They like having their own little cubbyhole.) He built a new Platinum Club, a private oasis for preferred players, and he put in a new buffet that's not only visually striking -- it has an "Old Atlantic City" theme, complete with murals of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis performing at the old 500 Club and a giant bronze replica of the famous diving horse -- but was recently named best buffet in the city by the influential Atlantic City Insider newsletter.
The high-roller business is pretty much gone. "We get the occasional big player," says McCarthy, "but it's not a regular thing." And the marketing has shifted in the opposite direction, with the Sands unseating Harrah's for the "loosest overall slots" title, with an average payout of 93.2 cents for every dollar wagered. The new watchword is "value-oriented"--"which is what we more or less have to do," says McCarthy, "because all the casinos around us are bigger." That means up to 80,000 people a month who arrive on Sands buses.
Icahn also bought the aging Madison House Hotel just to the north and converted its 225 rooms to 125 suites. The Copa Room is still in business, but the acts these days run to second-stringers (Alan King, Pat Cooper, Tony Danza, Kathy Mattea) and for only three weekends per month.
The Sands is still searching for an identity, and currently doesn't have anyone running the ship. Al Luciani, the former New Jersey deputy attorney general who helped draft the state's Casino Control Act back in the 70s, then founded the most successful casino in America -- Foxwoods in Connecticut -- was running the Sands while it was in bankruptcy. After the purchase he was kept on by Icahn, but Luciani abruptly resigned in early January.
When the Sands does spend money, they spend it mostly on upgrading the actual gambling. They have a new kind of slot machine that works like a casino banker; when you win, it deposits the money into your Sands account, so you can keep playing. They're also the only casino offering "one-on-one blackjack," with one player against the dealer at each table. You can play six hands at a time or one hand after another, and the dealer only uses three decks. It sounds like a gold mine for card counters, until you find out the restrictions: a $25 minimum bet and $300 maximum bet, with no mid-shoe entry.
What the Sands really needs is more days like Columbus Day 2001. Tina Frascino, a 50-year-old employee in the Jersey City prosecutor's office, played about three hours on a one-dollar "Wheel of Fortune" slot machine, and then bells went off and the digital display froze. She called the attendant over and said, "I think I won $4,000." But the "attendant" was President Al Luciani, who happened to be walking by, and he said, "No, I think it's a lot more than that." Unbeknownst to her, she had won a Mega-Jackpot progressive worth $2,149,622.36.
And THAT is what the Sands wants people to be thinking about when they start out on that long bus ride.
Pacific Avenue at Indiana Avenue
Theme: Pastel Cool
Total investment: $335 million
Known for: The Brighton Steakhouse, a classic New York-style restaurant, very elegant.
Marketing niche: Bus business, drive-ins from Philadelphia, state of Pennsylvania, north Jersey and New York.
Gambler's Intensity: Medium
Cocktail speed: Rapid
Rare games: One-on-one blackjack
Surrounding area: A block from the Boardwalk, next door to the Claridge, just a short walk from Resorts to the north and Bally's Park Place, Caesars Palace and Trump Plaza to the south.
Web site: acsands.com
Overall rating: 83
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $40 after an hour of Pai Gow Poker:
total to date: +$170
e-mail Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's website at www.joebobbriggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.